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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Saturday | April 12, 2003

Our addiction to proxies

Eighty Iraqi policemen have offered to return to work.

No one knows if they will be paid. There is no authority to pay them.

Some disorder, and there is always disorder after war, is inevitable. But if they can't get paid, why should Iraqi policemen risk their lives? Clearly, in the days ahead, anyone who polices a major Iraqi city will have to draw down and shoot his fellow citizens.

While the looting may slow down, you already have the formation of local vigilantes, with military weapons. They won't be putting their weapons away soon. And the BBC is reporting that Shias and Sunnis in Iraq are turning their weapons on each other.

The problem is that Americans have grown addicted to using other people's armies to solve our problems. In Iraq, this may prove impossible to do. The Army faded away, the police force, even the criminal police, was impossibly tainted by the state's intelligence services. We fully expected to have the police stay in place and then take over the top functions. They chose not to.

You can say it's fear or passive resistance, but either way, we have few Iraqis willing to even maintain order in their own cities and the few people who have stuck their heads up to help the Coalition forces have met with condemnation, In Basra, the sheik the British wanted to use to police the city, was a former Iraqi Army general and a mob stoned his house.

The colonialist instinct to rely on tribal chieftains as our proxies has met with resistance from the educated classes who claim that a) they were all tained with connections to Saddam, and b) it only promotes ethinc strife.

What Wolfowitz and Perle never wanted to understand, and may still not, is the well, Byzantine nature of Iraqi politics. Anyone who looked would have seen the balancing act Saddam had to deal with in running the country. He bribed some people, terrorized others, all playing one against the other. He had to tread carefully to avoid an uprising among various groups.

A dictatorship is hardly the monolith one would expect. It wasn't all Baath Party all the time. It was a tricky balance of competing interests and proactive measures to keep Saddam in power. He would favor one group, then repress them. He jailed children to keep difficult people in line. He kept the opposition weak and divided. It was a remarkable task of political gamesmanship and balance which only fell apart at the very end.

The Coalition clearly does not want to run Iraq. It wants to appoint proxies to run Iraq. But that depends on convincing people that they should join the team. It would be foolish to look at the inability to get more than 80 cops to return as a failure. It is still early. But the problem is that time is not our friend. The more ineffectual the Coalition looks, the less power it will have.

What people seem to pretending is that this is not a fragile situation. If the US doesn't get the country stabilized, and I think we may have as little as a couple of weeks before disease starts to take hold because of the lack of running water and hospitals, things could get worse as it becomes clear that Coalition forces will be able to do little more than defend themselves.

Our inability to speak Arabic is clearly harmful. We simply cannot communicate with the people effectively. We don't have a handle on the street gossip we would in a country where understanding the language comes more naturally. We can hope the exiles are accepted by the Iraqi people, but the RPG and Kalashnikov provide a very effective veto. Iraq's future may lie less in the hands of well-meaning, if naive exiles, than kids with Dragunov sniper rifles and rocket launchers.

Because if the scenes in Najaf repeat themselves, no amount of US military power could prevent a total breakdown in civil order. No one will offer themselves up to be killed for the US. Without people willing to be proxies, we could be in serious trouble.

Steve Gilliard

Posted April 12, 2003 09:05 AM | Comments (57)


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