Last Updated 02 Mar 2020

Iraq or its capital of Baghdad was not accustomed to “freedom”

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“For, in truth, there is no sure way of holding other than by destroying, and whoever becomes master of a City accustomed to live in freedom and does not destroy it, may reckon on being destroyed by it” (Machiavelli: 11).  “Hence we may learn the lesson that on seizing a state, the usurper should make haste to inflict what injuries he must, at a stroke, that he may not have to renew them daily, but be able by their discontinuation to reassure men’s minds, and afterwards win them over by benefits”  (23).

While it can hardly be argued that Iraq or its capital of Baghdad, which reflects the divisions of Iraq, was accustomed to “freedom” before the American invasion, it at least enjoyed freedom from foreign occupation.  The above quote is relevant to the American experience in Iraq because, pursuant to the failure to destroy the enemy in the opening stages of the war, the American mission is in serious risk of being destroyed by that very enemy, years after taking nominal “control” over Iraq.

A failure to pacify restive Sunni centers such as Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul during or immediately after the initial invasion, a failure to “destroy” in Machiavelli’s parlance, left the American occupation armies among its enemies rather than victorious over them.  This negligence, and the willingness to bypass centers of resistance on the drive to Baghdad rather than to subdue them, led directly to the next stage of failure, and the next piece of relevant advice from The Prince.

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“If, however, the newly acquired City or Province has been accustomed to live under a Prince, and his line is extinguished, it will be impossible for the citizens, used, on the one hand, to obey, and deprived, on the other, of their old ruler, to agree to choose a leader from among themselves”  (11-12).

The Prince in this scenario, of course, is Saddam Hussein; Hussein’s “line” was both biological, in the form of his sons Uday and Qusay, and political, in the form of the brutal and brilliantly organized Ba’ath Party.  The United States willingly destroyed the heart, brain, and nerve center of the Iraqi state and came with no workable plan to replace them.  It should hardly have come as any surprise, bearing all of this in mind, that the Iraqi people have been unable to come to any sort of consensus on what form their new government should take.  The entire gamble of the Iraq War, from the perspective of the Bush administration, hinged on the hope that Machiavelli was wrong, the hope that citizens deprived of a powerful prince would be able to peaceably choose a new leader from among themselves.

A further failure of the American enterprise in Iraq has been the inability to instill a sense of loyalty for the new Iraqi government and army among a critical mass of the Iraqi people.  Loyalty should not be taken to imply affection, but merely respect and deference.  Employing historically brutal methods, Saddam Hussein garnered a certain sense of “loyalty” from the Iraqi people.  The new Iraq government, however, is not recognized by most Iraqis as the legitimate or competent representation of the Iraqi state; instead, a slew of militias and insurgent groups command far more loyalty on the street than do the national institutions sponsored and supported by the United States.

The first rule of any government, democratic or not, is the rule of “one gun”.  In other words, the state must be perceived to be the only legitimate employer of violence.  That is most decidedly not the case in post-invasion Iraq.  As Machiavelli wrote, “a wise Prince should devise means whereby his subjects may at all times, whether favourable or adverse, feel the need of the State and of him, and then they will always be faithful to him”  (26).

The legitimacy and the staying power of the Iraqi government is the most important factor of the American mission in Iraq, since the emergence of an openly anti-American government would dissolve any theoretical benefit from the original invasion.  The trouble is that a self-perpetuating cycle is at work; the Iraqi government likely cannot survive without American military protection, yet that very protection ensures that the Iraqi government will never be genuinely legitimate in the eyes of its citizens.  “Mercenaries and auxiliaries are at once useless and dangerous, and he who holds his State by means of mercenary troops can never be solidly or securely seated”  (31).

In a country as divided by clan and ethnicity and religious sect as Iraq is, an invading army must have a solid appraisal of what groups it must count as allies in order to effectively govern the country.  Several of the decisions taken by the American proconsul, Jerry Bremer, imply that this appraisal was either never made or was horribly blundered.  Two such decisions come to mind.  Firstly, the Iraqi army was disbanded and its soldiers and officers were sent home without any way of supporting their families but with their weapons.  Secondly, the Ba’ath Party was dissolved, and a massive proportion of its members were excluded from meaningful participation in the new Iraq.

Due to the nature of the Iraqi military, especially its officer corps, and the Ba’ath party, these decisions effectively made enemies of the Sunni minority in Iraq, which included the most militarily competent, technocratic, educated, secular, and Western-oriented elements of the society.  The very Iraqis, in other words, who could bring either the greatest harm or the greatest aid to the American occupation.  “As Princes cannot escape being hated by some, they should, in the first place, endeavor not to be hated by a class; failing in which, they must do all they can to escape the hatred of that class which is the stronger”  (51).

After dismissing the Iraqi army, and thereby humiliating a large portion of the population, it became evident that the American occupation could never succeed without an Iraqi army, as there were not nearly enough American soldiers to pacify Iraq.  The Americans therefore began training and arming a new Iraqi army, but the damage had been done.  By dismissing the nearest thing to a truly “national” institution in Ba’athist Iraq, the Americans proved their distrust of the Iraqi people.  It was therefore inevitable that the new, American-backed Iraqi army would be tainted as occupation collaborators by the population and occasionally as insurgent collaborators by the Americans.

Most experts now point to the decision to disband the Iraqi army without pay and with weapons was the single biggest blunder that the United States made in Iraq.  This single decision instantly created a vast class of humiliated, impoverished, idle, and armed young men, which essentially guaranteed the emergence of an insurgency.  “By disarming, you at once giver offence, since you show your subjects that you distrust them, either as doubting their courage, or as doubting their fidelity, each of which imputations begets hatred against you”  (56).

It seems unreal now, but it is important to note that there was no insurgency in the early months of the American occupation; it seems now that the Iraqi people were giving the Americans a chance to make clear their true motives and intentions.  One wonders what may have happened had the Iraqi army been called upon by the American army to join together in rebuilding and securing Iraq, a goal that both groups shared.  One wonders what may have happened had thousands of mid-level Ba’athist technocrats been allowed to keep their jobs, such as running electrical grids, hospitals, and water purification plants.  One wonders indeed.

The above quotes and examples are all variations of one unifying theme; the American errors in Iraq have been driven by a failure to recognize its natural allies, to preempt the emergence of natural enemies, and to win the trust and loyalty of the local population.  Each of these necessities was articulated in The Prince, and one wonders if George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld ever read the book.

Works Cited

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992.

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