The Struggle for Iraq’s Future

Does the rise of Islamic extremism prove that Iraqi democracy was doomed to fail?

The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence, and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy. By Zaid Al-Ali. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2014. 304 pp.

In February 2011, when Iraqis joined the Arab Spring with countrywide protests demanding reform and better services, the government responded quickly. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki announced plans to create jobs, end power cuts, and implement a food subsidies program. When these moves failed to quell the protests, however, he authorized drastic measures. Though Iraqi demonstrators numbered only in the thousands, compared to the huge protests elsewhere in the Middle East, security forces quickly unleashed violence and killed nearly thirty people and imprisoned more than three hundred. The government then created a law requiring advance permission for demonstrations. The Iraqi protests and crackdown received scant media attention and seemingly little notice by the Obama administration. It was as if Iraq had a tragic fate that democracy protests could never change: Saddam Hussein’s thuggery, a botched American invasion, sectarian conflict, official corruption, terrorism.

Is Iraq’s descent into chaos inevitable? One narrative, popular in media and the collective psyche, is that sectarianism has hindered Iraqis from building a thriving nation-state. In The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence, and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy, Zaid Al-Ali, a former legal advisor with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and currently senior advisor on constitution  building at IDEAS International, challenges such assumptions. He argues that despite conventional wisdom, sectarianism in Iraq is not a natural or inevitable condition. He makes the case that a badly flawed political system imposed after the U.S. invasion fueled sectarian conflict. Aggressive de-Baathification, intended to crush Saddam’s ruling party apparatus, marginalized the country’s Sunni Muslim population. Sectarian-based policies, in turn, contributed to poor governance. A government structure based on ethnic quotas only reinforced corruption and unaccountability. Giving parties veto power over major decisions furthered political stalemate. Politicians resorted to corruption for financial and political gain, while ignoring economic woes including rural poverty. “Sectarianism had thus become the only line of defense in the face of state failure and the only objective worth pursuing: the achievement that excused all the failures of the past,” Al-Ali writes.

Al-Ali criticizes Al-Maliki’s government for exacerbating violence through corruption and incompetence. He recounts how the Iraqi government purchased bomb-detection devices, the ADE 651, from a British company for $85 million. After bombings continued to plague Iraq, a British investigation in 2010 found that the technology was faulty. The Iraqi government was still using it in 2013, with Al-Maliki insisting that only some devices were flawed. Al-Ali cites the government’s failure to tackle problems such as debilitating air pollution and power cuts, which undermine the economy. He is just as critical of the external players who helped shaped Iraq after the fall of Saddam. Besides citing the George W. Bush administration’s botched intervention, he faults United Nations development efforts for being misguided. Al-Ali recalls attending a UN interagency planning meeting where particular attention was given to the UN program for combatting HIV/AIDS, a relatively minor problem in Iraq.

Al-Ali makes reasonable recommendations for a new constitution that would promote better governance and accountability. A new constitution should define: chain of command and role of armed forces; regulation of new political parties; independent anti-corruption regulation; independent commission in charge of natural resources; and decentralization. He further recommends restricting rhetoric on sectarianism, in part enforced by an anti-hate speech regulatory commission.

Certainly good governance is part of a long-term solution for Iraq. Al-Ali’s frustrated tone throughout the book affirms this point. But in focusing on the failures of the state, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future largely neglects a critical question:  if the Iraqi state has failed, how are non-state actors responding to state failure? Terrorism is an obvious force, but the shifting political allegiances of Sunni tribes are just as alarming. However, the rise of Al-Qaeda, and the influence of other non-state actors, such as the Sunni tribes who helped the United States military fight Al-Qaeda in 2008 in Anbar province, hardly feature in Al-Ali’s account. The 2014 military offensive by an Al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), shows how extremism remains a threat to Iraq’s future. The campaign also exhibited how such militant groups are an alternative to the state apparatus for some: Iraqi Sunni tribes pledged support for ISIS and joined them in challenging the government’s authority.

The recent events in Iraq do not change the long-term solutions: Sunni tribes support ISIS in part due to a decade of sectarian policies and the prospect that Al-Maliki would be re-elected this year. But the short-term security challenges cannot be resolved through governance and constitution building. And here is the crux of the major challenge in Iraq: short-term security problems that require strong Iraqi military force and perhaps international intervention are in tension with long-term goals of democracy and sound governance.

But, as Al-Ali argues, Iraq is not destined to fail. The book serves as a timely reminder that sectarianism did not lead to the current situation in Iraq. But thanks in part to Al-Maliki’s misrule, the government and extremist insurgents are locked in a struggle that puts Iraqis in the middle.

Rozina Ali is senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. From 2010 to 2013, she served as deputy editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit in New York. She has contributed to Al Jazeera America, Foreign PolicyGuardian, New York Times, and Salon. On Twitter: @rozina_ali.