Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Security/Democracy Paradox in Iraq

Posted in Iraq by Dan on August 4, 2009
The United States should replace the Freedom Agenda with a more realistic Balance-of-Power strategy

The United States should replace the Freedom Agenda with a more realistic Balance-of-Power strategy

When students, scholars, and military commanders are asked about the U.S. campaign in Iraq, internal security matters frequently come to the forefront of the debate.  This, of course, is with good reason.  Despite the tremendous successes in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition government, he continues to struggle with the lingering presence of Islamic insurgent groups to the north, south, east, and west.  Bagdad, after six years of bloody warfare that almost resulted in a full-fledged civil war, is all too often engaged in combating criminal elements…often at the expense of reconstruction and development programs.

Iraqi society, although much better off than the bloody pinnacle of Sunni-Shia infighting, is still considered weak and susceptible to collapse by a host of international organizations and humanitarian watch groups.  While the influence and power of Shia militias has weakened considerably under General David Petreaus counterinsurgency doctrine, many poor Iraqis in Sadr City are simply waiting for Muqtada al-Sadr’s triumphant return from neighboring Iran.  Millions of Iraqis are beginning to question Maliki’s resolve in delivering the essential ingredients for a safe, prosperous, and independent nation-state.  The withdrawal of American forces from major Iraqi cities is undoubtedly creating a golden opportunity for Sunni insurgents to expand their deadly operations:  both in the aims of increasing civilian casualties and creating a perception that the Iraqi Government is a puppet of western imperialism.

Young Sunni men, particularly members of the Awakening movement, may simply rejoin the insurgency for fear of their own futures.  With a centralized Shia government in Baghdad seemingly controlling all aspects of the state, armed conflict is routinely viewed by the Sunni population as a valuable tool in the fight for civil rights.  So the reasoning goes, without the physical and psychological effects of violence, how else will the Sunnis (a group suffering widespread unemployment compared to their Shia counterparts) be able to advance their economic and political grievances in the face of Shia-imposed policies?

Perhaps the most threatening sign of discontent is the emergence of Kurdish revolutionary groups to the north…a problem that was once seen as both minor and insignificant by the U.S. Military.  Once again, with American soldiers packing up their gear, Kurds are quickly feeling a sense of empowerment…not only challenging Baghdad in its oil distribution policies but forcefully advocating an independent Kurdistan free of Arab interference.  With each trouble enduring in the back of the Iraqi mind, Washington is right to view Iraq’s internal security as the primary concern for the U.S. military effort.

Yet, while internal matters are extremely important to Iraq’s future in the long-term, it appears that ethnic war has overshadowed other potential threats that Baghdad must confront.  Of course, what I am referring to is the many threats that fester at the international level.  As any military historian will tell you, the survival of a nation-state is contingent upon two factors:  the ability of the authorities to control “unwanted” elements within its own society, and the ability of the military to protect the domestic population from conventional warfare.  Unfortunately, with Iraq’s economy and infrastructure decimated by six-years of bloodbath, its leadership, army, and police force are all ill-equipped and under-funded to successfully promote Baghdad’s national interests.

Iraq’s long history of violence and warfare, as well as its unique geographical location in the Middle East, are two factors that only buttress this claim.  Since 1980, Iraq has been viewed as a playground for foreign powers in the region, be it Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Israel.  Bagdad has fought two costly wars with its neighbors…both in 1980 and 1990.  Iraqi soldiers and civilians spent a full eight-years in the trenches against the Iranian military…costing the lives of over 500,000 Iraqis while propelling the country into a poverty-stricken member of the third-world.  Israel, a staunch ally of the United States in the Middle East, bombed Iraqi military installations in 1981…all but destroying Baghdad’s ability to acquire the necessary weaponry that is essential for a hegemonic position in the Gulf.  And of course, the diplomatic relations (or the lack thereof) between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has been dominated by feelings of resentment, anguish and distrust.  Considering that Iraq is surrounded by states that have traditionally been skeptical of Baghdad’s motives, the need for a conventional military capability is all the more important for the long-term stability of the young Arab democracy.

The fact that a large brunt of Iraq’s military capability has been destroyed by U.S. forces, both in terms of ballistic missiles and chemical-weapons, is a testament to how ill-prepared the country is to counteract aggression from either Saudi Arabia or Iran.  Despite the numerous flaws that scholars can place on Saddam Hussein’s character, one cannot disclaim the Iraqi dictator’s positive ability to resist his adversaries.  A balance of power between the major powers in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and Syria, was made possible solely because of Hussein’s inherent bravado nature.  Now with Saddam overthrown and disposed, the one obstacle that kept the Iranians, Saudis and Israelis from launching acts of aggression against the Iraqi people is gone.  In a way, the United States both enhanced and degraded the stability of an already politically tense area of the world.  While Washington eliminated one of the most brutal war criminals on the face of the earth, they indirectly jeopardized the balance-of-power formula.  With Iraq rid of authoritarian politics, the only thing holding its neighbors back is a combination of international condemnation and moral right.  Can we truly be sure that this morality will last forever?

Upon reading this passage, some may think that I am strongly advocating for a new U.S.-Iraq partnership that concentrates on traditional methods of inter-state warfare.  In a way, I would have to agree with this sentiment.  If we are to believe that Iraqis themselves are the only people able to provide for their own security, Iraq’s technology and military-might will have to expand to levels comparable to the western world.  However, this need not be exclusively for the defense of Iraqis from external threats.  Such a partnership would also have the effect of improving America’s national-interests in the Middle East, namely by reintroducing the theory of balanced power.  No longer would Tehran be emboldened in relation to its Iraqi neighbor at such a fast-pace.  Saudi Arabia, while a U.S.-ally, would think twice before taking advantage of Iraq’s weaknesses…whether it terms of covert or overt military operations.  Equally important, Israel may gain an Arab ally who opposes a nuclear-inspired Islamic Republic.  Considering that Prime Minister Maliki has already invoked a sense of nationalism with respect to “intruding” foreign powers in the region, a potential Israeli-Iraqi relationship is much more realistic than people think.

If the war in Iraq has told us anything about U.S. policy towards the Middle East, it is that security is paramount to development, education, and reconstruction.  Although not necessarily beneficial to Arabs themselves, it promotes Washington’s national objectives of controlling terrorism and violent political extremism.  By establishing a new type of military alliance between the United States and Iraq- one specifically directed towards the rebuilding of Iraq’s army- the long-winded American campaign on Iraqi soil could be more successful than previously thought.  Perhaps in the process, President George W. Bush’s legacy would strengthen as a result.

From an ethnocentric American perspective, stability in the Arab world is just as vital for peace in the 21st century as the introduction of democracy in Baghdad, Amman, Tehran, Riyadh, and Damascus.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal contributed to this blog.  You can access his full article at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/07/31/this_week_at_war_life_after_the_insurgency

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