Hard Questions, Uneasy Answers

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Reflecting on his recent experience in Kurdistan (from which he wrote three earlier letters for the Gazette), a leading scholar of ethnopolitical conflict ponders Iraq’s future.

By Brendan O’Leary | Illustration by Anastasia Vasilakis

Back from his sojourn in Kurdistan as a constitutional advisor [“Expert Opinion,” March/April; “Gazetteer,” May/June and July/ August], Dr. Brendan O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science and director of Penn’s Solomon Asch Center for Ethnopolitical Conflict, responds to the ever-looming questions about Iraq.

When I returned from Kurdistan this summer,many friends interrogated me. My attempts to respond prompted memories of a poem by W.H. Auden: “To ask the hard questions is simple, but the answers are hard, and hard to remember.”i

Three questions are always posed. 1) Was the U.S.-led coalition right to invade and occupy Iraq? 2) How could the occupation of Iraq have been better organized? (Not even devotees of Fox News think it was well organized.) 3) Can Iraq work now that the Coalition Provisional Authority has gone? 

Answer 1. An appalling regime was removed, but for the wrong reasons

Saddam’s regime was genocidal, both before and after 1991. It committed “the following acts … with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting … conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (e) forcibly transferring the children of the group to another group.”ii Member-states of the United Nations are obliged to “prevent and punish”iii genocide, but this was not the key basis for the intervention by the coalition. 

The B‘athists ran a regime of mass destruction, intermittently exterminating Kurds, Shi‘a, Marsh Arabs, Yezidis, and small Christian communities, deporting populations of villages and towns—and razing them. They were politicidal; opponents of the regime were killed, systematically tortured, as well as jailediv. They became misogynist: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented organized rapes, ritualized beheading of women defamed as prostitutes, and the re legalization of “honor killings.” Saddam was a present danger to the majority of his subject peoples and their neighbors. He had twice initiated failed wars of conquest. His regime was unlikely to collapse, either through sanctions or reform. B‘athists had taken KGB counsel on preventing coups. The state, military, police, and party had their own bureaucracies, and respective intelligence agencies; each watched the other, and reported separately to the dictator, who ran a clan tyranny (of his Tikrit lineage), an ethnic tyranny (of Arabs over Kurds), and a religious tyranny (favoring Sunni over Shi‘a, and Muslims over non-Muslims). 

But these facts were not the principal justifications given for the enforced regime-change.

The official case was threefold. The first premise was that Saddam had not complied with the U.N. treaty imposed after the Gulf War. This claim had merit, but its potency was de-fanged by subsequent U.N. resolutions. It is, mildly put, controversial whether prior U.N. resolutions gave the U.S. and its allies the authority to enforce resolutions that Saddam had sought to avoid. The legal case was at best casuistic. 

The second premise was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that were imminent threats to international security. The WMD premise was thought true (even by many who opposed the war), although the intelligence on which it rested was challenged, most effectively by France at the U.N. We all now know that the WMD theory was false. 

The third premise, asserted, implied, and insinuated, was that meaningful —or potential—linkage existed between Saddam’s WMD regime and al-Qaeda. The linkage theory involved deliberately inflated and misleading extrapolations. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report treats this issue soberly: it recalls that Usama bin Ladin sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Kurdistan (those who formed Ansar al-Islam)v, and suggests that al-Qaedavi had more substantive links to Iran.

Enforcing resolutions that the U.N. was unwilling to enforce, WMDs, and the linkage claim provided the public rationale for war-planners in Washington. After the invasion of Iraq, coalition leaders had an embarrassing difficulty. The U.N.’s weapons-inspectors had done their job. Between 1991 and 1997-98 they decommissioned Saddam’s WMD program, and also contained its re-developmentvii. Most of the key intelligence services of the U.S. and the U.K. have been officially declared wrong in their assessments of Saddam’s WMD capabilities in 2002-03. The coalition’s political leaders now appear either as awkward liars or, just as embarrassing, as the dupes of their intelligence agencies—themselves duped by their informants, overly susceptible to pleasing their political masters, or just incompetent. The invasion itself has generated linkage, but through a self-fulfilling prophecy or “blowback”viii: al-Qaeda and its allies and overthrown B‘athists now collaborate.

Kenneth Pollack, the author of the best book in favor of the intervention (The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq), has argued that the sanctions imposed on Saddam for non-compliance with U.N. resolutions were eroding, and that Saddam wanted to re-arm.ix But “smart sanctions”—smarter than the general sanctions that led to the deaths of children and mass-smuggling—had recently been approved by the U.N. They had only been given a short time to work. While Pollack is right that Saddam would have liked nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, the retrospectively astonishing question is: Why did Saddam hide the fact that he was bereft of WMDs? Why permit an invasion to begin on what he could have shown to be a false claim? Perhaps he thought the belief that he had WMDs acted as a deterrent. Perhaps he was misled by his intelligence agencies, who may have messed up their assessments of U.S. intentions as badly as their Western counterparts failed in their tasks. Perhaps his personal security and that of his (past) weapons program were so interlocked that he dared not “come clean.” It is a subject for the historians.

My first uneasy answer, therefore, is that an awful regime was overthrown that could have been overthrown lawfully, because it was genocidal, but was in fact overthrown in unlawful violation of orthodox international law, on premises that have been shown to have been false and misleading. The results have not only damaged the U.S.’s standing, but also made the reconstruction of Iraq more difficult. The U.S. needs to lead the U.N. in interventions against genocide and gross human-rights violations, but by making such a bad case for invading Iraq it has lost much of the legitimacy it so desperately needs.

Answer 2. The occupation, handicapped by the unilateral and ill-considered basis for regime-change, was mismanaged because it was badly planned by the wrong people, poorly improvised, and driven by inappropriate assumptions

Only stranded platoons of neo-conservatives now claim that the occupation went well after May 2003. What is true is that the military war was won quickly, efficiently, and effectively, i.e. with minimal collateral damage, both to civilians and property, and with generally disciplined compliance with the laws of war. But subsequent policy appeared almost designed to provoke resistance and fragmentation in Arab Iraq.

What went wrong? Insufficient troops (including those with policing capabilities) were deployed in Arab Iraq to win the peace, despite pre-war advice. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s doctrines on how to fight modern war proved quite effective, but not as recipes for peace. Planning for the occupation was led by the Pentagon, whose forte is not state-building, and whose senior officials behaved arrogantly, learning little from U.S. interventions in the 1990s. It was presumed that Saddam’s elite supporters would collapse, but that many institutions, especially the police, would remain intact. The complete loss of policing control and the spree of looting—abetted by Saddam’s release of criminals—created a Hobbesian problem of disorder that was widely foreseen and could have been pre-empted. The rapid dissolution of the B‘ath party and the Iraqi Army, coupled with a failure to take steps to render their leadership structures ineffective or to collect weapons, created significant numbers able to resist the occupation—and engage in crime. Insufficient troops and police meant that neither internal security nor effective sealing of the borders were achieved—thus aiding spoiling activities across the Syrian, Iranian, and Saudi borders, and inviting an influx of wahhabists.

Risibly, the invasion’s planners had assumed that the occupation of oil-rich Iraq would quickly become self-financing. The subsequent financial realities led to panicked budgetary requests to Congress and delays in organizing vital local expenditures that could have consolidated support for regime-change within Arab Iraq.

If there ever was a coherent plan, its executors changed it quickly: Ambassador L. Paul Bremer replaced General Jay Garner. Bremer was a more authoritative and authoritarian figure, but his improvisations lacked panache. The planned time-span of occupation rapidly ranged from indeterminate, to two years, to one year, with the abolition of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in June 2004. This itself generated uncertainty that encouraged resistance, and threatened to undermine the one major achievement of Bremer’s tenure, the negotiation of the Transitional Administrative Lawx. Furthermore, the governance of the CPA was frequently dreadful: the pathologies of contractors and privatized security personnel are worth books in themselves; the rapid rotation of the best U.S. officers on the ground was utterly counter-productive, from both a military and a political perspective; U.N. oil-for-food funds authorized for Kurdistan were appropriated by the CPA. The CPA, nicely satirized as Can’t Provide Anything, initially presided over a chaotic mess in Arab Iraq, and ended by creating a climate in which torture was practiced by authorized U.S. personnel in Saddam’s dungeons in Abu Ghraib—to the shame of decent Americans everywhere.

It was hubris to declare “Mission Accomplished” in May 2003, and it was folly one year later to oscillate between determined coercion and appeasement in the treatment of al-Sadr’s Mahdi army in Kufa, Najaf, and Baghdad. It was bizarre to decide to be ruthless toward B‘athists dug inside Faluja, a key base for the organization of suicide-bombings, and then to retreat under media heat, enabling at least one critical journalist to write (in exaggeration), “A year after Bush declared major combat in Iraq over, insurgents have their own capital in Faluja.”xi In the end, the CPA’s most successful achievement was to leave two days ahead of schedule. 

Westerners and Arabs who opposed the war generally regard the new interim government as stooges. A typical academic summation of this orthodoxy derides “a supposedly sovereign interim government,” treats the transfer of sovereignty as “another election ploy” by the Bush administration, and accuses the Americans and the interim government of preparing “a show trial in Baghdad” of Saddamxii. When Western academics are keener to look out for Saddam’s human rights than to constructively support the new government of Iraq, we can be certain that the occupation has not succeeded with non-American public opinion.

In fact, the occupation could not go well because the administration never resolved whether it was intent simply on removing Saddam and organizing a quick exit, or on the comprehensive democratic reconstruction of Iraq, which implied a careful and judicious long-haul intervention, part of a wider proclaimed program to facilitate the democratization of the Middle East. The resultant confusion compromised both strategies: Iraq got a Rumwolf, half of Rumsfeld, and half of Wolfowitz. 

So my second uneasy answer is that more or less everything could have been done better, especially in security, economic, and institutional planning. Order needed to be established with overwhelming numbers (the Powell doctrine applied to post-conflicts). Interim constitutional renewal should have been more openly made rather than driven in secret by Ambassador Bremer. Effective regime-changes are neither cheap nor easy. The coalition missed its opening political moments of opportunity; failed to build properly on the goodwill especially available among Kurds and Shi‘a Arabs to create a robust governing coalition; and allowed crushed pockets of resistance to reform. Counterinsurgency policy was not coherently married to constitutional rebuilding and political reconstruction, and U.S. foreign policy in the rest of the Middle East remains an easy target for critics within and outside the Arab worldxiii.

Answer 3. All is not yet lost; it is just far more difficult than it need have been

In fact, the interim government is not comprised of mere stooges. The new prime minister, Iyad Alawi, did work for MI6 and the CIA against Saddam, but he was not Ambassador Bremer’s or President Bush’s choice. He was chosen by a critical alliance of Kurds and Shi‘a Arabs on the Governing Council, against Bremer’s express preference for Adnan Pachachi—who had been Bremer’s stooge during the negotiation of the interim constitution. 

Alawi appears to be pursuing a three-pronged strategy. First, he has sought to win the confidence of the Kurds after they threatened to withdraw from the Baghdad government. He assured them that he would abide by the Transitional Administrative Law, even though the U.S. government had not publicly stood by the interim constitution when it sought U.N. approval for the restoration of Iraq’s sovereignty. That keeps Iraq on track for federal elections in January 2005, and the negotiation and ratification of the permanent constitution through the fall of 2005. Second, he has sought to offer an amnesty to those who did not surrender after the war and continued to fight the coalition. The strategy is soft-before tough-love: those who reject amnesty and political inclusion will face the full deployment of local and coalition forces under martial law. Third, he is trying to ensure that he projects a new, independent Iraqi government, with an Arab and Kurdish face, and with a strongly Shi‘a face in Arab Iraq. 

Alawi’s difficulties are obvious. Kurds minimally want to avoid the re-centralization of Iraq. Many Shi‘a Arabs want a centralized majoritarian democracy—and some want it to be theocratic for good measure. Many Sunni Arabs still hanker after a neo-B‘athist restoration. Alawi is dependent, for now, on coalition forces. He has inherited a post-totalitarian rump state and some rapidly dumped modular American institutions and practices, as well as the ill will of Islamists, especially wahhabists. The history of Iraq does not inspire facile optimism in his future. 

Many are predicting that Iraq will become a failed state, especially in Arab Iraq (Kurdistan is not a failed entity). It is already an established trope that the Bush administration has repeated, albeit faster, many of the errors made by the British in their intervention in Mesopotamia and Kurdistan during and after World War 1xiv, but some of these analogies are overdrawn, and too deterministic. I may be wrong, but I do not see a unified resistance to the new government; rather, most signs point to loose sets of armed networks of convenience, and I believe that the tactics of the resistance-organizers, especially the use of suicide-bombers, are no longer overtly, or sneakily, locally regarded as heroic, but rather as the actions of fanatics who are as willing to smash infrastructure projects that help Muslims as they are to attack Christian churches.

It is a mistake, however, to read the violence after the transfer of sovereignty as mere chaos, banditry, and criminal lawlessness. There is some of all of that, but there is also a political logic. The source of most of the violence, which does not openly speak its cause for obvious reasons, is the Sunni Arab minority, which lost power when Saddam’s B‘athists were removed by the U.S. It is from this community that well-organized violence has been orchestrated: suicide-bombs against Kurdistan’s two largest parties, the Shi‘a holy shrines, Christian churches, and attacks against the coalition forces, the new police, and the Governing Council and its successor, the interim government. It is an insurrection against loss of dominance, one that opposes democracy because that will ratify the Sunni Arabs’ loss of power. The violence of Al-Sadr’s Mahdi army is the exception that proves the rule: most Shi‘a Arabs see no need for violence because they will be the primary stakeholders both in the interim government and after free elections (which they support). If Iraq works, it will be the first predominantly Arab state in which Sunni Arabs have been deposed from power since colonial times, which explains why Sunni al-Qaeda wahhabists are in tactical alliance with ex-B‘athists, and in undeclared war against Shi‘a Arabs, Kurds, and the smaller minorities.

Iraq has no analogous cultural unity to Japan or Germany, which were re-built under American auspices in the late 1940s. It is not, and cannot be a nation. If it is to work it must be a pluri-national federation—which is not the advice that has recently echoed within the White House. Iraq is deeply diverse: Kurds and Arabs comprise different nations; Sunni and Shi‘a Muslims are often as divided as Protestants and Catholics in early modern Europe; and the big three communities encompass small pockets of other religious and linguistic minorities (Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkomen, and Yezidis). The CPA’s slogan that all should be “just Iraqis” was facile, inappropriate, and widely rejected.

A federation, which may later earn the shared respect of its citizens, can be built. It may even be rebuilt as a democracy, and perhaps even as a secular state (or a religiously pluralist and tolerant state) that treats women as equals and not as chattels. But these are tall orders, which will be extraordinarily difficult to deliver both in the negotiation of the permanent constitution (which I address at length in a forthcoming bookxv) and on the ground. Suffice to emphasize here that the rebuilding of Iraq cannot be engineered, either by insiders or foreigners, around the illusion that it has been, is, or can be one nation. 

The recognition of Kurdistan and its just constitutional treatment by Arab Iraq will be the decisive test of whether there can be a federal democratic Iraq. Kurdistan can disprove the thesis that people of predominantly Muslim beliefs cannot become democratic, secular, or tolerant of other nationalities and other ethnic, religious, and linguistic communities. But that will happen only if it is given sufficient freedom to demonstrate its capacity to do so—by the rest of Iraq, by Iraq’s neighbors, and by the great powers. U.S. policy under President Bush or President Kerry must absorb the full implications of this lesson if Iraq is not to be added to the list of “failed states.” Whether Arab Iraq’s major politicians and publics can concur on a generous constitutional rapprochement with Kurdistan next year, and on their own constitutional governance, is not something I presume to know. But we can all agree that the alternatives will be unpleasant.


i Paraphrasing W.H. Auden, Selected Poems edited Edward Mendelson (Faber & Faber, 1979), p. 17. 

ii Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (United Nations, 9 December 1948), Article II. Three hundred thousand dead from genocide is the figure publicized in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Director of Human Rights, Sandy Hodgkinson, CBS News 2003, Powell ‘88 Attack Proves War Case. Halabja, 16 September. <http://www.cbnsnews.com/stories/2003/09/17/iraq/printable 573667.shtml> accessed 1 April 2004). The remains of many of these victims are yet to be scientifically exhumed and properly documented—an indictment of the CPA.

iii Convention, op. cit. Article I. 

iv Samir al-Khalil (Kanan Makiya), Republic of Fear: Saddam’s Iraq(Hutchinson Radius, 1991). 

v The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (W.H. Norton, 2004), p. 61, and n. 53.

vi Ibid., chapters 2 and 7, passim.

vii Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (Pantheon, 2004), and see George A. Lopez and David Cortright, ‘Containing Iraq: Sanctions Worked’, Foreign Affairs, 83, 4 (July/August), 90-103. The latter’s lucid article goes too far in claiming ‘smart sanctions’ had destroyed Saddam’s war machine (p.97), and is too uncritical of the ‘oil for food program’ in Arab Iraq.

viii Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Owl Books, 2001).

ix Kenneth Pollack, ‘Spies, Lies and Weapons: What went Wrong’, Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2004. He made the same argument in The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House, 2002), especially ‘The Case for an Invasion’; 335ff. Pollack was not guilty of bad counsel on post-occupation planning. Albeit briefly, he argued for a much larger troop deployment to ensure security, and for a principled ‘reconstruction’—rather than a ‘pragmatic’ approach—see ‘Rebuilding Iraq’, 387-424. The neo-conservative pro-war case was made by Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol, The War over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission (Encounter Books, 2003). For a calmly worded review of differences among American conservatives on the war see Martin Durham, ‘The American Right and The Iraq War’, Political Quarterly, 2004, 75: 3, 257-65

x See Brendan O’Leary, ‘Two Cheers for the Transitional Law of Iraq’. The Pennsylvania Gazette (May-June 2004). http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0504/0504gaz09.html

xi Patrick Cockburn. “Diary”. London Review of Books, July 22, 2004, 34-5. The notion of a ‘capital’ implies Iraqi nationalist unity in the resistance, which I do not credit. Mostly Sunni Ba‘thists and al-Sadr’s (Iran-sponsored) Shi‘a are not natural bedfellows. 

xii Michael Byers, “Alleged War Criminals”. London Review of Books, 22 July 2004, 30-1

xiii Disarray is, I think, a far more accurate portrait than the claim in much of the Arab media and some of the western left that a re colonization of Iraq was, and is, underway, cf. Tariq Ali, Bush in Babylon: The Re-Colonization of Iraq (Verso, 2004)

xiv See inter alia Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (Columbia University Press, 2003), John Keay, Sowing the Wind: Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East(W.W. Norton, 2003).

xv See Brendan O’Leary. John McGarry and Khaled Salih (eds.) The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), especially chapters 2 and 4.

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