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Reading Machiavelli in Iraq

Reading Machiavelli in Iraq

Mini Teaser: Machiavelli’s political analyses on civic life in Italy’s fifteenth-century city-states offer a good starting point for those interested in determining the best way forward for today’s Iraq.

by Author(s): Kenneth M. Pollack

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.

The following year, Washington made little effort to retain a meaningful residual military force in Iraq, and the Iraqis refused to extend the kind of legal guarantees that would have allowed even a token presence to remain. Consequently, in December 2011 the last American combat units departed Iraq.

They left behind a weak government without any civic culture or strong institutions, presiding over a deeply fragmented society with a history of intercommunal violence both long and recent. It was the kind of circumstance that Machiavelli would have understood well. It was the world of fifteenth-century Italy, with its small, weak and divided city-states, constantly at war with one another and themselves. It was the world of Machiavelli’s prince.

The Iraqi Art of (Political) War

What Machiavelli understood explicitly, what Iraq’s political leaders “got” intuitively and what American political leaders missed altogether was that in a state such as Iraq—weak, divided, tortured by internal rivalries and dominated by fear—the government is not a party to the conflict. Rather, it is the prize of the conflict. To a certain extent, it may be that by framing the problem of Iraq as one of “counterinsurgency,” the United States helped foster its own mistaken approach to Iraq. Was there an insurgency in Iraq? Yes, but it was not the country’s principal problem. That was the security vacuum that had unleashed an intercommunal civil war.

Defeating an insurgency and ending an intercommunal civil war actually overlap significantly at the tactical military level. However, at the strategic and political levels, they are very different and require very different approaches. Insurgencies break out as a result of the unpopularity of the government, and therefore the key to a counterinsurgency effort is to simultaneously suppress the guerrilla movement and rebuild the government’s popularity.

Civil wars, in contrast, are contests for power, including control of the government. They occur when the group on top loses its monopoly on violence, opening the door for other groups to try to seize control of the government. In an intercommunal civil war, radical leaders on all sides typically seek to gain control of the government to use its power against rival groups—to disenfranchise them, oppress them, expel them or even massacre them.

One of the last mistakes the United States made in Iraq was to misread its conflict for an insurgency rather than an intercommunal civil war. At first this mattered little because, at a tactical level, the early stages of an effective counterinsurgency campaign are identical to the early stages of an operation to suppress a civil war. However, over time, these courses of action diverge in important ways. In particular, a counterinsurgent must build up the strength and “legitimacy” of the government. Once the counterinsurgent has accomplished that, he can leave. In a civil war, the goal is to establish strong new governmental institutions that can withstand efforts by any group to subvert them in order to advance its own narrow agenda. This is why the military task of shutting down the fighting in a civil war is typically brief if done properly (recall NATO in Bosnia in 1995; the Australians in East Timor in 1999; and the United States in Iraq in 2007–2008) and can in some ways precede the major tasks of political reconstruction. But it is also why an external military presence is so important during the long years of political reconstruction that must follow, to prevent any group from reverting back to violence and reassure all parties that there will be neutral referees to enforce proper conduct while all parties learn to play by the new rules of the game.

In Iraq, in part because the United States mistook a civil war for an insurgency and in part because the Obama administration came to office determined to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, the United States pulled its troops out and withdrew assistance before Iraq’s governing institutions or political culture had been strengthened and democratized adequately to ensure that they could survive the inevitable political infighting that would follow a U.S. troop withdrawal. It is why Iraqi democracy today is hanging by a thread.

Image: Pullquote: 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.Essay Types: Essay