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Middle East and Africa

The Price of Imperial Hubris

In Iraq the American project, aggravated by local responsibilities, has had devastating effects: it created a link between jihadism and secular anti-Western movements and it injected an ethnic-religious sectarianism that has lacerated the socio-political fabric of the country

This article was published in Oasis 19. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-02-25 15:09:40

Seen in perspective, one can say of the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was tenaciously wanted by the President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, that everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. All the errors that could have been made have been made. The certainty and the ambitions (or to be more sincere the wishful thinking) that accompanied the Bush administration at the beginning of its Iraqi adventure soon vanished, giving way to a growing sense of frustration and powerlessness.

 

Many analysts have spoken about imperial hubris, that is to say that sense of omnipotence, pride that unleashed the anger of the gods who intervened in a resentful way to punish the overweening classical heroes. In the case of Iraq, however, there is no point in troubling the gods: the catastrophic failure of the United States in Iraq – which first lacerated the international community and then led the country to fall into anarchy and violence and lastly weakened the super power itself – can be very well explained with reference to the chain of lies, errors, amateurism and incapacity of the people involved. But it would be wrong to put all the blame on the Americans: the tragic difficulties of the post-war period in Iraq were also aggravated in a clear way by what local and regional actors did. The new Iraqi political class that emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein showed that it was not up to its task and it was characterised by corruption, sectarianism and personal ambitions; the countries of the region – some more than others – acted in Iraq with a cynical and miserably selfish approach, thereby contributing to sectarian violence.

 

The Failure of Washington

 

The war in Iraq was strenuously wanted by Washington and justified in a not very convincing way by the need to remove a danger for the world, by fears about the presence of weapons of mass destruction (which it was known did not exist) and by the wish to ‘export democracy’. For many of those who were opposed to this war, amongst whom France, Germany, Russia and the Arab allies of the United States of America, the motives were much less noble and were connected with the wish of America to control a country of key importance in the Middle East from a geopolitical and geo-economic point of view.

 

The strategy of the Anglo-American forces envisaged a very brief campaign: easy land battles during which the Iraqi elite troops would be destroyed and hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be taken prisoner. In reality, there was very little real fighting: the Iraqi troops avoided clashes and melted away. A large part of the soldiers simply went back to their homes (often taking with them their own weapons): it was as though a large part of the Iraqi people in practice remained neutral during the conflict. More than an authentic war, reference was made to a triumphant procession. But the problems of disastrous planning by the Americans, a shortage of troops, contrasts between the Department of State and the Pentagon, the arrogance of many White House advisers, and the lack of an overall view of the real needs of the country tragically appeared very soon.

 

The Anglo-American forces of occupation – even before the official end of the conflict – were faced with extremely predictable problems but ones that were stolidly ignored during the planning of the campaign. With the flight of Saddam and the Baathist leadership, the central structures of the regime completely collapsed. When the armed forces also melted away, in the cities of Iraq, and above all else in Baghdad, the population engaged in systematic looting of every government or public institution. The few Western soldiers that there were did not intervene and confined themselves to defending the Ministry for Internal Affairs and the Ministry for Oil, as well as the presidential palaces which were to host the American administration of the country (the Coalition Provisional Authority – CPA). All the institutions of production and administration of Iraq were massively damaged and ended up by being literally ‘cannibalised’, with enormous quantities of arms and oil being stolen. Within a few weeks Iraq, without any leadership, became paralysed and the population became increasingly hostile towards the Western ‘liberators’. Only in the North, in the Kurdish areas, did the presence of the peshmerga impede the collapse of the state apparatus.

 

Before the invasion, Washington had imagined the creation of a ‘light’ transitory government made up of trusted Iraqis who would for the most part be co-opted and were to flank the CPA. Obsessed by the concept of private initiative and diffident towards anything having to do with the state, the White House advisers imagined the recreation of a state whose institutions would be reduced to the minimum, thereby fostering a massive privatisation, something that demonstrated how little they understood the complex reality of the Middle East.

 

As soon as he had arrived, the head of the CPA, Paul Bremer, made some mistakes that turned out to be fatal. The first of these – following the suggestions of Iraqi expatriates on whom he lent – was the De-Baathification of all the political-administrative institutions of the country. The second was the total disbanding of the Iraqi armed forces, the security services and the intelligence services. These two decisions, to which was added a third, which was bound up with an unrealistic plan of economic liberalisation, brought every managerial and administrative structure in Iraq to its knees, leaving hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats, soldiers, policemen and men of the armed services without pay and without prospects. Many of them ended up over the next few years by strengthening the front hostile to the new Iraqi order. Above all else, although the first ordinance was welcomed positively by a large part of the population, the second and the third had an immediate negative impact on millions of Iraqis. The dominant idea of the Bush Administration was that Iraq had a statist economy similar to that of Eastern Europe; down there the methods used after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the East had to be employed, that is to say massive privatisations and liberalisations, without engaging in long-term planning. This was an idea very distant from the much more complex socio-economic reality of the Middle East and Iraq. But this vision had another root which was much less noble, that is say to favour – without tenders – the great American corporations so as to set in motion the work of the gigantic programme of reconstruction of the devastated infrastructures of the country and to assure security – which was in fact privatised – given the increasingly precarious conditions in which people worked.

 

The Attempt to Reconstruct National Institutions

 

However, with the increase in political dissent and military difficulties, Washington was forced to grant greater concessions than it wished to those members of Iraqi society that were less close to its policies, first of all the Shiites. Thus in the early spring of 2004 there was a partial transfer of power to a provisional government while awaiting the election and a new Constitution. This process of institutional reconstruction was completed in 2005 amidst growing difficulties: on the one hand, the country was falling into the chaos of violence unleashed by the jihadist militias; on the other, the ethnic-religious fracture lines between Kurds, Arab Shiites and Arab Sunnis were polarising into a violent sectarianism which ran the risk of lacerating the country. The American project of a federal Iraq was itself ending up by institutionalising the ethnic-sectarian fractures of Iraqi society.

 

The result of this effort towards a confused institutional reconstruction was – at the end of the year – the approval of the Constitution, which had ‘been cooked in a microwave oven’, as was observed, that is to say written in a very great hurry under pressure from the Americans. It ended up by leaving unclear the most controversial questions. New parliamentary elections were held on 15 December 2005. Their success and the contained levels of violence gave rise to hope that the most critical post-invasion stage was finally over, with Iraq moving towards full stabilisation and reconstruction. Vice versa, hopes of a steady normalisation were soon dashed. After the elections, because of the inter-crossing vetoes of the political forces, six months had to pass for the new government team to be formed under the direction of the new Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki.

 

The long months wasted, between the winter of 2005 and the spring of 2006, in this sterile political paralysis heavily influenced the scenario of Iraqi security. On the one hand, they spread a profound and rooted disappointment in the population as regards the new post-Saddam political elite which showed that it was as cut off from the real problems with which the citizens were struggling (terrorism, lack of running water and electricity, unemployment) as it was corrupt and greedy (the reconstruction was almost blocked and it fostered embezzlement and stealing of every kind). On the other hand, the political impasse gave new impetus to the violence of the Qaedist groups which dragged the country to the edge of sectarian civil war, with thousands of deaths every month. Furthermore, all the countries of the region interfered in a heavy way in Iraqi affairs, and certainly not to foster stabilisation. Who gained was above all else Iran: a paradoxical result given that Washington hoped to isolate the Shiite Islamic Republic once and for all, with an encirclement manoeuvre which had brought American soldiers around the frontiers of Iran (from Afghanistan to central Asia and on to the Gulf). The Iraqi disaster, in contrary fashion, clearly strengthened Iran: with the fall of Saddam one of the historic enemies of the country was removed; with the anarchy, the pro-Iranian Shiite militias and the Iranian security forces (secret services and the very powerful pasdaran) penetrated all the tendrils of Iraqi power.

 

The (Fake) Stabilisation

 

For the whole of 2006 and a part of 2007, because of the strategic, tactical and political errors of the United States of America and the absence of reliable national security forces, there was a steady increase in insurrectional violence which destroyed the aura of invincibility of the American forces and pulled many people disappointed by the ‘new Iraq’ towards insurrectional groups. However, the terrorists and the insurgents were extremely heterogeneous and lacked unity: their violence and their alliances with mere criminal bands established the premises for the change in the security scenario which took place in 2007.

 

Indeed, just when the situation in Iraq appeared to be beyond remedy, four factors permitted an unexpected improvement: 1. the change in military strategy decided upon by the American armed forces and the so-called ‘surge’, that is to say the increase in the number of soldiers on the ground ordered by the Pentagon; 2. the break between the Qaedist militias and the Sunnis which meant that the local insurgents were left without protection; 3. the marginalisation of the Shiite radical militias; and 4. the decrease in sectarian clashes as a consequence of the ‘ethnic-sectarian cleansing’ of 2006 which ended up by creating, above all in the capital city, more homogenous zones. During the course of the year 2008, therefore, violence greatly deceased, allowing a stabilisation of the domestic political settlement.

 

The al-Maliki government then went back to concentrating on the difficult economic situation of the country. The black years of terror that had just been gone through had strongly delayed the relaunch of an economy that had been damaged by thirty years of war and sanctions: a chain of conflicts and isolation that had begun as far back as 1980 with the unwise war against Iran. Like a spiral, the violence blocked the economic reconstruction and these delays produced further violence. Of especial importance was the revitalisation of oil production, on which the country depended. The rivalry between the ethnic-religious communities, the spreading corruption and differences in opinions created a growing fracture between the regional Kurd government (KRG), which in reality acted in an independent way, and Baghdad, provoking other delays and tensions.

 

With the new Obama presidency, American interest in Iraq descended to minimum levels: the United States of America began to withdraw their soldiers, transferring the management of security to the new Iraqi armed forces, and then finally left the country at the end of 2011. Iraq seemed to have stabilised. In reality, the limitations of the new Iraqi political class impeded the improvement in the security situation from being translated into a real political stabilisation: the country has always remained in a dangerous limbo of unstable precariousness.

 

Corrupt and sectarian leaders – who pretended to be nationalists but who wanted solely to expand their personal power – rendered vain the results achieved in the field of security. The parliament that was elected in 2010 wasted four years in senseless quarrels without managing to solve any of the real problems of the new Iraq: for example how to distribute the proceeds from oil amongst the various Iraqi provinces and communities; how to solve the problem of the areas contested by Kurds and Arabs; and how to help the minorities – first of all the Christian minority – to overcome the shock of the terrible violence that they had endured, recreating a public, social and political space in which to live as an integral part of Iraq and not as ‘historical aporias’, the remains of a past now eclipsed, as radical Islamists would have it.

 

Al-Maliki’s wish to stay in power, despite the many forms of opposition (in the Shiite camp as well) to his political strategies fostered an exaggerated attachment to tactics and clientelism which further deteriorated the image of the new political class. Above all, it reopened wounds with the Arab Sunni minority, provoking the explosion of new acts of violence in 2013. This was a disastrous year which led the number of deaths to reach the levels of the worst post-invasion years. And with the further negative factor of not being able to rely any more on the American armed forces and having to face up to the deleterious effects of the civil war in Syria and contagion from the increasingly violent clash between Shiites and Sunnis which had been spreading throughout the Middle East.

 

Towards New Elections

 

It is in this precarious and uncertain scenario that the country is moving towards new general elections[1]. Over the last decade they have never contributed to an improvement in the situation; indeed, the terrible difficulties that the Iraqi population has endured also explain the manifest incapacity of the new political class to promote a shared and de-polarising set of projects which could reduce the fragmentation of Iraqi society.

 

The dramatic failure of the American project has thus produced a series of paradoxical and perverse effects: it ended up by creating a previously inexistent link between radical Islamic jihadism and Iraqi secular anti-Western movements; it injected into the country an ethnic-religious sectarianism that is much stronger and more violent than in the past, which has lacerated the socio-political fabric of Iraqi society and thrown this unfortunate country into chaos; it strengthened the principal geopolitical rivals of the Washington in the region; and it brought to power a political class that is as litigious as it is incapable. A textbook example of how not to foster democratisation and the process of institution-building in the region. Unfortunately, this ‘case study’ in contrary fashion ended up by being paid for in the first person by the Iraqi population which freed itself from a ferocious dictator, Saddam Hussein, but for this paid a frightening price. Finding itself now, eleven years after the Anglo-American invasion, once again on the brink of ethnic-sectarian fragmentation.

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
 
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[1] This article was closed on 31 March 2014 [Ed.].