The rise of the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and its recent military gains in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq have refocused attention on the situation in the country as it faces the threat of disintegration and the outbreak of another bloody civil war. But the debate, especially in U.S. mainstream media, is obsessed with individual culpability and finding a convenient villain (preferably an Iraqi). The most recent manifestations of that debate were the accusations and counter-accusations that were leveled against each other by two former U.S. officials, Ali Khedery and James Jeffrey, as well as a series of perverse statements by former vice president Dick Cheney.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been the target of choice. He is certainly responsible for the deterioration of the situation in Iraq, and there is much to fault and criticize in his policies. However, to understand the current situation’s genealogy one ought to look beyond individuals and consider dynamics and trends that predate the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Focusing on Maliki alone obscures the real culprit of Iraq’s woes: The pure and undiluted self-interest of long-standing U.S. policy toward the country, and the contempt for the right of Iraqis to live in their own country with dignity. In fact, that disregard runs so deep that U.S. policymakers have for decades failed to engage in adequate planning with regards to Iraq and to admit to any form of culpability when their actions on the ground destroyed countless lives.
To be sure, Saddam Hussein and his entourage are clearly principle culprits. The institutionalized militarization of Iraqi society and culture and the establishment of popular militias started as far back as 1980 and continued throughout the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). But even at that time, despite gross human rights violations and the use of chemical weapons in the battlefield and against civilians, the United States had already clearly chosen to sacrifice humanitarian interests at the altar of its own (perceived) security interests by providing generous financial and military support to the Iraqi regime.
It was only after the invasion of Kuwait that the Iraqi regime was consigned to the enemy camp. That was a seminal moment for the Iraqi opposition in the diaspora as well. Largely shunned until then, it was courted and supported, coopted, and corrupted by foreign and regional intelligence. The 1991 Gulf War, ostensibly waged to liberate Kuwait, caused the destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure and, in the words of then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, took the country “back to the pre-industrial age.” The courageous uprising by Iraqis against Saddam’s regime at the end of the Gulf War was betrayed by the United States and its allies. Left intact and spared the brunt of bombing, as opposed to the poor conscripts in the Iraqi army, the elite Republican Guards were permitted by the United States to deploy and crush the uprising and slaughter tens of thousands of Iraqis who ended up in mass graves.
The United States and United Nations imposed the most severe economic embargo of the 20th century against Iraq from 1990 until 2003. This embargo extended the destruction brought about by the bombing to every facet of life in Iraq. Instead of hurting the regime, it ended up strengthening its hold on society, but damaging and ending the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens. But the price, as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright infamously said on “60 Minutes,” was worth it. The embargo also drove three million Iraqis, most of Iraq’s middle class, into exile, draining Iraqi society and changing its composition. It destroyed the country’s economy and weakened its social fabric. This crucial history is often elided when discussing Iraq and has not drawn even the slightest expression of remorse since the extent of that policy has been made clear.
By 2003, the United States’ record of supporting dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the region and its history of aggression against Iraq through war and sanctions had diminished any credibility or trust. The duplicitous case for the invasion and the United States’ behavior in Iraq after the occupation did not change this perception. But this seems to escape U.S. officials such as Jeffrey and Khedery, whose comments on recent events somehow assume that the United States was or should have been an “honest broker” and that it was the United States’ decision to support Maliki in 2010 that ruined its bona fides. In fact, it would have been virtually impossible to find anyone in Iraq in 2003 that would have attributed positive intentions to the United States given its sordid history of involvement. In addition, although Iraqi actors made their lack of trust clear from the start, the United States worsened its already toxic reputation in the country through its own political, military and financial misdeeds for the following years.
As soon as the U.S. occupation commenced in 2003, the former exiles (who were supposed to be its closest allies) capitalized on the United States’ unpopularity to force it to hand over partial political and administrative authority far sooner than it would have preferred. The result was the establishment of the Governing Council and its associated executive offices, the first officially sectarian government in Iraq’s history. A few months later, the United States proposed a plan to draft the country’s new constitution, which involved indirect elections through a caucus system. The plan was immediately rejected by the country’s most influential actors (including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani) not because it was unworkable but because of the justifiable concern that the United States would manipulate the process.
In the end, the United States did interfere in the constitution drafting process and contributed to creating a divisive and unworkable text. The political system that it designed and installed in Iraq was based on the understanding that Iraqis are sects and no more. It institutionalized sectarianism, injected it with political power, and made it the only political currency. It handed the country over to untrained, unworthy and corrupt former exiles, most of whom at the time had no credibility in Iraq.
Meanwhile, billions of Iraqi and U.S. dollars that were supposed to relieve the suffering of Iraqi citizens and improve living standards either disappeared or were stolen. The Iraq Reconstruction program has been exposed as one of the most glaring examples of waste and war profiteering. The massive violations of the human rights of Iraqi civilians during the U.S. occupation are too well-known to recount.
Appointing Maliki in 2006 and reappointing him in 2010 was merely a continuation of decades of U.S. policy, and attempts by current and former U.S. officials to create a distinction between his first and second terms in office are designed to obfuscate that truth. Maliki was openly sectarian and conspiratorial in his methods from the start. On Jan. 25, 2007, in what was supposed to be a carefully orchestrated initial attempt at national reconciliation in parliament, Maliki launched a sectarian outburst on live television at the first hint of criticism. Rather than address concerns relating to abuses by the security services (which were in any event not fully under his control at the time), he accused a member of parliament, without evidence, of engaging in genocidal acts, bringing the session to an early close.
Just a few months later, Maliki commenced a military operation to bring the Mehdi Army, an illegal militia that was loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, to heel (he was only successful after the U.S. army intervened). Although many Iraqis were rightly satisfied to be rid of the militiamen, Maliki’s actions were wrongly interpreted at the time as evidence of his non-sectarian credentials. In fact, they were merely additional evidence of his cracking down on opponents regardless of their identity, at a time when he felt strong enough to do so. Maliki also wasted no time in cultivating and protecting ties with corrupt officials, culminating in his attempts to immunize Faleh al-Sudani, a close collaborator who had been minister of trade until 2009 and who was the focus of unending accusations of corruption, from prosecution.
Rather than seek to curb Maliki’s obviously negative tendencies, the U.S. occupation encouraged him in almost everything that he did, either directly by providing him with material support or indirectly by turning the other way. That policy continued well into Maliki’s second term, when he ordered security forces to brutally crack down on young, progressive Iraqis who protested against government corruption in February 2011. When the dust settled, the protest organizers found that they received no support from the U.S. Embassy, which remained silent in the face of hundreds of people dead and wounded at the hands of Maliki’s police and thugs.
U.S. officials now claim that the CIA interviewed Maliki before he was appointed in 2006 and that many officials supported his return in 2010. Did they know of his tendencies and lack of competence and still chose to ignore them or were they simply unaware? Either way, there is no dispute that neither integrity nor credentials were ever prerequisites the United States sought in picking or supporting Iraqi politicians.
The criterion is the same as it has always been for Iraq: Someone who can satisfy U.S. interests however defined. U.S. officials now claim to be unsatisfied with the person that they handpicked for the job, but their real concern is merely that Maliki is more beholden to another foreign country – Iran – rather than to the United States. Performance of state institutions only matters to the United States insofar as it affects its key interests, which have nothing to do with the interests of Iraqis.
In that context, the question of why Maliki was offered so much support in 2006 and 2010 merely distracts from the larger question of why Iraqi life has always been so cheap for U.S. policymakers.
Maliki (and his ilk) is an inevitable product of the dysfunctional and sectarian political system the United States created in Iraq – a system hastily and flimsily set up on the rubble of the state it recklessly and needlessly dismantled and in a society whose social fabric was already severely drained and damaged by the barbaric embargo it had imposed.
A genuine and critical debate about Iraq in the United States is long overdue. It should consider the cumulative effects of U.S. policies and actions in Iraq in the past three decades. Instead of the usual elisions and obfuscations, it should take to task and hold accountable the U.S. politicians who promoted and executed these disastrous policies. Or is accountability and responsibility reserved for foreigners?
Sinan Antoon (@sinanantoon) is a poet, novelist and an associate professor at the New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. His latest book is “The Corpse Washer” (Yale University Press, 2013). Zaid Al-Ali (@zalali) is a lawyer specializing in comparative constitutional law and international commercial arbitration. He is the author of “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy” (Yale University Press, 2014).
Past Monkey Cage posts on developments in Iraq include:
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Amichai Magen: The jihadist governance dilemma
Stathis N. Kalyvas: The logic of violence in the Islamic State’s war
Ariel I. Ahram: Can ISIS overcome the insurgency resources curse?
Zaid Al-Ali: Maliki has only himself to blame for Iraq’s crisis
Jason Brownlee: Was Obama wrong to withdraw troops from Iraq?
For recent analysis on Iraq, download the free PDF collection – POMEPS Briefing 24 Iraq Between Maliki and the Islamic State.