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 Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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.

Enforcing the law doesn't just mean cops. Another realization of the Balkans recovery is that cops are not enough for law and order. The United States should waste no time—well, it has already wasted too much time—placing a big, well-muscled police force on the ground. But the justice system will be toothless until competent prosecutors and judges join them. Police without judges and prosecutors are worse than nothing, since those arrested are treated arbitrarily—they either walk or are locked up without recourse. This undermines any faith in the rule of law. The judges and prosecutors should include international experts who would not only carry out the law, but would also train Iraqis to do it. Iraqis, accustomed to a dictatorial justice system, need to be taught the principles of law.

Better peacekeeping through technology. Just as total instant communication won the war faster, so it can help speed the peace. Instant communications allow peacekeepers to mobilize quickly to nip protests, catch criminals, and—if we have the will—stop looting. The new technology means U.S. forces are in touch with both Iraqi allies and Iraqi opponents: The better communications reduce misunderstandings in the field and thus reduce violence. Thanks to e-mail and cell phones, military coordination with NGOs and international aid groups has vastly improved, says Sheryl Brown, who co-directs the U.S. Institute of Peace's Virtual Diplomacy Initiative. Groups no longer duplicate efforts. As a result, we need fewer troops and aid groups to keep order in Iraq than we would have a decade ago.

Test the law. Iraq will have excellent laws soon. On paper its laws will be wonderful—heck, your fifth-grade niece could probably write a great constitution for Iraq—but so what? Another bitter lesson from the ex-Soviet states is that a law is only as good as it is alive. Russia and Co. have superb laws on paper, but citizens don't know about them. Insofar as they do know about the laws, they don't believe in them. Insofar as they believe in the laws, they don't trust corrupt judges to enforce them. Iraq—where the rule of law has been absent since, oh, Hammurabi—will face a similar chasm between its paper laws and the popular understanding of them.

The Eurasia Foundation has a clever seed project that's designed to reverse this, says its president, Bill Maynes. The foundation is helping Russian citizens enforce laws. Traditionally, a Russian citizen has no recourse when the government decides to seize her house for some government use. Laws forbid such property-taking, but no one dares challenge the authorities. The Eurasia Foundation has been sponsoring lawsuits in Russia, including one by a wronged property-owner who forced the local government to pay compensation for a house's destruction. A small triumph, to be sure, but one that reinforces property rights, makes some Russian citizens believe in the law, and makes some Russian leaders fear it.

When the law returns to Iraq, NGOs and the U.S. government should prod Iraqis to use it. The United States can impose temporary order on Iraq by force, but order and law will take more work. A first step should be teaching Iraqis that the law can serve—and not merely punish—them.

Neither law and order nor democracy will last long in Iraq without a vital civil society—the private associations, groups, mosques, and relationships that can check government and encourage citizen activism. Building civil society is an area where recent progress has been speedy. In the next piece, I'll examine some of the best new ideas.

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Read the introduction to Iraq's Progress and the new ideas for bringing democracy, civil society, economic recovery, and religious harmony to Iraqand using virtual world games to reconstruct it.

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