Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Chuck Hagel, Iraq and Obama’s Easy-Listening Foreign Policy

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 31 January 2013 5:38

There has been no lack of critical voices regarding the nomination of Chuck Hagel as US defence secretary. Protests against the nomination range from accusations of homophobia to suggestions he is “soft” on Iran and lacks “commitment” to Israel.

One argument against Hagel that is never going to be used in the hearings on Capitol Hill today but is nonetheless worth mentioning concerns his views on Iraq, particularly as expressed during the debate about the Bush policy of a “surge” of US forces in early 2007. Some will perhaps make use of those remarks to argue that Hagel was against the “successful” surge of US forces. That view to some extent exaggerates the significance of the surge as an independent factor behind the reasonable political climate that briefly prevailed in Iraq between April 2008 and April 2009, and is not really a meaningful argument against Hagel’s candidacy. But there is another, deeper argument relating to Hagel’s epistemology of Iraqi politics that came to the fore in those heated debates in early 2007. In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on 12 January 2007, Hagel contended that,  “we are in a civil war. This is sectarian violence out of control, Iraqi on Iraqi. Worse, it is inter-sectarian [sic] violence, Shia killing Shia”.


Hagel probably said, or meant to say,  “intra-sectarian”. In any case, his point was very clear: There is supposedly a natural state of affairs in Iraqi politics, consisting of endless sectarian conflict. Sunnis killing Shiites would have been “natural” to Hagel. When Shiites began killing Shiites, it meant the situation was “worse”, unnatural and out of control.

This little piece of simplistic Iraq epistemology may perhaps come across as innocuous to the majority of American commenters on Middle Eastern affairs. Indeed, there is nothing terribly unique in what Hagel says, even though he is pitching the message in a more clear-cut manner than most others. Many US analysts prefer to see Iraq as an eternal battleground of Shiites and Sunnis, supposedly going back many centuries in time.

And today, of course, some will no doubt claim that the current situation in Iraq and the region proves Hagel was right in 2007. Aren’t Shiites fighting Sunnis more than ever, aren’t Sunnis demanding their own federal region in Iraq, and isn’t there even a clear-cut regional dimension since Turkey (the successor to the Ottoman Empire) is sponsoring Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis, and Iran (the successor to the Safavids) is doing the same with regard to Iraqi Shiites and Syrian Alawites?

The point is, though, that this situation today does not reflect a unilinear, steady deterioration of affairs in Iraq from the time Hagel made his statement in 2007 until today. Following that period, thanks both to the surge and the growing rejection by many Iraqi politicians of parts of the hastily crafted 2005 constitution, a more moderate political climate dominated in 2008 and during the 2009 local elections. Crucially, after a sectarian climate had prevailed during the civil-war like conditions of 2006 and 2007, the atmosphere of Iraqi politics improved sufficiently during 2008 to encourage Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to run on a separate electoral ticket in the local elections in January 2009, quite despite the expressed desire for Iran to see greater Shiite sectarian unity.

Prior to the parliamentary elections of 2010, Maliki tried the same thing. But when the new Obama administration initiated ouvertures to Iran in spring 2009, Iran reciprocated by asserting itself even more strongly in Iraqi politics, propelling de-Baathification to the top of the agenda and gradually focing Maliki back to sectarian unity. Symptomatically, in the upcoming Iraq local elections on 20 April 2013, unlike in 2009, Maliki will run a big Shiite sectarian coalition in most provinces and all-Shiite coalitions in areas with Shiite minorities, entirely in accordance with Iranian preferences for unified Shiite coalitions.

The Obama administration, with numerous people sharing Hagel’s epistemology, probably even didn’t see that sectarian turn as a true anomaly. This of course is not to suggest that US influence in Iraq before 2009 was singularly virtuous or that the micro-managing of the Bush administration rested upon superior epistemological bases. But it did mean a multipolar environment for the Iraqi Shiites which has virtually disappeared during the Obama administration. Today, Iran seems to be the only game in town – and Obama seems to think that is a natural state of affairs.

Perhaps Obama also sees some sort of potential in an Iran-dominated Iraq? It is very hard to avoid wondering whether the current acquiescence in face of rising sectarianism in Iraq actually constitutes something of a dangling carrot in front of Iran, not unlike the Arab-press conspiracy theory of concessions to Iran in Iraq in exchange for a deal on the Iranian nuclear file. These days, American oil in Iraq, including Chevron where Hagel serves happens to serve on the board of directors, seems to be migrating northwards to the Kurdish areas of Iraq that are under Turkish influence.


Obviously, rapprochement with Iran, with which Hagel is associated as part of a greater effort to disentangle the US from the Middle East, is in itself not a bad thing. But it should still be possible to criticize the precise nature of such movements. To use Iraq as a bargaining chip with Iran is simply just a lot more ahistorical than Obama realizes, and as a consequence, perhaps less sustainable over time. Historically, despite the cooperation between Iran and Iraqi Islamist parties since the 1980s, Iraqi Shiites have tended to resist Iranian domination. The difference is that whereas Hagel and his friends posit sectarianism as an eternally dominant theme of Iraqi politics, Iraqi history shows a far more spasmodic pattern in which the significance of sectarianism has often receded in the absence of foreign intervention or regional instabilities. There was not much in the way of sectarian violence during the several centuries of Ottoman rule, or during the Iraqi monarchy period.

Is it advisable to induce pan-Shiite tendencies in Iraq just for the sake of epistemological simplicity? So far, without moving on the nuclear issue, Iran has only taken the opportunity to strengthen its hold over Iraq and Syria. Approaching the Syrian crisis with Hagelian worldview, in turn, illustrates how the act of colouring whole areas and even countries sectarian inevitably means caving into the most radical sectarian forces in the region. Syria, in the eyes of Hagel, is presumably as “Sunni” as Iraq is “Shiite”. In this simplistic view, all Sunnis of Syria staunchly oppose Assad and only Alawites (and maybe Christians) support him. Of course, exactly like in Iraq, history is more complex. Anyone who is familiar with Syrian history knows that “Sunni” Aleppo may well have different dynamics from “Sunni” Damascus. In fact, if Syrian politics could be reduced to a sectarian battle, Damascus would probably have fallen long time ago.

It is simplistic approaches to Middle Eastern sectarian dynamics like those of Chuck Hagel that help bring about a situation where the West is fighting Al-Qaeda in Mali and is tacitly supporting them in Syria. And Hagel will join an increasing number of people with similar simplistic, easy-listening approaches to the Middle East in the Obama administration. Alongside Chuck “It Is Natural for Sunnis to Kill Shiites” Hagel at defence, we will have John “They Have Been Fighting Each Other for Centuries” Kerry as secretary of state, and Joe “My Guess Is It Will Be Three States” Biden as vice president. With policy-makers like these, there may unfortunately be a whole lot of Benghazis to come.

11 Responses to “Chuck Hagel, Iraq and Obama’s Easy-Listening Foreign Policy”

  1. Obama rapprochement effort with Iran in 2009? Never happened. Sure, he made a speech during Nowruz. But beyond that, the U.S. directed covert war and economic war against Iran continued unabated. It was never a serious effort, and the Iranians, while waiting to see if their would be action to be associated with the speech, saw no change which didn’t surprise them.

    Maliki going against Iran in the previous election? Not hardly. Sure, he attempted to establish himself as a more independent actor. But it took the help of Iran and Iran’s allies to bail him out of the box he found himself in, after the election results rendered him more needy than ever.

    You also give the so-called surge way too much credit, even though you downplay it. Who won the Shia-Sunni street war in Baghdad? The Shia. Who helped? The Islamic Republic of Iran. Control over the streets of Baghdad meant everything in that particular period of armed struggle.

    But beyond that, I share your opinion that a U.S. directed rapprochement with Iran would be a good thing for the region. But let’s face it, for better and for worse, Obama is no Nixon (to China).

    Reidar, have you read the Leverett’s new book “Going to Tehran”? Well worth the read.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Pirouz. I have written a lot about Maliki, de-Baathification and the Shiite alliance in 2010, see for example
    My point is that Maliki used to be a pragmatist who relied on lots of people with pasts in the Baath regime, but he never dared to stand up against the de-Baathification excesses of early 2010. As a consequence, he was forced to rely on more sectarian forms of support.

    I am familiar with the work of the Leveretts. I think they underestimate the desire of some Iraqi Shiites to chart a course more independent of Iran.

  3. Mohammed said


    I just looked back at your blog timeline. The official coalition list was out in December 2009 for the 2010 parliamentary elections. The de-baathification crisis erupted in Jan 2010 AFTER the coalitions were announced in december 2009

    As is quite apparent from his coalition list, Maliki largely FAILED to obtain any significant sunni support to join his coalition. Surely this shows that his failure in building a broad non-sectarian coalition is likely due to other reasons than debaathification since the failue happened first. Even had the de-baathification crisis never come to be, without having any significant sunni politicians on his coalition list, it is quite doubtful that Maliki would have done any better than the final results eventually revealed.

    I think the biggest problem for Maliki was that he was unable to capture a plurality in the 2010 election— with Iraqiya ahead of him by 2 seats. The lesson for Maliki was that sunnis won’t vote for him, and by running against a separate shia coalition, the sadrists+ISCI+badr+fadhila had taken away the more realistic shia support from him. I believe it’s really the split shia vote that cost Maliki a moral victory of a plurality. Of course, the reason he didn’t want to join the coalition the last time was because Iran, hakim and sadr refused to allow Maliki to be head of a massive shia alliance list apriori and give SOL the majority of seats.

    The lesson he learnt was that he needs to strengthen his shia coalition. From a pure political perspective, that sounds like a much more plausible strategy than to hope that by appealing to sunnis, maliki would be able to make up for lost shia votes to the competing shia parties. This time, he has gained badr, fadhila and other smaller shia parties on his list for the provincial elections with him at the head. I believe had they agreed to allow him to be the top dog last time, he would have taken that option too.

    However, this line about the de-baathification process impact on Maliki—I think is really overplayed. He didnt have any big sunni politicians supporting before it even, unless you can point to some big ones that I am overlooking?


  4. Mohammed, briefly not so much Sunnis, but many Shia Baathists. That was my point: Had he defended them consistently, as in the case from Najaf linked above, this could have generated broader support among Sunnis too. I have written something about Maliki’s Baathists and will link to it as soon as I can dig it up.

  5. Salah said

    There is supposedly a natural state of affairs in Iraqi politics, consisting of endless sectarian conflict

    For those who think in this manner, they should review their thoughts or they doing this on purposes.

    Iraqis had no “a natural state of affairs of sectarian conflict” neither in politics nor with society.
    If you go back early days of 2003 after US invasion of Iraq there were 38% intermarriage between both fictions of Iraqi Muslims, this clearly telling they are living in peace to high level.

    Yes, the tyrant regime started sectarian conflict for his personal and regime necessities which not reached to point ignited internal or civil ware between the Iraqis in fact the regime and Iraqis have their conflict but the brutality of the regime limits that conflict from been seen after the 1991 rejection when the regime gained support somehow from US to destroy and brutally took revenge and killed then if not thousands of innocent Iraqis moreover more Iraq fled to neighbouring countries.

  6. Salah said

    Just to update you that Paul Bremer shoe while delivering a lecture in London today 2013 while giving his speech by an Iraqi living in Lodon?

    Another sho size 42!

  7. Que? I understand Bremer is in the UK right now. Is there an extract for his speech? Was he attacked or heckled? Please post link.

  8. Salah said

    Yes, he is in UK engaging in many meeting & seminars, leaving his sad paintings behind, wishing for more speeches and visiting.

    However looks there is coverup from the media, not much links to it but an Iraqi man (UK citizen) did thrown his shoes at him, he was arrested then released later.

    Only links I can list these:
    here & here
    here this about his talk to university students

  9. Salah said

    Paul Bremer –
    Town vs Gown
    4th Week, 3rd – 9th February

  10. Salah said

    Thursday, 07 February 2013 09:50

    Baghdad / Orr News

    According to press reports, presented by Ambassador Paul Bremer, the American civil governor of Iraq pelted with shoes by an Iraqi demonstrators in London.

    And Ambassador Paul Bremer was attended to one of the British House of Commons rooms “Hall 6-bit” to lecture was supposed to last for two hours, but Iraqis angry protesters boycotted his lecture with a barrage of insults and slogans hostile to the United States.

    According to witnesses, the Iraqi citizen Yasser al-Samarrai halt amid a storm of anger Bremer threw his shoes at him, telling him: “I have two letters for you the first of Saddam Hussein and the second of the Iraqi people”, and this is the entitlement to say the least.

    Witnesses said that a young Iraqi Yasser al-Samarrai was taken out of the hall restricted shackled by the British police, and while he is on his way to the exit turned to criminal Bremer and said to him: “Damn you and your democracy counterfeit .. You have destroyed my will Tfltoa Bfltkm.”

    The witnesses say that after the incident was directed by all Iraqis who thwarted a lecture, Bremer, forcing organizers to cancel the lecture and smuggling Bremer from a forced exit corridors of the rear doors for fear of the anger of Iraqis.

  11. Salah said

    It’s really disturbing intriguing some US official within US government who predict the consequences to invade Iraq were distanced from decision making position and those who all were wrong still lingering in the white house and high raking position with US administration.

    Although Chuck Hagel were voted using to use force, in his mind that force to let the UN inspection team back to Iraq, he said that in one of his interview about the war of Iraq.

    Sadly those who hold their views which was different from Bush admiration and those push for the invasion like Douglas J. Feith, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Donald Rumsfeld and William Kristol, still their voices and views much appreciated than those who oppose the war.

    As predicted by many people at the time, the invasion of Iraq was a humanitarian, legal, political and strategic disaster. It left a trail of death and destruction and millions of refugees. It undermined the role of international law and strengthened terrorism. Australia’s role in the war raised serious questions of government honesty and accountability. If we do not learn lessons from this episode, we are at risk of engaging in equally ill-founded wars in the future.
    And now, 10 years later, we need to ask ourselves

    For democracy’s sake, let’s talk about our war in Iraq

    Read more:

    Telling the truth becomes a dangerous act when four federal whistleblowers reveal the darkest corners of America’s war on terror.

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