Dividing and Conquering in Iraq

A fundamental rule in non-profit organizations is this: the larger the board of trustees, the more power the President possesses.

This is a fundamental law of bureaucracy. A governing board that is filled with individualists is incapable of initiating anything significant as a group. The board can veto proposals, and will, especially if the proposals come from within the board. The instinctive response of over half the board members is this: “I’m smarter than this guy. Why should I take his proposal seriously?”

If the President of the organization is a strong-willed person, he can run the outfit indefinitely without fear of a coup. He knows that most of the board members owe their presence on the board to him. He usually recommends new members. If this continues, he will continue to run the place. Board members think: “He’s in charge here on a day-to-day basis. He knows the problems. He is on top of the facts. His opinion is worth considering.” Board members do not think this about each other.


Any nation that hopes to extend its influence abroad by force of arms is wise to follow the same procedure that the President of a non-profit organization adopts. The occupying nation surrounds its agents with local political representatives of all groups. These agents defer in small things, first to one group, then another.

In a world of democracy, an empire prefers parliamentary government abroad and two-party rule at home. Why? In two-party rule, the party in power can impose party discipline. Access to money extracted from taxpayers is gained by all-or-nothing contests. The party out of power imposes discipline in the name of defeating the entrenched party. The leaders of both parties can point to the power of the other party to justify party discipline.

When a conquering democracy goes abroad, it must present a united front. The conquered must fear this united front. Otherwise, the conquered may implement a divide-and-conquer political strategy against the conqueror.

To defuse any divide-and-conquer political strategies on the part of the conquered, the conquering nation does whatever it can to encourage public expression by all groups that do not promote armed opposition. It also seeks to bring armed groups into the local governing board, on condition that they disarm.

With this in mind, consider the following news report from Iraq, dated November 25.

Iraq was meanwhile pressing ahead with preparations for the elections. It would be the country’s first free and multi-party ballots since 1954.

Electoral commission chief Abdel Hussein Al-Hindawi said over 200 Iraqi political parties have been approved for participation in the polls.

With the deadline for presenting full electoral lists only a week away, parties and organizations were in the final stages of discussions to form alliances ahead of the official launch of the campaign on December 15.

In January, Iraqis are set to elect 275 deputies to a national assembly, as well as 51 members of the Baghdad provincial council and 41 members for each of 17 other regional councils.

There is no doubt in my mind that 275 deputies representing up to 200 political parties will be sufficient to create a board of trustees mentality, i.e., resistance to organized opposition from within the parliament. There will be lots of disorganized opposition. In fact, the political structure imposed by the conqueror is guaranteed to produce disorganized opposition in permanence. There is nothing like good, old-fashioned cacophony from the invaded to allow the invader to move forward in the name of emergencies or irresistible circumstances.


The great irony of divide and conquer is that it does not succeed against guerilla movements. In fact, the opposite is true. Because guerilla movements do not cooperate permanently with each other, but only on an ad hoc basis, the divide-and-conquer strategy becomes a blueprint for disaster: endless negotiations that never root out the resistance movement.

In politics, divide and conquer works well because there is no single opposition voice to rally the masses. In fourth-generation warfare, divide and conquer works for the guerrillas for the same organizational reason: there is no single opposition voice to rally the troops to accept a surrender.

Guerrillas accept disunity because they are waging the war of the flea. There is an immediate agenda, shared by all resistance groups: the permanent removal of the invader. This agenda provides sufficient unity to prevent competitive group betrayals to the enemy. Add the concept of “infidel,” and the unity factor increases. But the organizational divisions remain. The invader finds that he is dealing with a field full of snakes, not elephants.

The free market provides discount weaponry. If you want a model from history, consider the repeating rifle in the hands of Apaches, circa 1879. Now multiply the number of Apache warriors by a factor of 1,000 or so. Fort Apache is today called the Baghdad green zone. For those of you who remember Fort Apache, every time you see a general on television saying that the Coalition has crushed the resistance, imagine that you’re seeing Henry Fonda.

The strategy of inviting these people into the government if only they will disarm is not working. It is not going to work. The motivation of these armed warriors is a combination of national resistance, Islamic fanaticism, and revenge — as potent a combination as we are likely to see. That same combination operated in Vietnam a generation ago, with this difference: Communism rather than Islam. But there was a big difference: the Viet Cong had a chain of command. Iraqi resistance doesn’t. We could negotiate with Hanoi, which ran the Viet Cong. There is no one to negotiate with in Iraq.


The divide-and-conquer strategy works when the conquered do not have access to cheap weapons in a free market. It works when the conqueror can move the terms of engagement from the battlefield to politics. It does not work when a decentralized supply chain for low-tech weaponry keeps the guerrillas in the field. It does not work when hit-and-run tactics replace a strategy of direct confrontation.

The unified supply chain of the Coalition is its soft underbelly. Socialist distribution always operates according to bureaucratic schedules. From Kuwait to Mosul, the supply lines get thinner. Defense gets more difficult. Targets get more tempting.

Every time I hear “Iraq,” I think “Little Big Horn.”

December 11, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit

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