According to the Washington Post, US civilian and military authorities in Iraq have agreed to create an Iraqi paramilitary force numbering just under 1,000 men, composed of equal contributions from the militias of the five largest political parties in the country.
I hesitate to criticize this decision too readily because I can see the very difficult range of options we're dealing with. And I can see advantages of pursuing such a course: namely, having a corps of trained Iraqis to help put down the insurgents who are killing our soldiers and preventing any progress toward stabilization and democratization.
I'm convinced that the choice to disband the Iraqi Army was a bad idea, about which we should have known better. This, on the other hand, may be a bad decision that we must take because all the other options are worse.
But with all those qualifications put out on the table, I have to tell you that just instinctively this strikes me as a very bad idea.
As Ghazi Yawar, an independent member of the Council tells the Post: "This is a very big blunder. We should be dissolving militias, not finding ways to legitimize them. This sends the wrong message to the Iraqi people."
The reasons for not doing this are almost endless -- not least of which is the fact that these militias aren't exactly pure as the driven snow operations, and they are based in most cases on rival political factions that would probably be fighting each other if we weren't still there with a hundred and fifty thousands of our guys and gals. (Add to this the fact that the leaders of several of these parties are reaching for almost any expedient to perpetuate their power into the post-occupation period -- and this looks like an awfully good way to do it.)
At a deeper level, however, the issue here is one of power and the direction in which it is flowing.
The idea behind a successful occupation, reconstruction and democratization process -- whether it be in Japan or Germany or Kosovo or Bosnia -- is that you control not only the power of overwhelming force but the more granular and immediate forms of power we associate with police authority and basic civil administration.
It is only with that sort of control that you can hope to manage the sort of social and political reconfigurations -- always matters of the greatest difficulty -- that can ensure a more democratic and stable future for the country in question.
(Call this imperialism, or any other catch phrase, but if it's done competently and under the appropriate auspices I have no problem with it.)
But what is quite evidently happening here is that we don't have that sort of power. So we're having to go to other sources of force, authority and patronage to find it.
Only the groups we're going to -- in most cases factions based either on hucksters, or charismatic leaders or ethnic or sectarian loyalties -- are the ones whose power we're trying to curb or who themselves embody tendencies in the society which we are trying to reform. In such a state of affairs it becomes very difficult to see whether we're coopting them or they're coopting us.
When I first started reporting on Iraq almost two years ago I had a long conversation with a well-known Iraqi emigre who told me that thirty years of what he called Saddam's "excessive dictatorship" had so ground down all the elements of civil society and public life in Iraq that the only associations that remained were the most elemental ones -- those of ethnicity and sect, the hardiest weeds, which were the only ones that could withstand the scorched earth policy which was Saddam's rule. The truly national institutions and the other rudiments of civic life had simply been destroyed.
Ideally, a period of occupation or international administration can create a period of breathing space where such national and cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian institutions could emerge and provide a counterweight to these more destabilizing, centrifugal forces.
But instead of our mastering them, they appear to be mastering us.
As is happening on so many fronts the initiative is slipping from our hands, even though we try to portray the process as the product of our own policy and decision-making.