Reidar Visser has an intriguing blog post today, titled, “To Hell with Iraq: Ten Years of Western Ignorance, Incompetence, and Bureaucratic Madness”. In the post, this experienced analyst of Iraq’s internal politics (and the author of my company’s 2010 publication A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010) makes this important argument:
The suggestion that the Iraq War served as inspiration for the Arab Spring comes across as ahistorical in the extreme. By 2006, the Arab world had largely concluded the war in Iraq was a disaster. If anything, by the end of 2010, with sectarian fronts hardening in Iraq again, this impression had only grown stronger. In fact, a cogent argument in the opposite direction can plausibly be made: If it hadn’t been for the increased sectarian polarization in Iraq under the Obama administration, the Arab Spring – a natural result of stale authoritarian regimes crumbling under their own weight – might well have taken on a less sectarian direction, with fewer opportunities for regional states like Iran and Qatar to fish in sectarian waters.
In his blog post, Visser reflects with his usual wisdom on the extremely tragic situation that Iraqis have lived through over recent years– and that they continue to live through today, ten years after Pres. George W. Bush’s invasion of their country. He also writes in the post about the sad toll that the past few years have taken on him personally.
In what Visser writes about Iraq it is probably appropriate– since Pres. Barack Obama is still in office– that he places particular emphasis on the serious mistakes that he sees Obama as having made in Iraq policy since he came into office.
In 2009, quite despite the fact that the Iraqis themselves for the first time since 2003 seemed to free themselves from that stranglehold of ethno-sectarian identities, complex ideas about Iraq came to receive even less attention in Washington once Obama was in power. Not only was Joe Biden’s simplistic theme of a tripartite Iraq alive in a conceptual way among Democrats, who kept focusing on “a power-sharing government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds”. Increasingly, one could also get the sense that the idea of Shiite-dominated Iraq gravitating towards the Iranian zone of influence – possibly in exchange for some kind of compromise on Israel, nuclear, or both – was seen not only as inevitable in DC, but in fact as desirable. Quite in line with this, Obama did absolutely nothing to intervene when the climate of Iraqi politics deteriorated dramatically in a sectarian direction during the de-Baathification antics prior to the March 2010 parliamentary elections. At the annual conference of the combined Iraq units of the CIA and DIA during the government-formation process of autumn 2010, I argued against the idea of a strategic policy council as window dressing that would never achieve anything in the real world. For their part, Washington voices maintained the council would “make Sunnis happy” and thereby form a sound basis for a power-sharing government “with all major sects and ethnicities represented”.
He then writes a little about the international network of police agencies that he believes have (with the involvement of some U.S. government agencies) been stalking him over recent years, writing that he was shut out of the U.S. Embassy in Amman in May 2011.
Still convinced that some forces in Washington might be ready to listen, I continued to publish articles with suggestions for how the Obama administration could exploit the SOFA negotiations to create political dynamics in Iraq more favourable to US and Iraqi interests alike, at the expense of regional powers. Obama and his closest Iraq aides appeared uninterested in such potential complications for their withdrawal scheme. The US military left Iraq in shambles in December 2011.
As my travails continue, reports from Iraq are getting increasingly bleak. I feel vindicated regarding my warnings about the precarious and hollow nature of the November 2010 government-formation agreement and the subsequent failure of the US government to use bilateral negotiations to break the Shiite alliance into smaller pieces that would be less reliant upon Iran. Of course, when many pundits in Washington see the maintenance of such a sectarian alliance as a virtue, it is unsurprising that they should be steering the country directly into Iranian arms. Unsurprising, too, is it that the preservation of the Shiite alliance in Iraq has played a significant role in keeping the Iraqi government so closely aligned with the regime in Syria during the civil strife that erupted in 2011.
For their part, by way of response to these new trends, the Sunnis of western Iraq have taken unprecedented steps in the direction of federalism. Importantly, though, this is not a linear development that has evolved since the time Biden prescribed his partition fix in 2006. In 2009, these tribes were talking about forming a coalition with Maliki, precisely along the more non-sectarian ways of politics that I and others had been advocating. It was only the sectarian atmosphere of the 2010 parliamentary elections and widespread disillusion following the subsequent failed power-sharing deal that precipitated this new radicalism on the part of Iraq’s Sunnis – a trend only emphasised by recent defections from the Maliki government by ministers associated with the Sunni areas. Of course, to a considerable extent, this development can be described as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy after Western commentators and policy-makers have played their part in impressing upon Iraqis the significance of their sectarian identity in order to get listened to in the post-2003 chaos. If there is a lesson from the Iraq War, Fareed Zakaria, it is to stop thinking and talking in simplistic and reductionist terms about places that simply are too complex for your talkshow format.
A note on the broader regional atmosphere seems in order here as well: The suggestion that the Iraq War served as inspiration for the Arab Spring comes across as ahistorical in the extreme. By 2006, the Arab world had largely concluded the war in Iraq was a disaster. If anything, by the end of 2010, with sectarian fronts hardening in Iraq again, this impression had only grown stronger. In fact, a cogent argument in the opposite direction can plausibly be made: If it hadn’t been for the increased sectarian polarization in Iraq under the Obama administration, the Arab Spring – a natural result of stale authoritarian regimes crumbling under their own weight – might well have taken on a less sectarian direction, with fewer opportunities for regional states like Iran and Qatar to fish in sectarian waters.
Ten years after the beginning of the war, Iraq is in the midst of preparing for local elections set to go ahead on 20 April, the seventh such mass-scale polling event since the beginning of the war. There will be plenty of voices suggesting that these superficial steps towards democracy indicate the war was a wonderful success. But look closer, and things are not as satisfactory. Maliki’s State of Law alliance now looks more like a sectarian list than ever, for the first time incorporating Shiite heavyweights like Badr and Fadila. Even more important is the phenomenon of three all-Shiite alliance in areas north of Baghdad with Shiite minorities (Diyala, Salahaddin and Mosul). Four years ago, during the last local elections of January 2009, Maliki not only ran separate from the other Shiites here. He also engaged in significant coalition-building efforts with Sunnis in the period after the elections, something that seems rather unthinkable in today’s polarised climate. No major Shiite list has even bothered to run in Anbar where there are no Shiite voters. (Reports today say the provincial elections in Anbar and Nineveh will be postponed for a maximum of 6 months due to security concerns.)
And take another indication of potential success: The recent passage of the annual budget by the Iraqi parliament. It is true that Maliki managed to collect enough votes for this to reach just above the critical 163 mark. However, he did this mainly by relying on sectarian support from the Sadrists and ensuring only a few secular and Sunni deputies who changed their mind in the last minute (reportedly from the Mutlak bloc of Iraqiyya as well as the Free Iraqiyya and White breakaway blocs of Iraqiyya). That does not send any strong signal about a viable parliamentary base for the Iraqi PM. Compare with July 2008 and the parliamentary vote on similar issues regarding the relationship between the central government and the Kurdistan federal region, when Shiites and Sunnis were far more united during the debate on special electoral arrangements for the disputed city of Kirkuk. Whereas the recent passage of the annual budget was basically about a majority of Shiites winning over a handful of Sunnis and secularists in the last minute, voting patterns in 2008 testified to the existence of a broader cross-sectarian alliance.