Before the war in Iraq began, there were two divergent views on how it would go. The optimistic view, predicted a cakewalk. The pessimistic view predicted a quagmire.
In the first week of the war, the quagmire view seemed to be vindicated. In Basra and Nasriya, snipers maintained control of parts of those cities using guerrilla tactics and human shields. Suicide bombers rattled coalition confidence. Attacks took place from Red Crescent ambulances. Fedayeen posed as welcoming civilians and opened fire.
The quagmire seemed inevitable. Even if millions of Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of Saddam, they could not be distinguished from the thugs. The victims of Saddam were essentially his hostages. Baghdad suddenly seemed an impenetrable labyrinth of foe and unidentifiable friend. A lengthy siege that would harm the citizens we were trying to help seemed unavoidable.
It has not turned out that way. When people are dying, calling it a cakewalk is obscene. But so far, the optimists have been right—military and civilian resistance appears to have evaporated. Why didn’t the sporadic guerrilla incidents of the first week of the war grow more common as coalition troops approached and entered Baghdad?
Many of the predictions of quagmire were based on interviews with ordinary Iraqis. A common theme coming from the Iraqi “street” was that yes, Saddam was a monster, but the United States was even worse. Pundits predicted house to house fighting and a million civilian casualties.
But the interviews that created that pessimism had no more value than an interview with the Iraqi information minister about Saddam’s charitable activities.
In a police state, the truth is dangerous. There’s no gain to honesty, especially when talking to a foreigner. So everyone is a miniature Saddam—the Wizard of Oz before Toto pulls back the curtain—full of bombast and bluster.
The reality is different. In a thugocracy like Iraq, reality is driven by the carrots and sticks that keep the population in line—the carrots of plunder and the sticks of torture and death that allow the plunder to proceed. The carrots and sticks emanate from the top and work their way down through the food chain. In a thugocracy, the little fish follow the wishes of the bigger fish or they are devoured.
As it becomes increasingly clear that Saddam is either dead, mortally wounded or even merely powerless, the incentives facing the rest of the fish change dramatically.
Those closest to Saddam still have an incentive to fight. They are well known to many. They face the threat of death or a war crimes tribunal. But their ability to keep the rank and file motivated diminishes greatly as defeat becomes increasingly likely. The rank-and-file’s urge to lay low and escape death becomes irresistible. This is the likely explanation of the “elite” “loyal” “battle-hardened” Republican Guard simply evaporating into thin air.
The same incentives face the citizens of Baghdad when the Coalition army enters the city. Even if Saddam is alive, his power over the carrots and sticks ebbs daily. In such a world, who wants to be sniper? There’s no reward to heroism, no cost to disobedience. The carrots and sticks held the thugocracy together. Now, things fall apart. The toughest part of the invasion is no longer the terrorist, but the need to maintain order as citizens avenge their mistreatment at the hands of the thugs.
The next challenge will be post-war Iraq. There will be much hand-wringing from the pundits about how America’s image in the Middle East depends on how we treat Iraq. Ignore those Arab-in-the-street interviews coming now from Syria and Iran. They tell us nothing except how the Coalition’s success threatens the other thugocracies in the region. The real challenge will not be mollifying those regimes or their unfortunate, cowed citizens. The real challenge will be creating some kind of genuine institutions of democracy in Iraq. No quagmire perhaps. But no cakewalk either.