Iraq is headed for another dark age. Next week’s Arab League meeting in Baghdad is nothing but cover for a state collapsing at full force. The surface manifestations are real: 46 people killed and many more wounded this week in apparently co-ordinated attacks in Baghdad, Karbala, Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities on the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion. The prevailing mood on the street is one of fatigue, desperation and fear. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government cannot control the chaos; indeed, it may be contributing to it as the façade of democratization and pluralism crumbles, accelerated by the departure of the last U.S. troops last December.
There can be no clearer indictment of the neo-conservatives who dominated the U.S. political process during George W. Bush’s presidency. Their statement of faith, the Project for the New American Century, issued in 1997 and warmly embraced by Mr. Bush as a new and largely inexperienced president, called for the forceful imposition of American values on Third World countries suffering from autocracies. The Iraq intervention shows the flaws in this reasoning. The thousands of deaths and injuries suffered in this imperial enterprise is testament to willful ignorance. Millions of Iraqis have fled the country and the oldest Christian communities on Earth have been obliterated.
The behaviour patterns and governance codes of different societies and communities cannot be changed through the exercise of foreign military force – in this case, by what many came to see as outside predators. Such societal practices are embedded differently in different cultures no matter how much we might wish it were not so. The neo-conservatives chose to ignore this reality. Instead, they have created a system that may ultimately have the same potential for brutality as Saddam Hussein’s.
Despite Iraq’s fractured polity, this seems hard to believe. There has been little focus on Iraq lately, given the international preoccupation with Iran, the Palestinians, the Syrian revolt and the Arab uprisings. But ironically, at a time when there is room for hope that Egypt, Tunisia and others may evolve their political culture, Iraq seems headed back to the bad old days. Despite a representative parliament and on-paper attempts at power sharing, Mr. Maliki consolidates authoritarianism anew.
From 2005 to 2007, I was chair of the donor committee of the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq – a frustrating endeavour, not withstanding my respect for many of the Iraqis and international public servants I worked with. Despite best efforts, our accomplishments were modest. Given the chaos, they could not have been otherwise. Although they remained publicly positive, many internationals believed they were working in a glass bubble, waiting for the collapse. Some joked about who would be the last ones on the last helicopter out of Baghdad, as with the lifts from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon during America’s final days in Vietnam.
In a literal sense, they were proven wrong. The Americans had sufficient control and influence to prevent a rout in Iraq, but as that control dissipated and their efforts at democratization became increasingly problematic, they changed horses. Since their departure, they have devoted their best efforts to helping Mr. Maliki consolidate Iraq as a viable state player because of its geostrategic importance, despite his increasingly well-documented abuses. Barack Obama’s administration is proceeding, reluctantly, with the sale to Iraq of more than $10-billion in military equipment, much of which is serviceable for control and intimidation.
Mr. Maliki has increasingly used the power of the state to consolidate his own autocracy, accused by human-rights groups of intimidation, corruption, deceit, torture and cronyism. Witness the arrest warrant issued for his Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi. Witness his son and deputy chief of staff Ahmed, reputed to be the most powerful person in his entourage. Anyone deemed a threat is at risk for their lives in Mr. Maliki’s Iraq.
Without questioning Mr. Obama’s commitment to human rights and pluralism, there is little his administration can realistically do. Either Mr. Maliki will be successful in consolidating his one-man rule or Iraq will self-destruct, breaking into a series of quasi-independent entities based on religion, ethnicity and tribe. Attempting to put it right through heavy engagement with Baghdad seems like a moral imperative. But the chance of success is virtually nil.
Lessons should be learned from this carnage. Despite the moral umbrage one may feel, don’t involve yourself in the affairs of others unless knowledge, reflection and debate suggest an even chance of success. Gut feelings and theoretical constructs can be strongly felt, but most often lead to catastrophe. The law of unintended consequences should be kept in mind regarding Afghanistan, any intervention in Syria and the thought of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.