MOST AMERICANS know Niccolò Machiavelli only from The Prince, a sixteenth-century “audition tape” he dashed off in lieu of a résumé to try to land a job. It’s a shame. Not only was Machiavelli the leading advocate of democracy of his day, but his ideas also had a profound influence on the framers of our own Constitution.
It’s even more of a shame because the corpus of Machiavelli’s remarkable work on democracy, politics and international relations is easily the best guide to understanding the dynamics at play in contemporary Iraq and its situation within the wider Middle East.
Iraq today is a place that Machiavelli would have understood well. It is a weak state, riven by factions, with an embryonic democratic system increasingly undermined from within and without. It is encircled by a combination of equally weak and fragmented Arab states as well as powerful non-Arab neighbors seeking to dominate or even subjugate it. Iraq’s democratic form persists, but its weakness, combined with internal and external threats, seems more likely to drive it toward either renewed autocracy or renewed chaos. It cries out for a leader of great ability and great virtue to vanquish all of these monsters and restore it to the democratic path it had started down in 2008–2009.
That course seems less and less likely with each passing month, and it may take a true Machiavellian prince—one strong and cunning enough to secure the power of the state but foresighted enough to foster a democracy as the only recipe for true stability—to achieve it. Unfortunately, in all of human history, such figures have been rare. It is unclear whether Iraq possesses such a leader, but the reemergence of its old political culture as America’s role ebbs makes it ever less likely that such a remarkable figure could emerge to save Iraq from itself.
The Prince of Baghdad
As always, any discussion of Iraq’s problems after Saddam Hussein’s fall needs to start from an understanding of America’s endless mistakes there. The catastrophically mishandled American occupation of Iraq following the 2003 invasion created a political and security vacuum in the country that produced an ethnosectarian civil war by late 2005. Those mistakes brought forth a new Iraqi political leadership comprised largely of exiles and militia chiefs, many of whom were focused primarily on aggrandizing their own wealth and power.
Nevertheless, the “surge” of additional U.S. troops and the shift to a population-protection strategy (often referred to erroneously as a “counterinsurgency” strategy) temporarily suppressed the security problems and generated important political progress. Thus, between the spring of 2008 and the spring of 2010, a nascent democracy flourished in Iraq. The U.S. military had snuffed out the civil war and prevented all political groups from pursuing their agendas through force. Moreover, Washington insisted that Iraqi political leaders play by the rules of the new democratic system and did what it could to diminish graft, bribery, extortion and other means of political manipulation. As a result, for the first time in their history, average Iraqis wielded real power over their leaders—and used it to hand the militia-backed parties that ran rampant during the civil war resounding defeats in the 2009 provincial and 2010 national elections.
Unfortunately, at that moment the United States turned its back on Iraq, politically and militarily. By turning the reins of government back to Iraq’s leaders prematurely, the Americans allowed a Hobbesian state of nature to reemerge.
The shift occurred first in the realm of politics. The 2010 national elections should have been a huge step forward for Iraqi democracy since the majority of voters, Sunni and Shia, had endorsed the two parties seen as most secular and least tied to the militias that had waged the civil war. Unfortunately, the elections proved to be the exact opposite. Rather than insist that the party that had secured the most votes in the election (the secular but mostly Sunni Iraqiya party led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi) get the first chance to form a government—as is the practice in most democracies—Washington (and the UN) took no position on the matter. This threw the Iraqi political and constitutional systems into paralysis.
Frustrated with this impasse, the United States simply embraced the party of the incumbent prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, which had received the second-most votes. Regardless of Maliki’s qualifications for the position, this sent a disastrous message to both the Iraqi people and the political leadership: the United States is more concerned with expediency than with enforcing the system’s rules; there will be no punishment for subverting the system or rewards for playing by the rules; power will be distributed not according to the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box but by political machinations carried on in traditional, cutthroat Iraqi fashion. In effect, the United States announced that it would not prevent the reemergence of Iraq’s bad, old political culture because it would not continue to enforce the new, democratic rules of the road. At that moment, even those parties that had benefited from Iraq’s budding democratization (including Iraqiya and Maliki’s State of Law coalition) knew that the rules had suddenly changed. The referee was gone, and Iraq’s leaders now were free to go back to the old rules, which had produced Iraq’s tragic twentieth-century history.