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

Still, Maliki’s ultimate victory in 2012 was important to Iraq in two unfortunate ways. First, the methods by which the prime minister triumphed reinforced a widespread sentiment that Iraq’s brief experiment with democracy and the rule of law was over and that politics were reverting to the old ways of violence, subterfuge, graft and betrayal. Iraq was falling back from the world of the Discourses to the world of The Prince. Moreover, while Maliki’s success represented a major victory over Iraq’s political center—in the literal and figurative sense—both the victory itself and the manner of its realization had alienated key elements on the periphery of Iraqi politics: the Sunni regions in the West and North, the Kurds, and the Shia of the deep South represented by the Sadrists.

In Baghdad, Maliki reigns supreme. In person, he is far more at ease and confident than he was in early 2012. He and his senior advisers appear to recognize that they have effectively crippled Iraqiya, their most powerful parliamentary adversary. And with their absolute control over the Iraqi military and judiciary, they have nothing to fear from Iraq’s other political parties.

But elsewhere in Iraq, the prime minister’s problems persist and in some areas are worsening. Many Sunnis saw Maliki’s victory over Iraqiya as the first step in the establishment of a Shia tyranny that would oppress them as the Sunnis had oppressed the Shia under Saddam. Maliki has made deep inroads with some Sunni leaders in places such as Mosul, where his efforts threaten the dominance of the Nujaifi brothers, key leaders of Iraqiya. However, many other Sunni tribal leaders are rearming with help from Saudi Arabia, which is encouraging them to resist Maliki and provide aid to their tribesmen across the border in Syria who are fighting against the Iranian-backed, Shia Assad regime. The result has been a notable increase in violence perpetrated by various Sunni terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa Naqshbandia. The rebirth of such groups is less the product of Saudi aid—or the diminution in Baghdad’s counterterror capabilities resulting from the departure of U.S. forces—than of the erosion in Sunni trust in government. In many areas, this has resulted in a resurgence of support for Sunni terrorist groups that had nearly disappeared several years ago. AQI itself was effectively dead in 2009, unable to mount more than token attacks. It is now carrying out simultaneous countrywide operations. Indeed, AQI has become strong enough to contest government control of parts of Diyala Province, something unimaginable even two years ago.

Potentially even more dangerous has been the reaction of the Kurds. Many Kurdish leaders, in particular Barzani and the KDP, are pessimistic about their ability to make their relationship with Baghdad work. They seem to believe that independence (or virtual independence) may be a viable option in the medium term. This perspective—the expanding threat from Baghdad coupled with a perceived growing opportunity for independence—is evident in all of their political calculations in a way not seen as recently as last year. On the threat side of the ledger, they believe that Maliki intends to crush Kurdistan as he crushed Iraqiya as soon as his military is fully armed by the United States. The Kurds are nervous that the Iraqi army is growing in strength and capability whereas the Peshmerga, Kurdistan’s de facto army, have lost considerable capability since they defeated the Iraqi military in 1970. This creates a sense among Kurds that time is working against them and they need to settle matters relatively soon. However, all of this is somewhat counterbalanced (or even contradicted) by the positive trends they see toward genuine prospects for independence.

Turkey looms large on this side of the ledger. The Kurds see Turkish energy needs as necessarily tying Ankara to Erbil. Kurdistan’s industrious minister of natural resources, Ashti Hawrami, argues that Turkey soon will be able to rely on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for its energy needs. To that end, he has been forging a mix of pipeline deals with Turkey, as well as oil- and gas-production deals with major international oil companies. These deals have been moving ahead smartly, much to Baghdad’s fury, with Exxon, Chevron, Total and Gazprom. In addition, Erbil expects to have both oil and natural-gas pipelines linking Kurdistan and Turkey operational within a few years. The critical energy questions are complemented by a number of factors: the growing economic interdependence of southeastern Turkey with the KRG; Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s own deepening antipathy toward Maliki; the way Syria is driving Turkey and the KRG together (and pulling Turkey away from Iran and Iraq); and the shifting regional balance as a result of the Arab Spring. Consequently, many Kurds believe they will be able to count on Turkish support for a declaration of independence in the next two to three years, especially if the security situation in the rest of Iraq continues to deteriorate.

Finally, even the Sadrist movement is turning against Maliki, demonstrating the unhappiness of the Shia of the deep South with Maliki’s consolidation of power in the center. Although Iran’s pressure forced the Sadrists to abandon ambitions of unseating Maliki, they have done little to hide their hatred of him. Moktada al-Sadr has called Maliki a dictator and demanded his resignation. Across the South, there are reports of low-level violence between Sadrists and Maliki allies—bombings, assassinations, vandalism and kidnappings. Like the reemergence of Sunni terrorism, this is still at a low level relative to where Iraq was during its darkest days in 2006, but the trend reflects the increasing resistance of the periphery to Maliki’s center and the return of Iraq’s old tradition of violent politics.

The next big moves are likely to be Maliki’s. He will have to decide how to react to the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Sadrists—not to mention the Turks and the Saudis. A great statesman would recognize that now is the perfect moment to act magnanimously and make concessions to bring his rivals back into the governmental fold. Having disarmed them, Maliki could safely pursue such a course, and doing so would undermine the claims that he is attempting to make himself the new dictator of Iraq. Indeed, this is probably the only move that might allow the country to return to the slow path toward democracy by resurrecting the prospect of true power sharing among Iraq’s factions. Maliki’s willingness to strike a partial deal with the Kurds on oil exports in September represented a hopeful step. But it was only a baby step and may reflect nothing more than a realization that Baghdad had no other options—except force—to compel the Kurds, and so the government grudgingly gave in. Indeed, so far neither the prime minister nor his aides have shown much inclination to embrace such an approach wholeheartedly. They often seem to believe that any concessions would be seen as weakness and thus encourage greater efforts to overthrow them.

The great danger is that Maliki eventually will resort to violence to deal with his increasingly well-armed rivals. But this time a resort to force would likely look very different from his past moves. Subduing the Kurds, the Saudi-backed Sunni tribes or the deeply embedded Sadrist militias would require much larger military operations—which likely would result in clashes and could easily provoke one or more insurgencies against his government. This would be dangerous and potentially disastrous, however historically commonplace. This path, embraced by the three dictators who preceded Saddam Hussein, failed consistently. Learning the lessons of his predecessors, Saddam determined he had to rely on genocidal levels of violence to slaughter and terrorize his people, and he held on to power for over thirty years only because he did so.

The Florentine Histories of Iraq

Among the least well-known of Machiavelli’s major works are his Florentine Histories. More’s the pity, because the dynamics of the weak and chaotic Italian city-states mimic those of the Middle East today, and Machiavelli’s historical insights are a perfect guide to Iraq’s relations with its neighbors.

Like Machiavelli’s Italy, today’s Middle East consists mostly of weak, internally fragile states, all of them divided by factions. Moreover, in many cases those factions span national borders. Like Machiavelli’s Italian city-states, the Middle East’s polities are marked by internal competition—often bloody—among various groups. Sometimes the divisions are ethnic (Arab vs. Kurd, Arab vs. Berber, Arab vs. Black African). Sometimes they are religious (Sunni vs. Shia, Muslim vs. Christian, Maronite vs. Druze). Sometimes they are geographic (Basrawi vs. Baghdadi, Baghdadi vs. Muslawi). Sometimes they are ideological (Baathist vs. Islamist, liberal vs. Salafist, nationalist vs. royalist). Thus, like the Guelphs and Ghibellines of Florence, Milan and Pisa, so too the Sunni and Shia of Iraq, Lebanon and Syria—or the Kurds of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey—see their interests communally even as they strive to dominate their own states as well.

For all of these groups, the government of their state is a weapon to be used against their rivals and a purse to reward their constituents. That means no faction accepts the domination of the government by a rival, all constantly scheme to take back the government, and every faction goes looking for support from similar factions in neighboring states and from larger states that border the region (such as Turkey and Iran) or more distant powers with interests in the region (such as the United States, Russia and China). Thus, factions in one state will line up with the same factions in other states, or they will strike alliances with unlike factions in their own state that will bring with them alliances—and enemies—in other states. Finally, as the Italian city-states learned to their dismay when they foolishly brought great powers such as France, Austria and the Turks into Italian politics, Middle Easterners who seek advantage by relying on external great powers often have found that their own interests are trampled by those of the great-power invitees.

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