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Last week, suicide car bombings left around 200 Shiite pilgrims dead and scores more wounded in Iraq. How did the locals respond? By blaming the Americans. U.S. troops, including medics who were trying to help the wounded, found themselves attacked by stone-throwing mobs. Similarly, in Haiti, when gunmen opened up on a demonstration by Aristide opponents, the locals blamed American Marines for the casualties.
What gives? Neither the American soldiers and Marines on the spot nor American citizens at home can understand why we get blamed when Iraqis or Haitians kill each other. After all, we didn’t do it.
The answer gets at what the state is all about, or should be all about, and why the state is failing in so many parts of the world: order.
As Martin van Creveld writes in his important book, The Rise and Decline of the State, the state arose, in Europe starting in the 15th century, to bring order. Not freedom, not capitalism, certainly not democracy, but order. Between the decline of the High Middle Ages and the rise of the state, Europe was plagued by disorder, often in the form of roving bands of armed men looking for employment as soldiers. Being skilled in the use of arms and semi-organized (and not having much to lose anyway), if they saw something they wanted, they took it. That meant not only money but the food a family had stored to get it through the winter, along with their warm house; women; boys and young men, to fill up their ranks; horses and other livestock; in short, anything. What they did not steal they destroyed, just for the fun of it. And seeing how long they could keep someone alive under torture often provided an evening’s entertainment. Life was Hobbesian – nasty, brutish and short – for anyone without a castle.
The state promised to restore order, and in time it did. As the state spread throughout the world, usually in the form of European colonialism, it made that same promise good beyond Europe. While the state added qualities beyond order as it developed, its legitimacy still depended on upholding its first promise, maintaining order. And it still does so depend.
That is why, in countries such as Iraq and Haiti, the locals blame us when order breaks down. As the occupying power, we are responsible for maintaining order. That is true under international law as well as in the eyes of the local people. We are the state now in those places, and when order breaks down, we – the state – have failed.
Why do we fail? Any battalion commander in Iraq can easily answer that question. We have far too few troops to do the job. We do not have, and for the most cannot get, effective human intelligence. We do not understand the local culture. “Force protection” keeps us isolated from the local population, and effective policing, which is what keeping order requires, demands integration with the people. As a state military, we are designed to fight other forces like ourselves. Our own rules of engagement keep us from simply hosing crowds with machine-gun fire, and when that happens anyway, it just creates more enemies. There is also the legitimacy problem: because we are a foreign occupier, many locals who want order nonetheless feel compelled to resist us.
But these local answers do not address the whole problem. It is not only “over there” where the state no longer brings order. In developed countries, including Britain and the United States, the state has also broken its contract. It no longer effectively provides order on its home soil. In Britain as in the United States, one of the fastest-growing industries is private security. Gated communities are the new castles. My own office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., is in an area plagued by high levels of crime. The city that wants to rule the world cannot maintain order one thousand yards from the U.S. Capitol Building after nightfall.
The state’s growing inability to maintain order, in Baghdad or in Washington, is a primary cause of its intensifying crisis of legitimacy. The remedy is not to be found in new techniques for our troops to use in Iraq or Haiti, or for police to use here at home. In the end, it requires not just new people at the head of the state, but a different kind of people, people who genuinely see themselves as servants of the state, not as racketeers gratifying their own vast egos and enriching themselves, their families and their supporters. That, unfortunately, is a tall order, in Haiti, in Iraq or in Washington.
WILLIAM S. LIND is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.