With all American troops left Iraq since December 2011, America has squandered an extraordinary military victory that was won in the spring of 2003 when U.S. forces overthrew the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Ten years after the invasion, and regardless of the legitimacy of the military operation and subsequent occupation, we need to review the reasons of why America could not succeed in Iraq. I will hereby provide some observations and analyses above and beyond any of my personal bias as an Iraqi.
Basically, the American invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq broke a longstanding and brittle power structure between the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, not only in Iraq but also in the Middle East region. The state system, the nation-state system that was broken as a result of the invasion of Iraq, was really created as a consequence of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the division of the Middle East into territorial nation-states, countries that had no experience with the form of politics implicit in the construct of a nation-state. The Middle East was either a part of a larger empire or a center of a world empire by itself, and when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, it was replaced by a nation-state system that really did not have any historical backgrounds to it. So, it was an unstable order, and the instability created by the division and fragmentation of the Middle East generated unstable states and they, in turn, produced all kinds of turbulent events that led to frequent changes in government, frequent changes in power relationships, and Iraq was no exception to that. The invasion upturned existing power relationships in Iraq and thrust a previously underrepresented and, in the last 15 years of the Baathist regime, increasingly oppressed majority, the Shiites, into positions of power, which they had not expected. The Shiites did not earn this position. They did not do it through revolutionary struggle or through winning out a power gain. They did it as an outcome of the invasion of Iraq and the ending of Iraq’s structure of power, but it was an unavoidable outcome of that, the Shiites were empowered, and they have used the power that was given to them in ways that strengthened and extended their control over the state and, in the process, the reversal of decades if not centuries of different levels of discrimination.
The second reason is the political culture of Iraq, which was dominated by one dictatorship after another leading to the form of tyranny that the Baath imposed on Iraq. That form of politics, the politics of a strong central power, of strong men, of ‘Big Men’ dominating the political scene and using oppression and terror where necessary, has been replaced by a form of democratic politics. Now, is Iraq currently a democracy? No, it is not, but the forms in which politics are being conducted take some of the attributes of democratic processes, and therefore, they have become a feature of the Iraqi state as Iraq moves on. So democracy, in the form of constitution, elections, political process and so on, is part and parcel of the post-Saddam order; however, the tendency of the Iraqi political elites was to get Iraq back to the kind of dictatorship of the past. It seems their differences with Saddam were not about how to rule Iraq, but rather, who to rule Iraq. Therefore, while the new leaders of Iraq campaigned for an Iraqi democracy before the invasion, they themselves built their own model of ruling after the invasion, which is democratic from the outside but autocratic from the inside.
The third reason, which also disturbs not only the power relationships inside Iraq but also the state system in the Middle East, is the rise of the Kurds. The Kurds were one of the ignored outcomes of World War I. They were mentioned in the Treaty of Sevres, where they were given a kind of promise for a national homeland, but none of the post Ottoman states recognize that Treaty. It remained unsigned and the Kurdish national home became submerged, as it were, in the formation of various states in the Middle East including modern Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Iraqi Kurds, who had some kind of autonomous status after the first Gulf War (i.e., after 1991), have emerged onto the scene of the Middle East region as very important powerbrokers but with ambiguous objectives as to their relationship with the Iraqi state. Are they part and parcel of Iraq, albeit a distinct nation within it, or is the Kurdish state or autonomy in Iraq going to be the seed of a larger Kurdish nation-state? So far, we have no clear answer to this question. Both Turkey and Iran competed with America and with each other to put their blueprints on the answer.
The fourth reason is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq coincided with the rise of Iran as a regional Shiite power. Now Iran, after the Iran-Iraq War, after the Gulf War, and throughout the 1990s, has been quietly building up its regional powerbase, and in the process Iraq, where the Shiites have become empowered, has become a very tempting lever or tool for Iranian expansion into the region. So, the upending of the power structure of Iraq and the dismantling of the Baathist state, the empowerment of the Shiites and to a much lesser extent the threat that may be posed to Iran by a Kurdish state, have coincided with the rise of Iran in the region and the rise of Iran as an important player. This did not sit well with Turkey, the traditional regional enemy of Iran, and Sunni Arab countries, specifically, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iraq became an arena for the conflict between these regional powers.
These four reasons, of course, have had a very powerful negative effect on the community that was in power in Iraq before April 2003, which is the Sunni Arab community. This is the fifth reason of why America could not succeed in Iraq. Iraqi politics have never been, until the last possibly 20 years, couched in such narrow sectarian terms. It was more to do with the role of the state, and things like modernization or ideological issues such as (especially in the 1950s and 1960s) Arab nationalism, socialism, communism and so on, but lurking underneath that was always the implicit unresolved issue of the Sunni and Shiite and the relative differential distribution of power between the two communities. However, in the last two decades of Saddam’s rule, the sectarian base of his power became more and more pronounced, and his oppressive acts and his repression against the Shiites, particularly the dramatic governmental repression after the 1991 uprising in the south, alienated the Shiites from the Iraqi state. When that order collapsed with the American invasion of Iraq, the Sunni Arab community, which had ruled Iraq in an implicit manner but became complicit, as it were in the rule of Saddam, became disempowered and in the process launched the insurgency.
All of these five reasons created the turmoil responsible for America’s failure in Iraq. Of course, their consequences were exacerbated by the incredibly poor performance of the United States in managing the affairs of the country under occupation. Therefore, a turbulent set of tectonic shifts in the power structures inside Iraq and in the region were worsened by a very, very poor administration and management of the country, and I am here specifically referring to the policies of the administration of President George W. Bush executed by Ambassador Paul Bremer. They are the sixth reason. Bremer saw himself as the American viceroy to Iraq. This was not a mindset conducive to working with Iraqis or the American military present in the country. Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had a top-down approach that stoked anti-American resentments and fanned the embers of what became the insurgency. The U.S. occupation of Iraq, which was administered by Bremer’s CPA, was constantly torn between the idealistic goal of building an Iraqi democracy and neoconservative obsession with control. The message that Bremer constantly sent to the Iraqis was that he was the supreme authority in Iraq so long as the CPA existed, but this reality did not mesh well with many Iraqis, especially those who were affected by his controversial decisions.
Against the advice of most experts on Iraq, the CPA dissolved the entire Iraqi army, purged from public life a broad portion of the existing elite, and alienated and marginalized a whole section of the country. To Sunni Arab officers, it was an added humiliation after their defeat in war. Bremer’s other most controversial decision was purging the Iraqi state of many Baathists. After the United States began the debaathification process in governmental institutions, Sunni concerns turned to alienation and anger. Many Sunni Arabs in Iraq perceived the debaathification as a desunnification process. Therefore, two disconnected realities evolved in Iraq under Bremer. Inside the Green Zone where an American myth of building an Iraqi nation was underway, Bremer produced tens of new laws that were intended to transform Iraq into what America wanted it to be, like Bremer’s decree to impose a flat 15% income tax, while others dealt with issues like copyright and patents. Meanwhile, outside the Green Zone, Iraqi Shiite leaders were building their new state, extremist insurgents took over Sunni Arab lands, and the Kurds successfully endured all pressures to reduce their independency. The policies of the Bush administration executed by Bremer really were a lethal formula that produced a new Iraqi power equation, and in the process, generated an explicitly divisive sociopolitical structure in Iraq, which significantly contributed to the failure of America’s plans to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqis.