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What U.S. Police Can Learn From Iraq About Policing A Troubled Population


“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
James Madison, Federalist No. 51

According to Thomas Hobbes, government exists to stave off endless bloodshed and chaos and to protect commerce. Hobbes eloquently described a world without government — in his 1651 work “Leviathan” — as being akin to “a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man…wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength…shall furnish them withall.”

In this condition, which Hobbes termed the “state of nature,” there is no industry or commerce “because the fruit thereof is uncertain,” there are no arts and letters, and “worst of all, [there is] continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

The remedy to this chaos, for Hobbes, was the social contract; individuals were to give up their right to carry out violence against their neighbors to Leviathan — an absolute sovereign.

Hobbes preferred that this sovereign be a king, but also believed an assembly could fulfill this role. This Leviathan would have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and use the threat of the use of such force to keep the violent and anarchic state of nature at bay. If the Leviathan failed to protect its citizens from this anarchy, they had the right to rebel.

In his 1690 work “Second Treatise of Government,” John Locke largely agreed with Hobbes concerning the state of nature and the social contract, yet he argued that the government (which he thought should include parliament in addition to a king) owed the people more than protection — it was required to secure their natural rights to life, liberty, and property.

Like Hobbes, Locke maintained rebellion was acceptable when a government failed to protect its citizens. He added, however, that citizens also had a right to rebel if the government failed to secure their natural rights. These ideas eventually made their way into the closest thing the United States has to a creed, the Declaration of Independence.

Today, the police are the arm of government that has been given a monopoly on coercion (violence) to keep the state of nature at bay. Yet our police forces need to secure the natural rights of man while preserving the consent of those over whom they have power. Before we discuss the consent of the governed further, it is necessary to first argue why police forces should not be abolished.

Modern Examples of the State of Nature

Despite what many today say about the so-called inherent goodness of man, history has proven the state of nature to be a very real danger. When the rule of law breaks down and the state no longer has a monopoly on violence, every person becomes a law to him- or herself. He is free to use force however he sees fit without fear of government reprisal. As a result of this excessive liberty, anarchy reigns until a new government asserts itself (whether a legitimate government, an authoritarian regime, or organized crime). This is what happened in Mexico at the turn of the century.

According to Ioan Grillo, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its iron grip on the Mexican state around the year 2000. The PRI stepped aside and allowed Mexico to transition to democratic rule. One would think this a positive development, but this was not the case.

While the PRI had been undemocratic and prone to human rights abuses, one thing they did well was control organized crime. The PRI was able to consolidate state power at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure its supremacy over criminal organizations and to guarantee its monopoly on violence.

Under PRI rule, the cartel capos ran their fiefdoms with the permission of the Mexican state. They were allowed to use low levels of violence against, say, other criminals, but they were not allowed to kill civilians en masse, nor were they allowed to extort the public at large. If the capos violated these rules, the state eliminated them.

This hierarchy was broken, however, when the PRI fell from power. In the new democratic Mexico, federal, state, and local power was divided amongst parties. A power vacuum resulted. The state of nature abhors a vacuum.

Cartels competed with the state for territory, the right to tax, and the violence monopoly. The result was a breakdown of the rule of law and a partial descent into the state of nature — complete with mass graves, rape, torture, beheadings, and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Mexico isn’t alone. The World Justice Project compiles a Rule of Law Index every year that measures to what extent states are able to enforce the laws across their territory. Unsurprisingly, those with some of the worst scores on this index — like Afghanistan, Mexico, and Venezuela — also have some of the highest violence rates in the world. We can therefore clearly observe that if effective law enforcement is absent, societies do in fact become more violent.

Some might still maintain that a coercive police force is not necessary to enforce the rule of law. We could, they argue, enforce the rule of law through communal norms, social pressure, restorative justice, “peace councils,” and social workers. These people believe that if we have enough social programs and educational initiatives we can truly create a world that is free from violence.

While there are certainly many things we could do to lower the levels of violence in our society and reduce the scope of police duties, to think we can eliminate the police altogether is utopian and naive. Illicit violence is actuated by greed, selfishness, and passion. Humans are greedy, selfish, and passionate beings.

As long as humans are humans, they will continue to commit violence against each other, and police will be needed to stop that violence. If there are no police, other groups will rise to fill the power vacuum and provide protection (which is what happened in Seattle’s CHAZ).

The Wrong Debate

While much of the police debate in this country has centered around what officers and alleged perpetrators have done in specific incidents, the debate should be about the consent of the governed insisted upon in America’s Declaration.

For instance, one side ardently believes Jacob Blake is an innocent man ruthlessly gunned down by police. The other side believes him to be a perpetrator of sexual assault who was justifiably gunned down by police because they prevented him from stealing a car and taking his children along for a high-speed chase.

While a court of law should uncover the truth, the debate over whether this shooting was justified distracts from the heart of the issue: many police departments across this nation appear to have lost the consent of the governed. Restoring this consent is the key to police reform in the United States. Perhaps surprising to some, we can look to U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq to discover a solution to this problem.

Counterinsurgency Strategy and Police Reform

An outside force or force of occupation will almost always lack the consent of the governed, and therefore, legitimacy. One key way to secure the consent of the governed is to let the governed provide their own security. During their time in Iraq, U.S. forces learned this lesson the hard way.

The Sunni insurgency began in Iraq a matter of months after the dust settled from the initial U.S. invasion. In his memoir detailing his three tours of duty in Iraq, “Iraq Full Circle,” Col. Darron Wright (now deceased) argues one of the main causes of the Sunni insurgency was that the heavy-handed tactics of U.S. forces alienated the population and drove them to armed conflict.

Wright recounts how, when his soldiers were attacked by a few al-Qaida operatives, his forces would demolish homes, arrest tribal leaders, and cordon and search entire towns. These tactics were successful in decreasing the number of attacks his unit faced, but they had disastrous long-term effects. “For every insurgent we killed or captured indirectly,” says Wright, “we were recruiting three more.” “Most importantly,” he notes, “we were losing the population.”

According to Gen. David Petraeus (Ret.), the turn-around in Iraq occurred after U.S. forces reconciled with Sunni Muslims — whom they had previously fought — and began paying them to fight al-Qaida. This movement, known as the Sunni Awakening, began organically in Anbar Province in 2006 when a U.S. Army unit decided to support local leaders who wanted to push back against al-Qaida.

The initiative spread like wildfire throughout Iraq and came to be known as the Sons of Iraq program. Instead of antagonizing Sunni Muslims as U.S. forces fought al-Qaida, U.S. forces paid about 100,000 Iraqis about $300 per month to fight al-Qaida and provide security for their own villages. The Sons of Iraq program was a crucial aspect of the strategy that ultimately defeated the Iraqi insurgency (and make no mistake, this insurgency was defeated), and we can apply key lessons from this success story to police reform in the United States.

Learning from Iraq

First, we must admit that while many police departments across the country have effectively secured the consent of the governed, some departments are viewed by local communities as armies of occupation. The focus of reform should therefore be on reconciling these departments with local populations to restore the consent of the governed.

The first lesson we can learn from the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq is that heavy-handed tactics may provide a safer environment in the short run, but they will lead to more “insurgents” in the future.

To be sure, Broken Windows policing and stop-and-frisk policies are not anywhere near the level of demolishing terrorist homes, and they may initially be effective at lowering crime. Ultimately, however, they alienate the population and slowly erode the consent of the governed.

Broken Windows policing, in which police officers issue a multitude of citations for low-level offenses in hope of preventing larger crimes, often damages the relationship between citizens and police. Dr. Brett Stoudt of the John Jay School of Criminal Justice shows it causes citizens — especially minority citizens — to distrust and fear the police.

Stop-and-frisk policies have a similar effect. These policies have been carried out in a manner that violates citizens’ constitutional rights while harming the relationship between police and local communities. A police force that is feared, mistrusted, and has a bad relationship with its citizens is in danger of losing the consent of the governed.

Therefore, policing strategies should aim to empower local communities to police themselves just like the Sons of Iraq program empowered Iraqis to provide security for themselves. The question then is how to apply the Sons of Iraq strategy to American cities.

To answer this question, remember that through the Sons of Iraq program, the U.S. government effectively paid and armed insurgents who had American blood on their hands. Without this reconciliation, there would have been no Sons of Iraq program, and thus, no victory in Iraq for American forces. Applying this strategy to policing in America will require a similar reconciliation, and this will require a major change in how some police departments recruit officers.

A Chance for Redemption and Service

It is currently nearly impossible to become a police officer in America if you have a criminal record, or if you have simply smoked marijuana more than a few times. These standards are ludicrous. First, they disqualify a multitude of people from being law enforcement officers solely because they grew up in a rough neighborhood and made mistakes as teenagers. Second, they leave no room for redemption in people’s lives. Third, they result in many communities being policed by outsiders.

If the U.S. Army was willing to arm and pay people who formerly attacked them, American police forces should be willing to hire people who have past criminal conduct but have shown they have reformed. Why should an American who has done his time in prison not be able to help police his hometown if he has subsequently reformed, proven through years of good behavior and positive community involvement? This officer would have immense power to build relationships with young people in the community with an increased ability to cultivate respect and legitimacy.

Our current system leaves no room for such redemption, and this is why the rule of law in so many communities is enforced by outsiders who do not have the consent of the governed. Reconciliation and empowerment is a surefire way to resecure the consent of the governed and end the policing crisis in many American communities.