Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Iraq and Libya (II)

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 31 August 2011 12:18

The recent successes of the opposition forces in Libya have prompted a second outpouring of comparisons between Iraq and Libya as well as another bout of compilations of dos and don’ts  in a post-conflict reconstruction environment. As the entire Middle East region goes on holiday for the Eid this week, it is worth reflecting for a moment on one particular aspect of the Iraq-Libya comparison that has failed to receive much attention thus far: The approach adopted by the respective oppositions to questions of territoriality and state structure during their periods of transition.

In Iraq, of course, one of the main watchwords in the post-2003 setting was “federalism”, which thanks to Kurdish and American pressure had been grudgingly accepted by the Shiite Islamists during the opposition conferences of 2002. At first, the Shiite embrace of federalism had been seen mainly as a concession to the Kurdish desire for autonomy within the Kurdish-majority areas, but gradually, some of the Shiite Islamists developed an interest in federalism themselves and tried to combine it with sectarian rhetoric. The crucial point of transformation in this regard appears to have been the negotiations over the Transitional Administrative Law in 2004, in which Adel Abd al-Mahdi of the Shiite Islamist ISCI used the argument that “everything the Kurds have, the Shiites shall have” to make the concept of federalism applicable to all of Iraq. Of course, ISCI’s subsequent attempt at converting the general Shiite population to a pro-federal position proved singularly unsuccessful; nonetheless the damage had been done and today Iraq still struggles with a constitution from 2005 that remains full of contradictions thanks to the premature and unnecessary introduction of federalism as an option also for governorates outside Kurdistan.

It is a refreshing but largely unnoticed sign, therefore, that the new transitional charter of the Libyan opposition does not tinker with the existing state structure in Libya in any way. The charter basically confirms the existing unitary arrangements including Tripoli’s status as the capital. True, there is reference to the flag of the monarchy area – which with its tripartite structure at least does have a federalist origin – but it is fair to say that during the past tumultuous months the old flag has come to signify general anti-Gadhafi sentiment rather than a specific pro-federal stance. Neither “federalism” nor “decentralisation” occurs in the text of the charter at all.

These matters will of course require closer attention and more specific solutions as the process of drafting a new Libyan constitution gets underway. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the international community of think tanks over the coming months is to reflect realistically and soberly on Libya’s limited pre-history as a decentralised and federal polity. For sure, the federal past of the country in the 1950s needs to be acknowledged as a historical fact. But the significant role of international players in deepening  regional tensions in Libya in the first half of the twentieth century must also be appreciated. There is no need to repeat this, and the lesson from Iraq is that happy-go-lucky experiments with federalism in a transitional setting – often accompanied by well-meant cheering from political-science pundits in international opinion – may well create more problems than they solve.

In this respect, despite the promising shape of the Libyan charter, there are certainly warning signs out there. As in the case of Iraq (except Kurdistan) native Libyans calling for federalism appear to remain few and far between, although at least some members of the transitional council are known to be thinking along these lines. But already, Michael O’Hanley of the Brookings Institution – who once posed as an expert on Iraqi nation-building before migrating to Libyan issues via Afghanistan – has suggested a “confederal” formula for Libya. Other Western experts are scratching their heads about the “dilemma” of divvying up Libyan oil revenue, creating problems where none may exist and thinking perhaps too much of Alaska and forgetting that the default setting in most of the Middle East is a centralised per-capita distribution formula for oil revenue. From the vantage point of a UK think tank,  one Shashank Joshi declares federalism a necessity in the new Libya. 

Too many Western commentators seem unable to distinguish between centralism and authoritarianism. An unneccessary extension of federalism to all of Iraq after 2003 created additional problems for a transition that was already problematic and needs not be repeated in Libya.

30 Responses to “Iraq and Libya (II)”

  1. Reidar, I think the issue is rather more general.

    In Iraq, many of the problems derived from two factors: (i) US officials had little understanding of the country, and so their prescriptions led to unintended consequences; and more importantly (ii) the USA had its own interests which were frequently at odds with the views of most Iraqis – as a result, interventions in Iraqi politics which made sense to US/UK strategists and commentators were often diametrically opposed to what would serve Iraqi needs and views.

    The rise of federalism and of sectarian politics flowed in large part from a US desire to install politicians it could deal with: predominantly former exiles. Now even as US power wanes, the Iraqi government is still structured such that power is brokered at best in the Green Zone and often outside Iraq’s borders.

    In Libya neither federalism nor sectarianism is an immediate danger (though the thinktanks’ proposals do elicit a hefty groan). The broader threat is that the more outsiders intervene, the greater the danger of a dysfunctional government that Libyans do not see as representing them. For all the noise in the press about how to ‘do it better’, the real lesson of Iraq is surely what might crudely be called an anti-imperialist one: that Libyan politics are best left to Libyans.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    Greg, I agree with much of that, but wanted to sound a note of caution re the past record of the international think-tank community of too often announcing federalism as the panacea for complex states whose history – and complexity – they do not understand.

    There will be many international “support” conferences for the new Libya and that kind of event was precisely what eventually provided critical mass to novel federalism schemes in Iraq.

  3. Agreed – and in making a general point I didn’t mean to disagree with the specific one…

    I’m disappointed by how little challenge there’s been over the last week to the idea that such “support conferences” (and stabilisation plans etc) are the best rational way to work out Libya’s future

  4. observer said

    the problem of exile opposition is all over the arab world and it is a legacy of the cold war where we supported our bastards and so did the soviet union. Had the despotic arab leaders been able to shut down the mosques, they would have. They used the super powers to support them in staying in power and intentionally emptied the streets of any viable secular movement, be it communist, or liberal (depending on whose supper power support they were playing with at the time). The net result is that opposition figures could only operate freely in the west and secretive operations inside their own country. The best place for opposition to organize was/is in mosques which can not be shut down, only infiltrated.
    It is goign to take a couple of generations to return the Arab streets to normalcy meanwhile the Islamic movements will have a free run and one hopes that they will prove to be just as incompetent as the rest (sad as it maybe to wish for that). Case in point – Iraq. Do you all think that had the US left it to the Iraqis, it would have been any better? I think that democracy to grow properly, the institutes needed to support democratic governance have to be in place. There is no history of independent judiciary in the Arab world – without that, the only other alternative is to divide power and make sure that no single entity is too powerful – though that need not be in the form of federalisim, but rather in the form of decentralization of decisions. Hence, services are better done locally while national issues are left with a center that has power sharing arrangements. It is unfortunate that the US chose sectarian divisions as the basic way to divide power as it limits (or more appropriately slows down) the growth of secular movements.
    That said, the only option we have is to make sure that democratic governance and periodic change of power peacefully is the rule. This is what dismays me about the policy in Iraq. It seems that the US has chosen to continue support of sectarian parties for short term gains/stability forgetting that there is a longer vision at hand.

  5. Reidar Visser said

    Observer, agreed on the US role, but the Kurds must also assume some responsibility for making politics more sectarian and less secular by moving from a pre-2003 bi-national (Arab-Kurd) approach to a post-2003 tripartite (Kurdish-Sunni-Shiite) one.

  6. Kermanshahi said

    That the US didn’t suffer heavy casualties doesn’t make Libya more of a succes than Iraq, for it’s people. The country is completely destroyed and these rebels have been carrying out a genocide against black people. Anyone with dark skin colour is being murdered right now in every major Libyan city, this is kind of like the secterian violence in Iraq, only more one sided.

    Also, according to these people themselfes, the Iraq War had a total of 100,000 casualties in 8 years while the Libya War had a total of 50,000 casualties in 8 months. That while Iraq is a nation of 30 million and Libya a nation of 6 million.

    So yes, for US politicians Libya was more succesfull because it meant less casualties for them and thus less internal opposition. For the Libyan people however, the War has been as bad, if not worse, than the Iraq War was for the Iraqi people. That’s why I fully condemn both of these American acts of unprovoked agression against Muslim countries.

  7. observer said

    Isn’t it the responsibility of all the politicians? The Kurds did not have a loaded gun to the heads of Hakim or Jaafary or for that matter the likes of Sumaidie, Ezzdin, etc. Had the Arab politicians been non sectarian, they would not have taken a sectarian approach. I also put a lot of responsibility on Ahmed Chalabi who started the She3a House in his quest for power.

    Of course there is more to it than that – how about the responsibility of Sistani for calling that the constitution is written by people who have no knowledge of the law? And how about Bush going for the occupation instead of a take care Iraqi government. If you are looking for people to assign responsibility to, then you need more than two hands worth of fingers to point.

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Observer, just out of curiosity, what is the specific thing Sistani said that you are referring to here?

  9. Salah said


    May I am wrong in all of this,.

    What is going in ME under Arab Spring looks to me its new era of 1900 when all ME was colonised and divided between western invaders.

    This time more articulate manner than before. 8 years in Iraq, 10 years in Afghanistan did people really have “there Spriing”

  10. observer said

    sistani starting in late 03 started indicating that the constitution should be written by ELECTED Iraqis. In principal that is a legitimate, but in my opinion pre-mature as the only parties that had any organization were the Islamic parties. No different than what is happening in Egypt now.

  11. Jason said

    I’ll play devil’s advocate. As I see it, the mistake the U.S. made in Iraq was interfering too little in the design of government, not too much. We allowed special interests such as the Kurds, Sistani, and ISCI to have too much say, resulting in an incoherent and deficient constitution. We should have taken a more authoritative role the way MacArthur did in Japan and drafted a more coherent and functional constitution without pandering to special interests. That is the real reason for the dysfunctional Mulligan stew that Iraq ended up with. The federalism was a sop to the Kurds, which then escalated into a big problem because ISCI demanded equal treatment. We deferred too much when we should have said NO to both. We also should have demanded a strong, independent supreme court, term limits, etc that are so painfully missing BECAUSE WE ALLOWED ISCI TO DICTATE TO US. It’s ridiculous to imagine that the competing interests would have voluntarily agreed to a coherent centralized state on their own accord.

    Greg, are you so naive to say that Libyans would do better on their own?! You must be joking! Your advise is nothing more than thinly disguised anti-Americanism with no relationship to the realities on the ground. They will be fortunate if they even hold the country together by themselves, much less develop a coherent constitutional democracy without assistance.

    Kermanshahi, your comments do not deserve a response.

    Observer, I think most of your comments are on point. Again though, I would point out that Bush did not plan to occupy. It was forced on him when the country started to crumble apart on sectarian divisions.

  12. Reidar Visser said

    Observer, Sistani’s call for elections was generally seen as the antidote to Bremer’s one-sided support for a far more narrow clique of exiles. It was Bremer who gave ISCI and the Kurds such a prominent role, not Sistani!

    Jason, same point to you, it is simply untrue to assume that there was any “hands-off” approach by Bush which led to the prominence of groups like ISCI. The US and Bremer actively and enthusiastically promoted ISCI at the expense of Shiite groups with stronger roots in Iraqi society.

  13. observer said

    I am saying that on the face of it, writing the constitution by elected officials is legitimate, but pre-mature in the case of Iraq as the only people who are/were organized at the time were/are the Islamic parties. The proper way would have been for the elected officials to delegate the drafting to EXPERTS who have no inherent conflict of interests. Anyway, that is all water under the bridge in the case of Iraq (but not for the arab spring!). The point is that there are many people responsible for the mess and not just the Kurds.

    jason, occupation was not forced on Bush. He and Rumsfled could have listened to the recently departed Keshkili and had enough boots on the ground and used Iraqi army police to patrol (much as MacArthur did in Japan), but instead Keshkili was asked to resign!. Jason, instead of keeping on trying to extricate Bush and Neo-Conservatives from their responsibility, admit the obvious and make sure it does not happen again. The objective requires one learning from the lessons of history and not keep on repeating them.

  14. Reidar, I agree that a) SCIRI had no meaningful political support in Iraq in April 2003; and b) it was Bremer who promoted it. It does seem like a bit of an anomaly though: of the main ‘opposition’ groups SCIRI was the least connected to the war planning, and had a mutually suspicious relationship with the USA at first. My guess as to the reason things changed is that Bremer was looking for a representative of “the Shi’a”, while knowing nothing about Iraq, and Hakim gave him the most convincing impression that he was it.

    Observer: “occupation was not forced on Bush”? Yes and no. The Rumsfeld/Feith etc plan does seem to have been for a relatively short and relatively hands-off occupation. As I see it, the reason that strategy changed and Bremer was brought in was that the fundamental Rumsfeld/Feith assumption that Iraqis would embrace Chalabi (and US values etc) was found to be incorrect. The neocons started the war, but it was the ‘realists’ who did the most damage from April 2003 onward.
    (By the way, do you mean Shinseki? I’m far from convinced by the ‘not enough troops’ argument – I suspect resistance to the occupation would have grown much more quickly with a more visible and assertive US presence)

    Jason, as the saying goes, please don’t help me any more: the help you have given has already done too much harm.

  15. Jason said

    It is great fun to armchair quarterback from hindsight, but if we could go back in time and have Bremer (a) exclude SCIRI from a prominent political role and (b) use a larger American presence combined with the existing (Sunni) Army to impose security, we would likely find ourselves also fighting the better trained and equipped Badr Brigades, not to mention a much larger Shia uprising lead by Sistani (not to mention the Peshmerga). We already had our hands full with a brewing civil war between Sunnis militias and AQ in the north and Mahdi Army in Baghdad and the south. So it should not be any mystery at all as to why the Kurds and SCIRI were offered overly prominent roles for their support.

    I agree it was a “realist” decision as far as dealing with the actual power-brokers in the arena, as opposed to some other undefined alternative of working to some unknown representatives of the more peaceful and benevolent Iraqi people. I acknowledge that the realist approach (as is usually the case) has resulted in problems longer term, but compared to what alternatives at what other costs? Would the Badr Brigades and Sistani have quietly accepted that alternative? We will never know for certain.

    I’m not trying to make excuses, but it was a lot more complex (and urgent) situation than some are making it out to be in hindsight.

  16. observer said

    really Greg. you want me to believe that in a period of two months the US learned that Chalabi was wrong and decided to shift on a dime? If the US is such a fast learner, what, pray tell, explains the eons it is taking to understand the She3a Islamic parties are not the partners of choice? gimme a break man.

  17. observer said

    Jason, this is not quarterbacking. Rather it is trying to find lessons learned. Reidar wanted to point the fingers at Kurds, then I stated that the blame is wide spread. You brought in the case of Japan after WWII which is apropos. That was hands on and top down. It was even discussed that the use of the Iraqi army was possible (recall that the soldiers are she3a) but then I do recall the argument at the time that the Army dissolved itself !! (as if it could not be recalled at a time when every Iraqi needed income and would have gladly come forward). Had there been enough troops on the ground, a lot more ministries than just the ministry of oil would have been protected. Occupation was the wrong strategy no matter how you look at it.
    Again the point is to learn and not repeat mistakes in Libya and coming up shortly in Syria. If we are embarking on a phase of democratization of the middle east, why not do it carefully where the interests of the west and the region are aligned and as little dislocation is allowed as possible? Do we have to go through 30 years of turmoil with Islamic parties before we go to normalcy?

  18. Jason, your factual recollection is some way off beam (although I like your triple-metaphor-crunch):
    1) SCIRI was not a significant political force in Iraq in April/May 2003 before Bremer promoted it – it was mainly in Iran
    2) it’s wrong to call the Iraqi army “Sunni” or “Shi’a” – its officers and rank-and-file were respectively demographically skewed, but the vast majority of Iraqis saw it as a respectable national institution
    3) I agree with Reidar that Sistani is not quite the quietist some believe, but there was never any prospect of him leading an armed rebellion – recall that he did clash strongly with Bremer, but it was political
    4) there was even less prospect of “the Shi’a” rising up to fight SCIRI’s grievance; most Shi’a didn’t even recognise SCIRI, and if they did they saw it as traitorous
    5) the Mahdi Army was established in July 2003, AFTER (and in response to) the formation of the Governing Council (of SCIRI, Dawa, KDP, PUK, Allawi, Chalabi etc); in late 2003 the US started to see it as a problem, but only really had its ‘hands full’ with it from March 2004
    6) there was no al-Qaeda; the first significant salafist bombing was late August 2003, when MB Hakim was killed; it was at least 18 months before they had any fighting movement that went beyond single spectaculars
    7) civil war between AQ and “Sunni militias” – there was never anything I’d call a civil war, but major struggle between the tribes and AQ began in 2005

    All that said, I suspect I may agree with you on the non-mysterious reasons for promoting SCIRI and the Kurds: they were pro-US politicians they could deal with, and they were organised.

    Observer, yes, I think the neocons genuinely imagined that US troops would be welcomed with sweets and flowers, and that Iraqis would quickly accept someone like Chalabi in creating a pro-US, pro-Israel, democratic, capitalist Iraq. There’s been lots written about why those assumptions were never challenged – my money’s on ideologisation, persecution of doubters and the intoxication of extreme military superiority. I agree with you that in 8 years there’s a lot they still haven’t learned about Iraqi culture and politics, but I think the lack of sweets and flowers (and hence the unviability of the approach) was very obvious very quickly.

    So to simplify the legacy of neocons and realists in Iraq: the neocons were stupid, arrogant, unable to question their own dogma and guilty of the greatest crime in this whole story, of starting a war of aggression. The realists were scheming, cynical and quite willing to accept large-scale loss of life when it suited them. Both were arguably racist, in different ways. What frustrates me is how many Americans want to take one side or the other (Powell good / Rumsfeld bad, or vice versa). I wish more people would take neither.

    Agree with you, Observer, that all this rather historical stuff has renewed relevance given events in Libya, which is why we’re discussing it.

    So on your other point, I’m confused as to how you think occupation was the wrong strategy in Iraq, but there should have been more US troops to assert control. Isn’t that a contradiction? MacArthur was certainly an occupier of Japan.

    Also, the idea that the Iraqi army dissolved itself is a myth. The army would not come have back without an order from the occupying forces, as it had no line of command once the regime fell. Rather than giving that order, Bremer ordered its dissolution (albeit a month later – so he’s not the only one to blame). Ferguson’s book No End in Sight is helpful on this, as is Dobbins’ Occupying Iraq (from opposing perspectives).

  19. Greg,
    Your division of American politicians between dumb (well-intentioned ?) neocons and cynical realists is superficial; there is no shortage of bad intentions in the neocon camp.
    And your argument about dissolving the Iraqi army is contradictory; you are sayng self dissolution is a myth, then stating “no line of command” as if it is the inevitable cause of self dissolution. There are many ways the absence of line of command could have been replaced, this is history I know but you are defending ignorance.
    BTW “War Of Aggression” sounds like an oxymoron, all war is aggression. You probably meant war of revenge, but this is much more difficult to substantiate.

  20. Kermanshahi said

    Reidar, as long as Arabs want to force their state upon Kurds, than Kurds will continue to sabotage that state, to make it to weak to harm them. And it’s not as if the Iraq when it was strong, didn’t kill hundreds of thousands of Kurds. What, you expected everyone to just forget about that now that Saddam is dead? That’s not realistic.
    Now I agree fully with you that the Kurds are not being constructive to Iraqi politics and have never been constructively contributing to the Iraqi state, but that’s because it’s not their state, or atleast, they don’t see it that way. Greed is the problem here, greed of people who think other people should be placed under their rule. If Arabs allowed the Kruds independence, there would be no Kurd meddling in their politics, but as long as Arabs demand that despite 98% of Kurds wanting to secede, that they remain a part of Iraq against their will, they will not be loyal citizens and it will be bad for all.

    Jason, Khadafi killed 4 thousand people to end the civil war, when US intervened to “protect civilians,” now casualties are 50,000. You know what that means? That means that 46,000 Libyans would still be alive today if US hadn’t tried to “protect” them. That is an undisputable fact no matter how much the Zionist media spins it.

  21. Faisal, fair point about the dichotomy. My reason for perhaps overstretching it is that neocons and realists often think of themselves as being in two very distinct camps in that way.

    What I meant about the line of command was at the top: no-one to command them once the regime had fallen. So yes, that could be replaced – the order could have come from whatever replaced the regime (in this case, the occupation). I’m not sure we disagree on this, do we?

    “War of aggression” is a technical term in international law (the supreme international crime, according to the Nuremberg tribunals): it means a war that is started without the justification of self-defence. The popular euphemism for it in the USA is “war of choice”.

  22. observer said

    There are two prongs to the argument. A large force (even 250k instead of 170k) would have allowed Central Command to plan on protecting all ministries not just OIL and protect the instruments of governance and attempt to stop the hoards from looting and thus allowed restarting the governance quickly. Once power is shifted to an Iraqi entity (transitional council ala Libya now), it would have allowed for the Iraqis to govern themselves and to process the writing of the constitution by people who are INDEPENDENT and knowledgeable – with a time table that would allow for clear and well reasoned basis. Recall in the case of Japan, the Japanese did not accept the constitution written by the Americans and negotiated well into 1950. The start up of the Korean war forced the American occupation (which was still commanding the Imperial army to keep law and order) to accept the Japanese change to the constitution promulgated by the experts from the US and move on to fight the Korean war.

    I note with delight that the Libyans have not been allowed to loot and the instruments of governance are going on. The transitional council is working rapidly to take over and to write a new constitution and hopefully they will not fall pray to self interest and think of future generations that hopefully will learn to transfer power peacefully between succeeding governments. I watch Egypt with a heavy heart as I see the Islamic parties slowly taking over the revolution from the young. They are already making noise about the constitution being written by elected representatives and I hope the military council will not yield and make sure that the secular movements have time to organize and if not win the elections, at least form a large opposition block.

    In contrast, it is scary looking at what is happening in Cairo – note today’s reaction to the Turkish move vis-a-vis Israel and demonstrations in Cairo asking that the government of Egypt act with courage, as Turkey did with respect to demanded apology, to abrogate the peace treaty. Discussions on Egyptian channels are indicating that the view of Islamists (and do not make the mistake of underestimating their popularity in the streets) is that Israel already abrogated the Camp David accords by not executing certain items and by not allowing Egypt to send 1000 troops to Sinai to pursue terrorists that blew the gas pipes.

    I am waiting with patience for the UN security council to act on Syria – now that Libya is almost taken care of militarily, attention will/should shift to deal with Asad. Already EU is stopping oil purchases, but I believe China and Russia will rush in to replace the void – but I expect that a similar approach to the one used in Libya will be used with Syria. Protecting civilians could be a good precedence to follow. I do not buy Kerminshahi’s argument that more people died as a result of the intervention. I would argue that one should add up all the victims of the last 42 years of the rule of crazy man of Libya and the potential victims of his sons for eons to come.

    The final outcome must be the integration of the middle east in the globalization process and reduce poverty and create a more just distribution of wealth. Extremism lives in the pools of poverty and backwardness. Islamic parties will not have a stake in spreading knowledge, rather they survive on keeping the populace captive to their theocratic beliefs and that the fate of all is pre-determined by the omnipresent omnipotent god and we only have to wait for the coming of the Mahdi (in the case of She3a) and the Ahmed (in the case of the Sunnies).

    On the issue of who is right and who is wrong – I agree that there is plenty of blame to go around and I do not hold one side responsible. However, what frustrates me is the seeming inability to understand – that Islamic parties are not the natural allies of the US and hence my bafflement with the continued support of Maliki. Watch for the US reaction in the coming few weeks as Iraqia moves to counter Maliki/Da3wa moves on the strategic council. Interesting pronouncements today from Damalouji. I expect things are going to heat up once Allawi comes back from London (he is there attending to his daughter’s wedding).

  23. amagi said


    If one takes any war of aggression — even against a totalitarian state — as illegal, then I grant you that you are correct and the neocons are indeed guilty of the greatest crime by manufacturing such a war. I would submit to you, though, that one need look no further than David Petraeus’ early successes in Mosul to imagine what might have been had the American military establishment immediately assumed responsibility for domestic security and treated Iraqis as they would fellow American citizens (that is to say, with dignity, sensitivity, and a desire to de-escalate any potentially violent confrontations).

    The American military, as well characterized by Donald Rumsfeld in his role as Defense Secretary, had zero interest in facilitating the reconstruction of a democratic Iraq. As far as he was concerned, after defeating Saddam’s military in six weeks by successfully employing the “Rumsfeld Doctrine,” America’s role in Iraq was concluded. The Administration supported this view in deed if not in word (how else to explain the Commander in Chief declaring, “Mission Accomplished”). Forget about planning for a post-war transition, there was simply no interest in a post-war transition. Of course, we now know the result.

    It remains my understanding that despite the lack of flowers and sweets, there was significant goodwill towards the Americans immediately after the fall of Saddam (at least outside the communities that would be summarily disenfranchised by his removal). This goodwill was nearly instantaneously squandered as the military adopted a needlessly brutal approach to the populace. A convenient illustration of this, if not a ‘turning point,’ is the April 29, 2003 incident in Fallujah where a peaceful protest was broken up by the US military with live ammunition fire, resulting in 17 deaths and 75 injuries. I suspect that American forces were not welcomed more openly because Iraqis were wary of whether they would behave as liberators or conquerors, and very early on they got their answer.

    All of this is to say that for all of their sins, the neocons were neither stupid nor arrogant regarding Iraqi enthusiasm for a system of representative governance. It seems to me that the results have borne out that the Iraqi people (as opposed to the political elite) have embraced democracy, and this is something I think Reidar has tried to repeatedly get across here. For my money the greatest tragedy is that the US has, since the beginning of the invasion (with, perhaps, a brief respite between 2007 and 2009), continuously acted in ways completely inconsistent with democratic ideals while occasionally granting them lip service. It is at once mindboggling and heartbreaking that the US foreign establishment continues to back Maliki and hew to a sectarian approach towards governance while simultaneously claiming to support the democratic process. It is as though they still prefer the strongman model that the Iraq War was intended to repudiate.

    Armed conflict is inherently bloody, but I continue to maintain that the deplorable outcome of this war was not a foregone conclusion. Those who refused to accept the end of Sunni enshrinement in the power structure would retaliate violently and would need to be met with a certain level of violence in return. I think the basic ‘shape’ of the conflict was unavoidable, but its amplitude and duration could have been (should have been) reduced by an order of magnitude. Indeed, foreign jihadists would still seek to exploit regional instability inside Iraq, but without the clarion call of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal (combined with utter disregard of Iraqi rights and property) just how large would their ranks have swelled? How many would be actively aided and abetted by Iraqi citizens?

    Keeping this in mind, it is not inconceivable that we could soon see an armed incursion from Turkey into Syria and we will have to position ourselves accordingly. Inasmuch as this discussion is geared towards preventing previous mistakes, I would put forward that it may be a mistake to tar all wars of aggression with the same brush. Obviously, Turkey shares a religious sensibility with Syria and can (I think) thereby avoid claims of cultural imperialism, but I wonder if, even under the circumstances, the Turks would receive the aegis of ‘international support.’ I was surprised by the strong resistance against NATO intervention in Libya… surely, even if the rebels are an unknown quantity, the international community has an obligation to prevent their wholesale slaughter? It seems to me that failure to do so would give lie to the very notion of an international community.

    I appreciate how a disastrously adjudicated American war based on false pretenses and spurious evidence hardly serves as a model for what constitutes a ‘just war.’ Far better would it have been to couch pre-war debate in terms of whether ‘inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ apply to everyone or just those geographically fortunate enough to be born in the free world. (Then again, I shudder to think what an honest referendum on American morality might disclose.) Nevertheless, there are those of us that believe in democracy who are preeminently concerned these days that the ‘Arab Spring’ (and dare we hope… a ‘Persian Spring?’) will be crushed and rolled back because, at the crucial moment when we could do the most good, we will withhold military support… and witness the 1991 uprising in Karbala all over again. Or Hama. Or Al Anfal. I cannot see it another way: if you argue against armed interventions, you must be willing to accept on your conscience all the bodies and terror and human misery that such an intervention might (yes, I say might) have prevented.

  24. Salah said

    We need to remember all the time, those tyrant regimes got support from the same power who came to rescue the victims of the same tyrant they came to take him off, in some form those power helped those tyrants to build, strengthen their fest on their citizens (the victims).

    This may be reborn in Iraq or other place with “ heart breaking that the US foreign establishment continues to back Maliki so let not hold some blame for the lack of flowers and sweets

    Not far from the recent past for Libya, we saw Tony Blair planned Iraq war shaking hands with Colonel Qaddafi for singing some oil contract or salling weaponry for him, or baying $3.2billions for the victims of Lockerby and lifting the sanction, which he did not suffer from it.

    There is an article in NYT telling something about Colonel Qaddafi and same power who came to take him off

    What is even more surprising is where Colonel Qaddafi got his spying gear: software and technology companies from France, South Africa and other countries. Narus, an American company owned by Boeing, met with Colonel Qaddafi’s people just as the protests were getting under way, but shied away from striking a deal. As Narus had previously supplied similar technology to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it was probably a matter of public relations, not business ethics.

    Political Repression
    By EVGENY MOROZOV,September 1, 2011

  25. observer said

    Extremely well written piece. I read it twice and here is a passage that has me puzzled and I continuously ask people to explain to my simple mind as to WHY

    “For my money the greatest tragedy is that the US has, since the beginning of the invasion (with, perhaps, a brief respite between 2007 and 2009), continuously acted in ways completely inconsistent with democratic ideals while occasionally granting them lip service. It is at once mindboggling and heartbreaking that the US foreign establishment continues to back Maliki and hew to a sectarian approach towards governance while simultaneously claiming to support the democratic process. It is as though they still prefer the strongman model that the Iraq War was intended to repudiate.”

    Why the dichotomy? Why is sectarianism embraced when clearly it is not in the US long term interest IF our goal is to make democracy the model for governance in Iraq? Is it not clear that the current trend is going to lead to fragmentation of Iraq and decades of conflict in Baghdad? Isn’t Lebanon full of lessons as to why this is not a wise approach? For MY MONEY, i can not buy the argument that DOS or USG is full of idiots who do not understand Iraq, Islam, the Middle East, etc. I have met many US officials and while some are ignorant, by far the majority are professionals are smart, well informed, etc.

    I used to dismiss the theory advanced by many (including King Abd Allah of Jordan) that there is an attempt to create a sunni she3a divide in the middle east. A strong man model is consistent with this theory, but the on going Arab spring is defeinetly and unpredictable way to create change and while it is driven by masses, clearly outside support is needed for it to succeed and the west seems to be head strong in making it work. A strong man scenario is hard to reconcile with this fact. More likely, if we do not support the creation of democracies that are NOT based on religions, we will end up with theocracies controlled by Ikhwan Muslimeen thinking. What is your view, please teach this humble novice (some insist naive). The novice in me is hoping that Churchill is right (that the US will do the right thing – after trying everything else first!)

  26. Jason said

    IMO, the lessons for further “Spring” candidates:

    Adequate Stabilization Forces: There seem to be a lot of parallels between the quick overthrow of Gadafi in Libya and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Both used the almost identical Rumsfeldian model of air power combined with indigenous rebel forces and a light U.S. footprint on the ground. Recall that at this stage in Afghanistan (like Libya today), the prevailing view was that this model was a tremendous success. Based thereon, it was believed that a relatively small footprint followed by a quick withdrawal would also work in Iraq. We all know that celebrations were premature in both Afghan and Iraq. I am now cringing at the sight of premature celebrations over Libya. I think we have to be realistic about the need for adequate stabilization forces wherever any longtime dictator has so weakened the institutions necessary for civil society. It looks to me like everyone in sight is in grave danger of falling into the same trap as Rumsfeld on this point. Will Libya have any native army left to coopt, or will it be totally reliant on ragtag rebels, and perhaps outside forces. What about Syria?

    Picking the Right Horse: Picking the right leaders to build a democratic society after the dictator is extremely difficult any time. Further complicating the issue is the “realist” need/desire to coopt existing power-brokers into the process, especially if it is perceived that coopting them can prevent additional violence and bloodshed. For instance, Greg, is it not true that the Badr Brigades/SCIRI were much better organized than anybody else (except the Kurds) in 2003, and that has a lot to do with why they were coopted into the early council? Wasn’t this the same theory for permitting the Sadrists to participate in politics, rather than arresting Sadr and banning his party for their obvious treason? Isn’t this the same thinking, Observer, for supporting Maliki’s premiership now, given that Iraqiya simply does not have the popular support to dislodge him? These are extremely important questions because we will face them over and over again in heterogeneous Syria if Assad were to fall, i.e., when to we fight the special interests versus trying to coopt them into the democratic process. These are also likely issues relevant in Egypt and Libya concerning the Islamists. It is easy to say that this or that person should be excluded (for their Islamist leanings, ties to Iran, etc) if you take the fighting out of the equation, but that is not the reality.

    Observer, the answer to your question is that it is believed, right or wrong, that it is necessary to have representatives of various groups in order to minimize the danger of violent conflict. In the case of the Obama Admin, I would argue that they are even more influenced by the “realist” camp that is willing to sacrifice democratic ideals in exchange for a window of apparent stability to allow withdrawal and putting iraq farther in its rear-view mirror.

  27. Mohammed said


    Do you think that the US policy in Iraq is at all inconsistent with its poliicies in other middle eastern/gulf countries? Take for example Bahrain—the US fifth fleet is based there, and bahrain is basically at the mercy of American protection. Clearly, the Bahraini government is unpopular with a majority of the population. When the Bahraini masses demonstrated in the hundreds of thousands, a strong show of support from the USA may have made a huge difference in the outcome. But the Americans were silent at the GCC military force that came in and crushed the popular uprising. Anti-democractic for sure. But above else, America prizes stability. Perhaps keeping al-Maliki going for now guarantees the US the short term stability they want, and that is what is motivating their politics.

    Is Iraq any more sectarian than any other government in the middle east? I doubt it. Even with all of its problems right now, if one were to objectively look at the situation, the Iraqi government is fairly representative of the population. It has its problems and corruption to say the least. But if you want to talk about “democracy,” there have been two elections that were judged to be rather legitimate by the UN (one under Allawi, and the other under al-Maliki).

    I understand your aversion to religious parties, but you have to recognize that they are part of the Iraqi fabric. The major folly is that the USA was not wise enough to make sure a constitution was written that clearly put bounds to keep religion separate from government. But the fact that religious parties get large numbers of votes is part of the democractic system.

    Let me pose a different question for you: let us imagine that America took a truly hands off approach in Iraq (and for argument’s sake, let’s also imagine that Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia also decided to be hands off)…just who do you think would emerge as the ultimate ruling coalition in Iraq? Would it be very different than what we see today?


  28. Amagi, yes most Iraqis were happy that the USA removed Saddam, but they wanted the US forces to then leave immediately. The brutal violence and arrogance of the forces and their political masters (like in the school in Falluja) only served to accelerate opposition to the occupation.

    Observer, where we differ is that you believe in the essentially benign nature of the US government – that what it really wants is peace and democracy, and its challenge is just to find the right policies that deliver those. My view is that like any state or other political force, it acts in its strategic and material interests – and Mohammed’s example of Bahrain is a good one. We could add that Obama and Cameron supported Mubarak, and Sarkozy supported Ben Ali, until the dictators’ fall was inevitable, at which point they switched sides.

    On this basis, Amagi, I am surprised you see Western power as the guardian and supporter of the Arab Spring, when in many ways it is its opponent. The struggle on the streets of Cairo continues – both against the Islamist parties but at least as significantly against ‘assistance’ for economic reforms, in the form of the World Bank, EBRD etc.

    So I agree, Observer, that the State Department isn’t full of idiots – it is comprised of assorted people who act, often in contradiction to each other, in their own conception of what serves US interests and US values. Maliki is indeed there because the prevailing US desire was for short-term stability but long-term weakness in the Iraqi government.

  29. Reidar Visser said

    Jason, you seem to postulate a concept of “benign stabilisation forces” that do more good than harm. That certainly wasn’t the case in Iraq, where the US, unwittingly or not, contributed massively to sectarian polarisation from 2003 to 2008 through its systematic promotion of sectarian leaders in politics. I have argued previously that instead of seeking the explanation for the relative progress towards a healthier political climate during 2009 in the preceding “surge” and other US “contributions” from 2007 to 2008, one should look at the indigenous emergence of a nationalist trend in the Iraqi parliament from 2006 to 2008 (the 22 July coalition) and Maliki’s successful adoption of its agenda in the local elections of January 2009. Personal rivalries betwen Maliki and Allawi as well as continued support for from the US and Iran for an ethno-sectarian political framework prevented the logical merger of the two trends in the March 2010 parliamentary elections and ultimately forced Maliki back into a more sectarian mode.

    Mohammed, I’m almost certain that a US hands-off approach would have made the Kurds and ISCI less prominent in the 2003-2005 period.

  30. observer said

    Jason, I am not questioning that Maliki has a constituency, but so do the other actors. I am questioning the US commitment to democratic process and principals, at least in Iraq. The current policy of supporting Maliki despite the repeated violation of constitutional principals (even as lame as they were defined in the Iraqi constitution) makes me question the commitment on which the supposed new policy of the US in the middle east/world in order to fight extremism. If we, in the process of helping Maliki maintain his position, cause irreversible damage to the body of Iraqi politics (i.e. encourage sectarianism), then we will fragment Iraq and instead of having one country to deal with, you will have three or four of five emirates to deal with. If that is better for the US long term interest, then it is news to me.

    Muhammad, please do not tell me that you are trying to use – they are worse than us, so it makes Maliki ok. A variety of this argument was used by the defenders of Baath party, Muamar, Mubarek, etc. Frankly I do not care if the Iraqi variety is “less sectarian” than Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi, etc. Sectarianism is like racism – you are either sectarian or racist, or you are not. It makes no difference if you are a “little bit” sectarian – the end result is the same. On being representative – allow me remind you, allawi won the elections!! Do have to go over that issue again? This is an old discussion and I do not wish to go over it again. The bottom line is that in Iraq the rule of law is not being followed. The law is being stretched by Maliki with acquaintance from the US. This will come back to hound us int he long term. Nobody is saying Maliki has not following. What is being called to question here is the increasingly apparent tendency of Maliki to ignore others with the support of Iran AND the US (strange – no). If we are going back to the strong man model – ok. I can deal with that, but let us stop talking about democracy and the new era in the middle east and let us talk about whether democracy is viable in an area that is Muslim, and had the bad luck of being underlain by 50% of the world reserves in oil

    On your hypothetical – if the Iraqis in 2007 were allowed to pull a no confidence motion as they were about to do, you may have seen a different Maliki/Da3wa in 2009 and they may have had to integrate themselves in the She3a coalition and gave the seat of the PM to Adel Abd Mahdi. If we go back to 2003 – it is too hard to theorize and it is a waste of time. What you seem to be unable to admit is that without US and Iranian support, Maliki would not be able to sustain his arrogance and be forced to yield. What the puzzle is WHY DOES THE US AND IRAN support Maliki?

    Greg, If we go to short term gains at the expense of long term principled commitment, then we need not waste life and treasure. Let us leave the area to Islamic fundamentalism and step back and let the area take its course in history. I have no problem with a weak central government in Iraq with decentralization (or as it is locally known in Iraq, federation). It does not have to happen on the ashes of Iraqi society fragmented by sectarianism. Power can be distributed and better life is given to the Iraqi person with better services controlled locally with local politicians being responsible to their own voters. It need not be based on She3a vs sunni vs kurd.

    Muhammad, on stability. Bahrain is not a good example. I agree that there is too much change going on to handle and it needs to be done in stages less the whole area boils over (remember there is a she3a majority in Eastern Saudi where the oil is). The point that I am advancing is that change HAS ALREADY happened in Iraq. and it is happening in Egypt, Tunis, Syria and Yemen. Do we want to support democracy or do we want to take the side of Islamic parties given their popularity in the region? Do Islamic parties have the same goals as western democracies? Are they going to stabilize the region and will they have policies that the west can live with? I submit to you that Islamic parties will never be democratic by definition and the west will come to a point of confrontation with them in the future (case in point – Iran!) and it is better to do it right now than “fix” it later.

    Of course if our objective is to create ashe3a/sunni divide in the region – then there is no better way than the path we are taking now. Let Sunni parties take over Syria/Egypt etc. Let Iraq and Iran and Bahrain and maybe eastern Saudi Arabia be She3a controlled and let the fire works begin. Are we ready to take care of the unintended consequences of our actions/policies? Would Israel be safe? If I were Israeli, I would be scared right now. One unintended consequence is the potential that the Islamic parties may elect “to unite” in the use of the slogan “liberation of Quds, before freedom at home” – in a new variety of the old strong man rule of the last 50 years. Do you want to contemplate that when it is quite likely that Iran will get her nuke before too long?

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