An Iraq ruled by one – or none (THE GLOBE AND MAIL OP-ED) MICHAEL BELL 03/22/12)
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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
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
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
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. (© Copyright
2012 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. 03/22/12)
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