Iraq’s Democratic Moment
Hurst, 2014, 288 pp., $29.95
The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy
Yale University Press, 2014, 304 pp., $35
To write of Iraq and democracy together nowadays might seem like a cruel joke in light of the current situation in that hapless country, which is neither anymore an integral state nor a functioning democracy, except in hollow form. Yet this is what two Iraqi expatriates have done in recently published books. Before his death in 2012, Foulath Hadid, a well-known Iraqi diplomat, scholar, and commentator, wrote about Iraq’s “democratic moment”, locating it in the first four decades of the country’s turbulent history. Zaid al-Ali, an Iraqi constitutional scholar who served as legal adviser to the United Nations in Iraq between 2005 and 2010, writes about the failure of Iraq’s democratic transformation, locating it in the 2003–13 period.
Hadid and al-Ali are not the first and probably will not be the last Iraqis to talk about Iraq and democracy in the same breath. Nor will they be the last Iraqis to blame foreigners for mouthing unredeemed platitudes about liberating Iraqis from the yoke of oppression. The Ottoman Sultans who ruled this peripheral imperial territory were never interested in democracy for their vast Arab domains. Indeed, Ottoman rulers often resisted political reform in their Arab territories even when reform was the order of the day in the Turkish core of the empire. They did not claim otherwise, however. But the two countries with the most profound impact on the trajectory of Iraq from the early 20th to early 21st centuries, Britain and the United States, waxed lyrical about their altruistic missions—at least at the start—only to watch those missions go awry in one way or another.
Thus Lieutenant General Stanley Maude, the British officer who entered Baghdad on March 17, 1917, at the head of British troops following the defeat of the Ottoman armies, addressed Baghdadis with this claim:
. . . I am charged with absolute and supreme control of all regions in which British troops operate; but our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. . . . It is the wish not only of my King and his peoples, but it is also the wish of the great nations with whom he is in alliance, that you should prosper even as in the past, when your lands were fertile, when your ancestors gave to the world literature, science, and art, and when Baghdad was one of the wonders of the world.
If we fast-forward 86 years almost to the day, a man less articulate than Maude but nonetheless the leader of the most powerful country in the world declared:
The current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq.
Thus did President George W. Bush make his public case in February 2003 for going to war in Iraq. The Western narrative about bringing enlightenment and civilization to the “natives” had changed little in the intervening decades.
To be sure, neither Maude nor Bush were purveyors of outright cynicism, and within their governments were hosts of well-meaning individuals dedicated to helping Iraq. But what is clear in both cases is that the policies of their respective countries flowed first from geopolitical and strategic interests, not from any detached sense of duty to Iraq. What is also clear in both cases is that principles initially thought to be mutually compatible, and understood as such by Iraqis, turned out instead to pose a series of excruciating policy choices whose outcomes most Iraqis neither understood nor welcomed.
Hadid passed away before Iraq’s Democratic Moment was published, but he lived long enough to see his Iraq transformed from a bloody playground for insurgents and foreign troops into a failing authoritarian state under the unimaginative and narrow-minded Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The contrast with the elation many Iraqis felt in 2009, after a peculiar alliance of U.S. troops, Sunni insurgents, and the Iraqi Security Forces of the Shi‘a-dominated government in Baghdad had routed al-Qaeda in Iraq, could barely have been starker. For a brief moment it looked like Iraq was headed toward national unity and democracy; in reality, its trajectory from the end of the civil war and the withdrawal of the Americans was toward greater authoritarianism, intolerance, and a Shi‘a-dominated sectarian state. Had he lived, Hadid might well have agreed with Zaid al-Ali’s first sentences: “In 2013, politics in Iraq reached a new low. Apart from the usual depressing failures in terms of services, corruption, security and the environment, a number of other developments finally revealed the full extent of the government’s incompetence.”
So what happened in Iraq between 2010 and 2014 to betray the promise of a brighter future and plunge the country into its present straits? The simplest explanation is that betrayal had a name: The Sunnis rose in revolt again because the thoroughly inept Maliki broke his promises. He did not integrate Sunni fighters into the new Iraqi Security Forces. He did not provide the Sunni-majority regions with the economic and development aid due to them by dint of Iraq’s oil wealth. His government proved to be not only ineffective but also corrupt well beyond even expansive regional standards. Maliki cronies dominated the Security Forces on whom the Americans had spent some $24 billion. Shi‘a Baghdad also botched relations with the Kurds—over the nature of Kurdish autonomy, over the Kurdish right to develop oilfields independently, and over the key city of Kirkuk.
Before very long, Sunni jihadis returned, this time in the form of the Islamic State. Of course, they had never been fully eradicated from the Iraqi scene. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) simply went to ground, notably in places like Mosul, learned from its mistakes, rebuilt its organization, and established alliances with key local Sunni groups whose suspicions of Maliki had by 2013 proved fully justified. The carnage of the Syrian civil war next door added fuel to the fire in Iraq, as ISI fighters went there to improve their fighting skills. They did more than that: They bullied and defeated other rebel groups, including jihadis associated with al-Qaeda, carved out territory, and brought large numbers of Syrian Sunnis under their control. Transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/al-Sham (ISIS), and picking up not especially religious Sunni insurgent cadres along the way, they returned to Iraq and, starting in June of last year, conducted a lightning-quick advance that brought most of the Sunni-dominated regions in both countries under their control. They smashed several Iraqi divisions, forcing them to flee the battleground in their underwear. They pushed back the vaunted Kurdish peshmerga fighters as well.
By autumn the situation had stabilized somewhat, at least in the sense that more or less clear frontlines between ISIS fighters and their opponents took shape. But Iraq is a failing state whose original territorial definition is very unlikely to be reconstituted. The Shi‘a are unlikely to retake and hold the Sunni parts of the country absent dramatic political concessions to the Sunnis, and the Kurdish areas were effectively lost long before this past June. The Kurds seemed willing to give a new Iraqi federalism a chance, but this was the choice of the Kurds, not of Baghdad. Now that Baghdad lacks any way to coerce the Kurds back into the national fold, the deal is done. And a separate future is being strongly reinforced by the fact that the Kurds have been engrossed in making money, thinking about the future, educating their young and women, and developing their region, while many Sunni Arabs (and not only in Iraq) have been galloping headlong into a 7th-century Islamic utopia that exists only in the febrile imaginations of their addled minds.
The Shi‘a Arabs of Iraq, meanwhile, have been bloodily fending off Sunni excesses while their spiritual leaders occupy themselves with mind-numbing theological exegeses of no relevance to the modern world, raising their heads every so often in order to issue fatwas ordering defense to the death against Sunni fanatics. The sectarian gap between Sunni and Shi‘a Arabs in Iraq now seems unbridgeable. Even if these two parts of the country end up remaining formally united, there will be neither harmonious co-existence nor a cohesive entity. And even that is unlikely. Iraq is riven into (at least) three parts, and it is likely to stay that way for a long while.
Iraq’s failures and incipient collapse are but a microcosm of those of the rest of the Arab world, which is, in Hisham Milhem’s words, “more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.” A society mired in the rampant intolerance associated with closed minds, self-pity, self-doubt, and inferiority complexes invariably indulges the local victimization complex that blames everything on outsiders enmeshed in various and sundry conspiracies.
It seems clear that, as usual, both internal and external factors are at play. While most of the inequities and shortcomings of Arab civilization are intrinsic, the machinations and distortions wrought by outsiders certainly have not helped. The situation is somewhat analogous to the one described in Rana Mitter’s brilliant analysis of China’s status from the late 19th to the mid-20th century in Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945. To be Chinese in the late 19th century, writes Mitter, “was to face a depressing range of political problems—floods, famines, and foreign invasions among them.” To be Arab in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is no better, and the key problem is that the Arabs have lost control over their future. As Mitter put it for China: “[L]ooming over all of these challenges was the greatest existential crisis in China’s history. The country’s elites had come to realize that they were no longer in charge of their own destiny.” So it is for the Arabs.
None of the Arab countries, not the largest and not the richest, has the kind of political system or socio-economic, cultural, or military resources to resist the pressures of the globalized 21st century. Therein lies much of the source of Arab fury and of the destructive trail throughout the so-called crescent of crisis. Hence the Arab world perpetuates the tired reign of collaborationist puppet rulers and elites who think they can navigate their way within the interstices of the global neoliberal economic order with their decrepit authoritarian systems as if they were in some sort of mega-bazaar, fooling suppliers and buyers alike.
At the other end are those who bore us with their totalitarian cant that “Islam is the solution!” This is risible; both so-called moderate Islamists and their wild-eyed and younger extremist brethren, mired in their murderous and nihilistic pathologies, have no solutions. What really separates the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front in Syria from its dire enemy, the Islamic State? In a December 2013 interview, Muhammad al-Jawlani, the head of Nusra, revealed that he shares the same ideological nonsense as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s now more infamous group: He accuses Hizballah of being in cahoots with Israel and rants that the Alawis, the heterodox sect to which Bashar al-Assad belongs, are in power for the sake of an alien “world order” and (of course) “the Jews.”
The politically correct in the West, as well as Islamist leaders themselves for their own reasons, continue to utter the platitude that Islam and democracy are compatible. No, they are not. Islam is a God-given system, which works well enough as a faith but not as a political creed in the form of Islamism. Democracy is a man-made system that works well enough for politics, but not so well as a secular creed attempting to substitute for a transcendent faith in an age in which traditional concepts of God have become hard for many to accept. Islamism, as an absolutist creed, is no more compatible with democracy than is any totalitarian ideology. Islam is compatible with democracy only when it abjures the temptations of political theology, something its history and self-image make difficult. The idea of a mixed Islamist-democratic system is what used to make Sayyid Qutb, the greatest Islamist thinker of the 20th century, apoplectic. One may embrace Islam and drag it into political spaces to become Islamism, or one may embrace democracy and drag its liberal antecedents into the hearts of men; but one cannot do both.
Where are the Arab world’s liberals, democrats, and believers in decent governance, rule of law, socio-economic development, and an independent destiny for the region? There have been many, but their story is largely one of failure, as it is in the case of Iraq. The story of democracy and Iraq is the story of the interplay between what Iraqis did or failed to do to bring about democratic transformation and the roles of outside powers in aiding or hindering them. How do the Hadid and al-Ali books, both of which contain the words Iraq and democracy in their titles, tell that story?
Iraq’s Democratic Moment is a good read despite its repetitive lapses and tendency to veer into marginal minutiae. Hadid admits that it is not an academic book but rather a personal narrative about missed opportunities for democracy. He details these missed opportunities but does not really explain why they were missed opportunities. Instead, the narrative discounts analytical precision to focus on certain key figures (including the author’s father) in Iraqi party politics during the country’s first three or so decades of existence. Why does the period from the 1920s to the 1950s constitute Iraq’s democratic moment?
Hadid brings a litany of complaints about how Iraqis and foreigners, but mainly the latter, hobbled Iraq’s democratic transformation during that period. He does not spend much time on the 400-year Ottoman interlude in Iraqi history, preferring to focus instead on the machinations of the British—and there were plenty of them. This is unfortunate, because understanding the Ottoman period is necessary to put the much briefer British era in context. Ottoman Mesopotamia (there was no Iraq then) was a backwater composed of three regions that had little interaction with each other. Their interactions with the imperial capital, Istanbul, were almost non-existent as well. The Ottomans appreciated the region’s importance, which explains why they fought and skirmished over it for hundreds of years with the Persians to prevent it from falling into the hands of a heterodox Shi‘a empire. Yet despite genuine attempts at reform from the 1860s on—the famed Tanzimat—the Sultan generally only sent the incompetent and the lazy to lord over Mesopotamia. Illiterate, bedraggled, and poorly trained Arabs and Kurds manned the units of the Ottoman army in the province.
As a result, “Iraqis” were not attuned to the dramatic debates in Istanbul over constitutional government, reform, and nationalism. The populace was politically somnambulant, save for a small, largely Sunni urban elite. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq as a community were hardly politically aware at all. Only a few were educated, and only a few had any sense of a then-nascent Arab nationalism. The Sunni masses, who had known nothing but ineffective Ottoman governance and onerous taxation, either lived in small, flea-bitten conservative towns along the Euphrates and Tigris or as nomads in the hinterlands. The Turks ensured that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, with whom they were linked by religion and for whom they expanded what educational and political opportunities there were in the province, emerged as the dominant group. Some Sunni Arabs attended the military academy in Turkey and served in many parts of the Ottoman Empire; they were not linked to Iraq until they returned home after the Great War in the 1920s.
Nobody knew what the Kurds were up to in their mountain fastness or what they wanted, but it was not long before they began to express aspirations for self-governance and nationhood. As for the inscrutable Shi‘a in the south, whose lives were dominated by their holy men, they seemed to veer from calls for holy war against the British on behalf of a Sunni Ottoman Empire that they despised to conditional support for the British who, some had heard, promised independence to the Arabs in gratitude for rising up against the Ottomans. Some were aware of the notion of constitutional governance, something they had heard about from the drama in neighboring Iran, where the despotic monarchy had been at war with various classes of society over the implementation of a constitutional monarchy.
Such were the facts when the British arrived in 1920 to take charge of what was known as their League of Nations Class A mandate. The point is that Iraq, on the eve of its creation (not its independence), lacked a single building block of a democratic edifice. Even the few educated men who had heard about events going on far away in a place called Paris, where the victorious allied powers were discussing something called the right to self-determination, soon discovered that none of this applied directly or immediately to them. The Class A mandates were supposed to be preparatory institutions designed to bring the natives up to speed in the institutions of self-rule, but for all anyone in Iraq could tell, they were masks for old-fashioned colonial control. The Iraqi version bred not gratitude for liberation from the Turks, but violent opposition to the British.
Hadid discusses the Iraqi Revolt of 1920, which occupies a key position in Iraqi historical consciousness. The uncoordinated revolt failed. Its timing was erratic, and the various elements involved had very different political goals from one another. As was true of the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the rebels knew what they did not want: the British ruling them. But they lacked a positive national agenda stating what they did want. As Hanna Batatu, one of the giants of Iraqi scholarship, observed, the revolt was not “truly nationalist either in its temper or its hopes” but instead essentially a tribal affair “animated by a multitude of local passions and interests.”1 Nonetheless, the revolt constrained Britain’s ability to exercise naked colonialism and forced them to create an Iraqi monarchy on whose throne they put an Arab from the Arabian Peninsula, Faisal, the son of the Sharif Hussein, leader of the Arab Revolt. The enthronement of Faisal was a farcical act of desperation on the part of an imperial power that was broke and looking to avoid a Levantine tussle with its French wartime ally—the same ally that had driven King Faisal from Damascus by force of arms in June 1920. Squirming and uncomfortable British officials in Baghdad described it in such terms at the time, as is ably summarized in Hadid’s book.
However, while Hadid’s case that the British hindered Iraq’s political development is true, he fails to put the matter into a proper strategic context. The British were not really there to bring democracy and constitutional governance to Iraqis. They were there to guarantee British control over the Persian Gulf, to put themselves in a position to threaten Russia’s “soft underbelly” in the Caucasus as might prove necessary or useful, to secure access to a new source of energy (oil) for the Royal Navy, and, above all, to strengthen the lines of communications to India, the crown jewel of the British Empire. All these matters have been discussed ad nauseam by any number of commentators, historians, and scholars of Iraq, the British Empire, and the Middle East. Perhaps Hadid assumed that everyone knows all these things, leaving him free not to mention them.
Given the aforementioned financial constraints and reduced resources after the epic struggle of World War I, Britain was not about to embark on an extensive state- or nation-building enterprise. However, it did want peace in Iraq without the cost of stationing a large force there. In this context, it maintained a small garrison backed by an Iraqi military it had created by making good use of a number of prematurely retired Ottoman officers, and the Royal Air Force. The latter proved to be a boon because a small force equipped with this new technology provided more bang for the buck. The use of air power in the 1920 scuffle was historically important. Hadid acknowledged as much, but the interplay between British strategic and geopolitical interests, on the one hand, and those of the Iraqis, on the other, deserves but does not receive his more careful consideration.
Hadid does a better job of discussing the formation of Iraq’s political parties and their discontents. Iraqi political parties were never effective because they were never institutionalized with clear ideologies and goals, suffered from a lack of mass participation, were not disciplined, and were dominated by personalities more than ideas. They could not help but engage in meaningless and exhausting political intrigues at the expense of true service to the nation. In 1925 a senior British official pointed out there was as yet no Iraqi nationalism; instead people gave their loyalty to their tribes, towns, or families. And there were no political parties beyond groups coalescing around individuals, and even they had no “clear personal programmes.”2 What is not mentioned by the British, but is emphasized by Hadid, is that the colonial authorities were always there, hovering in the wings, to close down parties or arrest leading personalities who denounced the British presence. He focuses considerable attention on the Al-Ahali party because his father had been instrumental in its formation, as were many other Iraqis he considers to be of a democratic bent.
It is surprising, however, that Hadid neglects the implications of distorted civil-military relations on the Iraqi body politic. The Iraqi Army was a creation and creature of the British, who used it as an internal police force to keep obstreperous Iraqis in line; it was never a genuinely professional force from Mandate times onward. Having no professional ethos, independence of the British, or outside power focusing attention on it, the officer corps developed a knack for political intrigue. Starting in earnest in July 1958 and for years thereafter, the army made and unmade governments until the Ba‘ath Party instituted extensive “coup-proofing” mechanisms to prevent the military from exercising an independent role in politics. The entrance of the Iraqi military into the political sphere is a critical element in the history of the Iraqi body politic.
Finally, Hadid also neglects the role of the ulema and the tribes, both under the British and during the ostensibly independent period of the monarchy until its July 1958 overthrow. This omission is rather puzzling. These two social forces interacted extensively with both the local state and its British overlords in order to improve their respective political positions. They were not pro-democratic forces and their roles hindered the democratic evolution of Iraq. It follows that if Iraq’s democratic moment did not last or prevail, there must be some reason. Hadid’s analysis in a sense roots for the good guys, but in the absence of any but a superficial mention of the other team, the reader is left to wonder why the good guys lost. Perhaps a more conventional history from Hadid would have been a more fitting conclusion to his estimable career.
Zaid al-Ali’s effort is about contemporary Iraq and the reasons for its dysfunctional nature. His analysis is concentrated where Hadid’s is diffuse. But it is perhaps too concentrated.
The issue of contemporaneity is, after all, a tricky one: How far back do we need to go to construct a plausible and useful narrative? Al-Ali locates the problems in the period with which he is most familiar, the one he actually experienced as a UN staffer responsible for aspects of Iraqi legal renewal: from the American invasion and occupation in 2003 to when Iraq regained its nominal independence in 2005. He does discuss the Ba‘athi regime of Saddam Hussein, but only to set the stage for his primary discussion. The three-decade period before 2003 is therefore not very legible here, yet by the time the Hussein regime collapsed, Iraq was as far removed from the possibility of a democratic transition as one could imagine. To understand this, one must grasp the enormity of the horrors of the Ba’athi interlude and of the international sanctions imposed on the country.
Al-Ali briefly analyzes the Ba‘athi regime’s socio-economic achievements: National income, he asserts, grew tenfold from 1973 to 1979, while GDP per capita rose by six times.3 Al-Ali’s discussion of the regime’s politics, including its foreign relations and particularly its response to the rise of political Islam in Iraq and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, is short and superficial. This is unfortunate because much of Iraq’s political pathology from 1979 onward can only be understood by examining this period, during which the relationship between politics and religion was very high on Saddam Hussein’s agenda. Similarly, the discussion of Iraqi aggression against Kuwait is superficial. Iraq’s invasion and short-lived occupation of that country did not come out of the blue; it was a result of two intertwined factors: Iraq’s impoverishment as a result of the bloody eight-year war with Iran (1980–88) and Saddam Hussein’s overweening ambitions. The Iraqi dictator erroneously believed that he had won the war with Iran, but also that it had consumed a considerable amount of Iraq’s resources. Kuwait was the solution.
Iraq never developed effective large-scale bureaucratic parties until the terrifying advent of the totalitarian Ba‘ath Party of the 1974–89 period. A vanguard conspiratorial elite party that sought to transform itself into a mass party under Saddam Hussein, it also sought to develop the country along modern totalitarian lines. During this period the party seemed to have the support (namely, oil revenues) to engage in its terrifying state- and nation-building enterprise. It was a warped and unsustainable method, which failed due to militarism (its attack on Iran and then Kuwait), and to the transformation of the Ba‘athi system from a murderous totalitarian enterprise between 1991 and 2003 into a failing authoritarian one, in which Saddam fell back on tribalism, ethnicity, and religion for support.
Al-Ali’s neglect of the sanctions period (1990–2003) is rather strange. During this period, Iraq was reduced to utter penury by the United States and its closest allies in their quest to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and Iraq itself from the strategic equation in the Middle East. Al-Ali’s extensive discussion of the era beyond 2003 could have benefited from a more focused summary of the Ba‘athi period during which the regime exterminated or exiled most of the forces and personalities that could even potentially have challenged it.
Al-Ali does rightly focus on the Iraqi expatriates who came back to the country in the wake of the American occupation. Since there was no political elite worthy of the name left in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the occupiers needed as many “native informants” as possible to help them run the country and lend legitimacy to the enterprise of “liberating” Iraq. Many genuine Iraqi patriots did return, but more were opportunists, carpetbaggers, and rigidly ideological types. There were many problems with these exiles. Some had been out of the country for too long to quality as “native informants”, some had never even seen Iraq, and some spoke foreign languages better than they spoke Arabic. Besides, currying favor with the occupation authorities, not democracy, was their main concern. Out of this weak reed, a new Iraq was supposed to arise, argues al-Ali. Not surprisingly, it did not happen. Nouri al-Maliki may have been a poor leader, but the failure to predict that fact turned to a considerable extent on the lack of many obviously better candidates.
The strength of al-Ali’s book is its extensive discussion of constitutional matters, which is not surprising since he was trained as a constitutional lawyer. When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took over, it wanted to be seen as working to re-establish security and stability. It did not succeed, and Iraqis took to calling the CPA “Can’t Provide Anything”, with considerable justification. Given its manifest ineptitude and consequent unpopularity, the most important item on the agenda was to restore sovereignty to the Iraqis. This would require the drafting of a constitution and the organization of elections.
Most Iraqis did not want the drafting of a constitution to commence while they were under foreign occupation, for the occupier would have undue influence on the process. The whole idea left a bad taste in the mouth: It reminded historically tutored Iraqis of the constraints on their political freedom when the British set up the executive, legislative, and judiciary in the 1920s. The CPA, as Al-Ali shows, wanted the constitution to be drafted by an appointed body, “but the mere suggestion was anathema to many Iraqis: they recalled how the 1925 constitution, which had granted the king sweeping and undemocratic powers . . . had been drafted by a constituent assembly that was formed by the then-British occupation.” Most wanted the constitution to be drafted by elected representatives, a view seconded by the respected but until then quiet Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, with whose political authority the occupiers had not reckoned.
A constitution was ultimately drafted, but it was a sloppy affair. First, it was hurriedly put together under pressure from and in the presence of an outside power, the United States. Second, it granted weak powers to the state in a time of massive internal violence, when it was clear that the powers of the central authorities needed to be extensive. Third, it did not clearly regulate important matters such as command of the armed forces, something of critical importance in a country where draconian measures had to be taken in the past to ensure civilian control over the armed forces. It did not clearly define the relationship between the executive, legislative, and judiciary. Furthermore, the relationship between the central government and the regions, particularly as it pertained to control over natural resources, was left ambiguous. Al-Ali’s suggested remedies for resolving the constitutional shortcomings, such as calling upon a more representative body of Iraqis to redraft the 2005 constitution, are a case of too little, too late.
However, even if Iraq had been endowed with a better constitution, it is not clear that the authoritarianism and viciousness of the Maliki regime between 2010 and 2014 could have been prevented. Nor is it clear that an election system that reduced sectarian incentives instead of magnifying them would have made a decisive difference in the end. But now we will never know.
In any event, Iraq has fallen apart. Perhaps we should not underestimate the potency of Iraqi nationalism. Perhaps ethno-sectarianism has often been manufactured by foreigners (why did U.S. authorities insist on setting up the Governing Council of post-Saddam politics on a transparently sectarian basis?) and unscrupulous ethno-sectarian political entrepreneurs, and so is not indigenous. At this stage, none of this matters: Iraq is unlikely to be put together again.
Many decades ago, the noted political scientist and development expert Albert Hirschman wrote Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The basic premise is that members of an organization (in this case the citizens of a state) have two potential responses to an organization’s loss of effectiveness: They can voice their displeasure to improve the organization, or they can exit it and form another organization that satisfies their needs more effectively. In the case of Iraq, the people have been voicing their grievances for decades, most recently in violent ways. Is this because the “organization” lacks democratic procedures and norms, forcing what political scientists call “extra-parliamentary behavior”, or is it because the entire organization itself is unsound and has been from the very beginning? Even if the organization can be re-worked, the first order of business would be the rebuilding of the state’s coercive capacity and then the recovery of security and stability, followed by the restoration of basic services. Maybe then Iraqis can do something about democratic transformation. If the organization is structurally unsound, then logically it would be time for Iraqis to exit the existing organization and for the various members to go their separate ways.
The latter path is by far the more likely, but either choice promises a long and tortured path. Democracy did not destroy Iraq, nor in all likelihood could democracy have saved it. To have a democratic state one must first have a state; Iraq today just barely has the ruin of one. Was there a democratic moment, whether nine decades ago or one? It hardly seems to matter now.
1Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 23.
2Report by His Majesty’s Government on the Administration of Iraq for the Period April 1923–December 1924 (His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1925), p. 28.
3Extensive studies by the noted political scientist Isam al-Khafaji have questioned the validity of the Ba’athi regime’s achievements in this arena. See “The Myth of Iraqi Exceptionalism”, Middle East Policy (October 2000) and “In Search of Legitimacy: The Post-Rentier Iraqi State”, Contemporary Conflicts (March 26, 2004).