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The Game of Carving up a Nation | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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File photo showing Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki speaking during a news conference in Baghdad. (Reuters)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki speaks during a news conference in Baghdad. (Reuters)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki speaks during a news conference in Baghdad. (Reuters)

With the latest crisis pushing Iraq back onto the world’s headlines, it is no surprise that a number of books examining Iraqi politics and history have appeared or reappeared in bookshops across the West. These books could be grouped in three categories.

In the first category we find books that treat Iraq as an issue in US and West European domestic politics. In recent decades, no issue has divided Western elite opinion more than the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. To some, the despot’s downfall was a political version of the Christian concept of “original sin.” To atone for that “sin,” some say, we all have to do what we can to make sure that Iraq fails to build itself a better future for itself.

Some books in this category regard the Iraq war as the fruit of a conspiracy by American neoconservatives who wished to destroy Saddam’s supposedly “socialistic” regime in Baghdad. The latest vehicle for that theory is Charles E. Coyote’s Iraq War 2003: What Really Happened Behind The Scenes (The Coyote Report, 2013), which is based on a mountain of official papers and quotes from senior figures in the George W. Bush administration.

A couple of other books offer an even more limited compass. One is Richard Bonin’s Arrows of the Night (Anchor Books, New York, 2012), in which Iraqi politician and longtime Saddam opponent Ahmed Chalabi is credited with single-handedly pushing the US to war. Here, too, the reader will detect a note of nostalgia for the fallen dictator.

In these and other books with a similar theme, the authors try to support their thesis that toppling Saddam was wrong by predicting a dire future for Iraq. The standard prediction is that Iraq is going to fall apart into at least three separate Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish mini-states. The subtext of that analysis is that only a ruthless dictator ruling with an iron fist would be able to hold Iraq together.

In the second category are books that approve of the 2003 war but still predict a bleak future for post-Saddam Iraq. The best of these is Toby Dodge’s Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism (Routledge, Oxford, 2012). Dodge admits that getting rid of Saddam was a good move but warns that the despot’s successors, notably Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, are trying to build a new dictatorship. Dodge warns that Iraq may well be heading for disintegration.

The possibility of a division of Iraq is also a central theme in The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy, or Division? (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005) by Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield. The message runs like this: Iraq is splintering into its three historic provinces; the break-up can be managed, but it cannot be avoided.

In the third category we find books that trumpet the 2003 war as an American victory that is being squandered by Barack Obama’s “reckless insouciance.” The best of these is The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (Vintage Books, New York, 2013) by Richard Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, a hefty tome of 832 pages. Here, too, the authors approve of the “liberation” of Iraq but warn of its looming division.

The theme of disintegration also creeps into books about the Iraqi oil industry. Here, the strongest case is argued by Greg Muttitt in his Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Vintage Books, London, 2012). Here, the subtext is that major oil companies might find a divided Iraq easier to deal with because “the ideal oil country” is one that has a lot of oil but few people. In 2003, many anti-Americans claimed that the US had toppled Saddam to “steal Iraq’s oil.” Muttitt shows that this has not happened. In fact, American oil giants have carefully avoided getting involved in Iraq. Is it because they are waiting for it to be carved up into mini-states?

The “Iraq carve-up” lobby uses three arguments in support of its case. The first is that Iraq is an “artificial” country. Stansfield claims that the British “created” Iraq in 1921 as a buffer against both Turkey and Russia. “Iraq’s new centralized structure made sense only from the perspective of the British,” he asserts. Moreover, the British even “imported” a king for Iraq along with much of the new ruling elites.

The argument that Iraq is fit for carve-up because of its artificiality is too glib to merit extensive rebuttal. All nation-states are artificial creations; none fell from the skies fully formed. The US, for example, started with a breakaway chunk of the British Empire and gradually shaped itself by seizing land from the natives, buying territory from the French and Russians, and capturing chunks of the Spanish and Mexican empires.

That the new Iraqi state was created with help from the British is also no excuse for delegitimizing it either. France played an active role in the creation of the United States as a move against British enemies. French secret services supplied American rebels with arms and money while the French navy helped them break the British naval embargo. French generals such as Archambault and Lafayette helped train and organize American rebels.

France also played a role in creating Italy in 1870. The unified Italian state was put together from disparate chunks of territory with help from the French, the British, and the Pope to counterbalance the newly created German Reich.

When the British-sponsored state started in Baghdad, Iraq’s total population did not exceed 1.2 million. Today, Iraq has a population of 32.5 million. As in the case of every other nation-state, what matters is Iraq’s existential reality as a homeland for people who, when all is said and done, feel that they are Iraqis.

The last argument in favor of carving up Iraq is the most bizarre: without division, Nuri Al-Maliki could transform Iraq into another dictatorship. However, the truth is that even if Maliki—or anyone else—wanted to create a new dictatorship, they would not have the means necessary to do so. Iraq’s problem, as illustrated by the fiasco in Mosul, is that it is still a weak and vulnerable state. The problem is not that the current Iraqi government is too strong; the problem is that it is too weak and chaotic to fight back against domestic foes and external enemies who, each for a different reason, want Iraq divided into several mini-states.

My guess is that the sense of “Iraqiness” is strong enough to weather the current tsunami of sectarianism, corruption, incompetence and terror. Iraq can bounce back and reclaim its proper place in the Middle East. Those who predict the disintegration of Iraq or dismiss it as a viable nation-state would do well to dismount from their high horses, for Iraq may well continue to plod along on its way to developing a better political system for itself.

To remember Iraq’s amazing reserves of moral strength and capacity for survival, I would recommend Hugh Kennedy’s magisterial When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World (Da Capo Press, Boston, 2005). I must confess that I am a huge fan of Professor Kennedy for his unrivalled sense of history. However, it would be better if you read his book for yourself.