Democracy is Doomed in Iraq and Syria

by Benjamin Studebaker

US withdrawal from Iraq was completed by the start of 2012–it has taken about 2 years since then for the secure moment created by the surge strategy to noticeably crumble, with recent death tolls in the country posting a 5-year high. Iraq appears to be once again splintering along the same sectarian lines that caused the American occupation so much trouble from 2004-2007 and is causing Syria so much trouble today. What makes it so difficult for Iraq to be a stable democracy, and what lessons does Iraq continue to teach us about Syria? Iraq is back, let’s take a look.

First, let’s get a little perspective on the extent to which the security situation in Iraq has broken down and how much further it has to go before it descends into peak wartime levels:

Iraq is 2-3 times more violent than it was in the last year of the US occupation (2011), but it remains only 1/4th to 1/5th as violent as it was in the dark days of 2006. Nevertheless, the numbers are cause for concern, in no small part because we can see how very quickly the amount of violence can rise or fall. 2013 was more than twice as violent as 2012, and if 2014 follows the same growth trajectory, Iraq will be on pace to return to 2006 conditions in 2015. Man’s propensity for violence is a fickle thing, and perhaps the United States will take some sort of action to mitigate this trend, but it should nonetheless disturb any who thought that the US left Iraq in sustainably good hands.

What’s the trouble? In a word, sectarianism–Iraqis have more political loyalty to their respective ethnic and religious groups than they have to any Iraqi national state. When elections take place, Iraqis vote their ethnicity or religion. Here’s a map showing which sects hold sway over which parts of Iraq:

Compare that to the election results from Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary race:

State of Law and National Iraqi Alliance are both Shiite parties, Iraqiya is Sunni. State of Law lost many votes to National Iraqi Alliance, but barely managed to retain the premiership because there are roughly 3 times as many Shiites in Iraq as Sunnis, such that even when the Shiite vote is split, the Sunnis can still lose. The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, consequently owed his office more or less entirely to Shiite votes, and has consequently run the country for the benefit of the Shiites more or less exclusively. Tranparency International ranks Iraq 171 out of 177 states for corruption, and Maliki has used the army and police to advance his private political ends, frequently conflating his Sunni political opponents with Al Qaeda and terrorism more broadly.

Saudi King Abdullah perhaps speaks for many Sunnis when he said of Maliki:

I don’t trust this man. He is an Iranian agent.

Imagine if Americans voted for purely racial or religious reasons. Imagine that white, black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans all had their own political parties, or that there were parties for the evangelicals, the mainline protestants, the Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and secularists. The winning party would not have allegiance to the country as a whole, but to a narrow slice of it, and it would attempt to commandeer the nation’s resources for the benefit of that individual sect. Minority groups would be shown little concern by the state, which would prioritize the interests of citizens likely to re-elect the ruling party.  Fortunately, this isn’t how the United States or most other rich democracies operate, because most of these countries have national identities that transcend matters religious and racial. In countries like Iraq or Syria, that nationalism remains too weak to bind a state of religiously disparate peoples. The Arab nationalist movement has been attempting to correct the problem for decades, dating back to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s attempt to create a United Arab Republic, but it has to this point been thoroughly unsuccessful (the UAR only lasted 3 years, though Egypt kept the name until 1971).

Nouri al-Maliki and Bashar al-Assad are leaders of similar stripe–both are attempting to rule religiously diverse nations in the interest of their particular sects, which are, in both cases, the Shiites. Yet while the United States has sent aid to Assad’s opponents in Syria, it is sending aid to Maliki’s government in Iraq. This is an inconsistent and silly policy, and it is a product of the US’s vestigial commitment to affirm that its soldiers did not die in vain in Iraq. Maliki may have been elected while Assad succeeded his father, but both figures reign on behalf of subsets of their populations, oppress others on the basis of religious beliefs and ethnic background, and have close ties to Iran. The US has no strategic interest in propping up these governments or in attempting to bring democracy to them–in Iraq and Syria, democracy means oppression, it’s merely a matter of who is doing the oppressing. As Maliki continues to turn the powers of the state against the Sunni minority, he shows that his government is no more committed to liberal values than was Hussein or is Assad.

The only reason for the US to show any preference with regard to who comes out on top of a Sunni/Shiite civil war in any of these countries is trade considerations. It is not as if Maliki makes any concerted effort to ensure that the US companies enjoy privileged access to Iraqi oil–China, not the United States, dominates Iraq’s oilfields. The Syrians have no oil to begin with.  The United States should cease and desist its attempts to determine what kind of oppressive state arises in these places and should instead commit itself to a policy of buying oil from whoever happens to be in charge.

The day may come when Iraqis and Syrians are more committed to their national projects than they are to waging religious war on each other, but it is not this day–this day, they fight. They fight not for free societies of the liberal mold as we in the west so often fantasize, but over who will hold the whips and will receive the lashings. I ask the reader, if abuse is inevitable, do we really have a preference as to who beats and who is beaten in these distant lands, one that is worth the expense of blood and treasure?

This is not to say that no Syrians or Iraqis are committed to building real nations–there are some would-be Nassers in both countries. But they are too few and too weak to prevail at this time, and our efforts to make them prevail nonetheless lead only to unnecessary bloodshed and resource waste. The United States remains a tremendously powerful country with vast, nearly unfathomable resources–it should put those resources to use in places they can do some good, in the domestic American economy, in developing new technology, in dealing with legitimate potential threats to its future status, like a rising China or a rogue asteroid.

The kind of conflict we see in the Middle East today is the kind of conflict we saw in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries over religion before the rise of the modern nation-state in the 18th century. A modern 21st century superpower has no business mucking about in the Arab equivalent of the French Wars of Religion.

Come to think of it, there is one useful thing we might do–airdrop hundreds of thousands of Arabic-language copies of Locke’s Letter Concerning TolerationApparently few in this region have had the chance to read it.