Friday, December 16, 2011

Democratization and the US Legacy in Iraq

What is the US legacy in Iraq, especially its impact on democratization in the Middle East? By the standards that were originally set forth as the reasons for the 2003 invasion, we have a very mixed picture. Saddam Husayn and his repressive Ba'thist regime are gone for which many Iraqis are thankful. Yet Iraq faces many problems which threaten its efforts to achieve security, national reconciliation and economic growth. Perhaps worst of all, the cause of democratization in the Middle East has been undermined by many aspects of US policy in Iraq.

First, should the US have invaded Iraq? Let us begin by admitting that it is unconscionable that there was so little criticism of Saddam Husayn and his Ba'thist regime prior to its overthrow in 2003. Whether the statistic is 2 or 3 million Iraqis, Saddam and his henchmen were responsible for genocide. That so few intellectuals, both Arab and Western, called this to the attention of the world is something of which no one can be proud. If we are to take human rights seriously, then Saddam and the Ba'th were among some of the most egregious violators of the late 20th century.

The US and the world community came to possess an enormous amount of documents after the 1991 Uprising (Intifada) that followed the 1991 Gulf War. An extraordinary trove of documents that called for mass killings, many signed by Saddam himself, made clear the extent to which the Ba'th was responsible for genocide. If the US and other countries - Western and non-Western - had been serious about removing Saddam from power, they would used these documents immediately after the 1991 Gulf War to indict Saddam and demand that he be remanded for trial in a special international tribunal as was done for Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, and with former Serbian dictator, Slobadon Milosevic.

To argue, as some critics of the US invasion have done, that Iraq is worse off today than under Saddam and the Ba'th is an untenable position. However, that does not mean that we need agree with the manner in which Saddam was removed from power. If we have learned one lesson from the Iraq experience, it is that unilateralism in international affairs is neither an effective nor acceptable component of a country's foreign policy.

Second, despite the sectarian infighting that continues to bedevil Iraqi politics, we need to keep in sight the impact that many of the early, ill advised decisions taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The CPA's policies set the stage for the many of the problems Iraq faces as US troops complete their withdrawal from the country.

The most serious mistake was disbanding the 385,000 man Iraqi conscript army. That army had an ethnically integrated officer corps. Most of its members despised Saddam and his regime because elite units such as the Republican Guards, the Special Republican Guards and the Fedayeen Saddam (Those who would sacrifice for Saddam) received preferential treatment. Members of the conscript army remembered being left in Kuwait in January 1991 to suffer carpet bombing by US and UN coalition aircraft, receiving substandard weaponry and often not being paid. Many begged the US to give them back their positions after May 2003.

Had the conscript army not been disbanded, a force would have been in place that could have assured stability in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam and the Ba'th. Disbanding the national police and the ill conceived policy of de-Ba'thification (a policy strongly influenced by Iraqi expatriates who were more interested in their individual political agendas than Iraq's national interests) only added to the number of Iraqis who developed a hostility to the US occupation. Because of the dire economic situation, many Iraqis were forced to join the anti-American insurgency that developed in late 2003 and after.

The extensive looting that occurred in Baghdad in April 2003, including the destruction and theft of many priceless artifacts in the Iraq Museum, led many Iraqis to immediately lose trust in American intentions in Iraq. Subsequently, few Iraqis were willing to support the US' occupation and fewer still believed in the stated goal of the invasion that the US truly wanted to bring democracy to Iraq.

The formation of the Iraqi Governing Council shortly after the toppling of Saddam along sectarian lines - the first government to be constructed according to ethnoconfessional quotas - set a terrible tone for post-Ba'thist Iraqi politics. While sectarianism informed most Iraq governments in the 20th century (the regime of General Abd al-Karim Qasim between 1958 and 1963 being a notable exception), none had ever made ethnoconfessional quotas an explicit criterion for membership in government.

Worse still, and often ignored by analysts of Iraq, was the failure of the US government to confront the severe unemployment and material suffering of the populace caused by the UN sanctions regime of the 1990s and the Ba'th's policies of favoring certain regions of the country, e.g., providing electricity to Baghdad at the expense of the largely Shi'i inhabited south.

As the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) demonstrated, when funds were used to give Iraqis work, even at menial jobs such as cleaning up neighborhoods, or repairing sewer lines and schools, violence virtually disappeared. A more culturally informed policy - an understanding that Iraqis needed not only physical security but economic security - would have nipped the insurgency in the bud. It would have undermined the incentives for Iraqis to take up arms against US forces and against the nascent Iraqi army and newly formed police forces.

The CPA's elimination of agricultural subsidies in August 2003 made Iraqi farmers' crops less competitive with Iranian and Syrian exports of fruits and vegetables. One of the outcomes was the migration of large numbers of Iraqi farmers, especially younger ones, to urban areas where they became available for recruitment by sectarian militias and criminal organizations.

It was only in 2006 and after when the Bush administration did a major shift in its policy that the insurgency was finally crushed. A key factor was the development of the "Awakening" (al-Sahwa) or "Sons of Iraq" movement that ended the military power of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq - an arm of al-Qa'ida in the Mesopotamian Valley.

The key factor in turning the situation around in Iraq was cultural sensitivity - listening to and respecting Iraqis, and following their lead in trying to bring stability to the country. Had the US followed such a policy earlier on, and had Saddam been removed from power by an international coalition, and not just by unilateral US action, the tremendous human and material losses in Iraq could have been avoided.

We also need to remember that Iraqis voted at high turnout levels in parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010, in Arab provincial legislative elections in 2009, and in the Kurdish Regional Government local parliamentary elections in 2009. The problems of Iraqi democracy are not those of its citizens but those of its elites, many of whom arrived on the political scene with the US invasion in 2003.

These political elites continue to pursue narrow political agendas, manipulating sectarian identities in the process. We need remember that Baghdad's and Arbil's sectarian entrepreneurs represent only a small (albeit powerful) percentage of the overall Iraqi populace, whether Arab, Kurdish, or Turkmen.

Many analysts still stress the sectarian dimension of Iraqi politics and, by extension, apply it to all the Arab world. This has led these analysts to trot out old, worn-out concepts such as the Arab "democracy deficit," and the lack of national identity. While still in its infancy, the Arab Spring belies many of these concepts. It is time for many Western analysts to look at themselves in the mirror and question their analytic frameworks. Which analysts, myself included, predicted the Arab Spring?

The US, the EU, and countries such as Turkey, India, Indonesia, and other countries committed to democracy need to continue to support forces in the Middle East, especially the region's youth, who are struggling for democratic change. The continud efforts of sectarian elites in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East to impose authoritarian rule should not become an excuse for democracies outside the region to lose hope in its future.

While democratization movements face many challenges, achieving democratic change is the key to solving the problems of the Middle East. There can be no economic growth if social and political participation is limited to small rapacious elites or if women - 50% + of the population - are excluded from the public sphere by movements that purposely misinterpret Islam. Corruption - pervasive throughout the Middle East - can only be eliminated through representative, accountable and transparent governance.

Because the US made many flawed policy decisions in Iraq is no reason to compound these mistakes. Public opinion polls and many other indicators continue to show that Iraqis want democracy, but a democracy that offers them social justice in the form of needed social services. It would be a great tragedy if the US legacy in Iraq were to undermine US and Western support for democratization in Iraq and throughout the region.