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Don't Create a Government in Iraq

April 13, 2006

What if they don't want a government? Must one be imposed?

These are my questions to news reports that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made a surprise trip to Baghdad in a desperate effort to jumpstart stalled efforts to form an Iraqi government. The lack of a governing coalition in Iraq was simply the latest of many events that haven't gone the way the war planners predicted they would.

Frustrated over the dilemma of an undeclared war that was growing unpopular at home, as well as the realization that troop withdrawal may have to occur whether or not Iraq has been made safe for democracy, Rice warned Iraqi politicians hindering the creation of a government, "[Y]our international allies want to see this get done because you can't continue to leave a political vacuum."

You can't? Perhaps it hasn't occurred to her that the creation of such a government is not in the interests of the parties involved. You can't blame them. After all, their experience with an Iraqi national government hasn't exactly been positive, while Saddam Hussein, when still in power, was no Warren G. Harding. Absent US involvement in Iraq since the late 1970s, the hated Saddam certainly would have been overthrown, a fact well known by rank-and-file Iraqis. Furthermore, although Saddam was able to keep competing factions at bay through his strong-arm rule — a feat that doubtlessly makes Iraq's present occupiers jealous — his police state is not missed.

What's more, contrary to Rice's assumptions, the mullah on the street may not share her political need for the creation of a national governing coalition. It may help Rice, discredited neocons, and the GOP to have such a coalition in place so that they can claim progress and accommodate the growing demand for withdrawal as gas prices rise and the November elections draw near. But like New Englanders in 1776 — or even South Carolinians in 1861 — Iraqis resent centralized governments imposed on them by foreigners.

Like so many political problems, this one can be explained by a faulty theory of government. Many believe that as long as governments are chosen through some democratic process, they are essentially benign. Others argue, along with the great classical liberal economist Ludwig von Mises, that governments are nothing more than agents of compulsion and coercion. Once created, they exert monopoly power over the provision of some goods and services, as well the legal system, to increase their scope in society and to extract wealth.[1]

This second view of government is more recognized than government partisans wish to admit. It explains why small government is always to be preferred to large government — because small government is relatively less threatening to the private relations and private institutions that characterize civilization itself — and why no government is always to be preferred to both. In Iraq, an artificial state encompassing at least three nations, it explains why new coalition governments are so difficult to form.

If such a state were democratic, then it would become a Shiite one due to the Shiite majority in the population. Such a result, however, is intolerable to Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, and secularists who fear the Shiite dominance that would result when Shiites control the government and are granted the legal right to impose violence on others.

That's why efforts to create a Shiite government as dictated by elections are opposed by other groups in society. Their leaders assassinated, their mosques bombed, the Shiites face the same type of rebellion that they would support if it were a Sunni or Kurdish state being created.

What Iraq needs is what its US and British overseers oppose: at least three separate states representing the Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite nations. Political devolution into smaller states has much to recommend it, as University of Nevada-Las Vegas economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe tells us.[2] A primary benefit is that small states are generally easier to keep in check by those who live within their jurisdiction.[3]

Another important effect is the increased role of free trade because small states cannot be autarchic. This means that they must trade with other countries in order to provide goods and services and the stuff of life. The resulting interdependency among nations is crucial to the creation of a political economy of peace, because countries that trade with each other tend not to war with each other.

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But war is what large, centralized nation-states do — is there any more important lesson to be learned from the 20th century? — in order to grow in power at the expense of liberty. The growth of the federal government in the United States, especially in executive power, to win the Cold War is perhaps the greatest case in point, and the 43% increase in the national debt since 2001 a more recent one.

And that is why the situation in Iraq, circa 2006, is of such historical significance. The competing parties in Iraq have very good reasons for agitating against another national government being foisted upon them by outsiders. The resulting political vacuum, while necessary for peace and stability in the region, is the last thing desired by leaders in the United States and Great Britain, who have wasted much in wealth and in blood to avoid such an outcome.

Unfortunately for them, political vacuums are often inevitable. Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw are right to fear one — and not only in the Middle East.

 Christopher Westley teaches economics at Jacksonville State University. See his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive. Send him MAILComment on this article on the blog.

[1] "It is in the nature of the men handling the apparatus of compulsion and coercion to overrate its power to work, and to strive at subduing all spheres of human life to its immediate influence." Mises, Ludwig von, Omnipotent Government, Grove City, PA: Libertarian Press, 1969, p. 58.

[2] Cf. Chapter 5, "On Centralization and Secession", in Hoppe, Hans-Hermann, Democracy: The God that Failed, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2001.

[3] This is why state governments in the United States are generally more fiscally responsible than the federal government, why municipal governments are more responsible than state governments, and why household finances are more responsibly managed than municipal finances.


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