Working with the private armies in Iraq

I’m agin it.

I’m reluctant to differ with Phil Carter on matters about which he has professional expertise I lack, but his call for the United States to work with the semi-unofficial private defense forces now springing up in Iraq strikes me as playing with dynamite, especially as one of them seems to be a relabeled version of Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia.

Armed forces not subject to governmental control are a recipe for thuggery at best, assassination in the middle, and civil war at the worst. They’re all too likely to turn into death squads (a prospect perhaps not displeasing to some U.S. officials, including the Director-of-National-Intelligence-to-be, Ambassador Negroponte).

It’s easy to imagine why, under Iraqi conditions, private armies might function better in a purely technical sense than the public defense forces. But that’s exactly the danger: that they will help deprive the government of its ability to control the use of organized violence within its territory. Surely in this instance Machiavelli was right: to maintain itself in power over the long haul, a government must rely on its own armies.

Of course, one might imagine that we and the Iraqi central government might be able to use the private armies to take out the insurgents, and then get rid of them. Easier said than done; whoever sups with the devil needs a long spoon.

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: