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Iraq and the Politics of Withdrawal: Lessons from U.S. Occupations in Latin America

What lessons has the United States failed to draw from its occupations in Latin America?

October 17, 2007

What lessons has the United States failed to draw from its occupations in Latin America?

The September 2007 Congressional hearings featuring General David Petraeus, Commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker have highlighted one salient fact of the mess in Mesopotamia.

That is the crying need for a political solution among Iraqis that could foster a decent mix of stability and democracy. Turns out, after all, it’s the politics, stupid.

That should not have come as any news to U.S. strategists, diplomats and military leaders worth their salt. Much closer to home than is the case with Iraq, U.S. military occupations in Latin America taught us the same lesson.

Unfortunately, that ancient lesson has evidently been completely forgotten — even though it is most salient. What is Iraq now was Latin America then, a time and place where the force of the United States as an invading power was considered at least as powerful as it is today.

Whether in Haiti or elsewhere, Americans back then believed that they were top dog — and, after invading, could fix up a place like that rather quickly. Little did they know then… Little do we know now…

In particular, the long occupations — Haiti (1915-1934), the Dominican Republic (1916-1924) and Nicaragua (1912-1933) — demonstrated amply a basic miscalculation on the part of the United States.

Then as now, U.S. policymakers believed that politicians under occupation were a highly pliable force — to be used on behalf of the good intentions of the intervening United States to remake that country — and extinguish all evil from its soil.

Alas, politicians — even when under occupation (and therefore seemingly powerless) — remained politicians. No matter how deprived, abused, exhausted or otherwise starved for stability ordinary people were under occupation, Haitian, Dominican and Nicaraguan politicians were of another breed.

All too often, they proved willing to go on fighting with each other, to be uncompromising with either the U.S. Marines or the State Department — and to play the infamous “waiting game” until the troops left and the destructive politics of old could return.

And were those politics ever destructive. The Marines landed in all three countries in part to keep away dreaded European gunboats, but they stayed to try to right a far more fearsome wrong: internecine — or, as we say today of Iraq, sectarian — politics.

Similarly, the small countries of Latin America in the 1910s were radically decentralized places, where capital cities barely communicated with outlying towns and roads were nonexistent or impassable. (Did somebody say Afghanistan?)

As a result, political parties were personal fiefdoms and every local caudillo or strongman had his own armed force that the central government could not possibly hope to tame. The clash between these mini-armies was what led to each U.S. occupation.

As in Iraq, soon after achieving regime change, U.S. forces found themselves opposing political cultures completely unwilling to adopt U.S. ways.

Then as now, proud Marines — deployed and trained solely as a strike force, but now turned into administrators — replaced corrupt and incompetent local politicians with others who pledged some loyalty to Port-au-Prince, Santo Domingo or Managua — but never forgot their party affiliations.

Then as now, Marines also put together quasi-professional security forces that could wipe out the mini-armies — but which never quite internalized their apolitical mission.

Eventually, the Marines had to go. Yes, some roads had been built, internal security was restored to a degree — and U.S. Senators back home, as well as Latin Americans everywhere, clamored for the withdrawal of the Yankees.

But there was a sense of “good riddance” among the departing Marines, who suddenly abandoned the pretense that they would teach occupied peoples to cheerfully accept the values of bipartisanship, transparency and fiscal responsibility.

When the Marines left, one of two disasters typically befell post-occupation societies. In the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, the newly nationalized security forces or National Guards soon dominated all parties.

They thus took ruthless advantage of the structure left behind by the Marines — and soon enough elevated to the rank of dictators men such as the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo and Nicaragua’s Anastazio Somoza.

In Haiti, meanwhile, U.S. and Haitian racism had prevented even the training of an effective security force, so the old politics returned. For a few decades, dishonest presidents divided the populace along familiar lines of race and region, until in the 1950s “Papa Doc” Duvalier climbed atop them all.

The fatal flaw of these occupations is alive again in Iraq. Despite Ambassador Crocker’s recent mutterings, the United States is again building up an apparatus of repression — without paying due respect to the political culture of Iraq.

Too much centralization is taking place, leaving scant room for the natural evolution of indigenous political institutions.

The Iraq of today is, of course, very different from Latin America almost a century ago. Mostly, the endgame is a lot more serious. But the occupations of the past show one constant: Local loyalties — family, kin, religion, race, patronage — are far more powerful than national ones.

The consequence is clear: The center of Iraq will not hold unless either a dictator arises — or the regions have significant authority.

So far, only Senator Joe Biden, Jr. (D-DE) — who himself had a circuitous route of insights and policy positions before he arrived at this wisdom — seems to have gotten the message.

As he said during the Petraeus/Crocker hearings, “We have to give the Iraqi warring factions breathing room in regions with local control over the fabric of their daily lives — police, education, jobs, marriage, religion.”

To make this a reality, a partition of Iraq in three might not be necessary. But at the very least, U.S. officials need to embrace the “Iraqization” of politics and not just security.