What is happening in Iraq is a catastrophe, but not a sudden one. The violence in Iraq has been worsening steadily over the last few years. And more to the point, today’s crisis is the consequence of failed policies and failed politics — national, regional and international — years and even decades in the making.
No understanding of today’s Iraq is complete without the background of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and ensuing Gulf war, and the 13 years of UN economic sanctions, all of which set the stage for the additional disasters that would befall Iraq with the US-led invasion of 2003.
In that year, the decentralization of the state in Baghdad was well underway; it would be accelerated by the policies of Washington and its Iraqi proxies. No doubt the state of Saddam Hussein could have used a little decentralizing, but the haphazard and often punitive manner in which it was done led to polarization and chaos. The economic fiefdoms set up by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militias before they attacked Mosul earlier this week are but one manifestation of the war economy that germinated in the late 1980s and took root in the sanctions era. The sectarianism at fever pitch in today’s Middle East is not some timeless scourge, as so many talking heads would have it, but the sadly predictable outcome of conscious choices made by contemporary political actors, among them Saddam, for sure, but also two US presidents named Bush and a wannabe American viceroy named Bremer.
We offer here a selection of articles from our archives that shed light on the deeper roots of Iraq’s ongoing civil strife.
In “A War on Multiple Fronts,” Nida Alahmad and Arang Keshavarzian summed up the ways in which the Iran-Iraq war weakened the state in Baghdad. Khalid Medani argued in 2004 that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had tried to implement “State Building in Reverse.” Reidar Visser and, three years later, Joost Hiltermann, were deeply skeptical of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s attempts to reestablish a strong central state.
Pete Moore and Christopher Parker laid out “The War Economy of Iraq” at the height (at least to that point) of the post-Saddam civil war. In a follow-up piece, Moore went on to explain the economic grievances that undergird much of the unpopularity of the Maliki government.
In 1995, Pierre-Jean Luizard surveyed the ethno-sectarian divisions wrought by regime policies and concluded: “For the first time an elite in power in an Arab country may, by ceding its place, sign the death warrant on a state system issued by colonialism, a system to which numerous elites in neighboring countries are also clinging.” In 2000, Faleh A. Jabar wrote in depth about the “retribalization” of Iraq in the sanctions era. Soon after the formation of the CPA’s “Iraqi face,” Raad Alkadiri and Chris Toensing worried about “The Iraqi Governing Council’s Sectarian Hue.” Later, Toby Jones espied an “Iraq effect” inflaming sectarian tensions across the region and Amanda Ufheil-Somers looked at the terrible effects of Iraq’s wars on the country’s Christian population.
In a series of two articles, Rochelle Davis investigated the efforts of the US military to use culture as a weapon in Iraq. Nada Shabout interrogated the formation of Iraqi political culture through the lens of modern art.
On the regional stage, Toby Jones saw Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies “embracing crisis” to shore up their authoritarian rule after the empowerment of the Iraqi Shi‘a and — perhaps worse from the royals’ perspective — the Arab popular uprisings of 2011. Nicholas Seeley examined “The Politics of Aid to Iraqi Refugees in Jordan.”
We are far from the only Middle East observers who strongly opposed the 2003 invasion. Like many, we thought the case for war was weak and misleading to the point of mendacity, but we were also against the invasion on the grounds that Iraq would suffer horribly, both in the “major combat” and whatever would come afterward. That is not to toot our own horn too loudly. Our Iraq coverage has plenty of holes and we made a few mistakes.
We simply want to suggest, amid all the shouting about “who lost Iraq,” that no tactical adjustment of US policy, military or otherwise, is likely to “save” that country, whether Maliki stays (nominally) in charge or not. In 2003, Iraq was in dire straits. Once the US invaded, every decision made by Washington and its agents on the ground simply deepened the quagmire. (We refer readers to Jason Brownlee’s World Politics piece “Can America Nation-Build?” for this exact case with reference to historical precedents.)
In the face of the maelstrom in Iraq, which has always wreaked the great majority of its havoc upon Iraqis, a little humility would help us all.