The De-Ba’athification of America
The year 2020 was rife with unexpected and unwelcome surprises. In the United States, 2020 brought to light a social and political crisis that had been brewing under the surface for years. Socially, the year was dominated by the social justice movement and The Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the death of George Floyd. For months, demonstrators took to the streets across the United States demanding justice for what many consider a corrupt system of policing. The public outcry stemmed from the accused criminal actions of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin but called for police reform across the United States. The basis being that policing in the US is systematically racist and unnecessarily violent. Politically, The United States also found itself in an identity crisis. The Democratic and Republican parties seemingly abandoned their centrist/moderate constituents to pander to their more extreme bases. This tribal attitude drawn along partisan lines came to a head on January 6th, 2021 with the events that unfolded in Washington D.C. at The Capitol. The combination of these events has put The United States in a precarious position.
A position that risks repeating the same grave mistakes made nearly two decades earlier under the George W. Bush Administration from the De-Ba’athification Policy of Iraq in 2003. A blunder which sparked an insurgency that cost thousands of lives and if repeated, could cost the republic as we know it.
Lessons from Iraq
The Ba’ath party, whose name means “rebirth,” was founded in Syria in 1947. The platform of the party was based in secular pan-Arab nationalism, staunchly against any western influence in the Middle East. In 1968, what is referred to as the 17 July Revolution propelled the Ba’ath party into power in Iraq. One of its key members at the time and integral orchestrator of the revolution was Saddam Hussein. Although Saddam did not officially rise to power as the premier of Iraq until 1979, his influence in the party as the de-facto leader had been evident for years prior to his official promotion.
Even prior to Saddam assuming the role of Prime Minister of Iraq, he began to build the Ba’ath party to revolve around himself. As Saddam strengthened his position in the party, he prioritized his fellow minority Sunni Muslims over the majority Shi’a Muslims. Saddam would not allow Shi’a to hold positions in the government or key positions in society. It took Saddam less than a year to declare war against Iran citing the danger of the Islamic Revolution which took place in Iran in 1979. The Iran-Iraq war lasted just shy of eight years and resulted in more than 1 million casualties. Saddam used this bloody conflict to his advantage by demanding full and complete loyalty, especially from Sunni Iraqis. By the end of the war in 1988 and into the 1990’s Saddam had fashioned the Ba’ath party in Iraq as more of a personality cult than a political party.
This shift meant that Iraqis had to be members of the Ba’ath party if they wanted to be directly or indirectly affiliated with the Iraqi government. Direct affiliation included members of the military, cabinet, or members of government departments, etc. Indirect affiliation included almost any profession such as professors, engineers, and architects. Under Saddam’s regime, you had to be a member of his Ba’ath party to advance professionally and socially. This sectarian split along religious lines coupled with Saddam’s brutality against his own people created a foundation for vendetta and turmoil if ever introduced to a power vacuum. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq creating that exact vacuum.
The Start of an Insurgency
Without doubt, the United States scored a decisive victory over the Iraqi Military. Within three weeks of the invasion, the Iraqi Military had been routed and Coalition Forces had control over much of the country. However, in May of 2003 the dynamic dramatically shifted against the United States and Coalition allies. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, issued what is known as the original de-ba’athification orders. The policy outlawed the Ba’ath Party in Iraq and dismissed all senior members from their government posts effective immediately. The policy also dissolved Iraq’s military and intelligence services numbering about 500,000 members.
In one press conference the United States told 500,000 Iraqis, many of them angry and humiliated, that they did not have a future in their own country. Not only that, but the haste in which the orders were announced allowed the now Ba’athist outlaws to take their weapons and other military materials home with them. In dissolving the entirety of the security apparatus, the de-ba’athification order removed anyone who had the knowledge and experience to secure Iraq in the power vacuum created in the deposition of Saddam.
The west, especially in the United States, discounted the Iraqi Military and Intelligence Services as second rate due to how quickly they capitulated during the initial invasion. This critical error drove these disenfranchised veterans to join groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and later the Islamic State, to reclaim their country. It is no coincidence that through the 2000’s, Al-Qaeda in Iraq was arguably the most dangerous and well-organized of the Al-Qaeda branches.
The Dangers of Partisanship
In 2021, the United States risks repeating history it made in 2003. After a tumultuous 2020, the political landscape in the US has seldom been so divided in modern history. Americans on both sides of the political aisle are hurting. Despite the seemingly ever widening gap between the Democratic and Republican party, both party bases echo the same sentiment. We are not being heard.
As many Americans are reeling from the effects of the outgoing Trump Administration the overall cry for retribution intensifies. For many, this cry for retribution comes in the form of social justice and criminal justice reform. A growing number of Americans, who justifiably have felt marginalized for decades, are now finally seeing positive political change in their favor. Led by the Democratic party and progressive left, these changes have shifted their focus predominantly on police reform. However, politicians seem to be disconnected from the realities on the ground. A policy change may appear brilliant in theory but could result in disaster when implemented. Thus far the major problem in the push for criminal justice reform and more specifically police reform comes in the form of alienation. Alienation felt by Law Enforcement officers nationwide at the federal, state, and local levels. The growing public mistrust of law enforcement has led law enforcement officers to be more frequently second guessed and judged in hindsight, in some cases without providing the empathy or understanding of those officers in each encounter. This growing sense of alienation among law enforcement is dangerous for American society. In both Iraq and the United States, the US government risks marginalizing the security establishment set up to maintain societal order without providing a viable and proven alternative. Using the first de-baathification policy as an example, painting law enforcement in the US with a broad brush and deciding their future without their input, leads to an increased risk or an insurgency and a weakened civilian security establishment.
In the current political and social climate in the United States creates a perfect storm for an insurgency. The events that took place at the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021 should serve as a lesson for all Americans that an American insurgency is not a distant theory. The combination of cancel culture, hyper-partisanship and lack of empathy sets the stage for further alienation. The US political establishment, predominantly the Democratic Party, risks marginalizing hundreds, if not thousands of Law Enforcement officers around the United States.
As seen in the de-baathification policy in 2003, alienating an entire security establishment or even part of one can be catastrophic. If politicians continue to marginalize and vilify all of law enforcement, the natural consequence is that police officers will be less proactive to minimize potentially disastrous encounters. Violent crime will spike, and less affluent communities are disproportionately affected. Current case studies in Chicago and San Fransisco prove important examples of this reality.
With a watered-down police force, call times go up and effectiveness in preventing crime plummets. This new reality would lead to a new privatized security industry for the affluent. Those able to pay will take matters into their own hands and hire their own police to patrol their communities.
The fallout seen after the de-baathification policy in Iraq has led to one of the most violent insurgencies in the 21st century, the US stands to learn several lessons. First and foremost, alienating a security establishment and/or political party without providing meaningful alternatives to remain of service leads to a volatile society and a potential violent insurgency against the new government. Second, it is a mistake to underestimate what motivated, well-armed, self-proclaimed patriots with an understanding of military tactics can accomplish in the new reality of a less effective law enforcement apparatus. Lastly, reversing a misguided policy is much more difficult than establishing the right policy from the start.
The Bush Administration’s De-Baathification Policy was enacted on May 16th, 2003 and subsequently rescinded on June 28th, 2004. Although only active for about a year, the damage done by that policy is still being felt nearly 20 years later with no end in sight. The US is once again in danger of making another political decision driven by emotion that would have lasting negative impacts on society for decades. Despite the emotion of the growing calls for social justice, all people want is to feel secure and to prosper. There is no public safety apparatus in the world that is perfect and the apparatus in the US is no different. However, a safe society must rely on a well-trained, well-funded, empathetic police force that must have the confidence of its citizens. One cannot survive without the other.