Would it just be Easier to Pay-Off our Middle Eastern Opponents?


I recently watched Generation Kill, the HBO miniseries on the invasion of Iraq. It is quite good, particularly on the huge uncertainty generated by the fog of war, and the consequent overuse of violence to protect oneself from that uncertainty. At one point in the miniseries, a town is being hit by Tomahawk cruise missiles, and a soldier makes the interesting remark that with all the money put into just a few of those Tomahawks, they probably could have just bought off the local Fedayeen or Republican Guard units, or bought off enough locals to kill or arrest them. It is an interesting notion, and once I can’t say has ever received scholarly treatment in IR or strategic theory. Here is another good master’s thesis waiting to be written.

Instead of killing these people, can we just throw money at them? Fred Kaplan asks this question, and so does Michael Semple. Both are dubious. But I am not so sure, especially given the huge costs of Westerners trying to coerce the Taliban, ex-Baathists, and other various alienated Muslim/Arab elements around the Middle East. The obvious retort is that money does not buy allegiance, only temporary quiet. Money does not ensure ideological affinity or loyalty; it does not make its recipient a liberal committed to the democratic processes or central governments of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc. This is so, but consider the following counterpoints:

1. The US military, as the soldiers in Generation Kill pointed out, is an extremely expensive machine. The just-released 2011 US defense budget is $700+B. That is a staggering sum of money. The cost of using such an expensive force is high too. US equipment is super-expensive, given increasing computerization and integration (the ‘networked battlefield’). It will cost another mint to replace and bring back up to par US military stocks around the world when the GWoT ends (someday, we hope). What the US military spends in the GWoT every day certainly out-costs what bribery would cost by at least an order of magnitude (billions vs millions).

2. Shooting people instead of buying them has huge costs too. As we have learned by now, we are never going to kill every terrorist on the planet. We cannot kill our way to victory. Worse, in tribalized cultures like the ME, for every person we kill, there is a brother, son, uncle, friend who gets pulled into a blood oath to avenge that death. We have created spirals of ‘accidental guerillas’ through less-than-ideal discrimination in the use of force (another point Generation Kill demonstrates very well). Every unnecessary or partially necessary combat fatality creates a high possibility of more and more irregular combatants joining up for revenge. We might stanch the inflow of new recruits if we kill fewer and buy off more. Indeed, many people, Kaplan included, have noted that funding the Sunni gunmen to fight against al Qaeda in Iraq was the turning point in Iraq, not Bush’s surge. We also used bags of money in in Afghanistan in late 2001. So there is some evidence that this might work.

3. Isn’t paying off people morally superior to coercing, much less shooting, them? I am aware of course that the die-hards of al Qaeda and other Salafist groups cannot be bought. But there are many others who might be ‘buyable.’  I think a morally superior use of American power would be to purchase their temporary quietude than to hunt them.

4. You might object that simply buying them just delays the fighting. When the money drys up, then they will go back into the bush. Maybe, but

A) Buying them off, even temporarily, buys the government time to reach out and reconcile them. It gives exactly the ‘breather’ to the Iraqi or Afghan central government that Bush claimed they needed to get on their feet. But instead of the US military coercing a pause in violence, the dollars buy it. But in the end, the effect is the same. And if the Iraqi or Afghan governments can’t use that pause to get their acts together, then no amount of US killing will help them in the medium-term. Whether you choose policing/coercing or buying, you still get the same outcome (the pause), which our ME client-friends must then use (but they will likely squander).

B) Buying them indefinitely is still probably cheaper than a medium- to long-term US commitment, like the new Afghan surge Obama just announced in December. Everyone seems terrified that the US will be in the Middle East for decades, as it is in Germany, Korea, and Japan. Ok, so instead of hotly disputed withdrawal deadlines – which get flim-flammed anyway by ‘conditions on the ground’ which warrant that trainers, pilots,  the CIA, etc. to stay behind after the withdrawal date – why not substitute pay-offs for awhile? I realize it is hardly ideal. It’s US-funded local graft. But consider the alternative.

These are just some initial thoughts. As I said, this is a wholly under-researched question, probably because it feels morally uncomfortable, shady, or sleazy. It reeks of corruption. And it surely does, but given the alternatives, particularly the use of US force, I think the moral equation is overbalanced in its favor actually. But this needs more serious investigation.

5 thoughts on “Would it just be Easier to Pay-Off our Middle Eastern Opponents?

  1. I agree with that. As I once stated, the Dean of my military school who was a Seal in Vietnam once told me that in would have been easier to buy off the VC for the price of the bombs that we were dropping. Actually, the Brits and French have been buying off groups for a very long time. We now know that the Italians were doing the same in Afghanistan. Again, I agree with your post and wouldn’t be surprised if we were doing that already.

    As far as Generation Kill. It is the real story of a Marine Corps recon unit. I love it and own the series on DVD. Great series. It brought back memories. A lot of inside jokes as in when the reservists, join the actives. I was both an active and an active reserve Marine and it had me laughing out loud. I laughed out loud about the reporter’s girlfriend picture. As the saying goes, you can trust a Marine with your life but not your money or your wife. Quite a few of the Marines from the actual unit played themselves such as the buffed up company sniper.

    The lead sergeant squad leader got the prestigious posting to be assigned with the Royal Marines in Britain after Iraq. I am getting off point but if you get the chance watch the interview with the actual Marines of the unit, do it. They have a great sort of round table discussion. Also, the actors got their military training from the actual unit personnel in South Africa before the shoot.

    But a great flick, I thought that I was back in the Corps watching it.


  2. Dr. Bob, you had me thinking again. This is a great post. I have had this view for a long time. Of course, there are your true believers that money can’t buy and they have to be dealt with, but you are right.

    About a year ago I was listening to NPR and the commentator was shocked to learn that the US was buying off Sunni Tribal leaders as part of General Patraeus’ C.I. strategy.

    I think that this gets back to humanity’s attempts to civilize war. To make it tolerable. Not that I don’t agree with the Geneva Convention. I agree with the GC. When I received my first military id card, it had on it that Geneva Convention. I knew that it serve to protect me were I a prisoner of war (so long as my enemy recognized the GC). All that said, war is a very nasty business, especially for the GRUNT so there are huge limitations to the extent that one can humanize war. Plus, modern society has this picture of the War from Hollywood that in most cases over noble-fies it thus probably why the squeamishness over paying/corrupting the enemy (mind you that there are no such hang-ups in the intel world).


  3. Hey, nice points you have there. These bigger questions are why I’m drawn to journalism like Evan Wright’s. Even in his book Hella Nation, I’m constantly left questioning the “good” and “evil” of our actions. Even the “good” and ‘evil” of our perceptions.


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