international analysis and commentary

Iraq: the end of a nation-state?


Ten years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the future of Iraq looks grim. The high expectations of Iraq proving itself to be the “Prussia of the Middle East”, confirming its strength as a society and re-directing its development towards productive ends, remain woefully unfulfilled. Instead, today’s Iraq is torn between creeping autocracy, endemic corruption, wanton lawlessness, and a daily death count rivaling many full-fledged conflicts. Partition, now, is no longer viewed as a dire punishment by many, but a sought-after reward. How did this happen and, more importantly, is there a way out of the continuing attrition of state and society?

Of the nation-states carved in the aftermath of the Great War out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire, none was more heterogeneous, or even arbitrary, than Iraq, with its historically distinct regions, economically and demographically different cities, diverse ethnic and religious communities, and pronounced differences in urban, rural, and pastoral modes of living. Yet, by the 1970s, half a century into its existence, and despite destructive coups and revolutions, Iraq was considered a positive proof of the success of the Middle Eastern nation-state system. While an ethnic separatist Kurdish rebellion still brewed at the periphery, Iraqis in the center, Kurds included, experienced what seemed to be an assertive and proud Iraqi identity growing from and feeding into a social and economic dynamism for which the autocratic regime was more of a nuisance than an impediment. It was a hopeful and promising time for Iraq, but also a precarious one – factional identity elements had been contained, even marginalized, but not eradicated. In the absence of a historically-rooted social contract to govern the relation between state and society, the regime sought to confirm national identity through the  utilitarian recourse to an irredentist ideology that – paradoxically – would transcend the nation-state, while developing an aspiring totalitarian narrative in which the nation is subsumed into the party, and the party into the leader.

If, to manage internal challenges, Saddam Hussein had ruled over a regime based on loyalty and fear, the Islamic revolution in Iran led him to a qualitative escalation in repressive methods and brutality. The previous confidence of his regime in the “Arabness” of Shi’a Iraqis as a means to solicit their loyalty in the “Arab versus Kurd” internal question was then rattled by the vocal call to Shi’a solidarity and revolution emanating from Tehran. In the subsequent two decades, in an elusive quest for permanence, the Saddam regime engaged in unraveling and reversing all the gains achieved by Iraq as a national commonwealth, through atavistic recourse to factionalism – religious, ethnic, and tribal. In these efforts, the regime was aided and abetted, in part deliberately and in part inadvertently, by a range of local, regional, and international forces. The most notable and detrimental of these forces proved to be the 1990s international sanctions regime – which devastated Iraq’s middle class, the locus of the country’s integrated narrative.

And yet, by 2003, as bruised as Iraq was as a society, the damage was neither complete nor irreversible. The shared misery of life under despotism had insured the survival of Iraqi identity. However, a road paved with good intentions, jointly built by the successors of Saddam and their Western interlocutors, has since ushered Iraqis into a further descent from which it may be proven nearly impossible to return.

The list of (mis-)steps that contributed to the decay of Iraq, as a polity and a society, is long: the disbanding of the military, the ill-conceived and ill-applied de-ba‘thification” process; a parachuted constitution; an over-reliance on exile groups; unchecked corruption; nepotistic advantages and crony governance; the inability to counter ubiquitous Iranian influence; the failure to secure regional Arab support. All were avoidable factors that contributed to the disillusionment of a population that had welcomed, even if with trepidation, the end of dictatorship. From the US perspective – leaving aside the debate about whether the intervention in Iraq was justified on national interest considerations – the country’s willingness to engage in a sustained peacemaking and nation-building effort, with no compelling sense of urgency, was tested and found lacking. Tactical successes notwithstanding, the United States abandoned its Iraq experiment with only the frail appearance of completion. The Obama administration had fulfilled the electoral promise of ending the “war of choice” undertaken by the Bush administration. President Obama may thus claim integrity of words and deeds. From an Iraqi perspective, however, the distinction between successive US administrations does not hold. The United States has not lived up to the “You break it, you own it” standard as stated by its former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The US military impact on Iraqi population was less than exemplary. If “force protection” stipulations could be understood as governing the regular behavior of US forces, with its disproportionate lethal effect on the general population, Iraqis were at a loss comprehending the lack of consequence for irregular behavior of US personnel – rape, wanton killings, even massacres. The 2004 “Second Battle of Fallujah” was widely understood as a punitive action that killed hundreds of civilians, using chemical weapons (white phosphorus) – exactly the type of armament from the use of which the US intervention in Iraq was supposed to save the civilian population. The depletion of US credibility negatively affected the support for universal values and contributed to the retrenchment to factional refuges.

The most dramatic mistake experienced by the new Iraq is undoubtedly the marginalization of the Sunni community. While the Saddam regime had sought to recruit this community as its second stratum, regional, tribal, ideological and religious differences within this community commanded his regime to engage in drastic communitarian engineering – eliminating institutions, marginalizing leaderships, introducing dogma, and creating dependencies. Once again, the process was far from complete in 2003. The new Iraq conspired to complete Saddam’s project – or at least allow malevolent forces to complete it. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, triumphalist narratives by openly sectarian political forces identified Sunni Iraqis collectively as enemies of the new order. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani remained steadfast in commanding the Shi’a faithful not to fall prey, through retaliation, to the Al-Qaeda attempts at plunging the country in polarizing civil war. However, his insistence was eventually ignored, and a full-fledged civil war in 2006-2007 claimed many victims, and the de facto divorce of much of Sunni Iraqis from the new Iraq project.

The radicalization efforts undertaken by Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq failed to yield the desired result of a jihadist haven – due to considerable push back from Sunni tribes. However, the emerging polity in Baghdad – dominated by Shi’a identity politics – was unwilling to accommodate an alternative that would have assimilated segments of this community into the new Iraq. The result was continuing marginalization, with Baghdad-based Sunni politicians deftly balancing the potential for radicalization in their community and regional dissatisfaction with Iraq’s central government to gain leverage and credit.

The dysfunctional structures of the Baghdad government avoided total collapse through the reliance on two sources of support. The material influence of Iran – only thinly disguised as a primary decision broker in Baghdad, and the moral authority of Sistani – still a “kingmaker” whose primary concern is to minimize damage. Yet, Baghdad succumbed to almost becoming the haven of intra-communal Shi’a identity politics, even with the permanent veneer of a national agenda. In return, Irbil, seat of the Kurdistan Regional government, drifted incrementally towards de facto, albeit muted, independence.

Amidst this accelerated descent towards the dissolution of Iraq as a nation-state came an unexpected uprising in Sunni-majority areas. The grievances were communitarian – protesters objected to the fact that the jailed population is overwhelmingly Sunni, that their regions were subject to abuse by the security apparatus while public services are denied. But the platform was distinctly national: the protesters addressed other Iraqis, and other Iraqis responded – as citizens, as individuals. It was a moment of opportunity upon which a wise government would have capitalized to change the momentum of national disintegration. Unfortunately, Iraq demonstrated that it does not have such a government. Long delays in responding to demands allowed parties with much to lose from national positive developments to devise new approaches. Convinced of the success of Ba‘thists and Jihadists in infiltrating the protests, the Baghdad government resorted to repression. The spiraling effect of the subsequent events may have terminated the “Iraqi Spring” as a moment of national potential and reset it as another milestone on the road to a fragmented communitarian order to replace the nation-state.

The end of Iraq as a nation-state may not yet be inevitable. But the leadership needed to counter this dire possibility seems to be lacking for intrinsic reasons. As for the outside influences, the United States still has a role to play: Washington’s capacity and/or interest in Iraq may have reached its limits, but its responsibility should not. You break it, you own it.