The recent British experience in Basra offers a glimpse of what might happen in Baghdad after the current surge of U.S. troops recedes, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group. The British aimed to “pave the way for a takeover by Iraqi forces” through a security plan dubbed Operation Sinbad, which was conducted between September 2006 and March 2007. The operation was “a qualified success,” insofar as it drove down crime, assassinations, and sectarian killings and produced a “relative calm.” But the calm proved “both superficial and fleeting,” giving way to renewed violence that has left the British hunkered down inside their compounds. This intra-Shiite strife, the report suggests, in a city far from Iraq’s major Sunni-Shia fault lines, is more evidence that the lack of a functioning state is as much to blame for the chaos as sectarian rivalry and antipathy toward coalition troops. In the absence of dependable state institutions or local leaders, the withdrawal of coalition troops risks creating further instability. Power in Basra increasingly lies in the hands of militias entangled with incompetent police forces and political parties, the authors note, and local leaders often resolve conflicts outside of official institutions, undermining the judiciary and its role in mediating disputes. As Congress and the White House consider options for Baghdad and the rest of the country, the report urges them to recognize that “their so-called Iraqi partners, far from building a new state, are tirelessly working to tear it down.”
—“Where Is Iraq Heading? Lessons From Basra,” International Crisis Group
In the 18th century, Britain’s Royal Navy may have been defined by rum, sodomy, and the lash, but the sailors often thought that there was too little rum and way too much lash. According to a study by a George Mason University economist, the navy’s cruelty and authoritarianism drove sailors to join pirate ships—by 1716, the pirate population was one-fifth that of the British navy. The pirates devised a separation- of-powers system to ensure that their new captains treated them better. They elected a quartermaster from within their ranks to mete out provisions and booty, and captains got only an equal share. Common sailors could barge into a captain’s quarters, “swear at him, seize a part of his Victuals and Drink.” Only in battle did pirate captains wield total authority, allowing their crews to profit from the quick decisions a unitary executive could provide. The sailors, before setting out, would agree on guidelines—known as the “Custom of the Coast” or “Jamaica Discipline—for settling disputes, doling out punishment, and deciding living arrangements. (Some ships even had strict no-smoking policies.) The author notes that the separation of powers on pirate ships slightly predates England’s 1688 Glorious Revolution, and he suggests that the American system of checks and balances appears to have a little Captain Morgan in it.
—“An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of a Pirate Organization,” Peter T. Leeson, George Mason University