Redefining Democracy

"Freedom's untidy," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld airily explained, referring to the anarchy and looting in Baghdad, which closed all but one hospital, sacked one of the world's most treasured archeological museums and plundered the homes and shops of ordinary Iraqis. Untidy?

Untidy is when your 15-year-old leaves his room a mess. Untidy is letting the dinner dishes stack up in the sink.

Rumsfeld added that "free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes." By way of further clarification, retired lieutenant general Jay Garner, Bush's newly appointed American viceroy in Baghdad, told a New York Times reporter, "I don't think they had a love-in when they had Philadelphia."

Garner was referring to the American Constitutional Convention.

What these people understand about freedom could fit in a thimble. If they are democracy's emissaries, God help us all.

You may recall that the whole point of the Constitutional Convention was to reconcile liberty with order, and the will of the majority with the rights of minorities. The founders of American democracy wanted ordinary people to be able to pursue happiness, secure in their homes, free from Don Rumsfeld's definition of untidiness (anarchy, looting) or Jay Garner's concept of freedom (optional lawlessness). Obviously, in the aftermath of an invasion one can't expect the usual niceties of civility. But that's all the more reason why the chaos in Baghdad should have been anticipated.

Bush and his critics both agreed that Saddam Hussein was a monstrous dictator. It was certainly predictable that once he was toppled, a lot of anger would be vented. Yet it didn't seem to occur to Rumsfeld to think concretely about the morning after.

It's ironic that the war planners took some care to limit civilian casualties but overlooked the damage that Iraqis, once liberated from Saddam, might wreak on each other. The past week's pillaging has been an awful brew of vengeance, opportunism and just plain rage. It has indiscriminately harmed not just the trophy mansions of Saddam's henchmen but vaccines for children, ruined when hospital refrigerators were stolen, and Iraq's priceless, ancient patrimony, which had miraculously survived countless earlier wars.

Rumsfeld's war-on-the-cheap included barely enough U.S. troops to mount the invasion, guard supply lines and mop up the remnants of Saddam's loyalists. After a month of lightning attacks, these troops are exhausted. But no coherent plan was made to put a constabulary force into the streets of Baghdad to keep civil order while the slow task of constructing a successor government unfolded.

So desperate were the U.S. forces after a week of looting and anarchy that they have been reduced to hiring members of Saddam's police force to keep order. Some 2,000 of the previous regime's hated police are already patrolling Baghdad's streets in their old uniforms.

Imagine what signal that sends to ordinary, anti-Saddam Iraqis. Evidently it was Saddam's foreign policy that President Bush loathed, not Saddam's repression of citizens. Bush has compared Saddam to Hitler, but we didn't turn over the policing of postwar Berlin to the Gestapo. So much for winning hearts and minds.

We are paying one more price for Bush's reckless decision to go it alone. If the United Nations had been involved, it is inconceivable that the need for civil order in the aftermath of Saddam's ouster would have been overlooked. Precisely because it included people from other nations, who evidently have more empathy for the suffering of foreigners than Bush has, a UN operation would have imagined the aftermath from the perspective of ordinary Iraqis. It would have put the humanitarian mission on an equal footing with the military one. A UN constabulary force could also have included some Arabic-speaking police.

Whatever gratitude Iraqis have for America's toppling their tyrant is being rapidly squandered by the Bush administration's disregard for Iraqi citizens. Actions speak louder than words. The administration can profess its desire for Iraqis to enjoy the blessings of liberty, but its failure to plan for civil order leads the average Iraqi to suspect that its true priorities are geopolitics and oil.

All the wanton, preventable destruction adds not just to the suffering of Iraqis but to the bill that will be paid by American taxpayers -- a bill that translates into profits to be reaped by private contractors like Halliburton, who stand to clean up in more ways than one.

As for Rumsfeld and Garner, some remedial instruction in basic civics is in order. The sooner this crowd is replaced by people, foreign and domestic, who grasp how democracy really works, the better.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of the Prospect.

This column originally appeared in yesterday's Boston Globe.

You may also like