Leave Iraq to Its Fate

by Benjamin Studebaker

So, once again, the United States has decided to intervene militarily in Iraq. Ostensibly, the Obama administration is intervening for humanitarian reasons–to help a number of Yazidis escape from ISIS, the radical Sunni organization that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq. Yet Obama has also signaled that this intervention will be long-term, which means the goals go far beyond getting these Yazidis out of their immediate jam. The real long-term goal is likely the same goal the United States had in Iraq 10 years ago–a stable, democratic, US-friendly government. Ultimately, this intervention rests on the same fundamental misunderstanding of Iraq with which the Bush administration entered in 2003.

First, let’s get a lay of the land. Here’s the extent of ISIS’ current holdings:

ISIS’ territory is in grey. The Kurds’ holdings are in yellow, the Syrian and Iraqi governments are in light and dark pink, respectively, and the other Syrian rebel groups hold the territory in light blue. These holdings correspond with the religious sects that inhabit the territory. In Syria, the Shiite government dominates Shiite lands along the cost and the sparsely populated desert, while the rebels hold territory with high Sunni populations. In Iraq, the Shiite government holds the territory in which the Shiites enjoy a majority, while the rebels hold the Sunni territory and the Kurds hold the Kurdish territory.

And this is where we get to the crux of the problem–throughout the entirety of our involvement in Iraq (and indeed, the Middle East more widely), we have thought of Iraq as a nation-state. A nation-state in its ideal form is a state in which citizens see themselves as all jointly part of a national project. This national project is the mutual prosperity and happiness of the citizens as a whole. Citizens who are part of a nation-state identify with one another and root for one another’s success. They cooperate with each other. They recognize that each citizen should receive equal consideration from the government. In the real world, nation-states do not do this perfectly. In the United States and Europe, there are many subgroups that attempt to skew state policy in their favor at the expense of other parts of the population. These groups are often formed based on class, race, religion, ethnicity, industry, or some other kind of special interest. In real nation-states like America, Britain, France, etc., there is a constant battle between those who wish to bring the nation-state closer to its ideal form and those who wish to corrupt it to serve their interests or the interests of their subgroup.

Iraq is not merely a corrupt nation-state, it is not a nation-state at all. Iraq is a sectarian state. In a sectarian state, multiple distinct groups or “sects” live under the jurisdiction of a single state, but that jurisdiction is all they share. The different sects do not see themselves as part of a joint project and aim only at prosperity and happiness for their own members. They do not identify with each other and seek to weaken one another so that they can control larger and larger shares of the state’s wealth. There is no mutual recognition of one another’s interests and no understanding that the state should exist for the good of all of the citizens in its jurisdiction. In a sectarian state, whichever sect controls the state will steer the nation’s wealth toward it and away from the other sects. Under Saddam Hussein, the Sunnis captured the state’s resources and the Shiites, Kurds, and Christians suffered, but, importantly, this is not because the Sunnis are particularly villainous, but because in the context of a sectarian state, none of the other sects are morally important to each other. If Saddam were a Shiite, a Kurd, or a Christian, he would have behaved in much the same way.

So what happens when democracy is introduced into a sectarian state? First, citizens are going to vote in accordance with their sect. The Shiites will vote for Shiites, the Sunnis for Sunnis, the Kurds for Kurds, the Christians for Christians. When the largest sect is bigger than 50% of the voting population, it will always prevail no matter what kinds of alliances the lesser sects may forge with one another. In Iraq, the Shiites are 60-65% of the population. Consequently, their candidate, Nouri al-Maliki, became prime minister. In a sectarian democracy, the winner owes his electoral victory exclusively to the people of his sect. He rules for them and ignores the interests of the losing sects. The losing sects quickly see that they are demographically locked out of power. All the democratic system has served to do is entrench the largest sect with an insurmountable majority. With no legitimate means of challenging the government through the political system, the losing sects will quickly resort to extra-legal measures. This means that, in a sectarian state, the losing sects are always at risk of rebellion or secession. This is why sectarian states experience civil conflict far more often than nation-states.

The sectarian state quickly finds that there are two strategies it can pursue to prevent the losing sects from rebelling or seceding:

  1. It can attempt to create a nation-state, giving up the ruling sect’s privileged position.
  2. It can deter rebellion by being exceedingly ruthless, killing and torturing vast numbers of people.

Which strategy will the state choose? It depends on the anticipated costs and benefits for the ruling the sect. If the ruling sect believes that it would have to give up more to create a nation-state than it would cost to repress the losing factions, it will choose repression. If it believes the costs of repression are too high, or that there is a substantive chance it would lose a conflict, it will move in the direction of creating a nation-state. The worst possible outcome for the ruling sect is for it to be comprehensively defeated such that a different sect takes over the state. That sect will likely seek revenge against its former masters, so if the ruling sect anticipates defeat, it will try to push a nation-state rather than surrender outright.

There are numerous examples of both strategies–the Ottoman Empire and apartheid South Africa eventually tried to create nation-states to avoid themselves becoming the victims of the sects they formerly oppressed. In Syria and Iraq, the governments have adopted repression strategies, either because they believe they can win and/or because they think that the legacy of intersect violence is too great for a nation-state to be possible. When it is impossible for a nation-state to be created and the attempt at repression yields a stalemate, a third outcome becomes possible–partition. Sects will generally seek to avoid partition if they believe they could become the rulers because once the territory is partitioned they can no longer exploit the losing sects for their benefit. Only when it is clear that the balance of forces is too close to call or the conflict would be too devastating will sects opt for partition. Even then it is difficult for partition to happen without mediation from a third party, because the sects will not agree on where the borders should be, and each will want as much as each can get. In many of the post-colonial cases (e.g. India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Africa), partitions were affected with the aid of the exiting colonial power to avoid an intersect conflict. In many of these cases, the agreed upon borders have not satisfied one or more of the parties, and conflict at the interstate level has remained a threat.

So what exactly is happening in Iraq? Looking at Iraq as a sectarian state, we see the recent history in a different light from how it’s usually presented:

  1. Saddam Hussein took over the country and ruled it for the Sunnis. He ruthlessly repressed the other sects.
  2. The United States intervened against Saddam. It instituted democracy in Iraq, which produced Shiite rule under Nouri al-Maliki. He ruthlessly repressed the other sects.
  3. Al-Maliki’s regime is weaker than Saddam’s. The simultaneous weakening of the Shiite regime in Syria allowed for the rise of Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq. The strongest among these has proven to be ISIS. ISIS ruthlessly represses the other sects in the territory it holds.
  4. The United States intervenes against ISIS.

Supposing that the United States destroys ISIS (or, at minimum, causes it to lose territory) who will take over those lands? Either the Shiite government in Iraq, the semi-autonomous Kurdish regime in Northern Iraq, or the other Sunni rebel groups in Syria. Whoever prevails, that group will follow the sectarian model, repressing the losing sects and exploiting them for gain.

This is not to say that there is no distinction between the severity of the repression under ISIS and that of the government, the Kurds, or the other rebel groups. ISIS represents sectarian logic in its most pure form. It has rightly determined that the Sunnis are unlikely to defeat the governments in Syria or Iraq outright, and that its best bet is to take and hold an expanse of Sunni-dominated territory and hold out for formal partition. ISIS has a small number of fighters (estimates range from 4,000 to 10,000), so it cannot successfully hold territory with significant potentially hostile minority sects. Instead, it opts to convert them, force them to leave, or kill them outright.  This is not a benevolent strategy, but it is a rational one given ISIS’ core aim, which is to create a state that is exclusively for the benefit of the Sunnis in the region. It is because ISIS’ strategy suits the Sunnis’ strategic position so well that it has been more successful than the other Sunni rebel groups in Syria, which exhaust their strength attempting to take territory closer to the government’s power base along the Shiite-dominated coast.

What’s overwhelmingly clear is that unless Iraq becomes a nation-state (which is unlikely, given the history of intersect violence), beating back ISIS will not end repression in Iraq, it will merely change who is doing the oppressing and who is being oppressed. The Sunnis in Iraq and Syria will remain a threat to any non-Sunni government in Baghdad or Damascus, and that government will repress them. Eventually, sooner or later, there will be another round of conflict. The United States has tried for 10 years to get the Iraqi sects to embrace the concept of the nation-state, but decades of abuse by Saddam have made this wholly impossible. The only other way to resolve the crisis would be to partition the territory, but the rulers in Syria and Iraq still believe it is worthwhile to continue fighting and still believe they can successfully bring the Sunnis to heel. They will not accept partition so long as they believe they can get away with exploiting the lands of the losing sects.

So what does this mean, in aggregate? It means that our actions in Iraq are futile. A sectarian state is necessarily at every moment in a stage of a cycle of violence, in which the ruling sect oppresses, there’s a rebellion, and the winners of the rebellion resume oppression. The United States cannot force the Iraqis to recognize that this being sectarian makes them as a whole worse off, because Iraqis do not recognize that there is such a thing as a “whole” in the first place. If decades of sectarian rule and bloodshed have not been able to show them that they are in error, further lectures from the Obama administration and another round of bombing a designated “bad sect” are certainly not going to make any difference.

Now, perhaps the reader is a humanitarian, and remains concerned about the fate of those Yazidis who are trapped in the mountains. If my advice were followed, and we did not intervene in Iraq, what would have become of them? Perhaps ISIS would have killed them, or sold them into slavery. Perhaps they would died of thirst or starvation. Or perhaps the Kurds would rescue them–after all, the Yazidis are Kurds, and the Kurds are trying to help them. It really isn’t our concern, because every sect in Iraq is part of this game. Every sect puts sect before nation, every sect oppresses where it can and rebels where it cannot. Only the Iraqis can choose to see one another differently, to end the cycle of violence, and it may take a great deal of suffering and bloodshed and awfulness for them to see that these sectarian conflicts are not worth having and that tolerance and the nation-state are the way to go. Indeed, there was once a time when the European countries were sectarian, when the protestants and catholics fought one another rather than cooperate. The French Wars of Religion killed between 2 and 4 million Europeans alone over a 38-year period. If the United States had existed in those days, it could intervene at the last moment to prevent some of those massacres, but this wouldn’t have solved the problem, and many of those people would likely have been subsequently killed in yet further violent acts. It is futile to attempt to play policeman in a country where none of the parties respect the rules and laws we are meant to be enforcing, where the victims are the victims not because they are committed to doing right, but because they lack the power to do wrong. Only the Iraqis can end the conflict, and they will only do that when the cost of sectarianism is too high, when their losses are too great. Sooner or later, the Iraqis are determined to learn the error of sectarianism the hard way. All America can do is stall and make it take longer. Instead, America’s resources should be used to fulfill its promises, duties, and obligations as a nation-state, to bring itself closer to realizing that ideal. America’s interventions in Iraq have cost trillions of dollars, good money that could be spent making things better for poor and working people. Instead, it has been squandered leading a horse to water, but failing, time and time again, to make it drink.