Counterinsurgency and Dictatorship

Kyle Teamey, writing in The Washington Post, laments the existence of political democracy in the United States:

While debate over a war’s merits — and whether to withdraw — is a sign of a healthy democracy, Iraq unfortunately highlights many of the difficulties a democracy faces in a long-term counterinsurgency or nation-building campaign. Such debate can be detrimental to the battle for perceptions.

Well, maybe he doesn’t lament its existence, but he does think it has some regrettable downsides. But is this really true? It seems to me that the truth of the matter is that counterinsurgency is very hard. Democracies have wages successful counterinsurgency campaigns (the British in Malaya is the classic examples) and dictatorships have lost counterinsurgency campaigns. Indeed, the story of modern losing counterinsurgency starts with Napoleonic France fighting and losing in Spain. One could also consider Portugal (then a semi-fascist dictatorship) losing control of its African colonies. Or, of course, the Soviet Union losing in Afghanistan. There is, overall, very little evidence I can see in favor of tyranny as a counterinsurgency strategy.

The main thing is that it helps to not be an alien occupier fighting a native resistance movement. You see some arguably successful counterinsurgencies in Latin America where there wasn’t a difference in nationality between the parties, and you see the British succeeding in rallying the mostly Malay population of Malaya against the mostly Chinese insurgents. Now, arguably, genocide works as a counter-insurgency strategy. Even here, though, a very liberal approach to killing people didn’t ultimately preserve Hutu Power in Rwanda. The big success stories of genocide-as-counterinsurgency were conducted by democracies — the United States and Australia against the native inhabitants of those countries (needless to say, conducting genocidal warfare against the population of Iraq would be immoral and I strongly oppose such policies). Either way, the idea that tyranny is a useful counterinsurgency tool seems to be mostly pernicious myth.

This all via Ezra Klein who aptly characterizes one of Teamey’s subsidiary points (“the appearance of strength or weakness is often much more important than actual strength or weakness”) as arguing that hope is a plan after all.