STILL TRYING TO WIN THE PEACE FOR IRAQ

STILL TRYING TO WIN THE PEACE FOR IRAQ

Tomorrow will mark the 10th anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Iraq. One writer looks at the long-lasting effects of regime change in Iraq while the other highlights lessons to learn from the Iraq War.
Published date: Mar 19, 2013

By Derwin Pereira For The Straits Times

EN years ago, this newspaper dispatched me to cover the Iraq War and its impact on the Middle East on a two-month odyssey that took me to Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar.

It was clear then that Saddam Hussein had lost the war and that the Americans had won it. But who would win the peace was another matter. The good news is that Iraqis are winning that peace, as they should. How well they consolidate their gains has implications for the region in the immediate future.

There is no doubt that the old order in Iraq has been pacified, a military euphemism which means that the enemy has been eliminated physically or neutralised as a threat. There were expectations that Saddam’s people would fight a guerilla war against the American invaders. But these defenders of his one-man state – his proteges and beneficiaries in the praetorian military, the feared security and intelligence services, the authoritarian ruling Baath Party, the powerful administrative structure, and the grid of tribal loyalties that made up the political grassroots – vanished into the historical wilderness when his statue was toppled in Baghdad.

Systems built around despots do not survive their fall from power. And they become a distant memory once a detested dictator is executed.

Saddam’s hanging in 2006 underscored that truth when his political legacy became less important than the unseemly manner in which he had been mocked before being sent along the way on which he had sent thousands.

Another American achievement was to ensure Iraq’s territorial integrity.

This outcome was by no means certain since the Saddam regime had presided over an embittered coalition of suppressed ethnicities masquerading as a nation. The majority Shi’ites had long been dominated by the minority Sunnis, of whom Saddam was one. The onset of democracy after the American invasion raised the grim possibility of Iraq splintering along sectarian lines as the Shi’ites asserted their demographic power and extracted vengeance on the Sunnis, to say nothing of the restive Kurds whom the Saddam regime had treated with genocidal brutality.

But, in spite of Shi’ite-Sunni violence that at one point threatened to tip Iraq into civil war, it remains one country today because the democratic process has been able to defang all but the most extreme expressions of communal hostility. The continuation of Kurdish autonomy has helped to keep them within the Iraqi fold, in spite of memories of the 1988 Halabja massacre in which Iraqi forces used chemical weapons on the residents of that Kurdish town.

Perhaps the greatest victory that regime change in Iraq has secured, from an international point of view, is that the country has not become an epicentre of terrorism, as many feared it would. For this, Saddam has to be thanked first, since the secular underpinnings of his (admittedly murderous) power and the socialist genesis of the Baath Party had made him go after religious insurgents with a fury that had made his name a detested word in the terrorist vocabulary of the Middle East.

The danger was that the political space vacated by him would invite in the itinerant merchants forever looking to set up branch offices of Terror International. Although Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups do have a deadly presence in Iraq, they have not managed to bring the country under their sway and use it as a launch pad for attacks in the region. Again, it was the transition to democracy and its entrenchment that made it possible for Iraqis to stave off a terrorist challenge that would have made life worse than it had been even under Saddam.

However, these “macro” political achievements, and Iraq’s economic recovery from the war and the sanctions that had preceded it, do not detract from a sad truth. This is that, on the “micro” level of day-to-day politics, Iraq suffers from political arteriosclerosis, as it did under Saddam.

The hardening of arteries is seen in the political distrust that continues to exist between Shi’ites and Sunnis. Majority Shi’ite politicians need to learn how to make their minority colleagues feel that they are a pillar of the governing structure. Minority Sunni politicians, whose community was once the political majority, must accept their place in the new structure and not make their presence felt by fanning populist sentiments.

Here, the problem is that while democracy provides the best framework for resolving ethnic disputes, it also legitimises the ethnic populism that can destroy the framework. Iraq must find a cure for this arteriosclerosis by itself: This is one area in which foreigners, whether troops or well-wishers, cannot help because they are not a part of the electoral structure.

The arteries of Iraqi politics must be repaired if the country is to consolidate the achievements of its war-borne liberation a decade ago.

The Iraq War was a test case of the American neo-conservative movement’s plans to redraw the authoritarian landscape of the Middle East by fomenting regime change. In Iraq’s case, that change was effected through an invasion justified on the flimsy and later discredited grounds that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. In Libya’s case, regime change was achieved by means of strategic international intervention in a civil war. Syria is following in that trajectory, although its regime appears to rest on more solid footing than either the Iraqi or Libyan pushovers. Iran faces the threat of a military attack if it continues to pursue the nuclear option that its critics decry.

Spectacular as these developments are, they all involve violence. The real “story” in the Middle East today, however, is about the relatively peaceful transition to democracy heralded by the Arab Spring. Change has come to Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, and the political ground has been tested in Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Sudan. It is this change that will determine the political contours of the Middle East in the years to come.

Iraq will contribute to the process if it can show that day- to-day democracy can work in ethnically-divided societies, and that the Middle East is not fated to be a group of tribes forever in quest of a region.

About the Author

Mr. Derwin Pereira heads a Singapore-based political consulting company and also is a member of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

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