Policy makers are again considering fundamental changes in our Iraq policy, but as they do I hope they read Elie Kedourie’s essay, “The Kingdom of Iraq: A Retrospect.” (NB: can be found included here).That is the background. An interesting concept follows.
Kedourie, a Baghdad-born Jew, published the essay in 1970. It’s a history of the regime the British helped establish over 80 years ago, but it captures an idea that is truer now than ever: Disorder is endemic to Iraq. Today’s crisis is not three years old. It’s worse now, but the crisis is perpetual. This is a bomb of a nation.
“Brief as it is, the record of the kingdom of Iraq is full of bloodshed, treason and rapine,” Kedourie wrote.
And his is a Gibbonesque tale of horror. There is the endless Shiite-Sunni fighting. There is a massacre of the Assyrians, which is celebrated rapturously in downtown Baghdad. Children are gunned down from airplanes. Tribal wars flare and families are destroyed. A Sunni writer insults the Shiites and the subsequent rioters murder students and policemen. A former prime minister is found on the street by a mob, killed, and his body is reduced to pulp as cars run him over in joyous retribution.
Kedourie described “a country riven by obscure and malevolent factions, unsettled by the war and its aftermath.” He observed, “The collapse of the old order had awakened vast cupidities and revived venomous hatreds.”
In 1927, a British officer asked a tribal leader: “You now have a government, a constitution, a parliament, ministers and officials — what more can you want?” The tribal leader replied, “Yes, but they speak with a foreign accent.”
The British tried to encourage responsible Iraqi self-government, to no avail. “The political ambitions of the Shia religious headquarters have always lain in the direction of theocratic domination,” a British official reported in 1923. They “have no motive for refraining from sacrificing the interests of Iraq to those which they conceive to be their own.”
At one point, the British high commissioner, Sir Henry Dobbs, argued that if Britain threatened to withdraw its troops, Iraqis would behave more responsibly. It didn’t work. Iraqis figured the Brits were bugging out. They concluded it was profitless to cultivate British friendship. Everything the British said became irrelevant.
The Iraq of his youth, Kedourie concluded, “was a make-believe kingdom built on false pretenses.” He quoted a British report from 1936, which noted that the Iraqi government would never be a machine based on law that treated citizens impartially, but would always be based on tribal favoritism and personal relationships. Iraq, Kedourie said, faced two alternatives: “Either the country would be plunged into chaos or its population should become universally the clients and dependents of an omnipotent but capricious and unstable government.” There is, he wrote, no third option.Worth chewing on. BTW, the essay he speaks of has been around since before OEF. Along with some extracts from THE IRAQ ADMINISTRATION REPORTS 1914-1932 and of course Lt.Gen. Sir Aylmer Haldane's INSURRECTION IN MESOPOTAMIA 1920.. I know they were read at the LT/LCDR/CDR level. There was a lot of hope we could push through history as united as we were. Were. U.S. Strategic Center of Gravity: Unified Support for the War. Oops.
Today Iraq is in much worse shape. The most perceptive reports describe not so much a civil war as a complete social disintegration. This latest descent was initiated by American blunders, but is exacerbated by the same old Iraqi demons: greed, blood lust and a mind-boggling unwillingness to compromise for the common good, even in the face of self-immolation.
The core problem is the same one Kedourie identified decades ago. Iraq is teetering on the edge of futility. Perhaps a competent occupation could have preserved it as a coherent entity, but now the Iraqi national identity is looking like a suicidal self-delusion.
Partitioning the country would be traumatic, so after the election it probably makes sense to make one last effort to hold the place together. Fire Donald Rumsfeld to signal a break with the past. Alter troop rotations so that 30,000 more troops are policing Baghdad.
But if that does not restore order, if Iraqi ministries remain dysfunctional and the national institutions remain sectarian institutions in disguise, then surely it will be time to accede to reality. It will be time to effectively end Iraq, with a remaining fig-leaf central government or not. It will be time to radically diffuse authority down to the only communities that are viable — the clan, tribe or sect.
A muscular U.S. military presence will be more necessary than ever, to deter neighboring powers and contain bloodshed. And the goals will remain the same: to nurture civilized democratic societies that reject extremism and terror.
But the boundaries may have to change. The war was an attempt to lift a unified Iraq out of its awful history, but history has proved stubborn. It’s time to adjust the plans to reality.