Very, very, bad news

Some people thought the occupation of Iraq would be easy. Their point of view carried the day within the Administration, and those who questioned it were punished. That prediction turns out to have been badly mistaken.

The Shia uprising in Iraq has the makings of a major disaster.

We knew from the beginning that some substantial chunk of Sunni Muslims in Iraq would oppose the project of uprooting Ba’athism and substituting something resembling democracy. Sunnis, some of whom did quite well under Saddam Hussein, are a distinct minority in Iraq, and any plausibly democratic government will to some extent by a Shia-dominated government.

So the incident in Fallujah, as horrific as it was, wasn’t in any fundamental sense surprising.

The mass revolt Shia-dominated areas is much more worrisome. The Shia, if any group, might really have been expected to strew rosepetals in the path of the invading army. (Those of them, that is, who weren’t killed in March 1991 when the Bush I team encouraged a Shia revolt against Saddam Hussein and then stood by while SH crushed it.)

However, there was a problem. If the new regime was to be liberal as well as democratic — and if the Sunnis and the Kurds were going to be induced to hold still for it — the new constitution would have to somehow shackle the Shias’ majority power and protect the rights of other Iraqis. Moreover, the less theocratic elements in Shia Iraq — including, ironically, those affiliated with Iran’s ruling mullahs — would have to prevail ove the more theocratic elements, such as Muqtada al-Sadr. That’s why we’ve been so deferential to Ali al-Sistani.

It wasn’t to be expected that the Sadrists would be happy, and indeed they haven’t been. Last week, the CPA banned the main Sadrist newspaper for incitement to violence against the occupiers — a charge that no one seems to deny — and arrested one of Sadr’s chief lieutenants on suspicion of having killed a rival cleric a year ago.

So Sadr called for open revolt, and that call has been answered not only in the 2-million-inhabitant section of Baghdad that (informally) bears his father’s name, but in other major Shia strongholds. So far, nine coalition soldiers (including eight Americans) have been killed, and 36 (including 24 Americans) wounded.

The claim that the occupation is going well can no longer, it seems to me, be sustained. A year after victory on the battlefield, we could reasonably have hoped to have at most small-scale resistance bands to deal with.

Just as the speed of the initial conquest and the low allied casualty had to count as unexpectedly good outcomes of an uncertain draw, open revolt at this stage by large crowds in both Sunni and Shia areas this late in the game has to count as an unexpectedly bad outcome. That doesn’t mean that going to war has been shown to be wrong, though it has to shift the retrospective benefit-cost calculation somewhat.

It does justify the fears of just about everyone outside the Pentagon, and some inside it, that the occupation would be the hard part, calling for careful planning and adequate resource commitments. That’s not much consolation to those whose careers were wrecked for being right before their time, but it deserves to be said nonetheless.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com