2004 April 21 Wednesday
Bring Back Iraqi Army Officers Or Pursue Democratic Imperialism?

Many in military circles in Iraq think the disbanding of the Iraqi Army was a mistake that ought to be rectified.

"It's very clear that we've got to get more senior Iraqis involved - former military types involved in the security forces," said Gen. John Abizaid, the US regional commander, last week. "In the next couple of days you'll see a large number of senior officers being appointed to key positions in the Ministry of Defense, and the Iraqi joint staff, and in Iraqi field commands."

Former Iraqi officers boast that they could form an emergency committee at the Defense Ministry within 48 hours and restore order within a week. Such predictions may be wishful thinking, but these men have one refrain: Security can't be restored without them.

"The cat knows where the mouse is, but the lion doesn't know," says Colonel Saad, who asked that a pseudonym be used. "I won't go back to the army for the Americans - I can't shake their hands - but I would [go back] for an Iraqi government.

"[President] Bush promised to rebuild Iraq, and that every Arab will wish he were an Iraqi," says Colonel Saad "They gave this idea of freedom, and Iraqis can't handle it. To them it means freedom to attack the Americans with stones and tomatoes."

While it clearly goes against George W. Bush's character to learn from his mistakes it is possible that enough people in the military and in the Coalition Provisional Authority will recommend bringing back parts of the Iraqi Army that this may eventually happen. After all, Bush also follows advice from his advisers and many may swing around to supporting this idea. So a restoration of the old Iraqi Army and an unleashing of it to crack heads seems plausible.

Another possibility is that the US occupation forces could become just totally brutal and ruthless in putting down the insurgency. Niall Ferguson, British Empire historian, argues that the US needs to be as ruthless as the British were in 1920 in order to restore order in Iraq.

And this brings us to the second lesson the United States needs to learn from the British experience. Putting this rebellion down will require severity. In 1920, the British eventually ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions. It was not pretty. Even Winston Churchill, then the minister responsible for the air force, was shocked by the actions of some trigger-happy pilots and vengeful ground troops. And despite their overwhelming technological superiority, British forces still suffered more than 2,000 dead and wounded.

Is the United States willing or able to strike back with comparable ruthlessness? Unlikely if last week's gambit of unconditional cease-fires is any indication. Washington seems intent on reining in the Marines and pinning all hope on the handover of power scheduled apparently irrevocably for June 30.

This could prove a grave error. For the third lesson of 1920 is that only by quelling disorder firmly and immediately will America be able to achieve its objective of an orderly handover of sovereignty.

But is there any chance the US will do this? Isn't it easier from a political perspective to let Iraqi Army guys who were willing to brutalize for Saddam to instead brutalize for America?

Ferguson sees many parallels between Iraq in 1920 and 2004.

What happened in Iraq last week so closely resembles the events of 1920 that only a historical ignoramus could be surprised. It began in May, just after the announcement that Iraq would henceforth be a League of Nations "mandate" under British trusteeship. (Nota bene, if you think a handover to the UN would solve everything.) Anti-British demonstrations began in Baghdad mosques, spread to the Shi'ite holy centre of Karbala, swept on through Rumaytha and Samawa - where British forces were besieged - and reached as far as Kirkuk.

But the US in 2004 is not sufficiently like late Imperial Britain of 1920 for its leaders to order what the British did. Besides, today there will be CNN and similar media organs broadcasting the carnage in real-time. That won't go over well back home or in much of the rest of the world.

Ferguson has a new book coming out entitled Colossus: The Price of America's Empire.

In Colossus he argues that in both military and economic terms America is nothing less than the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Just like the British Empire a century ago, the United States aspires to globalize free markets, the rule of law, and representative government. In theory it's a good project, says Ferguson. Yet Americans shy away from the long-term commitments of manpower and money that are indispensable if rogue regimes and failed states really are to be changed for the better. Ours, he argues, is an empire with an attention deficit disorder, imposing ever more unrealistic timescales on its overseas interventions. Worse, it's an empire in denial-a hyperpower that simply refuses to admit the scale of its global responsibilities. And the negative consequences will be felt at home as well as abroad.

One problem I have with Ferguson's analysis is that he ignores the way that technological advances are effectively reducing the economic return on empire. Take the few hundred billion that the US may end up spending on Iraq. What is the return on investment for doing this? Today large sums of money have many competing uses and some of those uses could potentially offer huge returns on investment. Imagine the same dollars spent on, say, a massive effort to develop a large assortment of new energy technologies. As I've argued in the past a massive energy technology development project would yield many national security dividends as well as producing a cleaner environment and reducing the amount of money we have to spend on imports. We'd be enriched. Well, how does a global empire enrich us?

Territory isn't as valuable as it used to be and technology is a lot more valuable and continuing to rise in value. To the extent that foreign intervention in some Muslim territory could transform a Muslim society into a more liberal, democractic, and less likely to produce terrorists we could, at least in theory, benefit. But the scale and length of the intervention required to do that is far greater than even the Bush Administration has the stomach for. The Bushies do not even understand the scale of the intervention that is required. My own take on George W. Bush's obvious intellectual limitations is that he has high latent inhibition or a strong filter on new information. If he had low latent inhibition (and see the previous link about that) his mind might be able to learn enough to grasp the scope of what he wants to accomplish.

Even if Bush was up for the challenge democratic imperialism requires many decades to work. Given that many of our academics see imperialism as evil and corporations as the latest agents of evil imperialism I think it would be very difficult to build up a consensus in American opinion for sustained imperialistic intervention that could last long enough to create sustainable semi-liberal democracies. Formation of consensus to pursue that goal would require thpse portions of our elites which are currently hostile to classical liberalism to become more supportive of it. Also, other portions that do support classical liberalism but with an excessively panglossian view of its appeal would have to adopt a more realistic view of human nature that accepts that not all humans love freedom and liberal democracy. This seems a rather tall order. Even if it could be done would it be worth it?

Leave aside what the elites think for the moment and consider the beliefs of the popular majority. Failing some more terrorist attacks that kill a lot of people inside the boundaries of the USA I do not see the American public becoming sufficiently keen on rearranging Middle Eastern societies with the ruthlessness and sustained commitment that would be required to have a chance of making the changes stick.

My own take on what to do is partition Iraq and do the same to Sudan and Afghanistan. The Kurds could form their own army for their new country and the old Saddam Army could be the new army for the Sunnis. I am not sure what to do about the Shia area's military needs.

Update: An article on Tech Central Station by Carroll Andrew Morse is my first siting of a proposal for how to carry out a partition of Iraq.

Here is the plan. Sovereignty will not come to Iraq all at once. On June 30, Iraq will be divided into provinces, or occupation zones -- at different times and different places, both labels will be appropriate. There will be more than three zones, there will be at least 25, maybe as many as 100. Each zone will evolve towards civil government at its own rate. Some zones will need to be overseen using the rules of outright military occupation of a hostile nation. Other zones will be able to quickly establish full home rule, complete civil government in all matters except foreign policy and military affairs. Over six months, let's see how many zones can produce a local government that can rule without slaughtering a significant percentage of its own population, or stoning women for committing adultery, or burning the foreign nationals providing electricity and water.

Zones demonstrating the ability to live peacefully will be migrated towards full home rule. When enough provinces reach complete home rule, they will have important decisions to make. If enough zones decided to band together, they can form a state of their own. (There will have to be a few basic rules about a minimum number of provinces, or a minimum total population, and/or territorial contiguousness required to form a state.) They are free to welcome into their state other provinces that reach full home rule at a future time. Multi-province successor states may even reserve the right to join with other multi-province successor states. Under this plan, the Iraqi people ultimately decide the shape of post-Hussein Iraq.

My problem with this approach is that it will lead to fighting as rival ethnic groups try to create majorities in border provinces between newly seceded states. Ethnic cleansing tactics of terror to cause flight of competing groups will be used to create local majorities for plebiscites.

Still, he makes a number of points in favor of partition including an excellent finale:

Unless they freely choose to do so, people with wildly different visions of ideal governance should not be forced to work together because of eighty-year old map lines hastily drawn by colonial interlopers. The American coalition and the wider international community should give the people of Iraq an opportunity to build civil societies under the conditions where there is a fighting chance for success. A single state solution is not necessary for a peaceful and prosperous future for the people of post-Hussein Iraq. Democratic processes provide no guarantee that the people of Iraq will avoid bad choices, but they can be structured so that the poor choices of some do not scar the futures of all.

Why should the Kurds have to put up with living in the same country as the Arab Sunnis and Arab Shias? The Kurds show every sign of a far greater willingness to form working and relatively more restrained and less corrupt governments. From all the reading I've done they come across as having a more modern mentality. At the same time, clearly the Sunnis fear Shia payback once the Shias are in charge. Well, these fears seem reasonable. So why not split them apart? The hard decisions to make are about Baghdad and other places that are not clearly Sunni or Shia or Kurd. But the alternative of keeping Iraq together seems far worse.

Update II: Reporting from Baghdad Charles Crain thinks the Iraqis may not have all that much desire for a federal democracy.

Last week's events suggest that if the majority does not want to assert itself, then the minority will fill the vacuum.


The most troubling thing is that the passivity and irrelevance of the new Iraqi security forces reflect the mood of most Iraqis, who remain reluctant to fight for a new type of Iraq. They may not be enthusiastic about the occupation nor eager to make common cause with murderous insurgents or theocratic narcissists like Sadr, but they are either unwilling or unable to play the leadership role that is sorely needed.


I worry that the structure of a federal liberal democracy is simply not an inspiring prospect for Iraqis, who place such an emphasis on religious, family and tribal ties. It's no foregone conclusion that, if only the insurgency would go away, Iraqis would embrace the brand of representative government they're being offered.

Mr. Crain's fears are correct. Yes, the majority really doesn't want to assert itself. Yes, most Iraqis feel little loyalty toward Iraq as a whole and do not see the power plays by various minority factions as being against the greater good because the average Iraqi feels no great loyalty to the idea of the greater good. Yes, federal liberal democracy holds little allure for most Iraqis. There are no Iraqi opponents of the Mahdi Army running to battle to fight them while crying "Give me liberty or give me death". Not everyone has the values of the Founding Fathers of America. We should give up on the fantasy of a united liberal democracy in Iraq. It is not within the realm of possibility.

Update III: Frank Rich sees a parallel with the inter-tribal fighting that Lawrence of Arabia witnessed.

The Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, abetted by the heroic British liaison officer T. E. Lawrence and guerrilla tactics, has succeeded. The shotgun mandating of the modern state of Iraq, by the League of Nations in 1920, is just a few years away. But as the local leaders gather in an Arab council, a tentative exercise in self-government, there is nothing but squabbling, even as power outages and public-health outrages roil the populace. "I didn't come here to watch a tribal bloodbath," says Peter O'Toole, as Lawrence, earlier in the movie when first encountering the internecine warfare of the Arab leaders he admired. But the bloodbath continued and now that we've ended Saddam's savage grip on Iraq, it has predictably picked up where it left off. Only Americans have usurped the British as the primary targets in the crossfire of an undying civil war.

My favorite line is uttered by Peter O'Toole as TE Lawrence right after Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) kills the guide Talas.

"Sherif Ali! So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they remain a little people. A silly people! Greedy, barbarous, and cruel-as you are!"

I like Rich's characterization that what is going on in Iraq is a civil war and US troops just happen to be standing in the middle of it. Why should this be so? See my recent post High Costs And Dismal Prospects In Iraq: How To Derive Benefit? for links to a number of reasons why liberal democracy is not going to succeed in Iraq. Here's a brief summary.

  • Democracy always fails in low per capita income countries.
  • Consanguineous marriage creates conflicting loyalties that work against the development of a civil society.
  • Islam creates highly motivated extremist rivals to secular authority.
  • The Kurds and Sunnis are afraid to become oppressed minorities under majority Shia rule.
  • The practice of polygamy creates a "winner take all" ethos that makes people see all relationships as characterised by dominance and submission.
  • Liberal social and political values are not in-born and take decades or centuries for a society to absorb.
Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 April 21 01:37 PM  Reconstruction and Reformation

Fly said at April 21, 2004 6:09 PM:

We should give up on the fantasy of a united liberal democracy in Iraq. It is not within the realm of possibility.

The difficulties you describe are real. However the US has much in its favor as well. Our country adapts quickly. Our military is learning. Our researchers are developing new tools that should help our troops be even more effective. Id much rather learn to fight these security battles in Iraq than in Europe or the US.

The US also wields enormous economic and political power. Iraq cant rebuild without us and that gives us strong influence on the outcome. Iraqis may not share all our values but freedom and economic prosperity are seductive.

The reward for success is great: an economically successful Arab secular democracy with an Islamic foundation that inspires change in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, a path away from radical Islam, a model for dealing with other failed countries. (I dont expect a liberal democracy in Iraq. Im sure that the society will retain a strong Islamic flavor. I expect a weak federation.)

What is the alternative? If we cant change the theocracies and thugacracies that nurture terrorism, how do we prevent WMD attacks on our cities?

I personally believe that we will fail to prevent a major attack that results in death for hundreds of thousands of our citizens. Having tried the nice approach in Iraq, our citizens would then be ready to support a harsh response. I would expect our government to issue an ultimatim to our enemies to verifiablely disarm and change their societies or face nuclear distruction. Likely we would have to destroy at least one major city filled with innocent people. Our survival as a nation would require no less. The resulting world society would be ugly.

I want to prevent such a future and the Bush policy in Iraq is the only plan Ive heard that even has a chance for success.

I must share Bushs inability to learn because Im not ready to give up.

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