By Yousef K.B.
The current crisis in Iraq has been 11 years in the making and it is the legacy of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. The arrogance, self-delusion, paternalism, and poorly informed nature of American policy makers, military officials, and pseudo intellectual cannot be understated. They want to have us believe that everything that occurs in Iraq is due to the incapacity of the Iraqi government and political elite, all of which is rooted in their cultural deficiencies. Sen. John McCain and others talk as if the problem is the withdrawal of Americans. They argue that if only we allowed the American mission to succeed we wouldn’t be in this mess.
Events in Iraq are fast moving. Rather than try to explain exactly what is happening on the ground, I put forward 10 points that should be considered in any analysis of Iraq.
- The Iraqi state was constructed by the Americans to be decentralized and weak, with overlapping, undefined, and vague jurisdictions and responsibilities. The consequence of such a state is that in 2007 for example, the Iraqi government was only able to spend 28% of its investment budget. This number has not changed significantly since then, with the government running a consistent budget surplus due to its incapacity to spend allocated funds.
- Iraqi political parties were ushered in and empowered by the American occupation based on naive sectarian perception of Iraqi society. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Iraqi government is structurally built to be weak and is built on sectarian assumptions. Its sectarian nature, in which each Iraqi administration in a Lebanon-esque fashion divvies up ministries and government agencies, empowers sectarian elites and centers sectarian differences rather than political ones. This fuels the inefficiency of the central government.
- Given #2, if any administration attempts to assert its own policy, it will be quickly vilified as “authoritarian” not because of the very policies, but because those attempts will undoubtedly limit the influence or power of some faction.
- A diverse opposition to the American occupation existed from the moment bombs rained down on Baghdad on March 19th, 2003. This opposition was named a Sunni opposition (ignoring the Shi’a opposition) and defined as sectarian. The Sunni opposition specifically was vilified and excluded from governing by the Americans, and then bought off during the “surge.” The “surge” and the “awakening” needs to be seen not as an accomplishment of state building by General Patraeus and the Bush administration but for what it really was: admission of a pivotal mistake that was de-Ba’athification and the disbanding of the rank and file of Saddam’s army.
- The “surge” was a lesson for the Iraqi political elite that violent movements coupled with political action will get results. Thus Iraqi political elite and political movements operate both inside and outside of the state, with many resorting to violent tactics to pursue their political objectives within the state.
- Iraqi political elite, despite small exceptions, lack political and economic philosophies and are driven simply by power. Over the years they have increasingly relied on their sectarian credentials and few actually have any type of accountability. Some who were genuine grassroots movements such as the Sadrists have been manipulated and fallen into the trappings of Iraq’s sectarian politics.
- Shi’a religious elite have significant amount of moral and political influence on the Shi’a population. Many of them also lack nationalist credentials and too often play into sectarian provocations. Different Shi’a parties and clerics often intentionally misinterpret the directives and calls of Ayotallah Sistani who is one of the more thoughtful and prudent leaders. Sunni religious leadership is of course not so different.
- The permanent constitution of Iraq adds fodder to sectarian claims. The writing of the permanent constitution was rushed by the American occupation due to domestic political concerns of the Bush administration. The process did not allow different political forces in Iraq to resolve and build a consensus on different and competing visions of the emerging Iraqi state. Thus the constitution both envisions Iraq as a singular nation with one state, as well as a state unifying different nations. It incentivizes the creation of regions over provinces with the former having much more political and economic clout, and provides a Kurdish model in the north to be emulated elsewhere in the country. It pits the central government and local government against each other by not delineating clear jurisdictions. The only thing that the constituion is clear on is that Iraq is to be a neo-liberal republic, based on individual rather than collective rights, and integrated within global market forces. I will let you guess what was the most important objective for the American administration.
- Prime Minister Maliki like other Iraqi PMs (Ja’afari and Allawi) is pre-occupied by solidifying his political position than implementing a political agenda. In fact the most consequential ruler of Iraq with a clear ideological (near demagogic) agenda since the fall of Saddam Hussein is Paul Bremer. The current Iraqi state is the one that he, and not Iraqis, built.
- Iraq and Syria are geographical zones operating as a “World Expo” of intelligence services from around the region and the world. The US, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and others are all operating, meddling, funding, and at times physically involved in both countries on all sides of the conflict. To condemn one country’s involvement while ignoring another is to misread the overall impact and become a partisan of one government’s narrow national interests. Here is a rule to remember: No foreign country has the interest of Syrians or Iraqis at heart.
Given the analytical points above, let me draw your attention to a couple of great articles that elaborate on the current situation:
- Still in bed by Elliot Colla.
- Patraeus’ real failure by Laleh Khalili
- Embedded poetry: Iraq, through a soldier’s binoculars by Sinan Antoon
- Interviews of reporters by Warren Olney host of To The Point on KCRW, which is probably the best news you’ll get on the situation in the US.
- Comprehensive list of recent articles on Iraq published by MERIP.