Max Sawicky has doubts about “de-Ba’athification.” He notes that the Ba’ath is “a mass political party” and asks whether we plan to imprison 10% of the Iraqi population.

Two issues here:

First, the ruling party in a totalitarian set-up (the Nazis in Germany, the Communists in the USSR or China, the Ba’ath in Iraq) isn’t a “mass party” in the sense that the Congress Party in India or the Labour Party in Britain or the Republicans and the Democrats in the US are mass parties. Being a party member is an important social status, and for some purposes the party machinery is part of the state machinery. Party membership is more like holding office than it is like joining a civic group.

Update This LA Times story has details. Does an organization that requires membership applications which are then stamped “Top Secret,” and in which the penatly for “disloyalty” is execution, sound like a “political party” to you?

Second, not every party member has equal rank. The right targets are the party higher-ups, not the rank and file: one percent of the population, or even less, rather than ten percent.

When a country is recovering from totalitarian rule, the remnants of the old ruling party are always a threat. Unlike everyone else, they actually know how to wield power, have done so, and have done so together. On the other hand, suppressing political activity is always a touchy business if you’re trying to create a democracy.

There’s good reason to think we didn’t go far enough with de-Nazification in Germany, and it’s pretty clear that the Party/army/KGB nexus still has much too much power in Russia, partly because they were able to award themselves so much of the means of production in the privatization process. On the other hand, the “lustration” in the Czech Republic arguably hit lots of more or less harmless people. It’s a tricky balancing act, and no one is ever going to get it right. But ignoring the need to nullify the power of the old ruling party would be an obvious mistake.

Upate Now that the CPA is desperately re-hiring top Ba’athists, including some secret policemen, Max suggests that I “call my office.”

Having re-read the above in the light of subsequent developments, I don’t see anything I want to retract. Some purging of the nomenklatura of the old totalitarian regime was necessary; carrying it too far or doing it unskilfully was sure to be harmful. (Not as harmful as dissoving the army, but harmful nonetheless.)

Yes, right now the Bush Administration would be delighted with an outcome amounting to Ba’athism without Saddam. That’s because things have been going badly. But the big failure I’d point to is failing to give Iraqis scope for political activity — either conducting local self-rule or organizing real political parties — in the year since the fall of Baghdad.

[I wrote at length on re-hiring the secret police here.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: