Publication date: 14 June 2023
Twenty years after the United States led a war of choice against Saddam Hussein, Iraq still struggles to develop coherent state institutions. Wave after wave of crises, from the rise of salafi-jihadi organizations like Al-Qaeda or Islamic State (ISIS) to the fallout from the US confrontation with Iran, have struck Iraq since 2003. As this collection of essays has shown, some of the country’s foundational problems stem from early decisions taken – during the initial invasion and occupation – by the US and the coterie of exiled Iraqi leaders who assumed control of the nascent political structure. Other elements of Iraq’s political, economic and security problems stem from decisions by Iraqi officials and their international allies during the ensuing years.
The US and its allied Iraqi exiles incorporated fundamental flaws into the design of the new political system, based on an ethno-sectarian power-sharing agreement. Crucially, the first decisions about the new Iraqi order prioritized the short-term political interests of the US government and its Iraqi allies – at the expense of promoting democracy or establishing a coherent state. Each piece in this collection reveals that much of what passed for state-building and democracy promotion over the last 20 years has followed the same flawed template. Rhetoric about rights and governance accompanied policies that promoted counterproductive transactional or short-term gains. The US and the international community habitually prioritized their own domestic political imperatives, spending hundreds of billions of dollars on programmes that accomplished little. When international powers did invest attention in Iraq, it was often to counter Iranian influence or to fight Al-Qaeda and ISIS. In these instances, US and international policy pursued short-term (and often military) wins, such as quickly withdrawing troops, negotiating utilitarian security bargains and, later, defeating terrorist groups.
The contributors in this special Chatham House collection explore the legacy of the invasion based on their observations from working in Iraq over the last 20 years. Representing a wide range of professional backgrounds, they recall key moments from their careers in Iraq, what went wrong, and what could have been done differently. Taken together, these personal stories and the lessons learned offer powerful insights for policymakers, analysts and others concerned with Iraq – and with other conflict and post-conflict zones.
Incompetence and bad faith
Unique to Iraq’s trajectory were the initial decisions to dissolve the state’s security institutions and bar most existing civil servants from continuing in the bureaucracy, citing their ties to the Ba’ath Party. Returning exiles with minimal local support but with US endorsement designed an ethno-sectarian power-sharing system, which many saw as their only shot at acquiring and staying in power. The origins of Iraq’s two-decade political crisis are based on a dilemma shared by US occupation authorities and Iraq’s many new rulers: they wanted security and state capacity, but feared the emergence of strong institutions that could provide a cornerstone for any one group to centralize power and move against their interests. Their fear of resurgent authoritarianism condemned Iraq to an incoherent and fragmented state, with security institutions incapable of staging a coup but also of protecting Iraq from domestic or foreign threats.
Following the restoration of partial Iraqi sovereignty in 2004, and the withdrawal of US combat troops in 2011, Iraq’s leaders have laboured, with the ambivalent support of regional and international governments, to achieve some of the trappings of democratic governance, security and development. Progress has been fitful on every front – in large measure because the most powerful players, from the UN and international aid community to Iraq’s neighbours and the still influential US government, all suffer from conflicting incentives. Those actors who rhetorically endorse pluralism, democracy and strong state institutions for Iraq have, in practice, endorsed policies that produce short-term wins as measured by certain narrow indicators (dollars disbursed, troops trained, displaced people returned) while still endorsing, over the long run, Iraq’s fragmented ethno-sectarian political system.
Inherent contradictions in promoting democracy
Our contributors tell stories across the full spectrum of Iraqi life, and illustrate the inherent contradictions that hobbled state-building from the outset. Several case studies in the series reveal the incoherent and paradoxical assumptions behind the initial invasion and US occupation, and behind the design of Iraq’s governing system.
Those tasked with writing the constitution – appointed in an opaque, hardly democratic manner – were disconnected from Iraqi society. As a result, as Zaid Al-Ali argues from his time advising on the constitution, Iraq’s transitional authorities drafted a constitution that generated a faulty social contract and distorted the legal system. The referendum on the country’s new constitution was hurriedly constructed, not allowing most of the population to engage in a dialogue on its main tenets. At the same time, Hayder Al Shakeri recalls, violence, instability and resurgent authoritarianism closed the space that had briefly opened, after the fall of Saddam, for him to protest and hold to account Iraqi leaders.
International players, meanwhile, indulged incompetence and hypocrisy while claiming to be in the business of building strong state institutions. Former US diplomat Ryan Crocker argues that the US failed to appreciate the complexity of entering, and later disengaging from, Iraq; although the US had limited options, Washington contributed to ongoing governance problems by promoting the post-2003 ethnic power-sharing. Renad Mansour writes of how international state-builders in Baghdad often worried more about the political vagaries of their bosses back home than about the Iraqis they were trying to help. Some repeated the same failed experiments over and over, even admitting that exercises in security or administrative reform were aimed more at satisfying external domestic agendas than at bringing real change inside Iraq.
Belkis Wille of Human Rights Watch recounts times when Iraqi and international officials sidelined her efforts to expose rights violations. They appeared more concerned about short-term stability for the Iraqi leadership of the moment than the long-term instability that such violations could instigate. In each of these cases, Iraqi government and international actors purporting to build accountability and governance adopted policies that often did the opposite, eroding stability in the long run. Journalists at times exacerbated the problem, Thanassis Cambanis writes. They tried to chronicle the unfolding calamity (he recalls the US general who suggested Iraqis welcomed jets and helicopters overhead as ‘the sound of freedom’), but were hamstrung by insufficient knowledge and resources. Their coverage ultimately fell prey to a Western audience’s waning interest.
The most urgent societal questions never fell in line with the short time horizons of the decision-makers, who usually had their eyes on an annual budget cycle, or an upcoming election in Iraq, or their home countries. International officials sometimes stayed in Iraq for as little as six months, and rarely longer than two years. These structural factors created a preference for quick wins and short-term stability at the expense of addressing underlying societal problems. Structural violence, which had been created or worsened by the invasion, drove the most severe problems.
Both Yanar Mohammed and Choman Hardi show how Iraqi and international state-builders ultimately ignored the issue of gender in both the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The constitution paid cosmetic attention to the issue by, for example, creating a women’s quota in parliament. But the system of law heavily discriminated against women, while Iraq’s new political leaders swiftly adopted laws and practices that marginalized women. The US and the international community never took any serious stand or adopted any policy that prioritized women’s rights or sought to provide adequate safety from violence.
The aftermath of the US occupation also had serious environmental and economic consequences. Water management has always been a matter of life or death for Iraq, which depends on the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. However, as Azzam Alwash shows, short-termism has so far doomed any effort to manage the nation’s dwindling water resources. Oil money has time and again bailed out Iraq’s irresponsible rulers, Ahmed Tabaqchali argues, relieving any pressure on the government to address systemic economic ills. Iraq’s antiquities and cultural heritage also perpetually get short shrift, despite the outsized attention paid to some of the worst depredations, Maysoon al-Damluji argues.
The international community has proven surprisingly rigid, over time amassing a reform record as inept as that of Iraq’s leaders, preferring the status quo at every critical juncture. Many international officials who were supposed to lead reform efforts remained mired, decades after the fact, in a war mentality and economy, Mara Revkin argues. They saddled themselves with unnecessary restrictions and failed to notice the periods when areas of Iraq were safe and conditions on the ground conducive to development. A majority remained stuck in Baghdad’s Green Zone, unable to meet with the society they were seeking to help. This isolation has contributed to a situation in which billions of dollars have been spent with little to show for the investment. Until recently, the wealthy and powerful governments in the Gulf have reflexively clung to the status quo, minimally engaging with Iraq at all. Only in the last few years have Arab monarchies in the Gulf begun to consider Iraq as a potential regional partner, Kawa Hassan argues.
Finally, retired Iraqi national security official Safa al-Sheikh Hussein pointedly demonstrates that Iraqis and Americans feared the creation of functional and strong Iraqi security institutions, believing that a powerful military could lead to a return to dictatorship. This fear doomed efforts to create viable Iraqi armed forces, and in turn spawned the cycles of insecurity that have hampered Iraq’s progress on every other issue.
The security and counterterrorism community still draw on Iraq as a paradigmatic case, citing the rise of Al-Qaeda and then ISIS as symptoms of a weak state. Other analysts and officials point to the growing influence of Iran and the proliferation of Iraqi militias, without understanding the central role of the US and its Iraqi allies in unravelling Iraq’s ability to govern itself and provide security. Anyone interested in state-building and post-conflict governance needs to take fresh stock of the bitter lessons of the failures in Iraq. Authoritative eyewitness accounts at times make the case even more powerfully than academic analysis, although both lead to the same conclusion.
Bad decisions by the US and returning Iraqi exiles consigned Iraq to undemocratic instability. The invasion, occupation and subsequent international engagement never prioritized the rights of Iraqis. Instead, they guaranteed a fragmented ‘order of the strongest’ in which most Iraqis did not enjoy basic rights or due process.
The missteps that followed mostly compounded the initial errors. Forced regime change by outsiders is unlikely to produce good governance or a coherent state. Iraq’s plight stems from long-term state failure, pre-dating 2003 but exacerbated by the invasion and its aftermath. This series makes the case that policy decisions made conditions in Iraq worse – and wiser decisions would have produced decidedly better outcomes.
Overall, despite sometimes honourable intentions, the main decision-makers on Iraq, whether from inside or outside the country, never adopted policies that incorporated the voices of the larger public or created the possibility of security institutions that could protect the country. That is what should have been done. The new Iraqi government and its international backers should have insisted on mechanisms that held to account the new system and its elite. These mechanisms span across the topics covered by the series’ authors, including the judiciary, civil society, the media, economic reformists and more. While the idea of accountability was nominally enshrined in the constitution, the Iraqi government never upheld the principle of accountability in practice, usually prioritizing short-term political benefits. International actors, heeding political pressure from their home capitals and players in Baghdad, backed individual leaders and invested in personalities rather than in institutions, when the latter would have stood a better chance at changing governance. A more sustainable state-building project in Iraq would have required the political courage to shoulder short-term costs in exchange for long-term gains.
Moving forward, those who still work in these areas in Iraq need to heed this advice, as documented by the authors of this collection.