I‘ve been working on pieces on the history of Iraq for the Orange County Register, and had occasion to speak with Robert Rabil, project manager of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at the Iraq Foundation and author of the new book (I haven’t read it yet) Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel, and Lebanon. He had an interesting piece on the Iraqi opposition on the always valuable and sometimes quite fascinating History News Network, a project at George Mason University.
Dr. Rabil’s project has custody over more than two million primary documents from recent Iraqi history (and another 1.3 million from Kuwait), so he’s managed to absorb a pretty good sense of what factors in recent Iraqi history might affect the future. He is more favorably disposed than I to the idea of an American-imposed regime change of some sort in Iraq, but he’s well aware of the complications that could ensue as U.S. military personnel try to impose democracy and some kind of rough equity in a complex political environment about which they know very little.
Among the problems that have affected modern Iraq, and that will affect any effort to reconstitute a post-Saddam Iraq, are the borders of the country, cobbled together mostly by the British after the defeat of the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire as a side effect of World War I. The British got the mandate from the newly-formed League of Nations to rule Iraq as part of a process that saw the Middle East divided among existing European colonial powers (France got Syria and Lebanon).
The borders that eventually emerged did not include a usable port on the Persian Gulf, a factor in Saddam’s 1990 decision to invade Kuwait (at which the initial U.S. response seems to have been a wink and a nod). They also yielded a country that is about 76 percent Arab and 19 percent Kurdish, with a sprinkling of Turkoman, Assyrians, Armenians and others. Of the Arabs, about 60-65 percent are of the Shia Muslim persuasion (the "swamp Arabs" in the south), with the minority Sunnis in the region surrounding Baghdad holding most of the levers of governmental power.
The insularity of the government was intensified after the successful takeover of the government by the Ba’ath Party in 1968 (following the assassination of the Hashemite monarch in 1958 and 10 years of political turmoil). Saddam Hussein, who emerged quickly as the real power behind president Ahmad Hasan al Bakr (eventually assuming power in his own name in 1979), was from the village of Tikrit, as was Bakr. Three of the five Revolutionary Command Council members were from Tikrit, and the domination of Tikritis has increased since. As is not uncommon in Arab countries, then, governance is more the business of a tribal and kinship-based clique than of any institution with a claim to represent the country at large.
SORTING THROUGH OPTIONS
One possible perspective on a post-Saddam Iraq, then, might be to consider the possibility of breaking up a country whose ethnic and religious makeup include the seeds of instability. When I was at the Hoover Institution late last year, talking to Hoover fellow Tom Henriksen far more a hawk than I am on Iraq and on the use of American power overseas generally but very thoughtful and well-informed he suggested that it might be a mistake to view the current borders of Iraq as sacrosanct. One of the options really might be to break the country into two or more parts.
Most American policymakers seem to reject that option out-of-hand. If there’s anything that gets such people nervous it is the idea of messing with existing borders, no matter how arbitrarily or in defiance of culture and history they were delineated.
Robert Rabil urged caution in considering such an option. He noted that the borders of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan are also the somewhat arbitrary result of colonial mapmaking, and those countries have managed to cope with the borders imposed on them. A move to break up Iraq or to tinker substantially with its current borders might unleash separatist sentiments in other neighboring countries with essentially artificial borders, leading to more widespread instability in the region than the current Iraqi regime might be able to foment.
The best model for Iraq, Dr. Rabil suggested, might be some sort of decentralized, quasi-federalist system characterized by a fair amount of decentralization and local autonomy. He noted, however, that stability in Iraq has more often been imposed by a stern, often brutal central government in Baghdad, and that Iraq has no real experience with democracy or the kind of civic society and independent intermediary institutions that should accompany it to prevent democracy from becoming "one-person-one-vote-one time."
In discussing more recent Iraqi history, it is almost impossible to ignore the extent to which the United States contributed to the current despotism. When Iraq invaded Iranian territory shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution (the two countries have struggled over domination and borders for centuries), the United States was initially a bystander. By summer 1982, however, things were going badly for Iraq, and American policymakers feared that an Iranian victory would bolster the Islamic fundamentalist movement regionwide and destabilize the Gulf countries. So the Reagan administration commissioned Donald Rumsfeld, then a private citizen, as a special envoy to Iraq to offer help and cooperation.
There was a flurry of reports back then that Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iranians and Kurds on the battlefield. Nonetheless, the U.S. took Iraq off the official list of terrorism-sponsoring states and began backing Iraq with military intelligence and advice, credits worth billions for buying military supplies (including chemical precursors for chemical and biological weapons and cluster bombs, as well as several strains of anthrax and insecticides with possible biological weapon applications.
The current President Bush is duly outraged that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons "on his own people." But it happened when Iraq was a de facto American ally. The U.S. government was not happy in 1987 and 1988 when it learned that Saddam was using chemical weapons as part of a scorched-earth campaign against Kurdish rebels that included the virtual destruction of numerous Kurdish towns and villages but not unhappy enough to disrupt relations. The flow of U.S. military intelligence to Iraq actually increased in 1988, after the poison-gas episodes.
So the United States does not come to the prospect of throwing Saddam Hussein out of power and reconstituting a stable democracy there with completely clean hands, or with a record of good judgment. Plenty of people in the foreign policy establishment, including some who were making decisions back then, now say that siding with Saddam in the 1980s was a mistake, although one can understand the reasons, at least in the context of a realpolitik view of the world. But regrets today can’t undo what was done then.
THE SHAKY OPPOSITION
Unless the United States is prepared to occupy Iraq for a lengthy period some have suggested as long as 30 years, although it would be uncharacteristic of the U.S. to sustain a political-diplomatic operation (as compared to keeping troops around on a few bases) for so long a great deal will depend on the condition of various Iraqi opposition groups. Here Robert Rabil’s insights were invaluable.
In an article for History News Network (condensed from a longer article in the December 2002 issue of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA), Dr. Rabil noted: "Given its history of perennial infighting, the opposition has made strides toward common unity based on deposing Saddam. But its capacity to foster and pursue democratic principles has yet to be proven."
The Kurds, the group most consistently opposed to Saddam’s rule (though they seem to have worked out a modus vivendi involving considerable autonomy in recent years) are still divided into two main groups that cooperate only reluctantly. The Saudis backed an Iraqi National Accord after the first Gulf War, which fell apart in the wake of the failure of the semi-spontaneous uprising in 1991. The Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella for opposition groups, was formed in 1992 and recently has received money and support from the U.S. government. But the most recent convocation, in London in December, included horse-trading, double-dealing and a cabal-like meeting that, according to one independent democrat "did not even contain a whiff of democracy."
Dr. Rabil would probably disagree with me that all these problems make it inadvisable for the United States to go to war with Iraq and expect to do something other than make a mess of things after Saddam. He understands that trying to depose Saddam and help to facilitate a more stable and less oppressive will be difficult, but thinks it might be worth the effort.
But to me combined with the fact that an attack on Iraq, regardless of what kind of rationale is cobbled together from putative violations of the UN inspection regime, would be an aggressive, imperial-like move rather than a response to Iraqi aggression or an imminent threat to the U.S. these complications and others should raise enough questions to take war out of the policy mix.