It is now clear that the US government faces immense difficulties in Iraq. As bizarre as it seems, it would appear that the Bush administration knew nothing about the political demographics in this country before it decided to smash its state. Apparently, the administration failed to consider the implications of the fact that this country is 2/3 Shiite, and that its status as a liberal/secular regime, by regional standards, was highly tenuous.
Now, I’m the last one to shed a tear for the crushing of any state, but even a libertarian extremist like me understands that there are prudential considerations involved in the decision to overthrow a government. It is wildly irresponsible not to think through what will replace the state. In Iraq, absent a mass ideological conversion to Rothbardianism, it seems there are two emerging choices: Islamic dictatorship (like the one the US overthrew last season in Afghanistan) or some form of US military dictatorship (but that’s not really viable for reasons I’ll explain below).
This is a country where democracy would be a one-time fling, and could easily result in an Islamic theocracy. Saddam understood this too, and it appears obvious in retrospect that his dictatorship sought to keep such a theocracy at bay. As with all states everywhere, of course, its main aim was to retain and expand power and pelf, which means, as always and everywhere, not law and order generally (much less the enforcement of rights), but keeping the competition pacified, mollified, or suppressed. The more a state is threatened by competition, the more we can expect it to exercise despotic power.
But despotic power is never enough to control a country. Saddam, like even the most ruthless dictator, existed within a complicated political balance. As a minority Sunni and a Bedouin ruling a primarily Arab and Shiite country, he had to form coalitions with other minorities like the Christians even as he faced unrelenting pressure to make life livable for the Shiite majority that stood ready to overthrow the regime. This requires the use of force, certainly, but also, and more subtly, payoffs, exchanges, logrolling, illusion strategies, and, ideally, a foreign threat to deflect attention (the US obliged him on this last point).
The second front of possible political competition, aside from organized opposition, is the general population itself, which is always a majority relative to the minority government. Revolution always threatens. This is why all governments everywhere seek consent in order to retain power. Force alone is not enough. People must be satisfied with their lot to some extent, or at least they must fear that life without the regime might be worst than the present plight. Here again, foreign enemies are highly useful.
When the US overthrew Saddam, they didn’t just get rid of the sword of his state but also the entire panoply of mechanisms that kept revolution from happening and the theocrats from taking charge. Faced with the prospect of Islamic rule, the US has only one arrow in its quiver: force. As a senior administration official told the New York Times, “it’s clear we are going to have to step in a little more forcefully.”
Thus did the US issue an astounding proclamation in the name of freedom. Quoting the Times:
Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, issued a proclamation putting Iraq’s politicians on notice, saying, “The coalition alone retains absolute authority within Iraq.” He warned that anyone challenging the American-led authority would be subject to arrest.
Ah, the sweet sound of liberation!
And how long will martial law by a foreign occupation military have to last? General Jay Garner has two conditions: “long enough to start a democratic government” and “long enough to get their economy going.” Thus do we see the absurdities into which US foreign policy has sunk: Democracy via military dictatorship, and economic growth at the point of a gun. This is essentially no different from the old Soviet claim that it too was a democracy that fostered economic growth, that it too ruled in order to liberate.
In what respect is the US government’s military dictatorship different from every other in the history of the world? The old Soviet claims were essentially frauds, and everyone knew it. Those issuing these statements from the US might actually believe what they are saying. Because they have immense firepower and a string of recent military successes, US military bureaucrats might actually believe that coercion alone is enough to rule a country.
Because it might not be self-evident to everyone why this cannot be so, let me spell it out. Consider the case of the typical prison, a place where everyone is a slave and where human choice is limited to the most extreme extent possible. Here, everyone sleeps behind bars. Everyone eats at appointed times and places and only what they are permitted to eat. Work, leisure, and associations are managed from the top down. It is the ultimate controlled society.
And yet anyone who knows about prison life can tell you that coercion and force are not the dominating means of order, nor are the wardens the main authority for day-to-day operations. Every prison includes a vast hierarchy that is informally organized, a structure of government in which wardens and prisoners trade decision-making power. There are leaders and followers, and wheels within wheels of these authority arrangements.
What’s true for the structure of government in prison is also true for the prison economy, which is active and complicated, where the smallest items and services serve as money, and informal structures of saving, credit, investment, and consumption take root in a funhouse mirror reflection of commercial society in the outside world.
If force alone were to replace informal networks of authority and exchange, the result would be rioting and chaos, followed by destruction and death. Because humans are by their nature not amoebas but choosing, creative, rational, and complicated, the only way to rule by force alone is via extermination.
If this is true in prison, it is all the more true in society. Power is not a substitute for consent. Those wielding the power in every society are in the minority while those obeying are in the majority. That the majority does not overthrow the minority is the great puzzle of political philosophy, addressed most famously by Étienne de la Boétie. Rothbard explains as follows:
[His] fundamental insight was that every tyranny must necessarily be grounded upon general popular acceptance. In short, the bulk of the people themselves, for whatever reason, acquiesce in their own subjection. If this were not the case, no tyranny, indeed no governmental rule, could long endure. Hence, a government does not have to be popularly elected to enjoy general public support; for general public support is in the very nature of all governments that endure, including the most oppressive of tyrannies. The tyrant is but one person, and could scarcely command the obedience of another person, much less of an entire country, if most of the subjects did not grant their obedience by their own consent.
US foreign-policy planners show no evidence that they understand this. Before the war, they believed in the super-simple model that Saddam ruled by force alone. It is as simple as replacing his guns with our guns! Believing this, they have assumed that force alone would be enough to rule in his absence. But in a whole host of areas, from control of even the central district of Baghdad, they have come to find out that they cannot. The prisoners are rioting and threaten a total takeover. This is possible even when the wardens are much more heavily armed.
Americans recently have found themselves mesmerized by the ability of military force to accomplish amazing things. Certainly the military is impressed with itself. But it is now discovering that the mystery of political obedience is a bit more complicated. Governments only know force, but force alone can never be the basis for the viability of government. Revolution always threatens every regime, and some more than others.
Whether the Iraqis are living under Saddam or foreign military occupation, the words of La Boétie ring true: “Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.”