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

We may never know the whole story of what happened in Baghdad in December 2011 and January 2012. But the demonstrable facts are nevertheless disturbing on their own.

While Prime Minister Maliki was in Washington that December to see President Obama and discuss the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations after the American troop withdrawal, his government arrested several of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi’s bodyguards on suspicion that they were involved in terrorist activities. Hashimi is a senior Sunni political leader within Iraqiya, leading many to suspect that the charges were trumped up by Maliki’s camp against its principal political rival. Upon returning from his U.S. trip, Maliki was told by his aides that Hashimi’s bodyguards had not only confessed involvement in terror operations but also claimed that Hashimi himself was the ringleader and that Hashimi—possibly in league with other Sunni political leaders—was planning a coup to take over the government. (Of course, the opposition insists that Hashimi’s bodyguards were tortured into making these claims.)

The prime minister quickly ordered security personnel to lock down Baghdad’s center and confine the Sunni Iraqiya leaders to their homes. Tanks and soldiers were deployed outside the houses of Hashimi and other Sunni leaders. Taped confessions—genuine according to the government, coerced according to the opposition—by Hashimi’s bodyguards were aired on television before any trial or even charges were filed against them. Dozens of lower-level Iraqiya officials were arrested. Eventually, a warrant for Hashimi’s arrest was produced—although Hashimi had already fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. When Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq criticized these steps, pronouncing Maliki a dictator, the prime minister and cabinet deposed him from his position—although the Iraqi constitution states that only the parliament can do so. To a great many Iraqis, this series of actions seemed to signal Maliki’s determination to establish his own autocratic power.

Naturally, this terrified many Iraqis, including Shia groups ambivalent or antipathetic to Maliki—such as the Sadrist Trend—as well as the Kurds, particularly Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has always disliked Maliki. These groups banded together and attempted to oust the prime minister by a vote of no confidence in the parliament. For several months, the different groups jockeyed for position, working to secure enough votes. But Maliki proved the more skillful, and by summer the threat of a no-confidence vote had evaporated.

Maliki’s success was born of several factors. First, the prime minister quickly recognized that he had frightened a number of Iraqi political leaders who might have been more agnostic (even sympathetic) had he acted more carefully. So the government pulled in its horns. Many arrested Iraqiya members were released. Tanks and troops were removed. Maliki even reconciled with Saleh al-Mutlaq. Second, the prime minister managed to splinter members of the rival parties, particularly Iraqiya. When Iraqiya mounted a boycott of the cabinet (and threatened to do the same in the parliament), Maliki announced that cabinet posts would be redistributed to government allies. This forced the opposition to end its boycott lest it lose critical sources of patronage (and graft) by which all Iraqi politicians reward their constituencies. The government then reached out to various Sunni tribal sheikhs and other political leaders—as well as some Sadrist leaders whose loyalty seemed negotiable—to bring them into the prime minister’s camp through promises of government positions, jobs, largesse, protection and, reportedly, outright payoffs.

Finally, Maliki reached out to Iran. He is no puppet of Iran. In his own way, he is a staunch Iraqi nationalist and, like most Iraqi Shiites, appears to dislike the Iranians more than he likes them. It is noteworthy that Maliki’s most important act as prime minister—and a critical element of the surge’s success—was his Operation Charge of the Knights, which ousted the Iranian-backed Jaish al-Mahdi militia from Basra, Sadr City and other cities of southern Iraq in 2008. This broke Iran’s power in Iraq (at least for a time) and persuaded Iraq’s Sunnis to participate in the new government.

Nevertheless, as the United States has pulled back from Iraq, Iran has moved in to fill the gap. Tehran, not Washington, was the key to engineering Maliki’s reelection in 2010. Iran strong-armed the Sadrists into backing Maliki’s return as prime minister despite their hatred of him. Once Maliki had the Sadrists, it meant he effectively had a lock on Iraq’s Shia majority, which in turn convinced the Kurds to go along. Despite all of this critical assistance, Maliki has tried not to become too dependent on Iran, in part by maintaining some relationship with Washington as a counterweight to Tehran.

The Iranians are not fools. They have never forgotten that it was Maliki who humiliated them in 2008. Tehran reportedly tried to find an alternative to Maliki but decided that the likely candidates—such as former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari or the diabolical Ahmad Chalabi—were worse. Hence, they put intense pressure on both the Sadrists and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which shares a long border with Iran, persuading both of them to back Maliki. Without them, Iraqiya and the KDP simply did not have the votes, and the entire campaign collapsed. Maliki prevailed.

The prime minister’s moves are widely seen as an effort to consolidate power. There is nothing wrong with that, especially in the face of the political and security vacuum that threatened to emerge after the withdrawal of American troops. In fact, the Iraqi state’s survival required that the government consolidate power.

However, by acting to consolidate power the way that a dictator would—regardless of whatever his true intentions may have been—Maliki sent the worst possible signal to the rest of Iraq. Such actions create precedents and generate fears that are incomparably more pernicious than when opposition figures act illegally or immorally. Those fears have been heightened in Iraq by Baghdad’s trial of Vice President Hashimi in absentia, the court’s guilty verdict and its imposition of a death sentence in September. Such actions smack of vengeance and perpetuate the dread and mistrust that pushed Iraq into civil war in the first place.

Discourses on Iraqi Democracy

If The Prince is the work of Machiavelli’s incisive mind, the work of his inspiring heart is his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy. As he wrote at length in The Prince, Machiavelli was not under any illusions about how people would behave when the state was weak. He knew that most would be driven by fear to act badly in the absence of a powerful set of institutions to constrain their behavior and compel or enable them to act nobly. In the Discourses, he employed the Roman Republic as a practical model for the kind of democratic state that could give Italy a better society—one strong enough to keep Italy’s foreign foes in check and also ensure internal stability, justice and prosperity. It was a product of his fourteen years as an official and champion of the brief Florentine Republic that ousted the Medicis but was later deposed again by them. The central lesson of that experience and his reading of past successful states was that only a prince could build the ideal republic once state and society had collapsed into anarchy. But the republic—the state system—would ensure its long-term tranquility, safety and prosperity, not the prince. The system mattered, not the man.

So too in Iraq today. If Iraqi democracy is going to be saved, it will not only take a great individual but also a leader willing and able to restore the system. Likewise, the problems of Iraq are much less the problems of a specific personality (whether Nuri al-Maliki, Massoud Barzani, Ayad Allawi or someone else) and far more the problems of the structure and nature of current Iraqi politics. They are the problems created by the unfinished transformation that the United States left behind in 2011. The incentive structure that compelled most (and allowed a few) Iraqi political leaders to act like good democratic stewards in 2008–2010 was still an artificial one, imposed from the outside by the United States. By 2011, that incentive structure had not had time to take root and supplant the incentives of the bad, old system. When Washington removed that external incentive structure prematurely, Iraq’s political leaders went back to what they knew best and what they expected to prevail anyway.

Thus, many—even most—other Iraqi leaders probably would have acted as Maliki did had they been prime minister. And many of those same people would have acted as Ayad Allawi did had they found themselves in the opposition. It is not that these people are somehow uniquely bad or that the problems would not exist if the government or opposition were in the hands of someone else. Iraq’s problem is the incomplete transformation and the stumbling democracy that the United States left behind. As prime minister, Maliki is no worse than many of his rivals might have been—and arguably better than many. Although in some cases he has undermined Iraqi democracy, in others he has abided by democratic rules even when he was not compelled to do so. Moreover, he has taken other actions—most notably Operation Charge of the Knights—that undeniably established his commitment to Iraqi nationalism, even if the sectarian chauvinism that fueled the civil war often seems to be an ever-present motivation.

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