America’s involvement in Iraq has often been called by some strategic experts as the worst strategic decision since the Vietnam War. The continuing U.S. efforts to transform the authoritarian, multi-ethnic, and religiously divided Iraq into a liberal, democratic, capitalist, and secular nation-state is facing considerable difficulty and this essay aims to explain why the concept of Western liberal democracy can never take root in this ancient land and what should be the best way forward to restore stability and governance in Iraq.
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The essay first explains the dynamics of ethnic composition of Iraq and how the cultural characteristics of Mideast societies make it difficult for them to adopt Western concepts such as democracy. The essay then explains the importance of understanding the age old differences between the Shias and the Sunnis and how these are irreconcilable and thus must be factored to understand the difficulties in establishing democracy in Iraq. The essay then highlights the serious effects of initial American policies of debaathification and its concomitant effect in the ensuing civil war.
The Iran factor is then explained to state that any hope of stability in Iraq will necessarily require the US to mend its relations with Iran.
The essay concludes by stating that the choices before the Obama administration are indeed few, with a precipitous withdrawal not being an option as it would result in a dangerous vacuum. The best option would be to carry out a phased withdrawal from Iraq, stabilizing the present Iraqi establishment and letting the Iraqis decide for themselves which form of political system they wished to adopt.
America’s involvement in Iraq has often been called by some strategic experts as the worst strategic decision since the Vietnam War. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, America declared a ‘War on Terror’ and invaded Afghanistan to root out the perpetrators of the Twin Towers terror attacks. “Today most Western policymakers, who are children of this era, cannot conceive of the possibility that their own words and deeds could lead to evil, not good” (Madhubani 37). This statement holds good for the American decision to invade Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. Whatever be the merits or the demerits of the decision, Iraq today poses formidable foreign policy challenges to the Obama administration. The continuing U.S. efforts to transform the authoritarian, multi-ethnic, and religiously divided Iraq into a liberal, democratic, capitalist, and secular nation-state is facing considerable difficulty and this essay aims to explain why the concept of Western liberal democracy can never take root in this ancient land and what should be the best way forward to restore stability and governance in Iraq.
Iraq, a Muslim dominated country located in the Middle East between Iran and Kuwait has always had a tumultuous past. Originally part of the Ottoman empire, this country of 23 million, consists of a majority of Shia Muslims(60-65%), followed by Sunni Muslims (32-37%), the Kurds (15-20%) and a sprinkling of Christians and lesser sects (CIA World Fact Book 1). Since its independence, the country has been dominated by the Baathist party, a Sunni dominated grouping, which ruled with an iron hand over the majority Shia population. Saddam Hussein was the latest in the line of Sunni military leaders in power in Iraq. Iraq had never been a democratic country. In fact other than one aberration, Turkey, all Islamic states without exception have some form of monarchy or religious clergy as the dominant political entities. In the Middle East and West Asia, political identities tend “to be drawn instead either from one’s religious affiliation or one’s local kin group—be it the tribe, clan, village, neighborhood, sect, region, or professional association” (Friedman 98). This has been the norm for centuries which cannot be replaced with the modern, new fangled ideas of democracy in a short span of time. Huntington with reference to Mideast cultures himself admitted that “cultural characteristics and differences are less mutable and hence less easily compromised and resolved than political and economic ones” (5). Thus to create a political system in Iraq mirroring the Western liberal democratic model may well be impossible.
The Shia-Sunni divide is rooted in an ancient past where the differences are basically ideological and can never be reconciled. Peace in Iraq traditionally had been enforced through the utilization of strong arm tactics. Fear was the key that kept the minority Sunni sect in power and in control of the majority Shia population. The Baath party under Saddam Hussein maintained their iron grip and at the same time held some very progressive views. “The Iraqi regime, though not admitting that it was in any sense anti-Islamic, was at that time committed to a secular, nationalist ideology” (Lewis 152). Iraq under Saddam Hussein had a working government no matter how brutal and it had a civic system which delivered albeit, with harshness towards those who defaulted.
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Different cultures have different yardsticks of what constitutes human rights as the Chinese and the Iranians would take pains to tell and that the concept of universal equality and human rights do not sit well in traditional societies of the Middle East and the Orient. This fundamental difference in mindset and culture is a difficult concept for Western sensibilities to understand or countenance and it is this ‘civilizational difference’ that has led to many conflicts. The removal of Saddam Hussein, unleashed the old animosities between the Shias and the Sunnis. The first few serious missteps such as disbanding the Iraqi army and ‘debaathification’ of the political class left a large section of the population without employment, with plenty of arms and many an inducements from other players resulting in an internecine conflict bordering on a civil war.
The removal of Saddam Hussein and the ‘debaathifcation’ process handed Iran a strategic advantage without even firing a shot. At one point, Iran now had a Shia majority government in power in Iraq, which it could manipulate giving rise to the fears of a future ‘Shia Super state’ in the Middle East. Iran realizing the trouble that the US was facing has upped its support to the Shia rebel groups in Iraq who are at odds with the US armed forces. A steady supply of arms, ammunition, money and training of insurgents continues to make its way from Tehran. American strategies in Iraq can never succeed unless it finds ways and means to mend its relations with Iran. The fact that the strategic fulcrum of West Asia had always rested on the ancient kingdom of Persia is a lesson from history which the American foreign policy makers must relearn if they wish to achieve any modicum of stability in Iraq. The presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq is a temporary phenomenon. West Asian and Middle East communities coalesce around their clans and tribes and do not like interference from outsiders even if they be of the same religion. Pan-Islamism as a concept is acceptable to Muslims as long as it does not impinge their home turf. Thus the real challenges for the Obama administration would be to find ways to stop the civil war which lies at the heart of the present instability in Iraq.
The choices that are now available to the US are stark. To withdraw precipitously from Iraq would lead to a renewed civil war. A withdrawal of the US from the region to concentrate on Afghanistan will leave a power vacuum in the region, which is sure to be filled in by Iran. Complete withdrawal may also enable Al Qaeda to stage a recovery in Iraq where its fortunes have been on low ebb for the past few months. Ground realities thus dictate that American forces would be required in Iraq for a long time to come. The aim should be a gradual withdrawal of troops, revolving around stabilizing the Iraqi establishment becoming resilient enough to handle internal and external threats. The low intensity civil war will continue for some time to come till the various demographic factions within the country find social and political equilibrium. “The presumption of Westerners that other peoples who modernize must become “like us” is a bit of Western arrogance” (Huntington 64) must be put away and the vaunted American ideology ‘to spread democracy everywhere’ must take a back seat. Considering the social and cultural environment, one can, over time, expect a quasi western democratic model to emerge or a slide back to dictatorship or an Iranian style religious theocracy. Whatever be the form of government, the best American foreign policy initiative would be to let the Iraqis determine for themselves which form of political system to adopt. That in essence would be the best option for America in Iraq.
CIA World Fact Book. Iraq. 2009. Web.
Friedman, Thomas L. “Hama Rules.” Friedman, Thomas L. From Beirut to Jerusalem. Sydney: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1995. 73-105.
Huntington, Samuel. “If Not Civilizations, What? Paradigms of the Post-Cold War World.” Foreign Affairs (1993): 56-67.
“The Clash of Civilizations.” Foreign Affairs (1993): 1-25.
Lewis, Bernard. Islam and the West. NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Madhubani, Kishore. “The Dangers of Decadence: What the Rest can teach the West.” Foreign Affairs (1993): 36-40.