Defense News
January 28, 2008

Sheikhs for Sale

U.S. Cash Diplomacy in Iraq Will Fail in the End

By Douglas Macgregor

Of the many factors contributing to the reduction of U.S. casualties in Iraq, none has been more critical than the decision by the generals in Baghdad to pay more than 80,000 of Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgents a quarter of a billion dollars a year not to shoot at U.S. forces.

It's not the first time that a foreign army in the Middle East has bought off troublesome Arab sheikhs and their cohorts with cash. The British used gold to sedate tribal enemies from the Khyber Pass to the Nile delta while they extracted billions from their colonies. However, it is the first time in American history that buying off the enemy has been presented to the American people as evidence for progress in a war or good generalship.

It's hard to imagine U.S. generals paying the German or Japanese armies not to fight or the Chinese and Vietnamese communists to leave U.S. forces alone. But, then, American military commanders in Baghdad have much more in common with British colonial governors than with the American military leaders of World War II, the Korean War or even the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, the expedient policy to reduce U.S. casualties in the ru-nup to the '08 presidential election is not only reinforcing the sectarian and ethnic division of Iraq. It's also breathing new life into the tribalism that plagues not only Iraq, but most of the Middle East and Africa.

Anbar's tribal leaders were the first to benefit. With millions of dollars in hand, the sheikhs could reward the loyalty of their armed supporters, determine who would hold office, staff the police, and reassert their control over Anbar's towns and villages with their own arbitrary justice system.

Today, tribal sheikhs across central Iraq are on the payroll. Even Baathist insurgent organizations dependent on tribal support for recruits are enmeshed in the Sunni Arab tribal network.
Moving Backward

But tribal identity is a dangerous step backward on the road to modernity, and cash payments now make crushing tribalism later impossible for whatever regime rules in Baghdad. In Western Europe, it took centuries to eradicate tribalism, whose last great European bastion did not capitulate to the forces of modernization until well into the 18th century.

In 1745, Scotland was a case of arrested development. Central authority was destroyed with the first English invasion in the late 13th century and never re-established. The Highland clans living in mountainous areas, rugged enough to resist Roman occupation, enjoyed complete autonomy.

The clan chiefs governed as kings, speaking their own language (Gaelic), collecting taxes, dispensing justice and sacking their neighbors at will. All the chiefs maintained private militias; some even fielded armies of 5,000 or more. And, for a price, the clan chiefs would fight anyone, selling out the nominal Scottish kings to their English enemies.

In the long run, the payoffs made matters worse because the chiefs viewed payoffs from the English and Scottish kings as evidence of the kings' weakness and their own strength.

When roughly half the clans rose in revolt against the government in London in 1745, the majority of Scots and Englishmen said enough. Paying off the chiefs was no longer an option if a modern state with a legitimate political order, an effective economy and the rule of law were ever to be firmly established in Britain.

After a few months' campaigning, the Highland clan army was cornered and destroyed not by a foreign army, but by a British Army composed of both Scots and Englishmen at Culloden in 1746.

Civil wars are always more unforgiving than others, and the war to forcibly integrate the Scottish Highlands into modern British society was no exception. Thousands of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders were killed and 270,000 men, women and children were deported from the Highlands to British North America, where many, like Gen. Hugh Mercer, ended up fighting London again, this time in George Washington's Continental Army.

In contrast to the British government of 1746, the U.S. government of 2008 has no compelling strategic interest that would justify the sacrifice in U.S. blood and treasure required to eradicate the corrupting influence of tribalism that obstructs Iraq's national political integration.

Come to think of it, no such U.S. strategic interest exists to justify the investment of nearly a trillion U.S. dollars or the loss of thousands of U.S. lives to control Iraq with U.S. military power and create a modern nation-state where none exists.

From the Washington Beltway, Iraq looks more "stable" because American generals are using cash to temporarily manipulate local tribal interests. But when the Sunni Arab tribes coalesce to fight for control of Iraq, the fašade of progress will collapse and the violence will be worse than before. The next president, regardless of party affiliation, would be wise to begin troop withdrawals soon.

Douglas Macgregor is a former U.S. Army colonel, a decorated Persian Gulf War combat veteran, and the author, most recently, of
"Transformation Under Fire: Revolutionizing the Way America Fights."