In Iraq, an Echo of Algiers
On Sunday night Iraqi insurgents bombed the Al Riadhy ice cream parlor in Baghdad, bringing to mind a movie that was much on the minds of some U.S. military leaders on the eve of the war with Iraq. The 1965 Italian movie "The Battle of Algiers" depicted France's military struggle in the second half of the 1950s to subdue the Algerian uprising against French governance of that country. One particularly horrifying scene showed the placing and then the explosion of three terrorist bombs in crowded businesses, one of them a shop where, in a riveting cinematic moment, a small child was enjoying an ice cream cone.
The differences between the Algerian insurgency and today's Iraqi insurgency are, of course, profound. In the former, North Africans were rising in the name of self-determination against rule by Europeans. Since the Jan. 30 elections, Iraqi insurgents have been fighting an Iraqi government, albeit an embryonic on e with a dangerously protracted gestation period.
Still, a nagging question is whether, in Iraq as in Algeria, time is on the side of the insurgents. In Algeria, French counterinsurgency measures were skillful, ruthless and, by late 1958, successful. Briefly. In 1962 France retreated from Algeria.
The Algerian insurgency was fueled by the most potent "ism" of a century of isms -- nationalism. In contrast, one of the strange, almost surreal, aspects of the Iraqi insurgency is its lack of ideological content. Most of the insurgents are "FREs" -- former regime elements -- who simply want to return to power.
Unlike most of the violent cadres of the 20th century, the insurgency does not have a fighting faith; it does not bother to have an ideology to justify its claim to power. But it seems to have an idea, which points purely to tactics. The pedigree of the idea can be traced to a 17th-century Englishman.
Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588, the year Protestant England defeated the armada of Catholic Spain. He lived 91 years, through the sectarian strife of England's Civil War and the regicide of Charles I. Hobbes wanted tranquility. His project was to establish the philosophic foundations of government that could guarantee safety.
He said that without government -- in what Hobbes called the "state of nature" -- even sociability itself was problematic because life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." To escape such horrors, people would make a rational, if stark, social contract. They would consent to surrender their natural rights to empower a severely strong government that would at least release them from fear of violent death.
Actually, his rationale for strong, even absolutist, government led to consensual and limited government. This was because he postulated natural rights and because the idea of contracting rebuked the idea of the divine right of kings. Power, even if absolute, was to arise from consenting people. Hobbes died in 1679, the year of the Habeas Corpus Act, a milestone on the road to limited government.
Iraq's insurgents are degenerate Hobbesians -- Hobbes's subtlety reduced to the ruthless cunning of one idea: By promiscuously dispensing death, thereby creating the chaos of a Hobbesian state of nature, the insurgents hope to delegitimize the Iraqi government for its failure to provide the primary social good: freedom from fear of violent death.
To create chaos, the insurgents are applying -- again, unwittingly -- another borrowed insight, this one from an American thinker who died last year. Daniel Boorstin, historian and librarian of Congress, understood the special strength of small numbers -- indeed, the veto power of a sufficiently ruthless minority -- given society's dependence on "flow technology."
Through most of human history, Boorstin wrote, "in order to do damage to other people, it was necessary for you to set things in motion -- to throw a rock or wield a club." But in modern societies, where "the economy and the technology are in motion," you do damage by stopping things -- oil deliveries, electricity distribution, garbage collection, water purification, etc.
Iraq is more urbanized than Wisconsin. Baghdad, where about one in five Iraqis live, is a social organism about the size of Chicago. The insurgency cannot hope to defeat the U.S. military but can believe that it does not need to.
The basis of the insurgency's hope -- desperate and implausible but not completely delusional -- is also the basis of American hopefulness: Iraq now has an Iraqi government. Another Iraqi government -- nasty and brutish -- will come, in time, if today's evolving government seems incapable of preventing Iraqi life from being nasty, brutish and, often, short.