Iraq: Division Accomplished

Source: IPS News

Few in Washington want to talk much about Iraq these days.

Eager to avoid refighting the intense political battles over Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, both Democrats and Republicans seem to have tacitly agreed on a set of lowest-common-denominator premises: the initial decision to invade may have been questionable, but the 2007 surge worked, and Iraq is now on a slow-but-sure path to recovery.

Stability and prosperity will gradually improve, or maybe they won’t, but in any case Iraqis will have to sort out their problems for themselves.

Reidar Visser’s forcefully argued new book, “A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010” (Just World Books, 2010), takes aim at this complacent consensus. His pessimistic assessment is that the “U.S. fail[ed] to exploit a real window of hopefulness in Iraq between July 2008 and January 2010, thanks above all to the combined illiteracy of the Bush and Obama administrations” concerning Iraqi politics.

As a result, what halting political progress there has been since 2003 is now being reversed, as the possibility of a nationally-based and non-sectarian Iraqi politics slips away.

Most writing in English about Iraq tends to be directed almost exclusively through the prism of the security situation, dwelling on body counts and suicide bombings while tacking on perfunctory warnings about the necessity of vaguely-defined “political progress” at the end.

The strength of Visser’s book, which collects and expands writings published between 2005 and 2010 on his websites and Gulf Analysis, is precisely its in-depth exploration of the political situation and its sharply-drawn conclusions about what sort of political progress is necessary for Iraq.

Visser makes no attempt to conceal his sympathies. In his view any viable political solution must be relatively centralised rather than partitioned, broadly nationalist rather than narrowly sectarian, indigenously-rooted rather than dependent on Iran.

These views are themselves rooted in his somewhat revisionist take on Iraqi history. Most amateur observers of Iraqi politics – the present reviewer included – have been brought up on the familiar story that Iraq was an artificial creation stitched together by the British after World War I from three distinct and rather incompatible Ottoman provinces (one Sunni, one Shiite, and one Kurdish).

By this interpretation, sectarian conflict is virtually hard-wired into Iraq’s DNA, and the natural temptation is to look for a solution either in an authoritarian strongman or in some form of federalism or partition along ethnic and sectarian lines.

In what is perhaps the book’s most interesting chapter, Visser argues against this “artificiality” thesis. For one thing, he suggests, Iraq’s supposedly distinct constituent parts have always been far more heterogeneous, both ethnically and religiously, than is widely supposed. More than that, Iraqi nationalism has been a widespread and viable phenomenon dating back to Ottoman times.

To this day, therefore, outside observers consistently underestimate the level of allegiance felt by Iraqis to the Iraqi national state as such, and overstate the degree of popular support among the Iraqi people for various federalist and separatist alternatives.

Visser is excoriating in his criticism of various public figures, most notably U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and author and diplomat Peter Galbraith, who have urged forms of “soft partition” for Iraq. While fiercely critical of the initial 2003 invasion and the Bush administration’s handling of the war, Visser suggests that the Democrats, in their zeal to arrive at an alternative to the Bush approach, have been rather indiscriminate and insufficiently critical about the alternatives they have proposed.

More than simply resulting in faulty analysis, Visser suggests, misconceptions about Iraqi sectarianism have concrete implications for policy, leading the U.S. to devote inordinate attention to identifying representative leaders of each group and bringing them “inside the tent” – arrangements that often come at the expense of effective governance at the national level.

In line with his emphasis on the necessity of a centralised nationalist government, Visser is generally sceptical of what he terms the “centrifugal forces” pushing for greater decentralisation, such as the Kurdish parties and particularly the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, formerly SCIRI) – the Shiite Islamist party with close ties to Iran.

One of the ironies of U.S. policy, Visser notes, is that although the U.S. has frequently agonised about Iranian influence in Iraq, for much of the war it stubbornly refused to look beyond ISCI to other potential Shiite partners who were more distant from Iran.

Foremost among these, he argues, were the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr – who, despite his frequent description in the Western media as an “Iranian proxy”, had little relationship with Tehran until U.S. hostility pushed him into the Iranian orbit. As a result of its myopic reliance on ISCI, the U.S. actually ended up empowering precisely the pro-Iranian Shiites whom it claimed to fear.

In any case, the brief window beginning in 2008 when a viable non-sectarian politics was possible has in Visser’s view likely passed. In the wake of the 2010 elections – which were marred by the disastrous de-Baathification campaign masterminded by onetime U.S. favourite Ahmed Chalabi – he concludes that “Iraq’s democratization could hardly be described as anything other than a failure.”

There is little to find fault with in Visser’s thorough and depressing book, although it would have been useful to see him examine his core analytic assumptions in more depth. He generally treats achieving a strong, centralised, nationalist Iraqi government as a self-evidently worthwhile goal, and it may very well be.

Yet this sort of government is, of course, perfectly compatible with a great deal of authoritarianism and brutality. In addition to arguing against sectarians and partitionists, therefore, Visser could usefully have dwelled a bit more on how a strong central state might safeguard against, or at least mitigate, such authoritarian tendencies.

On the whole, however, Visser’s account is well worth reading for anyone interested in the fate of the U.S. adventure in Iraq. Without understanding the failures of U.S. policy thus far, he shows, there can be no realistic hope for a better future.