Seven Years of Occupation in Iraq and What For?

August 1, 2010

By Roger Owen

The departure of the last US combat troops from Iraq has been the occasion for much comment in North America. Nevertheless, much of it seems to miss the point. For one thing, it is almost always based on the typically American assumption that things might have gone better with better planning or sounder local knowledge or a different military strategy. But, as I have argued many times before, a modern occupation is bound to run into serious difficulties, however well executed and thought through, and, therefore, should only be embarked upon in the most extreme of circumstances. Let us hope that this lesson at least has been well and truly learned in Washington when contemplating taking action against terrorist safe-havens in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

A second misconception concerns the nature of the system which the American, unwittingly, introduced into Iraq, a form of sectarianism. That this happened is now well understood. In spite of US and other protestations that they did not want another Lebanon almost all they did was ensure that this is exactly what they got. The introduction of an interim government consisting almost exclusively of Shi’i exiles and Kurds. The reliance on the local Ayatullahs to help keep things under control. The obsessive concern with ensuring a more or less sectarian balance on all councils and assemblies great and small. 

These and many other factors then contributed to the present situation in which, not only is a weak central coalition government the only viable option, but it is also one that is taking many, many months to construct given the fact that the political system has not yet generated a set of Lebanese-type rules governing the distribution of major public offices. To make matters even worse, all this is happening in a country which, unlike Lebanon in the 1920s and 1930s, does not even have the possibility of pretending that the three major sects are in some kind demographic balance and so should share the spoils of office equally between them.

As a result, it is certainly appropriate to ask how much the former Iraqi political exiles, most of whom either hold, or aspire to hold, positions of power, are to blame for the present political crisis? For me, at least, the major guilt lies with the Neo-Cons and the senior members of the Bush administration who chose to believe the exiles’ account of what was wrong with the Saddam Hussein regime and how this could so easily be put right. But there are also more subtle ways in which a more accurate but inappropriate reading of Iraq’s political history had major consequences. One, for example, was the exiles’ fear of a possible military coup after 2003 if the army wasn’t immediately disbanded and re-made, a process which, it worth noting, was adopted by the British after their intervention against Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani’s military-backed dictatorship in 1941. As with sectarian government, the very thing which they and their American allies said they feared, a politicized military, now seems very likely to come back to haunt them.

Then there is the question of revenue from oil. To begin with, in the first year or so of the occupation, great effort was spent in trying to devise ways to diversify the economy in such a way as to reduce its overall dependence on this single source of  governmental income. But agriculture was virtually ignored and the people allowed to import practically whatever they wanted from abroad, further reducing the market for any type of domestic industry. Now, whatever commentators like the New York Times’s Anthony Shadid write about the exile politicians’ growing suspicions of each other, they actually have plenty to be distrustful about as they try to ensure that they and their own followers get maximum access to jobs and patronage fuelled by oil money.

It is here too that an important part of the analogy with Lebanon breaks down. Confessional systems of the Lebanese variety demand a weak state and a weak army lest either fall into the hands of a confessional enemy bent on using them to another confession’s disadvantage. But Iraq has to have a strong army for domestic security reasons. And it also seems destined to have a stronger state than Lebanon if and when a single leader emerges to use the oil revenues to build up his own great power. 

If this is analysis is correct, foreign invasion and occupation has produced the worst of all possible political worlds. But it would also be impertinent of me to suggest that this too isn’t very well-known to the members of the present Iraqi elite, even if they remain so unsure about how to proceed. Logic dictates that a coalition government must emerge sooner or later. Logic also dictates that, if the security system gets really bad again, the commander of the army will put great pressure on the politicians to get their acts together, perhaps with him as Minister of Defence, a post held by many other commanders in many other Arab countries. 

Many worse things could happen. And the commander in question might even turn out to be as politically wise as was General Fuad Chehab in Lebanon in 1958 who not only introduced many much-needed economic and social reforms as president but also left office on time as promised in 1964 with the Lebanese constitutional provision against multiple-term presidencies intact.

Strong and strongly-centralized Arab states like Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia tend to produce strong presidencies. So too do states where the oil revenues can be channeled through a small ruling elite. Weaker states with more heterogeneous populations like Sudan and Yemen require leaders who are as much more like chairmen of the board, skilled at managing conflicts and knowing the political price needed for accommodation. Who knows: perhaps after all its long travails, Iraq will eventually find such a man? That would be something.

This article was originally published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in August 2010. Read more of Professor Owen's Al-Hayat columns in English here.