Of all the Arab countries today that suffer violence or enjoy a superficial calm on the surface, Iraq is the saddest in my view, because of what it has not become in the last decade since the downfall of the hard and vicious Baathist regime.
But first some context, because the agony of Iraq mirrors a wider Arab pattern of state mismanagement and mediocrity. Recent decades leave no doubt that the major modern Arab political problem is that entire countries are managed like private clubs by individual families. Such personalized states do not function efficiently or serve their people well, which ultimately leads to their fragmentation or total collapse.
This frightening, decadesold pattern continues to this day. Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria, Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, Somalia and Bahrain have all suffered debilitating civil conflicts, often coupled with fragmentation or collapse. The oil-rich Gulf states have avoided major political violence mainly because they have avoided anything that looks like political rights and activity among their citizens.
The situation in Iraq is the most agonizing, because it captures the tragic and combined failures of successive regimes that transformed what should have been a showcase of modern Arab development into a poster child for dictatorship, corruption, sectarianism, violence, mismanagement and likely breakup, as the Kurdish northern region steadily spins off into de facto independence. Iraq particularly mishandled the opportunity after the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 to redefine itself on the basis of a homegrown national consensus, especially after 2008-09, when a semblance of stability reigned and the foreign invaders were on their way home.
It is painful, but necessary, to read about the failures of contemporary Iraq if we are ever to come to grips with the reasons why we have watched one Arab country after another self-destruct into national incoherence and chaos. The latest miserable consequence of this pattern is the opening provided for radical Islamist thugs and killers to move in, as they have done in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and other hapless lands.
I highly recommend to anyone interested in this painful modern Arab state’s narrative a new book by a talented young Iraqi lawyer and constitutional expert, Zaid al-Ali, entitled “The Struggle For Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy” (Yale University Press, 2014). The title mentions the main indigenous forces that have left Iraq in such disarray, though Iraqis should have taken charge of their own destiny as foreign troops departed, and several local and national elections were held. The seeds of failure, however, were largely planted during the American-led transition in 2003-07.
The author, who lives in Cairo and works on Arab constitutional and electoral issues for an international non-governmental organization, spent five years in Baghdad as of 2005 as a United Nations adviser during the period when the nascent institutions of governance should have taken root. He documents why constitutional democracy has not happened in Iraq, with plenty of detailed examples as well as concise historical reviews. He shows that Iraq’s current lack of citizen-based, equitable and participatory governance replays similar deficiencies during the previous decades of Baathist and monarchist rule, as well as during the brief American-managed occupation.
The most damning accounts are those describing the incompetence of the combined work of the American-dominated transitional authority that ruled Iraq after 2003 and the exiled Iraqi elite – both pro-Western and pro-Iranian – that returned to the country and assumed political power. Ali describes in a very readable manner the major deficiencies in the new Iraqi constitution, which set the stage for the last decade of sectarian-anchored incompetence in governance, in turn promoting violence, corruption and widespread misery for tens of millions of ordinary Iraqis.
He touches on still-chaotic issues that matter to all Iraqis, including employment, security, basic services and environmental degradation. This summary suggests what must happen for the country to transition from its current state of distressed failure to a semblance of stability, democracy and development.
He addresses five points that apply to all Arab countries suffering national degeneration, disappointment and decay. These are agreement over a defined and acceptable role for the armed forces; the growth of credible political parties; the application of an effective anti-corruption framework; the use of income from natural resources to fund development policies that are advantageous to the poor; and implementation of an effective system of decentralized governance.
The “elected” leaders in Egypt, Syria and Algeria, among other Arab rulers, would do well to read this book when they take a break from fighting off the millions of their citizens who are now agitating for dignity, democracy and basic decency in the exercise of power. They have never enjoyed such benefits, whether at the hands of indigenous or foreign rulers.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.