Friday, November 30, 2018

Democracy in Iraq: Is the Glass Half Empty or is it Half Full?


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The Iraqi elections of May 2018 have been followed by a lengthy process of forming a new government, one which has yet to be completed.  Extensive wheeling and dealing took place and only within the last month have most of the new government ministers been appointed.  Legitimately so, many analyses of the elections criticized the dysfunction which characterized the election process as well as the time it took to put a new government in place.  Nevertheless, the question still remains: were there any positive outcomes of the elections and do they point to a step forward in a transition to meaningful democracy?

First, let’s recognize that the 2018 elections represented the fifth time Iraqis have gone to the polls and elected national leaders.  That these elections were largely fair and free and did not entail significant violence constitute positive developments. Second, that large numbers of Iraqi were allowed to present themselves as candidates for elections was likewise significant.  Third, while the elections in 2005 saw Iraqis vote according to religious sect or ethnicity, in 2010 a cross-ethnic coalition won a majority of seats.

That Iraq could participate in democratic elections  in a society in which, in 2002, it was a capital crime to criticize the country’s president or tell a joke about him, and pedestrians overheard saying negative things about the regime could have their tongues cut off and tied to telephone poles to bleed to death was a striking change.

If we add to this political mix, the negative impact of the US invasion of 2003 which, while removing Saddam and the Bath, implemented many policies which impeded efforts of Iraq to move towards democracy, we see that how we frame Iraq since 2003 is key to understanding and accessing whether or not it has made any progress towards democratization.

The US’ actions after toppling Saddam in May 2003 worked at cross purposes with the stated goal of bringing democracy to Iraq.  Rather than reaching out to potential leaders within Iraq, the Bush administration brought expatriates who had been exile, some for more than 3 decades, to run the country.  Either corrupt officials, such as Ahmad Chalabi, now  the leader of the defunct Iraqi National Congress, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was created by the Iranian regime, and members of the Islamic Call (al-Dacwa al-Islamiya) Party such as Nuri al-Maliki.

The efforts of Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator, C. Paul Bremer, to act as gatekeeper who tried to determine which Iraqis could become candidates for public office was opposed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Fortunately, Bremer was forced to back down. But this was just one of many acts by the occupation authority which impeded rather than encouraged a transition to democracy.   

Two of the most egregious decisions was the failure to secure Baghdad and other Iraqi cities after the regime fell.  The looting which went on for days undermined the confidence of Iraqis in the ability of the US to control the country and, by extension, that the effort to establish democracy as a serious one, as opposed to a subterfuge designed to make Iraq an American satellite.

The other egregious decision was dissolving the Iraq conscript army.  Largely hostile to Saddam and the catalyst for the March 1991 Uprising (al-Intifada) when retreating troops from Kuwait fired tank shells at a mural of Saddam in the main square of Iraq’s port city of Basra, the conscript army was a battle tested force.  Once the insurgency began in the fall of 2003, the US lacked the experience and intelligence to suppress it.  The resulting chaos and deaths of thousands of Iraqis (and US troops) was a disaster which could have been avoided if the US had seriously engaged Iraqis rom many walks of life and listened to their needs and reacted appropriately.

Emerging from a legacy of 35 years of Bacthist rule, during which Iraq experienced two of the most devastating wars of the 20th century – the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War, followed by the March 1991 Intifada – devastated Iraq’s infrastructure and small industrial base, including its oil economy.  The UN sanctions regime imposed on Iraq in 1991, and only removed after the US invasion in 2003, crippled Iraq’s middle class and set its educational system – before 1980 one of the best in the Middle East – back decades.

If we add this legacy to the US invasion and occupation which, while removing Saddam Husayn, created more impediments to Iraq by empowering :sectarian entrepreneurs whose main goal was augmenting their power and wealth, it is indeed remarkable that Iraq has been able to prioress as far as it has towards institutionalizing a democratic political system since 2003.

The political culture that preceded the Bacth Party ‘s seizure of power, first in February 1963, and then in July 1968, was one of ethnic and religious accommodation.  For sure, sectarian incidents, such as the Farhud of June 1941, existed, as did the massacre by the Iraqi army of Assyrian military forces in the summer of 1933, but these events were the exception, not the rule in Iraq.  There weren’t, for example, the type of systematic pogroms against Jews which Cossack brigades carried out in Czarist Russia.

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Iraqis realized the devastation caused by sectarianism when the Dacish seized Mosul in June 2014. After the Iraqi army abandoned its posts, and many Shica soldiers were killed by the terrorists, it became clear that the disaster was the result of Nuri al-Maliki sectarian and nepotistic  policies, e.g., appointing loyalist with little or no military experiences as officers who then used their positions to engage in steal from soldier salaries, promoting a toxic political environment in Mosul.

Despite al-Maliki efforts to use the Iraqi military in the form of calling tanks to patrol the streets of Baghdad, he was nevertheless removed from office.  This was not done though assassinating or even imprisoning him, as would be the case in many other MENA region countries.  Indeed, he was allowed to remain as a Vice President. While al-Maliki was able to continue to wield power, and has sought to promote negative policies since 2014, the key point is that he was not killed when another politician filled his position as prime minister.

His replacement, Haydar al-Abadi, was a well-respected politician with an engineering degree from Manchester University who lived for many years in the UK. Despite a member of al-Maliki Islamic Call Party, al-Abadi’s rule was devoid of sectarianism and he himself set a good model for decorum.  No one has accused him of pursuing corrupt and nepotistic policies while in office, in contradistinction to al-Maliki.


The elections of May 2018 demonstrated that the policy of politicians relying on sectarianism to mobilize support among voters has run its course.  This is not to argue that sectarian entrepreneurs and sectarian identities still play a powerful role in Iraq’s political system.  However, Iraqi voters favored the Sairun (We are Coming) Coalition which linked the Sadrists and the Iraqi Communist Party.  The main platform of this coalition was improving social services for the populace and eliminating corruption which was the cause of poor services.

Still the “quota” (al-muhassasa) system still functions as the main criterion for appointment to high government office.  Much like the confessional system in Lebanon, the informal rule is that the presidency of the federal republic belongs to a Kurd, the prime ministership to a Shica Arab, and the speakership of the parliament to a Sunni Arab.  Cabinet ministers are also appointed according to the power of the various political coalitions (and they are fluid coalitions, not established political parties as that term is generally understood).

Muqtada al-Sadr, for example, leader of the Sairun Coalition. has blocked candidates for the Interior, Higher Education and Scientific Research, the ministry of culture, and, most recently,  a ministry destined for the Sunni al-Bina' Alliance which is part of the al-Fatah PMU (al-hashad al-shacbi) coalition.  While this behavior is indicative of the power struggle between al-Sadr and Hadi al Amiri, the al-Fatah and PMU leader, it points to the extent to which an informal system of “checks and balances” operate to prevent political power from being consolidated in the hands of a single political leader and hence impedes the rise of another dictator such as Saddam.


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Donald Trump goes to the United Nations: The Perils of a "Foreign Policy of Narcissism"



Donald Trump’s trip to the United Nations this past week highlighted not the only the United States’ retreat from its position as a powerful global political actor, but the chaotic state of current American foreign policy.  Because the US holds the current Security Council presidency, Trump chaired the UN Security Council. 

Apart from the embarrassment of being the first American president to have UN members laugh at his exaggerated boasts about his accomplishments in office during his General Assembly speech, Trump’s  Security Council performance accentuated the deep flaws in his foreign policy positions. What does the Trump’s appearance tell us about how the United States is negotiating the current world order?

Before analyzing the specifics of US foreign policy under Trump, it should be noted that populism and international affairs don’t mix.  Populists eschew institutional relationships and  circumvent established rules and regulations, whenever possible, as they attempt to solidify ties to their sociopolitical base.  International treaties and institutions, such as international codicils on human rights, the United Nations, and the International Criminal Court, run counter to the personalistic and disruptive and chaotic condition of populist domestic and foreign policy.

A populist, Trump’s foreign policy from day one of his presidency has demonstrated his refusal to respect international treaties to which the US is a signatory and an internationalist approach to solving global problems.  Trump pulled out the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), whose formation was designed to curb unfair Chinese trade practices and curb its global and military influence in the Pacific Basin, supposedly one of the core goals of Trump’s foreign policy.  Trump left the Paris Climate Accord, cancelled the Nuclear Weapons Treaty (JCPOA) with Iran and members of the European Union, bullied Mexico and Canada to rewrite to abandon the NAFTA Trade Agreement, and has disparaged NATO.

Trump's behavior is classic populism.  Exaggerated rhetoric (enhanced by 21st century social media), bullying, the misrepresentation and distortion of facts, if not outright lies (The Washington Post has documented 1000s of lies by Trump since he became president), and sycophantic behavior towards other populists who are either authoritarians or share authoritarian tendencies like Trump.https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/09/13/president-trump-has-made-more-than-false-or-misleading-claims/?utm_term=.99ca6116fe78

Populists are invariably narcissists (think of Rodrigo Duarte in the Philippines, Viktor Orbán
in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan in Turkey and the list goes on).  Their tendency to personalize every policy issue, namely how does it reflect on me, undermines their ability to make well-thought through and reasoned decisions.  Instead, the key question invariably reverts to: how does this issue and the decisions I make affect my political popularity and power?  Decision-making is about the populist leader, not about a nation-state’s national interest.

Some analysts have argued that not all is bad in Trump’s foray into foreign affairs.  Didn’t he arrange a summit meeting with Kim Jong-Un, the leader of one of the worst rogue nation-states in the world?  Didn’t he facilitate the meetings currently underway between Kim and South Korean president Moon Jae-In which seem to be leading to a possible rapprochement between the two states?

The political reality of the Korean Peninsula is much more nuanced and complex.  While it’s true that Trump’s personal diplomacy led to a meeting with the North Korean leader, the meeting was all show – “meet and greet” - and has yet to produce any substantive results (aside from Trump having dispensed with epithets like “Rocket Man” when referring to the North Korean leader).  Economic pressures, not Trump’s mix of threats and compliments, led Kim Jong-Un to reach out to the prosperous south, one of the world’s industrial and high-tech powers.  He knows that North Korea must introduce limited economic reforms and provide a higher standard of living for a population which has, during Kim family rule since 1953, suffered famine and starvation on numerous occasions, if North Korea is to remain a viable nation-state.

The purported goal of Trump’s engagement with North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons has led nowhere thus far.  North Korea continues to demand economic concessions before it will consider nuclear disarmament.  It’s no exaggeration to say that, in the game Trump and Kim have been playing, Kim has outfoxed Trump.  Clearly Trump has been played, his Tweets claiming otherwise notwithstanding. Trump's recent statement that when Kim and he met in Singapore, “we fell in love,” only further diminishes his already limited gravitas and respect for the United States in the eyes of the North Korean political elite.

Trump’s engagement with North Korea tells us much about another critical area of the world, the Middle East.  Trump’s “reality show” and “let’s make a deal,” approach to foreign policy can best be described as the “foreign policy of narcissism.”  By this I mean that Trump approaches complex world problem using a simplistic “business model” where he posits that he and he alone - the all-powerful entrepreneur – can, through the negotiating skills he developed in the business world, achieve major foreign policy victories. 

POTUS’ approach is based on identifying his opponent’s key foreign policy goals and then moving to “cut a deal” with that political leader which somehow is said to serve the United States’ foreign policy interests.  The problem with this approach, as the Singapore summit with Kim Jung-Un makes clear, is that it leads nowhere (just like a reality TV show). The ubiquitous use of the pronoun “I” in all Trump’s Tweets and foreign policy statements underscores the narcissistic frame through which he views the world.

US policy in the MENA region

Nowhere is this “foreign policy of narcissism” more apparent and self-defeating for all parties than in the Middle East.  Trump’s efforts in the region involve no comprehensive strategy but instead reflect his assumption that leader-to-leader negotiations can solve all problems, especially if he is the one doing the negotiating.  Given the chaos in the White House, which countless books, reports and insider commentary have documented, this is the type of policy that appeals not only to a populist but a man with a short attention span who has no interest in learning about the complexities of world affairs and international relations.
Trump and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations
Thus far Trump has focused on two key leaders in the region – Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman - AKA MBS - and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump has also reached out to a second level cast of characters, including Egyptian President 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Qatar’s Amir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani, and, before a crisis developed over Turkey’s jailing of an American evangelical minister, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Trump points to his one-on-one diplomacy in the Middle East as having achieved successes.  Haven’t Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar purchased more US fighter jets, supposedly creating more American jobs?  Aside from this one “accomplishment” (and most analysts, including myself, would argue that the last thing the MENA region needs is more weapons), what can Trump point to?

His withdrawal from the JCPOA – the Iran Nuclear Weapons Accord – is dangerous as it threatens to jump start a nuclear arms race in the MENA region which begins with Iran and Saudi Arabia but later would develop to includes Turkey and possible Egypt.  Trump’s policy towards the JCPOA is to impose new and repressive economic sanctions on Iran this coming November. 

However, his policy is about to go nowhere as the European Union and Iran are poised to reach a “go-around” agreement which will circumvent the impact of US sanctions.  As China and Russia are ready to fill the financial breach created by US sanctions, Trump will come up short and once again have egg on his face given an ill-conceived and ineffective foreign policy decision.  Thus, the sanctions’ economic impact will most likely come to naught.

What the reimposition of sanctions does achieve is to pump new blood into the ultra-conservative and reactionary forces in Iran – both so-called clerics and members of the Revolutionary Guards  - who are fighting tooth and nail to prevent any meaningful reforms, especially an opening in the political system.  Radical actors, such as Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Suleimani, have been given a gift by Trump, while Iranian moderate reformists, in particular President Hassan Rouhani, find their power circumscribed as hardliners accuse moderates of supporting the Great Satan.

Yemen has been described by the United Nations and numerous international aid agencies as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.  As the result of another ill-conceived Trump policy (and one initially supported by Barack Obama), the US continues to support indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in Yemen leading to the injury and deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians, including large numbers of children.

Numerous analysts have pointed to a dire outcome of the Yemen conflict if conditions continue. Not only will innocent civilians continue to die, but the country's infrastructure is being systematically destroyed.  A failed state in Yemen will not only wreak havoc on its citizens but replicate a Somalia-type situation where terrorist forces, such as the already extant al-Qacida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will find fertile ground to recruit large numbers of destitute Yemeni youth.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Donald Trump
Having lauded MBS as the greatest thing since motherhood and apple pie, Trump is loath to criticize the Saudi Crown Prince or curtail his military adventurism in Yemen.  Rather than move beyond the stereotype of the Houthis (bad actors themselves) as “Iranian puppets,” which is an exaggeration, no effort has been made by the Trump administration to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table, a task Trump finds distasteful in any event.

In the Israeli-Palestine dispute, the Trump administration, assisted by Jared Kushner, "gave away the farm." The US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, helped Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet remove East Jerusalem from the bargaining table, solidified the right of Israeli settlers to continue to seize Palestinian lands on the West Bank and offered the Palestinians a small fragmented “Bantustan” type nation-state, one in name only, that Trump et al knew the Palestine National Authority could never accept.

Apart from delivering the coup de grace to an already moribund two-state solution peace proves, Trump gave Netanyahu more than he could ever dreamed of politically, and received nothing in return.  The point here is that Trump could care less about Jerusalem and Israel.  His decisions were solely designed to solidify support among his right-wing evangelical base in the US.  As a colleague, who is an Orthodox Jew, recently told me, his response to a Christian evangelical who said he strongly supported Israel was the following: “You members of the Christian Right want to have all us Jews concentrated in Israel so that, at the Second Coming of Christ, we we'll all perish in one place!”

In Syria, Trump has completely abandoned any effort to bring the crisis to a peaceful end, the recent mission by former Ambassador James Jeffries notwithstanding.  In Idlib, it was the Russians and Turks who prevented an all-out offensive the genocidal Bashar al-Asad regime against the one province which remains free of the control of  in Damascus (and it has been noted on numerous occasions, there are far more children in Idlib, most of whom fled there with their families, than there are terrorists).

The 2000 US troops in northern Syria who are helping protect the Rojava Kurds, who were critical in defeating Islamic State forces in the city of Raqqa and destroying its so-called Caliphate in Syria, are under threat of attack by Turkey’s army and affiliated radical Islamist militias, such as the “Free Syrian Army.”  Turkish supported militia fighters have already killed, raped and engaged in wide-spread theft in Afrin, the Western-most city in the Rojava region.

What has been Trump’s response to the efforts of the Rojava Kurds?  He suggested that, now that the Dacish is completely defeated, which it is not, US forces should be withdrawn from Syria. Only the intervention of Secretary of Defense, James Mattis (said to be on the way out after he US November elections), prevented Trump from following through on his initial decision.

Trump doesn't have a clue that the Rojava Kurds have built a multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant autonomous region along the Syrian-Turkish border.  Neither does he know how brutally the Rojava Kurds were treated under the Bashar al-Asad regime which denied them citizenship, stole their land and imprisoned and tortured them at will,  Because it’s costing the US money, Trump is ready to dispense with loyal allies.  This is not a policy which will encourage cooperation with the United States in the future.  

In Iraq, millions of Iraqis are still without permanent housing, health care facilities, education and municipal services in the wake of the war against the Dacish in 2016-2017.  As reconstruction efforts stagnate because the Federal government in Baghdad lacks the estimated $88-$100 billion which is the cost for rebuilding Mosul, once Iraq’s second largest city, and the devastated north central region of the country, the Trump administration is doing nothing to raise international funds for reconstruction.

We are seeing a rise in IS attacks once again around Kirkuk and in the north-central region of Iraq. The longer Iraqis who were displaced by the IS and war which defeated the terrorist organization's "Caliphate," the greater the tendency of Iraqi youth, who have no jobs education and hence no future, to be enticed to assist in IS attacks, especially if there is financial compensation for their efforts.

Trump's "policy" in the MENA region, and the international arena generally, is the antithesis of the type of approach needed to address the myriad global problems which threaten the world, nor the last of which is global warming and environmental degradation.  A "go it alone" policy only throws more oil on the fire.  When will the American people begin to demand that their political leaders take seriously the argument that, only though an internationalist approach, can these problems be addressed.  

For those who continue to cling to an outmoded "Realist" approach to foreign-policy making, beware of which you are advocating.  Without dealing with people's real issues - material well-being, health care, housing, education and social services - matters are only going to get worse.  The world cannot afford any more narcissists when it comes to addressing global problems.