Paul Pillar

The Heavy Hand of Political Culture in Iraq

Just as the last U.S. troops in Iraq have rolled across the border into Kuwait, politics in Baghdad have been getting even uglier than usual. The sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia has manifested itself most recently in Prime Minister Maliki's Shia-dominated government charging a Sunni vice president with operating a death squad—charges the vice president says are trumped up. It's almost like some of the nastiness we have become accustomed to seeing between the Republican sect and the Democratic sect in the U.S. Congress.

Expect those who say that some U.S. forces should have been left longer in Iraq (notwithstanding the U.S.-Iraqi withdrawal agreement negotiated under the George W. Bush administration) to bring up periodically the political dysfunction in Baghdad and lament that this is what happens because their advice was not followed and we did not see through to completion the job of building a democracy in Iraq. In fact, U.S. troops would not ameliorate the political problems we are seeing today in Iraq. The political problems persisted even when the United States had far more troops in Iraq. The troop “surge” is usually seen as a success, but it failed in the political objective it was supposed to accomplish: sufficient reconciliation among the contending Iraqi factions to facilitate the building of a stable new political order in Iraq.

This history was predictable, before the war started, to anyone who had looked carefully at Iraq's earlier modern history and the political culture based on it. In fact, it was pretty much predicted, both inside and outside government, but the makers of the war had a rosier view of how easy it would be to erect a new political order in Iraq. President Bush accused those who were skeptical about a stable democracy breaking out in Iraq of being prejudiced against a people who yearned for democracy and were just as capable of making it work as anyone else. Well, they are capable of doing that, but only in a time frame that is far greater than what the war makers had in mind. Reflecting on the long political history of Western countries where representative democracy finally emerged should have given some appreciation of what that time frame would be.

The United States should look on the political turmoil in Iraq as it looks on turmoil in other Middle Eastern countries. It certainly should express its values clearly and wish well to whoever is trying to move closer to something resembling a liberal democracy. It should look out for its own interests, realizing that Iraq is not going to be very close to a stable liberal democracy any time soon and that to protect U.S. interests it will have to deal with Iraqi governments that do some distasteful things. What the United States should not do is to delude itself into thinking that it holds some key to making Iraqi politics into something that it isn't.