Disarming Iraq, or Disarming Iraqis?

Andrew E. Busch

April 1, 2003

As debate continues over who should exercise fundamental authority in the rebuilding of Iraq, commentators have generally focused on the choice between a coalition-led rebuilding effort and one led by the United Nations. The arguments against the United Nations exercising primary power are multiple, not least of which are the incompetence of the U.N. in the run-up to war, the close ties between certain members of the Security Council and the previous Ba’athist regime, and the probable unwillingness or inability of the U.N. to provide the kind of security guarantees for the new Iraq that it will need against Iran and Syria. However, this debate seems largely to have already been settled within the administration.

Another possible tension has been obscured, that between the American and British approaches to governing the new Iraq within a coalition-led framework. This potential for disagreement is nowhere as obvious as in the question of whether to disarm ordinary Iraqis. The issue is not whether to find and destroy stockpiles of weaponry hidden by Saddam’s security services or whether to confiscate guns owned by Ba’ath Party activists, both of which are obviously necessary. Rather, the debate revolves around an issue familiar to Americans: the right of average individual citizens to keep and bear arms.

In the Basra region, under British military control, the British have begun applying a very (modern) British answer to the problem of civil disorder and terrorism: They have chosen to collect weapons from Iraqis to overcome the “weapons culture” that puts a gun in many private Iraqi homes. (By the way, the widespread possession of firearms by Iraqis demonstrates that an armed people, by itself, is not always a sufficient guard against tyranny when facing a well-organized, all-pervasive, and ruthless regime.)

In Baghdad, however, events have taken a very different turn. Faced with both looting and continued activity by pro-Saddam thugs and foreign Arabs, Baghdad’s armed citizens formed self-defense forces to enforce checkpoints and defend neighborhoods, businesses, and hospitals. Almost invariably referred to by the media as “vigilantes,” these groups were actually often something far nobler, perhaps even the first sign of the capacity of Iraqis for self-government in the post-Saddam era. They represented a spontaneous effort to take responsibility for their own society, and to defend a civilization worth having. They also made it possible to restore order much earlier than might have been the case if U.S. military forces had to carry the entire burden. It is exactly this sort of initiative that the liberators of Iraq should welcome and encourage.

So now the question presents itself whether the U.S. will follow the lead of Britain in making such spontaneous self-defense impossible, whether the British will take a lesson from Baghdad and back off, or whether a stand-off will ensue between the two governments over how to proceed. One cannot doubt that domestic predilections, and indeed domestic politics, will come into play in both London and Washington. It is hard to imagine, for example, that the Bush administration will not hear complaints from many of its otherwise strong political allies in the gun rights movement if it adopts a policy of disarmament. (On the other hand, that is exactly the policy it pursued in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Taliban.)

Indeed, gun control is one of those issues, like profligate social welfare spending and the death penalty, where Anglo-American differences are not only differences of policy but of culture. The right of the people to arm themselves for the preservation of their lives, liberty, and property is so fundamental to the American experience that the Revolution was ignited when British troops marched on Concord to disarm the colonists. The Americans were first educated in the importance to freedom of a population capable of self-defense by the English themselves, who did in Massachusetts what they would not in Yorkshire, and who prepared for a large-scale citizen defense of their nation as recently as 1940. However, London has long since abandoned this Lockean principle in favor of nannying and the monopolization of force in the hands of the state.

Without knowing—and we cannot know—the twists and turns of the future, it is not an exaggeration to say that much may ride on the outcome. For one thing, it may prove difficult to convince the law-abiding civilian population that one is a liberator at the same time one is disarming it. At the least, such a policy must raise uncomfortable questions in the minds of Iraqis. Free governments do not fear their own people.

Furthermore, while the Ba’athist regime has been defeated, it still retains a significant number of armed supporters. Only a small percentage of the Fedayeen Saddam, for example, has really been accounted for. One can also anticipate a continued inflow of Arab terrorists, for whom both the Anglo-American presence and the new Iraqi government will serve as a veritable magnet. It is not difficult to imagine a situation, once allied forces have been drawn down significantly, in which the first line of defense for free Iraq will have to come from the Iraqi people themselves. They might even exclaim, “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”

Finally, our best efforts notwithstanding, there is no guarantee that democracy and the rule of law will take hold in Iraq on the first try. A relapse to dictatorship—albeit, probably one less severe than Saddam’s—is a possibility that cannot be dismissed. It would be ironic indeed if, after sacrificing blood and treasure to free Iraq from tyranny, we left the Iraqi people even less able than they were before to resist abuse of power. Altogether, both sound strategy and the natural rights of man would seem to argue for a quintessentially American, rather than British, approach.

April 19 marks the day the shot was heard ’round the world, 228 years ago. On which side of the North Bridge will we place ourselves today?

Andrew E. Busch is an Adjunct Fellow of the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, where he specializes in American government and politics. Dr. Busch is the author of Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Freedom. He is also the co-author of The Perfect Tie: The True Story of the 2000 Presidential Election.