Letter to the Editor: Pitfalls in Reconstructing Iraq

 Just as generals are always ready to fight the last war, the reconstruction/ humanitarian/ peacekeeping community is always ready to solve the last post-conflict situation.

 Just as generals are always ready to fight the last war, the reconstruction/ humanitarian/ peacekeeping community is always ready to solve the last post-conflict situation.   They took Bosnia to East Timor, Bosnia and East Timor to Afghanistan, and now they are taking constructs from Afghanistan to the planning for post-war Iraq along with an ambitious agenda for installing democratic institutions.

A number of the regular contributors to ITNI have been part of the problem of mis-conceptualizing post-war Iraq.(1)  They bring a theoretical/ideological prism to their consideration of Iraq that sometimes obscures the empirical and historical realities of the place.   Inter alia, they minimize the problems of promoting the robust political "deal" necessary to integrate Iraq's three major communities into a viable pluralist polity.  

When I provide advisory services to apprentice reconstructors on an appreciation of the political challenges in Iraq, one of the first things I do is have them read an essay by Abbas Kelidar (School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London) on the 20-year nation-building efforts in Iraq undertaken by the British from 1921-41.  

The British experiment in Iraqi nation building began with the installation of a cooperative Hashemite King (from the same family as the British-installed King of Jordan).  British advisors worked quietly behind the scenes to manage the new King, while framing a pluralist and reasonably representative government.  All the communities were represented including the religious minorities.   A prominent Jew served as minister of finance for several years, giving way to a Christian for a number of years, in a gesture of reassurance to the religious minorities of their status and stake in the new nation.    The objective of British policy was to build a framework of communal representation establishing a social equilibrium among the various communities in the distribution of government posts with the explicit goal of promoting national integration.    

Despite these admirable intentions, shaped and implemented by very experienced English "Mesopotamia hands" in the Colonial Office, the results of the experiment were less than salubrious.   

As Khelidar reminds us "The process of co-option made the politics of representation extremely personalized.  Reciprocal arrangement between the Baghdad politicians and communal and tribal patriarchs on the basis of mutual interests became a feature of constantly shifting alliances among rivals to the detriment of national integration and the politics of compromise. The outcome was endemic government instability and conflict that often required the resort to force."

Before repeating the British experiment it is useful to consider the alternatives from a realist perspective.  Returning Iraq to a condition of economically liberal fascism without WMD would not be too difficult and might serve American national interests minimally, if not fully.  We found this to be a workable formula consistent with America's regional concerns from the 1960s through the 1980s.   

Going one step further by promoting a Tito-ist hard-bargain amongst Iraq's ethnic communities within a Tito-ist hard state is feasible, albeit more challenging.  Yugoslavia-in-the-fertile-crescent would be a significant American achievement that would serve many of our interests.   

Bringing about a participatory, multi-ethnic democracy in the next decade in Iraq, however, is probably a chimera.   America brings to the enterprise a less nuanced understanding of the local scene than the English "Mesopotamia hands" and we do not have twenty years for our experiment to play out.  

Making a fully democratic Iraq an explicit American policy objective and foregoing less appealing, but more feasible alternatives, could actively disserve American national interests.   This is a moment when it is prudent to consider the lessons of recent history and to avoid the temptation of permitting the best to become the enemy of the good. 

(1) Some of these pieces include: "Privatization and the Oil Industry: A Strategy for Postwar Iraqi Reconstruction," by Ariel Cohen and Gerald P. O'Driscoll, Jr. (http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol2Issue3/Vol2Issue3CohenDriscoll.html); and "Can A Democratic Iraq Survive," by Dan Byman (http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vo1Issue11/Vol1Issue11Byman.html); "Countering a Backlash in a Post-Saddam Iraq," by Dan Byman (http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/vol2issue11/vol2issue11byman.html); and the comments by Dr. Barham Salih (http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/vol2issue10/vol2issue10salih.html).   


John Stuart Blackton, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, was formerly Director of USAID Afghanistan in the early 90s and served in USAID Kabul in the pre-Russian period in the early-mid 1970's. After retiring, he was on the faculty of the National War College for several years.  He authored "Afghanistan, Foreign Aid and U.S. National Interests" for the November 20, 2002 issue of In the National Interest (at http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol1Issue10/Vol1Issue10Blackton.html).