Law and Order: Special Iraq Unit.

Law and Order: Special Iraq Unit.

Law and Order: Special Iraq Unit.

The best new ideas for rebuilding a nation.
April 30 2003 12:54 PM

Law and Order: Special Iraq Unit

Six new ideas for bringing real security to Iraq.

The American goal for Iraq is self-government, but for the moment our job is to replace one dictatorship with another. Until order returns to Iraq, any grand plans for democracy, free markets, and prosperity are a joke. Without security and law, Iraqis will cast their lot with heavily armed warlords, fracture into belligerent ethnic factions, and regress to feudal misery.

Among scholars, nation-builders, and generals, there is universal agreement on a daunting fact: The United States must impose a commanding order on Iraq. We must not merely tame the Wild West, we must wring its neck. Iraqis must fear American authority and respect the occupation laws. Enforcing calm with guns is the only way to give Iraqis the breathing space they need to start rebuilding civil society, restoring markets, and preparing for self-rule.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


Is there any reason to hope we can do a better job of this in Iraq than was done in Kosovo or Sierra Leone or Cambodia? A little. There has been some recent progress in bringing law and order to anarchic states. It has been incremental, not revolutionary. A couple of conceptual improvements, a technological one, and a few lessons from experience could speed up Iraq's return to law and order.

Start an occupation with a massive show of force. Oops, too late. The United States has blown this chance, unfortunately. Former Gen. William Nash, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar who led American troops into Bosnia, says you "have to flood the zone when you take over a country." We've learned from recent occupations and peacekeeping operations that any looting or anarchy signals to the population that you're not serious about the mission. A vacuum of order—even a brief one—encourages would-be warlords and dictators to assert themselves and fosters ethnic cleansing, revenge killings, and crime.

But an early, overwhelming show of force scares people into immediate order. "We should have had a police force ready in advance," says University of Colorado professor Roland Paris, author of the forthcoming At War's End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict. The United States, having not learned this lesson, is already reaping the consequence of its shoddy planning. In the wake of the looting, Iraqis are turning to Shiite clerics and other homegrown, anti-American leaders because they don't trust the United States to keep order.

It is too late to start the occupation ruthlessly, but it's not too late to enforce the occupation ruthlessly. The failures of the Balkans and Cambodia have taught that you need lots of troops with "very robust rules of engagement" to impose order, says Journal of Democracy co-editor Larry Diamond. Soldiers can't simply mill about and eyeball girls. They need to bully, coerce, and prod. Here is where the American occupation has an advantage over a U.N. one. The United Nations is timid about using force to challenge dissent. The United States, with military supremacy and a resolute commander, doesn't need to be. American soldiers should relentlessly eliminate any challenge to security or to their authority: Anyone who is preaching violence, encouraging anarchy, or setting himself up as a rival power should be arrested immediately. (Jailing the self-appointed "Mayor of Baghdad" this week was an excellent signal.)

This ruthlessness sounds, well, ruthless. It needs to be. Recent peacekeeping missions prove that allowing rival power to flourish paves the way for disaster. These early opponents—who are usually the most violent, most extreme, and most authoritarian folks around—will fill the power vacuum when we leave. It's true that suppressing these challenges fast and firmly will confirm the United States' image as a vicious imperial occupier. (We are already witnessing the risk of firmness: The killing of 17 civilian protestors in Fallujah this week promises to foment more anti-American rage.) Even so, strictness now—especially toward anti-American chiefs—makes it much more likely that nonviolent, nonradical Iraqis can emerge as leaders later.

Stop the "spoilers." The "spoiler" is one of the most important conceptual discoveries from the past 15 years of nation-building. After any conflict, people remain who thrived under the old order or who benefit from ongoing chaos. Unfortunately, these folks also usually are heavily armed and ill-tempered, since they tend to be the enforcers from the last regime. In the former Soviet Union, these are the guys who took their arms, recruited some disaffected kids, and set themselves up as mafiosos. In the Balkans, they became warlords. In Iraq, there are undoubtedly hundreds of former Baath officials who are preparing to do the same: They're the ones who have stolen government cars, or looted the local armory.

Such "spoilers" can turn orderly societies into anarchic ones, cripple a nascent market economy with crime, and undermine belief in the law. Even large legitimate groups can act as spoilers. If a political party or religious faction decides that the new arrangements are unfavorable, it can deep-six an armistice or withdraw from an election campaign, shattering the fragile hope for peace.

It's only in the past decade—thanks largely to Russia's bad experience—that the danger of spoilers has been recognized. Now, nation-builders are devising ambitious new strategies for dealing with them. For example, the Kosovo occupation included a job-training and placement program for Kosovo Liberation Army troops. According to the U.S. Institute for Peace's Daniel Serwer, this reduced the number of armed, troublemaking ex-soldiers loitering around. (Slatereader Paul MacDonald recommends something similar for Iraq: A "GI Bill" that would pay and train demobilizing soldiers.) With larger spoiler groups, says Stanford political scientist Stephen Stedman, sometimes you can buy them off or try to socialize them by inviting them to participate in the political process. The United States ignores radical Shiites at its peril. It should try to seduce them into joining the political process. If that fails, it should lock them up.