Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left To Loot

In the words of Iraqi archaeologist Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, as quoted by the New York Times:

I asked them to bring their tank inside the museum grounds. But they refused and left. About half an hour later, the looters were back, and they threatened to kill me, or to tell the Americans that I am a spy for Saddam Hussein's intelligence, so that the Americans would kill me. So I was frightened, and I went home.

There you have the problem of post-invasion Iraq in a nutshell. As I see it, the guys with the tank had four basic strategies available, all of them sucky:

  • Listen to the archaeologist. But a lot of times, the "archaeologist" asking for protection may very well be a spy for Saddam Hussein's intelligence.
  • Listen to the mob. But a lot of times, the "spy for Saddam Hussein's intelligence" may very well be an archaeologist.
  • Listen to no one, bring over the tank, and make everyone go home. But then you're part of an occupying army of occupation, not one of liberation, or at least risk coming across as one.
  • Listen to no one and do nothing, on the theory that the Iraqis can and should sort things out. But then the hospitals and museums get trashed.

These four options live at the corners of a rather neat diamond. One axis, let us say the horizontal one, is deference towards the mob (stereotypically "left") as opposed to deference towards the official (stereotypically "right"). The other axis, which we call the vertical one, ranges from a high of maximal military involvement to a low of a complete hands-off attitude.

There are two points to be made here. First, none of these strategies is an appropriate blanket response. The best that can be done is a thoughtful case-by-case balancing act somewhere in the middle of the diamond. But notice that there's a strong counter-clockwise rhetorical tendency at work here. Saddam had an iron grip on Iraq (right), which the U.S. took care of by invading (top); Iraqis took to the streets (left) and started looting everything in sight (bottom). Whoops. Wouldn't it be nice to have some local authorities (right)?

If you want to see the cycle in action, just read the press briefings. Both Rumsfeld and the reporters are working at a high level of guile; they chase each other around the diamond at dizzying speed. Today, the widespread looting opens Rummy up to criticism that he's too far down in the diamond, too far towards letting the Iraqis sort everything out through a programme of retributionary (or perhaps redistributive) looting.

The reporters, though, can't call him on it directly, because, the opposite of down is up, and up means using the tank more, which would smack of colonialism. So instead, they're trying to suggest that U.S. policy should be further to the right: more control by local Iraqi archaeologists. But, of course, Rummy has a perfectly good reply: those aren't archaeologists, they're agents of the former Iraqi intelligence apparatus! Witness:

Q: I think the question is, if you -- if a foreign military force came into your neighborhood and did away with the police, and left you at the mercy of criminals, how long would you feel liberated?

Rumsfeld: Well, that's a fair question. First of all, the foreign military force came into their neighborhood and did not do away with any police. There may have been some police who fled, because the people didn't like them, and because they'd been doing things to the people in the local community that the people wanted to have a word with them about. But we haven't gone in and done away with any police. In fact, we're looking for police in those villages and towns who can, in fact, assist in providing order, to the extent there are people who can do it in a manner that's consistent with our values.

Notice that twist at the end? Since the reporter is arguing for right, Rumsfeld plays rock to the reporter's scissors and starts sliding towards up. The "police" will "assist in providing order . . . consistent with our values." I think we can all see where this one will wind up a briefing or two down the road, not least because U.S. policy already seems to be tipping upwards towards greater involvement. When platoon-leaders-turned-mayors (after a two-minute briefing) overstep and start shooting innocent civilians, we'll hear about abuses of power, and the reporters will be asking Rumsfeld why we're not over in the left part of the diamond, trusting ordinary Iraqis more. We've already been there with the checkpoint shootings, which we got into because of the suicide bombers; nor will this next time be the last. Around and around the spin cycle goes; where it stops, nobody knows.

It's certainly possible to second-guess individual decisions made by the U.S. forces in Baghdad. But the press briefings are just one flanking movement after another. These movements are rhetorical tropes, formalistic responses to the previous day's spin. I don't know whether it would be possible to do much better than the U.S. troops are already doing without mucking things up worse. Trusting local "authorities" too much could be disastrous, if Iraqis come to identify the U.S. troops as the protectors of the Ba'ath. The National Museum may have been a necessary sacrifice. We'll never know now, though.

The deeper point here is that the difficult tradeoffs involved in playing the diamond of disorder are quite predictable. Something very similar happened during the 1989 invasion of Panama; thousands of Panamanians died in the disorder that followed the sudden removal of their government.

Such violence is not, as Rumsfeld would have it, the necessary consequence of the transition from repression to freedom. Most of Eastern Europe managed that transition just fine. Nor, as the 1863 Draft Riots and 1992 Los Angeles Riots illustrate, do you only see looting during revolutions. I doubt the Secretary would say of the latter, as he did of the chaos in Iraq, "[F]reedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

Now, to be fair, something on this order might very well have happened in the absence of an invasion, on Saddam's death. But we'll never know now; and we do know that it did happen as a more or less natural consequence of the invasion we wound up with. Not that I really believe anyone would have thought differently about an invasion with this prospect in view, but still, folks, come on, would it have been so hard to admit up front that Iraqis might well be pulling down Saddam statutes and trashing their hospitals? This happens when you delete the government.

Once again, I feel very small and helpless.