Afghanistan and Iraq are in the U.S. news these days, partly because the locals are killing each other and partly because the locals are killing occupation forces (see “G.I.’s in Iraqi City Are Stalked by Faceless Enemies at Night” from today’s New York Times). The problems in both countries seem to center around the inability of a central government to control the population. In Afghanistan the Kabul government governs Kabul and the rest of the country is essentially independent (my summer 2002 trip report advocates splitting the place up into regions where everyone has something in common). In Iraq there are so many problems that, in Europe at least, people were openly saying that the average Iraqi was better off under Saddam’s government.
If you flip on European TV you find that the post-invasion Iraqis have joined the Palestinians as the officially designated “most miserable people on the planet” in the media and their plight is an ever-present top story. The British are donating money and sending care packages to help out Iraqis who are without reliable clean water and electricity. .
Iraqis complain on TV: their neighbors are breaking into water mains, thus wrecking the water system; their neighbors are looting; Iraqis with guns who don’t like certain other Iraqis are shooting them; Iraqis love Allah and want an Islamic state; Iraqis love Allah but in a slightly different way and want a slightly different kind of Islamic state, which will necessitate the death and/or suppression of anyone who doesn’t love Allah their way; Iraqis hate Americans and Jews and want U.S. troops out of Iraq and the Jews out of Israel; etc., etc.
The executive summary seems to be the following: (1) Iraqis hate each other, they have lots of guns, and aren’t afraid to use them; (2) the U.S. and its allies deposed Saddam because he was unsuccessful in creating a quiet Swiss or Belgian-style bourgeois democracy; (3) the U.S. and its allies so far have failed to make any headway in getting Iraqis to adopt a Western bourgeois lifestyle and political outlook; (4) Saddam was able to restrict looting and killing to a handful of friends and family; (5) under U.S. occupation every Iraqi is free to get in touch with his Inner Looter and Inner Murderer.
By the standards of wealthy Western countries Saddam’s regime was harsh. They tortured and/or killed political opponents. They controlled the press, the mosques, and the schools. If a town were restive they might kill its entire population or at least many hundreds of people from that town. This would seem like gratuitous cruelty if done by the governments of Vermont, Dijon, or Bavaria. But in the Arab world more or less every government employs the same tactics as Saddam’s Iraq.
In fairness to the defeated dare we ask whether Saddam’s regime wasn’t employing the minimum amount of violence necessary to maintain public order in Iraq? It seems quite possible that Saddam did not enjoy terrorizing his subjects but did it because he understood the divisions within his arbitrarily drawn borders and thought keeping his subjects in fear was necessary.
It really seems to be tough to coerce people into doing following something other than their inclinations. Death from AIDS is pretty terrifying and yet people still have sex. Despite massive fines, automated ticket-issuing cameras, and license revocations, I didn’t see anyone in Britain obeying the 70 mph speed limit on the Motorway (I was so happy to get my Ford Mondeo out of Wales, whose principal highways bear an uncanny resemblance to a North Carolina plastic surgeon’s driveway (narrow and lined with stone walls), that I zipped along at 77 mph and was passed every minute by someone doing 90 in the fast lane). If you’re caught with a small amount of drugs the U.S. government can take your house and your car, and put you in jail for the rest of your life, yet people still sell, buy, and use drugs (just ask George W. Bush, former coke-head).
We haven’t figured out what level of governmental coercion will result in an Iraqi society that is both orderly and submissive to a U.S. occupation or whatever American-friendly government follows. Saddam may yet go down in history as the kindest and gentlest 21st century leader of a unified and stable Iraq.
[Given the depths of poverty and lack of industry in Wales and the Northern UK it seemed odd at first that these folks would want to help out their defeated enemies before assisting unfortunates closer to home. Or that they wouldn’t instead prefer to help the hundreds of millions of Indians who have never in their lives had clean water or electricity. Berlin, The Downfall 1945 describes a similar phenomenon: “[German civilians] queued at Red Army field kitchens, which began to feed them on Berzarin’s orders. The fact that there was a famine in Soviet Central Asia at that time, with families reduced to cannibalism, did not influence the new policy of attempting to win over the German people.”]