Rare in world history do we have a case like the state of Iraq today, which now captures all the worst aspects of indigenous, regional and global political failures, but in history represented the pinnacle of human achievements in art, culture, poetry, learning, architecture, industry, irrigation, religion, governance and other civilizational domains. Iraq is everything we could be, and everything we fear to become, rolled into one land.
Historians and contemporary ideologues will long debate who is primarily to blame for Iraq’s slide into its current state of fractured statehood, political immobility, widespread corruption and inefficiency, massive security lapses, and the new threat of the spread of the poisonous ideology of the “Islamic State” — a phenomenon that has as much to do with prevailing global Islamic norms as I have to do with the man on the moon.
For now we should first grasp the various elements that paved the route to Iraq’s current misfortunes, so that we do not repeat them again across the region. Iraq’s condition is not a unique case; the factors that shaped it operate in many countries around the Middle East — foreign interests that created the country in the first place, decades of megalomanial security-state rule that led to corruption and mediocrity in state institutions, structural meddling in Iraq’s affairs by strong regional powers, repeated foreign military interventions, socio-economic mismanagement and incompetence in governance, the fracturing of the central state in favor of decentralized sectarian identities and interests, reassertion of sect-centered single strongman rule, and, most recently, the rise of various militant movements that use religion for mobilizing and legitimizing purposes.
Most of these elements exist in many other Arab states that face similar vulnerabilities, like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and more limited aspects of Lebanon, Algeria and even wondrous Egypt. While it is easy to list the elements that have brought Iraq to this dangerous point, it is much more difficult to identify the route to emerging from the crisis and steering the country onto a path to recovery and normal development. Where to begin? Electing or choosing a new president, prime minister and speaker of parliament, as Iraqis have just done? Asking for foreign military intervention to stem the expansion of the Islamic State (IS), as is now happening with U.S. air strikes and other foreign powers’ arming of Kurdish forces? Mustering indigenous Iraqi military capabilities to push back and eventually liquidate the IS threat? Iraqis themselves working to re-establish credible national institutions that serve all Iraqis, such as the armed forces, the education and health sectors, and the oil industry? Promoting inclusive governance and other state systems that are not based on sectarian identities? Fighting corruption?
All of these things need to be done simultaneously, and to a large extent many honorable Iraqis are trying heroically to do just this. Checking and then reversing the expansion of the area ruled by the IS is clearly the top priority right now, because IS’s ability to consolidate and extend its rule is a direct consequence of the inefficiency and collapse of Iraqi state authority. In fact the incentive to fight back and destroy the IS in Iraq should be the most important impetus for Iraqis to work together more effectively to rebuild their state institutions, and reinvigorate a new sense of citizenship that is meaningful to all because it serves all citizens equitably.
Foreign military assistance is clearly required in the short run to give Iraqis the breathing space to regroup and repel the IS phenomenon, which should not be difficult to do once a concerted effort is made to fight back against the IS. It is remarkable to date that we have not witnessed a serious, coordinated move by Iraqis, Iranians, Saudis, Turks, Jordanians, Americans and interested others to pool their resources and crush the IS forces. All these countries are threatened by the expansion of IS and similar movements, and they have more than enough resources to shatter IS, which remains a parasitic, opportunistic, gang- and cult-like movement that can only flourish in areas of chaos and lack of state authority, and by imposing its rule by brutal force. The more time IS enjoys to consolidate its rule and perhaps evolve in a manner that generates for it more genuine local support and legitimacy — which it has largely lacked — the more difficult it will be to eliminate it some months down the road.
IS-type rule has no more chance of giving Arabs a decent life than did the centralized police state or the corrupt sectarian state that Arabs have endured for decades. Iraq is the place now where this issue will be put to the test.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.