General Colin Powell’s new book: It Worked for Me ; My Life and Leadership will be coming out soon. He joins the chorus of those who believe that disbanding the Iraqi army and the Ba’ath party was a tragic mistake. Certainly the argument has merits. Iraq was without the ruling class, the Sunni Ba’athists, and also the army, an institution that was central to Iraqi life. There was chaos and murderous disorder that lasted a long time. But should we not look at the other side of the coin? What would have been the likely consequences had we restored Saddam’s army and the Ba’ath party, lopping off only the top level of officials and officers?
First of all, one of the best Arabist Foreign Service officers we ever had, Hume Horan who was the top advisor to Paul Bremer told me the Iraqi army disbanded it self. I’ve known Horan from his days in Jordan listening to him recite Arabic poetry to an enthralled Jordanian audience. In knowledge of the Arab world, especially the Shi’a, he had no peer. Unfortunately he died some years ago and his eloquent voice has not been around to confront the conventional group think that characterizes most of the recent history writing about Iraq these days.
Horan told me that after the Iraqi army disbanded itself, calling it back would have undoubtedly gotten many of the Sunni 0fficer corps back not much of anything would have enticed the Shi’a to return. Moreover the Army was still seen as an instrument of oppression by the Kurds and many Shi’a..not just the Republican Guard.
Recalling the Ba’athist, Sunni – officered Iraqi army would have created a perennial threat to any hope of a democratic government in Iraq. Certainly there would have been little hope of the Shi’a majority being able to form or maintain a government. More than likely the Ba’athis, largely Sunni dominated, would have reestablished control of Iraq as soon as we left or even before since our State Department people, like the British foreign service, felt much more at home with the Sunnis than the “mysterious, fanatic” Shi’a as Gertrude Bell called them. There are very few scholars who really know much about the Shi’a, and in particular the Iraqi Shi’a. The American scholar who claims to be the Shi’a expert Juan Cole, has been ridiculed by the Iraqi famous blogger, Omar, as a fraud. Cole spent most of his ink bashing Bush.
Our embassy in Baghdad exercised an inordinate amount of time and effort “reaching out to the Sunnis” only to have them bite our hand. We only emboldened the diehards and the insurgents in doing so. Daily there were huge bomb attacks in the Shi’a neighborhoods which we seemed powerless to stop.
Generations of subservience to the Sunnis domination under the Ommayads, Abbasids, Ottomans, and then the British had created a passive inferiority complex among the Shi’a. It wasn’t until the Shi’a militias began retaliating in equally brutal fashion to the Sunnis that they began to have a change of mind and began to view the Americans as their protectors rather than enemies. It was one reason why the “surge” worked.
The de -bathification program which Powell also claims to have been a mistake may have been so in terms of the lower level to which it reached, because it is true that anyone with ambition had to join the Ba’ath party. No doubt many former Ba’athis lost their positions unfairly in the purge that followed. It should be remembered however, that”deba’thification” was carried out by the Iraqi government and not the U.S.
Most importantly, the essential fact is that the Ba’ath party, like the Communist party of the Soviet Union, which it closely resembled, was a deeply embedded cancer in the body of Iraq. It was not only a political, ideological movement but also a near spiritual guide to the elite Sunni class that dominated it. Over many years of indoctrination, constant social and economic reinforcement, as well as omnipotent intimidation, it became a pervasive element in the social fabric of the country.
It had to be cut out and purging only the top layer would not suffice. Years of control and a presumed right to rule that existed in the minds and attitudes of the Ba’ath party officials, at every level, required the drastic surgery. Replacing Saddam was only half the battle, replacing the monstrous bureaucracy and ideological establishment that spawned him, was a necessity.
This is an argument rarely presented mainly because it goes against the grain of the conventional wisdom which has become embedded in the Iraqi war folklore and unfortunately is the only narrative in town.