Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Iraq Debacle

It's been a week of political mistakes, but the horrendous crisis now unfolding in Iraq is less faux pas and more unmitigated catastrophe. The only thing that surprises about the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) militia pouring from fractured Syria into the north of the country is that it has take so long. Having been fought to a stand still by Assad's forces, why not take the road of least resistance and invade the weak, unstable neighbour? Depressingly, yet predictably, this Islamist incursion is getting read as confirmation of one's stance on Iraq. Stop the War says the crisis is the direct result of the US/UK invasion. Tony Blair disagrees. He would say that, wouldn't he?

Strangely, weirdly, both camps are right. Iraq, like much of the Middle East, was drawn up by the colonial office in 1920. It was administered from there until 1932 and remained a semi-colonial satrap of the empire until its monarchy was overthrown in 1958. All states that were formerly occupied by one of the imperial powers have a similar story. Post-independence it has been a struggle of securing economic development and establishing a unchallenged state authority in the territory it claims as sovereign. Some have managed it. Most haven't. Iraq is one such state.

It's common knowledge that Iraq was gerry-rigged across national and sectarian lines. Kurds and Arabs, Shia and Sunni, rival clans and tribes, an emergent urban bourgeoisie and land-owning sheikhs. The first 10 years of independence from the British saw a simmering resentment against a continued military and civilian presence, but also heavy instability. The Simele Massacre, Shia tribal uprisings, a revolt by Yazidi Kurds and, between 1936 and 1941, no less than five coups by the army. At the very beginning Iraq was coming undone from within.

The first Iraqi republic was established in 1958, and represented the first constitutional attempt to mould a state through consent. The coup that wiped away the monarchy in a hail of bullets established a tripartite revolutionary council of a Kurd, a Shia and a Sunni and among whom the presidency would rotate. Abd al-Karim Qasim, the coup leader, was prime minister and his cabinet comprised representatives of Iraq's main political movements, including the communists. The new regime promulgated equality of all citizens before the law, and emptied the country's jails of political prisoners. However, behind the scenes the so-called Free Officers - the army cadre who carried through the coup - were plagued with power struggles and manoeuvres. And the second big problem was the presence of the Iraqi Communist Party. For Arab nationalists and Ba'athists, their indulgence grew increasingly intolerable. After Qasim threatened to nationalise the British-American owned Iraqi Petroleum Company, the Ba'athists overthrew him in the 1963 CIA-backed coup. They themselves, however, did not assume power until 1968 when yet another putsch but the Ba'athists into power proper.

From 1968 to its eventual overthrow by the US/UK invasion 11 years ago, the Ba'ath Party under Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein from the outset was authoritarian, and became dictatorial as Hussein consolidated his grip. Yet the attempt to manage the contradictions that beset any nation-building project wasn't simply a matter of stupid brutality, though there was plenty of that. Alongside a semi-permanent state of internal war and an overblown secret police, the regime did push a formal secular equality that official state ideology pushed. Basically, in practice this amounted to a 'we don't care who you are as long as you obey'. Likewise, challenges to the regime were violently subdued regardless of ethnicity, sectarian proclivities or political persuasion. In Hussein's regime, there was a seamless consistency between increased rights for women, and the representation of different groups in the state apparatus, and the merciless repression of Kurdish nationalism and marsh Arab rebellion. This combination enabled Hussein to keep a lid on things even in the aftermath of the disastrous war with Iran, and the calamitous Gulf War. Subsequently, if anything, sanctions and sporadic bombings by the allies firmed up the regime.

Nevertheless, despite the demonstrable history of persistent and seemingly insurmountable division, when Bush and Blair invaded Iraq this was completely forgotten. The centrifugal pressures tearing the country burst open once coalition military tipped Ba'athism into its overdue grave. However, instead of welcoming Americans and the British as liberators, the occupying authorities immediately set about making the situation worse. Firstly, expelling practically the entire personnel of the old state apparatus from the new authority and the disbanding of the army immediately created a large constituency of well-connected people without any stake in the new set up. Second, the collapse of any form of state security allowed jihadis to flood into Iraq - ostensibly as a tragic, Islamist repeat of the International Brigades, but in practice tossing gallon loads of petrol onto the smouldering sectarian fire. And then there was the dumb anti-insurgency efforts of the occupying powers. For all the humanitarian spin back home, the US resorted to its Vietnam-era staple of overwhelming force and damn the consequences. Five minutes with a search engine will furnish you with footage of shooting and bombing. Falluja, the central Iraqi city which was carpet bombed and flooded with American troops after the killing and display of four Blackwater mercenaries epitomised, for many, US military strategy in Iraq.

In addition to unleashing an indiscriminate tidal wave of violence against the emerging insurgency, Paul Bremer - America's temporary viceroy - ordered the privatisation of absolutely everything on the state's books. The possibility of 100% foreign ownership of any asset got the nod. Repair contracts were also by and large granted to US companies. How meaningful is sovereignty when a state's economy got parcelled out overseas? How can development ever get back on track when the government is not master of its own destiny within its borders?

This is how Blair and Stop the War can both be right. Blair - this would have happened anyway had he not enabled the invasion of Iraq. And Stop the War - the war, overthrow and occupation exacerbated existing tensions and left it prey to successive waves of instability.

Weakened though it is, the Iraqi state is not entirely without agency. Since returning to power in 2010 and in contrast to his first term, Nouri Maliki has led a coalition comprised of Shia parties. He had also accused former vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, a leading member of the Sunni al-Iraqiyya coalition of funding insurgencies - the charges stuck and he has been sentenced to death in abstentia. If there is substance to the allegations or whether it's a straight frame up, it does not give off the vibes of a government concerned with national unity. Furthermore, to buy off radicalised Shias, Maliki has developed close relations with Iran. To be seen closely dependent on a non-Arab Shia theocracy can't help matters. Nor can scenes of many hundreds of Shia men joining the Iraqi army to fight Sunnis. And now Tehran has publicly pledged to assist Baghdad in turning back the ISIS incursion, you are left with the bizarre possibility of the Ayatollah and Uncle Sam taking the field against a common foe.

In context then, there is no quick fix for this. Pointing out how this vindicates opposition to the Iraq war, or validates the thwarted air strikes on Assad's Syria could do wonders for one's sense of self-righteousness, but every little else. Yes, Britain and America do have a moral obligation to the people of Iraq, which is exactly why military force should be ruled out. US drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan have inflamed tensions and grievances in those unhappy lands. Deploying them against supposed ISIS targets in northern Iraq are likely to extract a civilian blood price. That is unacceptable.

Yet, there is something both governments can do. As is well known, Saudi Arabia has been funding its sectarian co-religionists in Syria against Assad as part of its struggle with Iran for regional hegemony. As an even more extreme Sunni theocracy, Saudi money has poured into the hands of ISIS and other broadly aligned Islamist militias. For King Abdullah and his Wahabi cronies, this is a civil and holy war for Middle Eastern Islam. Quite how we arrived at a situation where a US/UK client regime has been allowed by its masters at the State Department and Whitehall to challenge their interests in Iraq says everything about the decadence and incompetence of our respective foreign policy establishments. If Obama's offer of help to Maliki is serious, he can render a service not just to him but the people of Syria and Iraq by forcing Saudia Arabia to turn off the flow of money and weapons to ISIS. It's not a solution, but it would be a start.


Speedy said...

Its not a solution because they cannot do it. While we were looking the other way Saudi cut loose from Western reliance - it has the money and power to do what it pleases. And it pleases Saudi to carve out a Salafist state. Just as it pleases Saudi to promulgate Salafist propaganda through the Muslim communities from Karachi to Bradford.

The West is now more akin to the Ottoman Empire - a paper tiger consumed by self doubt and decadent self delusion, being exploited by foreign cultures, from China to the Middle East, who admire only its wealth and have nothing but contempt for its values.

Great movements of people too come across "mare nostrum" echoing the great demographic changes that herald the death of empires, although perhaps Byzantium is a better comparison - a culture hanging on for perhaps another thousand years, unrecognisable, cut to death by a thousand compromises, but still calling itself Rome.

In any case we're all fucked ;-)

Phil said...

Ir'a interesting. We've got a hegemon in retreat and another (China) rising. Yet the latter is not, at least not yet, interested in overt plays in the Middle Eastern game. That said as a lot of Iraq's oil flows East to Beijing that could start intervening diplomatically, if they're not already at it behind the scenes.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dick Gregory said...

Pointing out how this vindicates opposition to the Iraq war, or validates the thwarted air strikes on Assad's Syria could do wonders for one's sense of self-righteousness, but every little else.
Very little else. Assad's airstirkes have barely stopped from then until now, it is they that have killed tens of thousands and uprooted millions. The proposed response was never going to bring Hell to Syria, they were a response of governments that had to be seen to do something about Assad's chemical attacks, but put it to their legislatures without saying what action they would take, enabling the most lurid suggestions of a rerun of Iraq to become the commonsense of the time, and get Cameron and Obama off the hook of having to do anything. That's why Cameron immediately said there wouldn't be another vote, and your prediction of the time that this left him seriously damaged was completely off the mark.
Assad has brought hell to Syria, and the answer to that is to empower Syrians by giving them the weapons necessary to stop the air attacks. If this had been done a year ago the shift of many rebels towards more Islamic formations would have halted, and the ability of the Assad-collaborating ISIS to parasite on the areas liberated from Assad would have been non-existent. Rather than complaining about self-righteousness when the prediction that not supporting the FSA would lead to all this instability comes true does not become you, maybe thinking about where you went wrong, and what Syrians might think would be a better way to go.