Before the war in Iraq began, there were two divergent views on how it would go. The optimistic
view, predicted a cakewalk. The pessimistic view predicted a quagmire.
In the first week of the war, the quagmire view seemed to be vindicated. In Basra and Nasriya,
snipers maintained control of parts of those cities using guerrilla tactics and human shields. Suicide
bombers rattled coalition confidence. Attacks took place from Red Crescent ambulances. Fedayeen
posed as welcoming civilians and opened fire.
The quagmire seemed inevitable. Even if millions of Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of Saddam,
they could not be distinguished from the thugs. The victims of Saddam were essentially his
hostages. Baghdad suddenly seemed an impenetrable labyrinth of foe and unidentifiable friend. A
lengthy siege that would harm the citizens we were trying to help seemed unavoidable.
It has not turned out that way. When people are dying, calling it a cakewalk is obscene. But so far,
the optimists have been rightmilitary and civilian resistance appears to have evaporated. Why
didn't the sporadic guerrilla incidents of the first week of the war grow more common as coalition
troops approached and entered Baghdad?
Many of the predictions of quagmire were based on interviews with ordinary Iraqis. A common
theme coming from the Iraqi "street" was that yes, Saddam was a monster, but the United States was
even worse. Pundits predicted house to house fighting and a million civilian casualties.
But the interviews that created that pessimism had no more value than an interview with the Iraqi
information minister about Saddam's charitable activities.
In a police state, the truth is dangerous. There's no gain to honesty, especially when talking to a
foreigner. So everyone is a miniature Saddamthe Wizard of Oz before Toto pulls back the
curtainfull of bombast and bluster.
The reality is different. In a thugocracy like Iraq, reality is driven by the carrots and sticks that keep
the population in linethe carrots of plunder and the sticks of torture and death that allow the plunder
to proceed. The carrots and sticks emanate from the top and work their way down through the food
chain. In a thugocracy, the little fish follow the wishes of the bigger fish or they are devoured.
As it becomes increasingly clear that Saddam is either dead, mortally wounded or even merely
powerless, the incentives facing the rest of the fish change dramatically.
Those closest to Saddam still have an incentive to fight. They are well known to many. They face
the threat of death or a war crimes tribunal. But their ability to keep the rank and file motivated
diminishes greatly as defeat becomes increasingly likely. The rank-and-file's urge to lay low and
escape death becomes irresistible. This is the likely explanation of the "elite" "loyal"
"battle-hardened" Republican Guard simply evaporating into thin air.
The same incentives face the citizens of Baghdad when the Coalition army enters the city. Even if
Saddam is alive, his power over the carrots and sticks ebbs daily. In such a world, who wants to be
sniper? There's no reward to heroism, no cost to disobedience. The carrots and sticks held the
thugocracy together. Now, things fall apart. The toughest part of the invasion is no longer the
terrorist, but the need to maintain order as citizens avenge their mistreatment at the hands of the
The next challenge will be post-war Iraq. There will be much hand-wringing from the pundits about
how America's image in the Middle East depends on how we treat Iraq. Ignore those
Arab-in-the-street interviews coming now from Syria and Iran. They tell us nothing except how the
Coalition's success threatens the other thugocracies in the region. The real challenge will not be
mollifying those regimes or their unfortunate, cowed citizens. The real challenge will be creating
some kind of genuine institutions of democracy in Iraq. No quagmire perhaps. But no cakewalk