Saturday, January 01, 2005

State failure in Iraq

In his late essay "Politics as a Vocation," (1918) Max Weber famously defined the state as "a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." Legitimacy is, of course, the key word in the phrase, and Weber's definition begs the question of how to define legitimacy. One way to understand the legitimacy of the use of force is by considering how the civilian population reacts to the application of force.

Consider the paradigmatic case of the American state. Despite certain wobbles (as during the Rodney King riots, for example), the application of force by the state, in the form of the police, against civilians is universally accepted. An example illustrates the point: when Americans see the police applying force to someone -- say, on the side of the road stepping on someone's neck next to a stopped car -- they assume that the police must have some just cause for their action: an outstanding warrant, the smell of drugs in the car, whatever. Maybe they'll stop and look, maybe take some video, but even if they suspect that application of force may be unjust in a specific sense, people won't intervene because they generally speaking accept in some unstated, unreasoned way that the application of force has its social place and the police are the social institution that the American community vests with the right to apply force. Moreover, the police generally don't mind if you stop and look, or even videotape, because they know that the population generally supports them and believes in what they do, so that being scrutinized is okay.

This is what legitimacy looks like.

Now let's consider now what's happened in Iraq in the last two years. Two years ago, Saddam's murderous state, whatever else it was, was legitimate. The Iraqi people accepted when Saddam's secret police showed up and disappeared people. The Iraqi people didn't like Saddam's vicious regime any more than homeboys in Compton like getting their ass kicked by cops, but the Iraqi people accepted Saddam's regime in just the same way the Compton homies accept the police presence in their midst: sullenly, resentfully, but definitely. Moreover, under Saddam, Saddam's regime was the only institution in Iraqi society that had this ability. Common criminals couldn't drive up and shoot Baathists, Islamists couldn't execute cops in the street, and if anything like that went on it certainly would not have been accepted as more or less of a normal condition by the Iraqi population. Moreover, if you wanted to shoot a Baathist or a cop, you certainly wouldn't have the audacity to do it in broad daylight, allowing civilians to just walk by as you do it. In short, to reiterate: Saddam's state was legitimate.

(In fact, if one wanted to take the neocons' side, one might even argue that the Saddam regime's legitimacy was exactly why the U.S. had to invade: the Iraqi people were never going to overthrow Saddam, any more than the homies in Compton are going to overthrow the L.A.P.D. But that's another debate.)

Okay, that was the situation two years ago. So what's the situation now? A recently-released Al-Qaeda video provides stunning evidence, showing militants lining up five captured Iraqi security officers and executing them in the street. That would be just be an everyday example of the horror in Iraq and the barbaric nature of Al-Qaeda, except for this:
The five prisoners — apparently captured in the insurgent hotbed of Ramadi, west of Baghdad — were shown sitting on the ground with five masked gunmen behind them, one reading a statement. A banner carrying the name of al-Zarqawi's group, al-Qaida in Iraq, hung in the background.... The video then showed the five men lined up, their hands bound behind their back, and shot in a street in broad daylight. The militants repeatedly shot the men even after they fell to the ground. People and cars are visible in the video, passing by during the shooting, and some even stop to watch. [Italics and boldface added]
That the Zarqawists commit this sort of outrage plainly and openly shows that population considers it legitimate. The fact that the Qaedists don't mind that people stop and watch means they feel confident that the population generally accepts their actions. (To be clear: legitimacy does not mean that the Iraqi people like this sort of thing; it just means that the local community accepts this kind of thing as being more or less within the horizon of reasonable expectation. "Nothing to get hung about," as John Lennon put it.)

This is not to say that American or Allawist applications of force are not also considered legitimate by the population. No doubt they are. But that's the whole point: there is no longer a single institution in Iraq that has a monopoly on the use of force. Zarqarwi has it; the U.S. Army has it; the Iraqi police have it; in some parts of Iraq, even common criminals have it.

In other words, American military action in Iraq has replaced a (very nasty) legitimate state with a failed one.

And now I ask you, which kind of place provides more space for murderous anti-American terrorists: legitimate (albeit nasty) states, or failed ones? From what kind of place was 9-11 planned?

Mission Accomplished!

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