January 28, 2008
Sheikhs for Sale
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.
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
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."