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Pragmatic de-Baathification is Key to Rebuilding Iraq

by Nikolas K. Gvosdev on Apr 13, 2003

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Now that American forces have entered Baghdad, the U.S. military moves to the second phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It must restore civil authority, especially in the wake of the looting in Baghdad and the murder of senior Shiite clerics in Najaf.

Under the Geneva Conventions, the occupying power must maintain law and order and restore the civilian infrastructure. In addition, Washington wants to lay the groundwork for a transition of power to a new Iraqi regime it hopes will be significantly more democratic and inclusive than its predecessor.

While the Bush administration may prefer that a postwar American occupation of Iraq draw upon Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s success in Japan after World War II, the tenure of Gen. George S. Patton as military governor of Bavaria may prove more instructive. The American military administration in Iraq will face the same dilemmas he did.

The first dilemma is how to reconstruct a war-damaged society while simultaneously rooting out the cadres of the previous ruling party. Patton discovered very quickly that he could not restore the civilian infrastructure without utilizing the existing civil service. Most of the trained personnel were members of the Nazi party, although not necessarily out of ideological conviction but because membership had been the path to career advancement.

This placed him in direct conflict with a Nov. 11, 1944, directive of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that forbade “the employment of active Nazis or ardent sympathizers” and stressed that “no exception will be made to this policy on grounds of administrative convenience or expediency.” (This situation replicated itself in the communist states of eastern Europe; Vaclav Klaus, the first post-communist prime minister of the Czech Republic, once quipped that dissidents were good at writing poetry but if you wanted taxes collected, you had to turn to the ex-communists.)

“De-Baathifying” Iraq — removing the top leadership and the security services — is a necessary precondition for the establishment of a more open government. Holding the party leadership responsible for its crimes against the Iraqi people is essential. But the purge can only go so far before it begins to jeopardize the smooth running of those day-to-day institutions absolutely necessary for maintaining society. The exiles led by the Iraqi National Congress simply do not have enough personnel at their disposal to replace every member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. A blanket de-Baathification order may win political points in the United States, but it will impede the stable — and rapid — reconstruction of Iraq.

The second dilemma revolves around disarmament. Patton drew a great deal of ire for his stance that Germany could not be completely disarmed and weakened (as envisioned in presidential directive 1067) as long as there was a very real threat from the Soviet Union.

The United States did not want to see Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction. This does not mean that Washington wants to eliminate Baghdad as a regional power. A strong Iraq is a sine qua non for containing Iran and balancing Syria.

Since Washington does not envision a long-term military presence in Iraq, it will need to ensure that any future Iraqi government has sufficient military resources at its disposal. The inability of the well-meaning but militarily powerless government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, unable to enforce its writ beyond the limits of the capital city, is eloquent testimony to the necessity of having sufficient armed force to enforce the policies of the new order.

Destroying the irregular fedayeen militia and disbanding the Special Republican Guard, the mainstay of the old regime’s coercive power, is a justifiable goal of American policy — but the complete evisceration of the regular Iraqi military is another matter altogether.

The opposition “Iraq Freedom Force” is too small and too lacking in experience to form the core of a new Iraqi army. Patton was removed from his military governorship because he was unable to finesse Washington’s political objectives with the realities on the ground. It took a more effective “diplomat in uniform,” General Lucius Clay, military governor for western Germany (1945-1949), to put Patton’s pragmatic approach into action.

“Denazification” focused on the top leadership and the most egregious violators of human rights, sparing rank-and-file party members whose skills were used to reconstruct society. And the Western allies quietly reversed their stance on German militarization as relations with the Soviet Union soured. Directive 1067 was quietly abandoned, the German military reconstructed, and in 1955 the Federal Republic was admitted to NATO.

There has been a good deal of talk about how the United States will reconstruct Iraq on a grand scale and lay the foundation for an Arab “city on the hill.” For this to happen, a pragmatic military administration needs to be in place. Patton was not sufficiently flexible to succeed in his post-combat assignment. One hopes that his contemporary successors will fare better at this task.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow for strategic studies at The Nixon Center in Washington and a writer for the History News Service.