Friday, June 27, 2008

Is Iraq Going To End Up Like Eastern Europe?

At the beginning of April 2008 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held two days of hearings on the future of Iraq. One guest was Yahia Khairi Said from the Center for the Study of Global Governance and Revenue Watch. One of the interesting arguments he made was that Iraq could turn out like Eastern Europe.

According to Said, after the Iron Curtain fell in Eastern Europe a series of reformers took power. They tried to push for change, too fast in many cases, but didn’t prove to be good at actually running a government. Many ended up losing power to former elites and bureaucrats. In Russia for example, the reformer Boris Yeltsin gave way to former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, as many Russians chose security and autocracy over the instability and uncertainty of democracy. Putin brought back elements of the Communist regime, sans the Communist Party.

Said postulated that Iraq could turn out the same way. After the U.S. invasion, the American run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) attempted widespread reforms of Iraqi society that were greatly resented such as de-Baathification, disbanding the army, closing state-run industries, etc. The CPA gave way to an Iraqi government run largely by exiles. None of them have proven competent at running a government. Prime Minister Maliki’s rule suffers from a lack of qualified personnel, corruption, sectarianism, and an inability to provide basic services. Said argued that these exiles might lose power eventually over the next series of elections to former Iraqi officials that the public believes can bring stability, as happened in Eastern Europe. As examples, he points to the military that hasn’t matured yet, but could play a role in politics in the future, and the midlevel bureaucrats that are trying to make the government work.

Alternatively, Said put forward two other possible scenarios for Iraq besides the return of the old order. Those consisted of continued rule of the exile parties and a disintegration into warlordism. In the first, the Dawa, Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Kurds would maintain their ruling coalition without popular support, shut out opposition, decentralize the country through federalism, and require a large U.S. military presence to protect them. In the second, the U.S. would withdraw and Iraq would fall apart into fiefdoms ruled by local warlords with no real central government power.

Finally, Said said that the U.S. should try to limit the rise of authoritarianism if Iraq were to go the way of Eastern Europe. His four points to achieve this were a 1) U.N. Resolution to solve the dispute over Kirkuk that would relieve tensions in northern Iraq, 2) A new oil law that shares revenues to try to build back Iraqi unity, 3) Free and fair elections that will allow new forces such as the Sunni Sons of Iraq a voice in Iraq, and challenge the rule of the exile elites that currently run the government, and finally 4) Get more countries and the U.N. involved in Iraq because the U.S. supports the ruling parties.

Said’s ideas are very original and depart from the major analogies that are usually made about Iraq. The Administration and war supporters have often used post-World War II Germany and Japan, and increasingly South Korea, as their models. There the U.S. fought wars, helped build the countries up into healthy democracies, and maintained a long-term troop presence. The Japan and German models ignore the fact that they had a history of democracy before the U.S. occupations and were also industrial nations with in tact bureaucracy and businesses to build upon after the war. South Korea went through years of autocratic rule supported by the U.S. before it became a democracy. That actually follows Said’s model, more than the one argued by the White House. None of the three had large scale fighting and insurgencies like Iraq either. Opponents of the war have said that Iraq could turn out like Yugoslavia or Vietnam. In Vietnam the U.S. sent troops under a questionable incident, the Gulf of Tonkin, and ended up being defeated by an insurgency and North Vietnam. Yugoslavia broke apart into separate countries due to sectarian and ethnic fighting. Like the supporters’ analogies, neither of these seems to fit Iraq. The Sunni insurgency was fought by a minority group that lost power after the invasion, and the majority has flipped sides to now work with the U.S. Islamism has failed to be as strong a motivator as communism proved in Vietnam. The Sunnis never got the kind of support the Viet Cong got from North Vietnam, Russia and China as well. The sectarian fighting in Iraq never got as bad as to threaten the break up of the country, as happened in Yugoslavia. Public opinion polls of Iraqis consistently show that they overwhelmingly object to the idea as well.


ABC, BBC, ARD, and NHK, “Iraq Poll March 2008,” 3/14/08

Said, Yahia, “Political Dynamics In Iraq within the Context of the ‘Surge,’” Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 4/2/08
- “Stability in Iraq, Putin Style,” Huffington Post, 4/7/08

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