January 14, 2003
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
520 South Murphy Avenue #202 Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server Credit Card Donation Form
contributions are tax-deductible