Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Will A Prince Or A Villain Emerge In Iraq? Review Of Kenneth Pollack’s New Article On Machiavelli’s Lessons For Iraqi Politics

Kenneth Pollack is a longtime analyst and commentator on Iraq who works for the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. His latest article in The National Interest, “Reading Machiavelli in Iraq,” compares the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli on 16th Century Italian city-states, and the current situation in Iraq. He makes a good comparison between the two, pointing out that Machiavelli’s Florence was a budding democracy with deep internal divisions, surrounded by a combination of weak and powerful states. Machiavelli noted that in those types of situations, leaders often act out of fear, and make bad decisions that make things worse, because there are no strong institutions to keep them in check. That’s similar to Iraq, which is split along political, ethnic, and religious lines, and lies in the heart of the Middle East with all of its rivalries. It’s also comparable to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki whose recent actions are leading to accusations that he is becoming an autocrat. Pollack wonders whether Iraq can pull itself out of this quandary, which is the question of the day for Iraq watchers.
Premier Maliki sees himself strengthening the state to save the country from the chaos it has faced since the 2003 invasion, while his opponents see those moves as heading towards autocracy (BBC)
In Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, he outlined the good and bad sides of politics. In The Prince, he wrote that in weak states politicians often see things in zero sum terms, and resort to subterfuge, because they fear their rivals so much. He called for a prince to emerge that would save the system from its troubles. In Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, he pointed to ancient Rome as a model for how a republic can be created and maintained. Kenneth Pollack uses these two examples to help explain the current situation in Iraq. There, external threats and internal divisions could undermine the nation’s developing democracy. Iraq’s elite are very similar to those in Machiavelli’s Florence. There is deep distrust between all of Iraq’s major parties as shown by the repeated controversies since the 2010 election. First, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki got the courts to rule that any party that could put together the most seats in parliament after the voting was done, rather than before as had been done previously, could form a new government. Then, he failed to follow through with the Irbil agreement, which put together the ruling coalition. That led to a no confidence vote by the Iraqi National Movement (INM), the Kurdish Coalition, and the Sadrists, and a boycott of the legislature and cabinet by the INM. The premier was able to withstand all of this, and came out on top each time due to the deep divisions amongst his rivals. At the same time, he has tried to centralize power in his hands, by appointing commanders within the security forces, and gain control over government agencies such as the Election Commission, the anti-corruption Integrity Commission, and the Central Bank of Iraq. That has all led to Maliki’s opponents to call him a dictator, and to compare him to Saddam Hussein. Now that Maliki has emerged as the victor with no real threat to his power, Pollack believes this would be the time for him to reach out to the other parties, and make concessions to assure them that their fears about him are unfounded. Instead, the prime minister’s conspiratorial mind leads him in the opposite direction. He doesn’t want to show any weakness, and always seems to see plots against him. Because Iraq has a new political system put together by the Americans after the 2003 invasion, its institutions are weak, and there are no real checks and balances that would limit Maliki. Instead, he is systematically undermining the government’s independence, because he believes that a strong hand is needed after the years of chaos the country went through. That is leading the other lists to turn to outside countries for support such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf States, which in turn only increases Maliki’s suspicions of their intentions. In an ideal situation, the prime minister could be taking the high road, and becoming the prince that Machiavelli called for, and be thinking about the future as he wrote in Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. Instead, Iraqi politics are likely to continue down the dysfunctional path that they have been following for the last several years, going from crisis to crisis as no one appears to be above the fray.

In a strong government, institutions are what maintain stability, and that is what is lacking in Iraq. No matter who is in office, the various agencies, courts, etc. remain after them. Pollack made a good observation that it is not Maliki personally that is the problem, but the lack of those types of pillars in Iraq that allows the prime minister to do what he’s been doing over the last few years. If another person were in power for example, they would probably be doing the same, because other bodies such as the parliament have largely abdicated their oversight of the government. Where Pollack goes wrong is his constant argument that a U.S. military presence would have helped Iraq down the right road. Since the Obama administration seems to follow the Bush administration in seeing Iraq largely in ethnosectarian terms, it would continue to cause just as many problems as it tried to solve. It also ignores the growing Iraqi nationalism, which would not allow a continued foreign presence in the country after eight years of occupation. Today, Iraq is in a precarious situation. The level of mistrust amongst the elite is growing, foreign interference is increasing, and politics is mired in one crisis after another. Rather than a prince emerging to save the state as Machiavelli called for in Florence almost 500 years ago, Iraq seems to be mimicking its post-independence period when the premier was largely able to do what he wanted by playing off his rivals, and forming loose alliances with the possibility that he could become a strong man like the dictators that followed that time.


Hanna, Michael, Wahid, “How much do they hate Maliki?” Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, 3/26/10

International Crisis Group, “Iraq’s Secular Opposition: The Rise and Decline of Al-Iraqiya,” 7/31/12

Kenneth Pollack, “Reading Machiavelli in Iraq,” The National Interest, Nov-Dec 2012

Wicken, Stephen, “The Hashemi Verdict and the Health of Democracy In Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War,” 9/11/12


Unknown said...

"In a strong government, institutions are what maintain stability"
Two days ago I wrote a blog entry using this argument (montrealiraqi.com), comparing Faisal I who built the institutions and depended on them for stability and Noury Al Saied who depended on the UK for stability. Comparing with Maliki who now depends on Iran's influence for stability because it demonstrated its willingness and ability to steer the elections, directly and through the decisions of Pres. Talbani.
Pollack analysis blames the victims and gives useless arguments: The US has a lot to blame but putting back military feet-on-the-ground is pure fantasy.

Anonymous said...

I think the most important factor is Iraq's extreme military weakness, while it is surrounded by heavily armed neighbours.

Joel Wing said...

I think Pollack notes the problems that the U.S. ran into trying to build Iraq's government from the years of the CPA up to the Surge in 2007. The Iraqis need to take responsibility as well, since so few of the elite feel the need for strong institutions either unless they can bend them to their will.

As far as Maliki and Iran, I think that's overblown. Maliki thinks about Maliki and Dawa first. Don't forget that he left Iran for Syria when he was in exile, because he resented Tehran's attempt to take over the party.

Faisal Kadri said...

There are more Iraqis who feel the need for institutions than you think. Iraq had far better institutions than at the present even at Saddam's time. Many people long for census which Iraq had every ten years since 1927, it was a US decision not to hold one. The "Iraqis" you talk about are US allies.
I am aware of Maliki's past, wasn't the US aware of Talbani's?
Nobody can blame Maliki or anyone else for pursuing their own self interest, its the lack of constitutional restraint that I criticize. And on the part of US policy its the immediate short term objectives; if the US can't think beyond the tip of its nose no wonder when it trips.

Joel Wing said...

Yes there were obviously institutions during Saddam's time. The problem with them was that they were all distorted to his will. The courts for example implemented his policies and were not independent.

The census has been held up, not because of the Americans, but because of disputes between Arab and Kurdish parties.

And finally, yes, the U.S. made plenty of ad hoc decisions in Iraq, because it was so unprepared for what it faced in trying to rebuild the country.

Seerwan said...

The myopia of American commentators and the incorrect belief that a military presence = influence is quite old.

Pollack was further disappointing in rehashing the same tired assertion that the US didn't maintain a presence beyond Dec 2011 was because the Obama Administration didn't try hard enough with the Iraqis, rather than the reality that Iraqi politicians knew a renewed SOFA was intolerable to the Iraqi public.

Joel Wing said...

Seerwan agreed,

Many US commentators were shocked that the US didn't keep troops in Iraq, and then it became a partisan domestic political issues, which meant a serious discussion was going to be thrown out the window

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