August 29, 2005
Iraq: Lessons from History
Wilson was a confident and bullish colonial official who was wrestling with a serious dilemma. How, under intense international scrutiny, could he control a well-armed society that had become increasingly resentful about the occupation of their country? Wilson himself never found satisfactory answers to this question. On July 2, 1920, a revolt, or thawna, broke out along the lower Euphrates. Fueled by a population resentful at the heavy-handed approach of the occupying forces, the rebellion quickly spread across the south and center of the country. Faced with as many as 131,000 armed opponents, the British army did not regain full control until six months later in February 1921. The cost in lives and money of the revolt made the continued occupation of Iraq very unpopular with British public opinion. It also cost Wilson his job. From 1921 onward the British continually strove to cut the costs of their presence in Iraq. Ultimately the decision was made to extricate themselves from he country as quickly as possible. The result was a failure to build a liberal or even a stable state in Iraq. (Toby Dodge - Inventing Iraq)
This passage gets creepier every time I read it. I’ve mentioned Toby Dodge’s book before, partly for historical value and partly as a cautionary tale for people who can’t grasp the complexities associated with “remaking” a region. The reason I am flogging this dead horse yet again is a recent Washington Post article about the US struggle to foster a liberal democracy in the face of strong ethnic and sectarian pressures:
"The theme in this region is the reality of a foreign military power that comes in with great determination and overwhelming force, defeats people, subjugates a nation and then gets completely lost in the local maelstrom of interests and the irresistible force of indigenous identity -- religious, ethnic, sectarian, national. People act in a maniacal way when they assert these identities, which includes nurturing and protecting them," said Rami Khouri, a U.S.-educated Arab analyst and editor of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper.
"Every single foreign power that has been in this region since Alexander the Great -- through the Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, British, French and now Americans -- has learned the same lesson," Khouri said.
Clearly, the US seeks to project an image of non-interference throughout the constitutional process, to give Iraqi actors greater legitimacy (particularly in the eyes of Iraqi citizens). Unfortunately, this has resulted in Sunni marginalization at the hands of Shi’a and Kurdish factions. All groups are demonstrating a strong tendency to pursue factional interests, rather than endorsing a national contract. Imposing a Western-style liberal democracy is obviously not the answer, as it reinforces the “puppet government” perception that is already so pervasive among ordinary Iraqis. Dodge supplies us with a relevant quote from Sir Henry Dobbs, British High Commissioner in Baghdad during the Mandate period:
[The ruler of Iraq] has to keep his eye constantly fixed on possible developments after our departure and to guard above all against the allegation that he is a puppet king, propped up by our bayonets, who is willing to sacrifice the true interests of the country in order to keep in our good graces. He can hope to strike roots in the soil only by an attitude of independence and we must therefore look with indulgence upon any opposition on his part to our wishes, when those wishes run counter to popular clamor.
For the US, this means watching Iraqi factions attempt to disenfranchise each other by endorsing a constitution that does not represent all segments of Iraqi society. It also means accepting a democratic government that adopts anti-Western views, rejects religious pluralism and endorses Islamic jurisprudence as the basis for family and personal status law.
Being a cynic’s cynic, I tend to believe that elections, constitutions and other democratic rituals have a superficial effect in Iraq and largely serve as “sovereignty markers” for US audiences anxious about troop withdrawals. During the Mandate period, British officials had to deal with a Parliament that strongly opposed long-term engagements in Mesopotamia, in addition to waning military strength and funding pressures (at the time, foreign and military commitments abroad amounted to about £300 million out of a total budget of approximately £1 billion). This eventually led to a decision to severely curtail Britain's long-term involvement in Iraq through the Mandate system. Instead, Parliament proposed taking on an advisory role to help build a viable state as quickly as possible. Britain subsequently accelerated Iraq’s entry into the League of Nations using “lipstick on a pig” solutions to satisfy entry requirements. These were largely cosmetic changes that implied substantial progress where little or none had been made. It would not surprise me if the American administration pursued these political milestones for the same reason: make Iraq look viable enough to justify significant withdrawal in the near future, regardless of whether or not the Iraqi government can maintain force monopoly or create/uphold legislation.
The question is: will the American administration be able to pin state failure on Iraqi politicians after US troops leave? Of course, I'm assuming Iraq (a) descends into Lebanon-like civil war or (b) is taken over by a strongman that shifts all power to the Presidency (or a Supreme Council) and effectively eliminates all popular representation by establishing a sham assembly.
Maybe there’s a more optimistic Scenario C? Anyone?
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The only optimistic thing I see is that the chance of Syria or even Iran becoming the Cambodia to Iraq's Vietnam appears to have receded for the time being.
But only for the time being. The possibilities for endless human tragedy coming out of this mess continue to be absolutely mind-numbing.
Posted by: pantom at August 29, 2005 11:37 PM
Great post - certainly shows what the US is up against. History certainly does have a strange way of repeating itself.
Posted by: Iwasawa at August 30, 2005 11:08 AM
Well, your two scenarios are the very negative ones. So of course the obvious optimistic scenario would be one where major civil war doesn't erupt, or something in-between. There's many ways to speculate this happening, and you certainly can't look to Iraq's past history for examples as to how it would. Problem is of course all the momentum driving people towards conflict. That makes the optimistic scenarios both harder to visualize and make it happen.
Maybe if the Kurds and Shiites can somehow get a level of autonomy they're content with while still guaranteeing Sunni Arabs a share of the oil wealth. And if they can somehow iron out the other constitutional disputes. Maybe if the Sunnis, now unhappy with the current draft, can bargain for a better compromise through the political process without both sides simply falling back on the usual violence. Maybe if Sunnis turn out to vote against the constitution, and it works in their favour (peacefully), they'll gain confidence in the political process. Maybe if the Shiites and Kurds don't simple ignore them if they do defeat the referendum. Maybe if all this constitutional talk actually means something to the three parties. They probably wouldn't nearly as much if the US wasn't there to at least get them to talk in the first place. Maybe if the militia uprisings can be kept to a minimum over the next 10 years in order to let legitimate government take root. Maybe if enough prosperity can be brought to the region.
It seems, though, that the hopes for religious plurality, womens' rights, and other such liberal ideas will have to wait, unless the population overwhelmingly decides to resist the religious militias. But considering those religious factions are what are beginning to make up the Iraqi government, and considering the social norms in the surrounding area, that seems unlikely in the near future. Making a stable Iraq as well as simultaneously liberalizing it is a tall order. Making it pro-Western is maybe also wishful thinking, but I'd settle for just not rabidly anti-Western.
So it'll come down to how satisfied the Shiites are with what they have, how satisfied the Sunnis will be with the compromises, how hard the religious militias push for their vision, and much the population will go along with it (or how effectively they are coerced into it). The hope is that the various groups can feel they have enough power over their own future without feeling they need to resort to war to get more. It's going to take an enormous amount of good faith, which will have to be encouraged to develop. By US pressure, and keeping up the anti-insurgent operations? Maybe.
It's tough to make a government when the militias are trying to tear the country apart.
Posted by: zurn at August 30, 2005 10:05 PM