Fighting Words

It Was Right To Dissolve the Iraqi Army

We broke America’s terrible habit of ruling by proxy through military regimes.

Paul Bremer

As one who always thought the word surge was ridiculous, I find it pointless to complain that even President George W. Bush uses the term as a cover for retreat. This is an old story in the rhetoric of warfare: The British general staff used to say “strategic withdrawal to prepared positions” to explain a rout, and the French phrase reculer pour mieux sauter has been employed more than once to imply that a scuttle is merely the preparation for a renewed assault, like a cornered animal gathering itself for a sudden spring. It makes no sense to announce that the more we surge, the faster we can be out of there; everybody knows that unless the United States affirms its iron determination to stick around and to hold the ring, every faction in Iraq will start making its accommodations to a future that will be arbitrated instead by local militias and cross-border neighbors.

However, one thing has become even clearer in retrospect than it was at the time: It was absolutely correct to dissolve the pre-existing Iraqi armed forces and to begin again with local and national elements who have been trained by, or are willing to work alongside, the coalition itself or the still-vestigial Iraqi government.

The opposite view of this question has become so much accepted that even President Bush now imagines that it was his policy all along to keep the Iraqi army intact. (The interview in which he claims this is perhaps the most alarmingly dysfunctional moment of his entire presidency.)

If there was one thing about U.S. foreign policy that used to make one shudder, it was the habit of ruling by proxy through military regimes. Especially beloved by the CIA, this practice befouled us in Chile, Greece, Indonesia, and numerous other cases where we made ourselves complicit in the policies of a local uniformed elite. The case of Iraq, where the armed forces routinely acted as a phalanx of naked aggression against neighboring countries and as a spectacularly cruel internal police force, as well as a parasitic consumer of the national income, was the instance above all where it was right to break with this abysmal tradition.

The Iraqi army was also the replication of sectarianism within the state, consisting of a Sunni oligarchy using conscripts from other communities to enforce its will and eating up the common national treasury to conceal unemployment and inefficiency while subjecting young people to involuntary servitude. Yet almost every liberal in America—as you can see most recently by watching the tendentious documentary No End in Sight—appears to be committed to a nostalgia for Saddam Hussein’s draft.

Take a moment to imagine what would have been written in the liberal press had the old military class been preserved and utilized to “stabilize” Iraq. I can write the headlines for you: “Baathist War Criminal Gets Second Career as American Employee”; “Once-Wanted Man, Brigadier Kamal Now Shares Jokes With 82nd Airborne”; “Kurds and Shiites Say: What Regime Change?”; “From Basra to Kirkuk, America Brings Saddamism Without Saddam.” And, if you like, I can add the names of the reporters who would have written the stories.

This is not just another way of saying that there were few good options in Iraq’s future, because anybody with any sense knows that already. Nor is it a defense of the very abrupt and peremptory way in which Paul Bremer dismissed the officer corps almost overnight. However, I think it stands to the credit of the United States that it did not insult the population by grabbing and using the existing reins of repression, just as it stands to our credit that we adopted de-Baathification, or, in other words, the policy of demolishing the rule of a corrupt and fascistic party. People say that the poor management of this issue led to an insurgency from quarters that would have hated a change of regime from whichever source it had come. Better that than a revolt against us from the people who detested the whole Saddamist system to begin with—the majority, lest we forget.

As things are now, the situation is unbelievably tenuous, and the decline in the murder rate in Baghdad is quite possibly attributable to the blunt fact that the Shiite majority simply won last year’s round of ethnic cleansing. But there is a Kurdish army in the northern provinces able to operate without a single American or British unit on its territory and also able to lend useful detachments to the coalition in other cities, while Sunni fighters in more than one region are getting former Baathists to repudiate their alliance with al-Qaida. This could not and would not have happened if we had tried to run Iraq by maintaining and re-commissioning the old system of military and political and ethnic and religious dictatorship, a system that was in any case absolutely doomed to fall of its own weight.

Almost all anti-war critiques proceed from the weird assumption that Iraq, if left alone, would have managed itself better under a combination of Saddam plus sanctions than if de-Baathified. That argument seems booked to go on for a long time. But if you will consider my little thought experiment above, you might still be glad that the Iraqi armed forces are under the influence of Gen. David Petraeus, rather than the other way around.