TCS Daily


Iraq and the Police Principle

By Nathan Smith - September 22, 2005 12:00 AM

On October 19th, 2005, the reckoning will begin for the man who ruled Iraq by fear and murder for thirty-five years.

Once Saddam Hussein dreamed that he was a successor to Saladin, filled the squares with his statues, and made crowds in the streets cheer for him. Saddam is thought to have written the novel Zabiba and the King, an allegorical love story between a mighty king (himself) and a beautiful commoner (the Iraqi people) married to a brutal husband (the United States) who forces himself on her against his will.

But Saddam's reign was not a love story. He terrorized the Iraqi people, sent their sons to die in pointless wars, and subjected them to debilitating economic sanctions; in return, 90% of them want him executed. Now Saddam will stand before a court of his former subjects and face justice. His life-work -- the murder of real and suspected opponents, the gassing of the Kurds, the bloody repression of the Shias, the invasion of Kuwait -- will be recorded in law and history as a vast crime. Then (probably) he will be hanged by the neck until he is dead.

Around the world, other dictators -- Kim Jong Il of North Korea, Than Shwe and the military rulers of Burma, Niyazov of Turkmenistan and Karimov of Uzbekistan, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Fidel Castro of Cuba, each imagining himself beloved by the people while knowing he is not, each sugar-coating crimes with national and/or socialist myths -- will watch Saddam's humiliation and death, and be afraid. At least, a little bit afraid. But not very afraid, because they know the US won't have the appetite to do it again, at least not for a while. By allowing the mission of ousting Saddam Hussein to turn into the mission -- a noble one in itself, to be sure -- of establishing democracy, and civil peace, in Iraq, we've run up the costs of the war, in money, and in soldier's lives, with which an all-volunteer army has to be especially sparing.

The real payoff to Iraq will be when the precedent of regime change in Iraq is transformed into the generalized credible threat that totalitarian regimes will be overthrown at the democratic powers' convenience, unless they preempt this by changing from within. Then other rulers will avoid Saddam's methods to avoid Saddam's fate. But we were closer to that goal in April 2003 than we are now.

The Police Principle and the Gulf War

While the notion of America as "world policeman" is often mocked, to understand the principles by which a police force maintains order in a city is essential to good foreign policy.

A police force must (1) be (and be known to be) stronger than anyone else in the city, and (2) operate according to the law, i.e. by a set of well-defined and public rules and procedures. If these conditions hold, citizens live under a generalized credible threat that illegal behavior will be punished. Prosecuting a crime is costly -- to the taxpayer who pays cops', judges' and wardens' salaries, to the criminal who loses his freedom or his life, and to the occasional innocent who is convicted by mistake -- and does not right the wrong -- murder victims cannot be revived, rape cannot be reversed. But the prosecution signals to other potential criminals that obeying the law is in their interest, and society benefits from the crimes that are not committed (or even contemplated) for fear of the police. In the same way, a judicious use of military force can establish a generalized credible threat against potential aggressors or murderous tyrants, thus amplifying the returns, in peace and freedom, to the occasional intervention.

The first Gulf War is a shining example of foreign policy that exploits the police principle. In expelling Saddam's forces from Kuwait, we applied overwhelming force against one aggressor, and in the process established a generalized credible threat that overwhelming force would be, or at least was likely to be, used against aggressors elsewhere.

The threat was credible not only because we won the war handily -- everyone (but Saddam) knew we would do that, once we started -- but because air power enabled us to do it with few casualties, which made it more likely that we would be willing to do it again.

The threat was generalized because our intervention had the firm backing of international law. International law is conceptually problematic and morally inadequate: it habitually legitimizes dictators while often denying democracies the means to defend themselves. (The Israelis ignore it to survive.) But it is an efficient tool for defining thresholds of acceptable behavior. After the Gulf War, the world's sovereign borders were buttressed by a generalized credible threat from the American superpower and its allies, under the aegis of the UN. Accordingly, the 1990s, despite being a time of sweeping ideological transformation and major shifts in the global balance of power, and despite the encouragement that the Clinton administration offered to aggressors through its reckless and unapologetic casualty-aversion, experienced almost no inter-state warfare.

George Bush (the Elder) and His Old-New World Order

After the war, George Bush called for "a new world order... in which the principles of justice and fair play protect the weak against the strong... where the United Nations, freed from Cold War stalemate, is poised to fulfill the historic vision of its founders." As this quote suggests, the new world order Bush envisioned was not exactly new: it had been conceived, and formally established, in the 1940s, but the conditions were not ripe for its implementation then. Then beginning in 1991, FDR's vision was unexpectedly realized.

This new world order was like a city in which the cops patrol and maintain order in the streets, but have no writ within the houses. Trade thrives, vendors throng the market squares. Citizens can walk the streets without fear of robbers, though they occasionally have to dodge bullets from a sniper. (Whether cops can enter a house to capture a sniper is a legal grey area in this city, but to be on the safe side, cops limit themselves to asking the owner of the house to make the sniper stop.) Outdoor restaurants are popular, because musicians like to play under the moon on late-summer nights, and because, in the privacy of their own homes, hosts are at liberty to murder their dinner-guests with impunity. The saddest part of the cops' job is to watch through the windows while drunken husbands beat or kill their wives and children, knowing the culprits can't be arrested. At least, though, these villains get dirty looks when they walk outside.

The liberal euphoria that followed the fall of the Soviet Union displayed the Eurocentrism of Western leaders and pundits, but elsewhere Orwellian horrors lingered: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Burma, and China among others were totalitarian in varying degrees. And in Bosnia and Rwanda, tens of thousands were murdered, in full view (by satellite) of the democratic powers of the West. This was not (inter-state) aggression. No state had violated any other state's sovereignty; rather, the violence occurred within a single sovereign state's boundaries. As a result, intervention was first controversial, then tardy and ineffectual, and the genocides mostly succeeded.

Totalitarianism and genocide exposed a contradiction in the UN Charter. The Purposes listed in the UN Charter emphasized the prevention of aggression, i.e. sovereignty violation, but also sought to "promote and encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion." Anything beyond the most cynical lip service to this ideal is incompatible with the sovereignty of many regimes.

Meanwhile, there was a drumbeat of terrorist attacks on US targets, leading up to 9/11. Al-Qaeda operatives bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, blew up a US military facility in Riyadh in 1995, blew up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and bombed the USS Cole in 2000. After the African embassy bombings, Clinton indulged in token retaliation, and was fiercely criticized.

So the elder George Bush's old-new world order wasn't quite good enough. That said, everybody loves the 1990s. Most of us wish that we could erase 9/11 and go back. We had peace and prosperity, and American hegemony on the cheap, for which we had the air force, the Gulf War, and the police principle to thank. Can we get back to a place where the generalized credible threat of military force underlies US power, and attenuates the need for the exercise thereof? Can we re-establish the police principle as the basis for peace through strength, as in the 1990s, without reverting to naivete about Islamist terror and appeasement of totalitarianism?

The Iraq War brought us halfway there. Then we got lost track of grand strategy and backslid.

Vietnam, Iraq, and the Pottery Barn Fallacy

Opponents of the war want the question to be framed this way, so let's take the bait: Two and a half years after the fall of Baghdad, is Iraq turning into a quagmire like Vietnam? Yes and no. First, the contrasts.

We lost the Vietnam War. We don't know what the details of the outcome of the Iraq War will be. But it is sure to be a US win, since our main war objective, to remove Saddam Hussein from power, was long since achieved.

In the Vietnam War, there were 58,266 American casualties. In the Iraq War to date, there have been 1,895 American casualties. That number will increase, but remain less than the number in Vietnam by an order of magnitude.

In Vietnam, we had the draft. In Iraq, it's an all-volunteer force. Both wars strained the human resources of the military. But in the Vietnam era, by forcing young people to kill and die for a cause many of them believed was wrong, the government shattered the social contract with the younger generation. In Iraq, the problem is less serious: the army (though not the marines, the air force or the navy) is simply having trouble meeting recruiting targets.

Vietnam was an undeclared war. A national debate began only after it was well underway. In Iraq, we began the war only after a heated national debate had established clear majority support.

But Iraq and Vietnam do have something in common: vague and quixotic war aims, and the need to wage limited war to avoid alienating the local population, turned each conflict turned into an open-ended commitment which would drain our resources for the foreseeable future, making us less able to make credible threats elsewhere. World War II and the first Gulf War strengthened the generalized credible threat of American power. Vietnam weakened it. The Iraq War may strengthen or weaken it, depending on our military's performance and our strategic choices, but at present -- unless the recent victory in Tal Afar turns out to be a turning point -- the signs are not good.

On March 18, 2003, Bush promised the Iraqi people: "The tyrant will soon be gone." For the next three weeks, one city after another fell to coalition forces, until on April 9, the Baathist regime lost power in Baghdad. US troops went on to capture Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. On May 2, 2003, Bush declared the end major combat operations from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished." It was a plaudit our soldiers well deserved.

Then something strange happened. The tyrant was gone all right, yet many pundits and politicos from both right and left criticized the president for hubris, arguing that the mission was not accomplished, not until... what?

Well, that part was never very clear, but whatever it was had something to do with the Pottery Barn Fallacy (a.k.a. the Pottery Barn Rule), according to which invading Iraq was like accidentally breaking something in a pottery shop: "you broke it, you own it." This was embraced in good by faith by some, and maybe in bad faith by others: neocons argued for it because it was a way to shame the American public into pursuing their revolutionary project, when the public might have preferred to declare victory and leave, while liberals argued for it because they didn't want to acknowledge a big Bush triumph. In this fashion, the Pottery Barn Fallacy became the bipartisan, consensus view.

We didn't break Iraq. Saddam did. He killed a million or more Iraqis, subjected them to ruthless terror, impoverished his country and cut it off from the world. When we invaded, Iraq had nowhere to go but up, and that's where it went. Since the liberation, the Iraqi economy has grown over 50%, refugees have been returning, Iraqis enjoy new freedoms, and a participatory political process is taking shape.

We don't own Iraq in the sense of having to annex it, everyone will agree, but do we own it in the sense of having an obligation to assume the responsibility for, and costs of, its political and economic reconstruction? The notion is incoherent. To "re"-construct implies something that has existed before. But the general features of the Iraq that Americans envision and most Iraqis desire -- constitutional democracy, basic civic freedoms, inter-ethnic peace and justice, engagement with the world, economic opportunity, an equitable division of the proceeds from oil extraction -- have not characterized any past episode of Iraq's history.

We didn't have to apologize to the Iraqis for toppling Saddam. We didn't owe them anything. Maybe we had an opportunity to help, but at what cost? Lots of countries could benefit from massive US economic aid and help suppressing local terrorists; why should they be so lucky? And anyway, what about the national interest?

I am not one of those people who claims that the US should only get involved when its "national interests" are at stake. I don't know what that means, anyway. If our love and admiration for Great Britain played a role in our decision to save it from Hitler, is that wrong? However, there's a certain shrewd Jewish carpenter's son who said, "When ye give alms, let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing," i.e. if you do charity work, be discreet about it. If you put yourself on a pedestal of virtue, people will want to pull you down from it. People are suspicious of self-appointed do-gooders, because charity is often a cloak for darker ends. There is a danger of self-deceit, too. People and nations are not conscious of all of their own motives, and preaching gets in the way of introspection. And being able to give charity implies surplus resources, but when you think you have surplus resources, usually in the medium run you don't, and you should be saving them instead.

After the fall of Saddam's regime, the US had several tangible interests in Iraq: the hunt for WMDs; capturing Saddam and his top brass; making sure the oil kept flowing; capturing terrorists; keeping our military options open, including the possibility of establishing permanent bases, but also of being able to withdraw without embarrassment; not running up the costs of the war; and not getting more US troops killed. Most of these goals would have been facilitated by stability, and the best way to achieve stability was to salvage as much as we could of the old regime.

So why didn't we make a deal with the remnants of the Baathist regime, to secure short-run stability? Why, instead, did we imagine that Iraq was a tabula rasa on which we could write the script for a democratic transition that would inspire a transformation of the Middle East?

The irony is that a cynical deal with the Baathist Party (not the higher-ups of course) and the army would probably have helped the process of Iraq's democratization. Overzealous de-Baathification and disbanding the Iraqi army are now widely seen as two of the occupation's biggest mistakes. Had we left most of the Baathist bureaucrats in place (conditional on their cooperation), and thanked the army for not defending Saddam by leaving them in their barracks and paying them, a Sunni insurgency would probably not have materialized. The Kurds would have been nervous, and the Shiites would have grumbled that things were going to end up the same as under Saddam. But everyone would have wanted to Americans to stay -- the Baathists and Sunnis, for fear of Shia vengeance; the Shiites, for fear of a Baathist revanche -- and an uneasy civil peace would likely have prevailed. Ultimately, it's a given that no mechanism other than elections could plausibly establish our occupation's successor government, particularly since Iraqis wanted democracy anyway (as they bravely proved in the January elections). Democratizing the Iraqi state was never going to be the hard part. Preserving a state worth democratizing was.

For many (this writer included), the Iraq War was a chivalrous endeavor, waged out of generosity towards Iraqi liberty-lovers, many of whose voices have now reached the world through the blogosphere. But we didn't have to say so. If civil peace and democracy in Iraq had not been advertised as war objectives, we would have been more likely to achieve them.

What Would Nixon Do?

I am anti-totalitarian enough that supporting the fall of Saddam Hussein is well worth all the travails before or since. I remain in awe of Bush for giving the order -- O Captain My Captain! And I admire what our soldiers are doing now, too. They are serving at the behest of a newly elected government to suppress a murderous terrorist insurgency, with the blessing of the United Nations. A just cause, by any standard. They are advancing the cause of liberty. It's just that I think they would be advancing the cause of liberty even more if they were back home, recovering, on the lookout for the next Saddam Hussein to bring to justice, creating a generalized credible threat against other potential aggressors and tyrants. So is there a way out?

It's a problem when American prestige is staked on a variable (civil peace in Iraq) which (Tal Afar notwithstanding) may just be outside of our control. No matter how many landmarks we pass in the military struggle -- the capture of Saddam, the defeat of al-Sadr's uprising, the liberation of Fallujah -- or in the political process -- the transfer of sovereignty, the January elections, the draft constitution -- our efforts won't look successful as long as journalists can show the latest blackened bomb scene on TV. That means -- and this is why the hope of "inspiring" democratic transformation in the Middle East was always far-fetched, because inspiration is channeled through images, and the war of images was always our weakest suit, since our own media is not on our side -- that any angry Sunni teenager with an IED can "defeat" us. Bush's muddle-headed idealism left an opening for a hostile press to make the criterion of victory; as a result, we've won the war but lost the argument about whether we've won it.

Those hawks who want to stay in Iraq until Bush can say "Mission Accomplished" without being mocked, need to realize that that day will never come. What actually happens on the ground has nothing to do with it. When we withdraw, late or soon, mainstream journalists will manipulate images and soundbites to make the war look like a mistake and a failure.

If Iraq is like Vietnam, it's a good time to remember the man who extricated us from Vietnam: Richard Nixon. No one gives Nixon much credit. But the fact is, he got us out of a jam, and managed to contain the damaging consequences of withdrawal. Indeed, had Nixon not been felled from high office in the Watergate scandal, South Vietnam would likely be a free country today, the prosperous, capitalist South of a nation divided by communism, like South Korea. The Nixon administration's policies in the early 1970s, as they pulled out of Vietnam, deserve careful study by the Bush administration.

First, Nixon twisted the geopolitical kaleidoscope by making a friendly eight-day visit to Mao's China, thus taking advantage of the Sino-Soviet split to open another front of containment against the Soviet Union. This was a startling, even unprincipled, move for the arch-anti-Communist president. But in effect, Nixon decided that we couldn't afford the luxury of antagonism with both sides of the Sino-Soviet feud within Communism, and it may be time for us to make the same decision for the Sunni-Shia split within militant Islam. For a contemporary equivalent of Nixon's trip to China, Bush could show up in Teheran, lift the economic sanctions (unilateral economic sanctions are not much use anyway), and chat with President Ahmadinejad about the common threat of militant Sunni Islam, to Iran, and especially to the Shias in Iraq, from al-Qaeda as well as from a vulnerable, nuclear Pakistan, and the possibilities of joint action. This would give a good stiff scare to the Sunni Arabs, and maybe soften them up -- while allowing Bush to be a peacemaker. (James Kurth makes a similar argument in the cover story of the latest American Conservative.)

Second, when the Vietcong started operating out of Cambodia, Nixon bombed them there. If Bush wants to follow suit, he would work with -- or without -- the Iraqi government to form an Iraqi-Arab intelligence agency that would identify where in Syria and Jordan terrorists are taking refuge, and, if extradition is not forthcoming, tell the Air Force where to send the smart bombs. If we could attack Afghanistan for harboring the terrorist organization that killed 3,000 Americans in New York, then Iraq can attack Syria and Jordan for harboring the friends and backers of the terrorists who have killed thousands of innocent Iraqis in the streets of Baghdad. Or delegate this task to its superpower ally.

We're not as badly off as we were in 1972, and we probably don't need to be as cynical as Nixon and Kissinger were then. But it will take some creative thinking to get out of Iraq without losing face. If we do, we can start rebuilding our military strength, and rewriting the rules about when we'll use it. Then the tyrants will tremble.

Nathan Smith is a writer in Washington, DC. He's written about Iraq here, here, here, here and here. You can e-mail him here.

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