Explaining Iraq's Agony

Iraqi's protest against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Kirkuk, February 2013. Source: MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images). Iraqi's protest against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Kirkuk, February 2013. Source: MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images).

Iraqi's protest against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Kirkuk, February 2013. Source: MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images).

[inset_left]Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism

Toby Dodge

London, Routledge/IISS, 2012


Few scholars have had a better view of the catastrophic car crash that is modern Iraq than the British academic Toby Dodge. Originally one of a small group of experts called in to brief British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the eve of the 2003 invasion, he would subsequently act as an occasional advisor to General David Petraeus, during his tenure as the commander of US forces in the country. This is to say nothing of his expertise on Iraq, built up over his career as a scholar of Middle East and many visits to the country both before and after the invasion.

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Speaking to London’s Independent newspaper, he described the strange experience of his meeting with Tony Blair in the prime minister’s official London residence in Downing Street. Beforehand, the small group of scholars agreed that they would not discuss the ethical implications of invading another sovereign state, but instead focus on the potential consequences of such a plan. Dodge recalled what the group did intend to convey: "Our basic message was that if you choose to invade, it will be much, much more difficult than you may have been led to believe," he said. "I thought an invasion was a really bad idea." The group also wanted to puncture the myth that the coalition troops would be greeted as liberators: "Much of the rhetoric from Washington appeared to depict Saddam's regime as something separate from Iraqi society…All you had to do was remove him and the 60 bad men around him. What we wanted to get across was that over 35 years the regime had embedded itself into Iraqi society, broken it down and totally transformed it. We would be going into a vacuum, where there were no allies to be found, except possibly for the Kurds."

Now, years later, Dodge’s latest book examines the consequences of this vacuum on Iraq’s people and political system. It benefits greatly from his familiarity with both Iraqi society and politics and the efforts of the American military and government to put them back together after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. In general, his prose is lucid and accessible, and technical vocabulary is kept to a minimum, though it makes for bleak reading for anyone worried about the future of Iraq. The picture that Dodge paints is a somber one, with political power in Iraq once again being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. In particular, Dodge argues that Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has defied early expectations of him as an ineffectual Da'wa Party hack by outflanking his rivals for power, sidelining Iraq’s parliament, and taking personal control of Iraq’s army and paramilitary police units in the years after his selection in 2006. The case Dodge makes is a convincing one: the description of Maliki’s tactics is bound to inspire a case of déjà vu amongst those familiar with the careers of other authoritarian leaders—and not just those in the Arab world.

Dodge’s account of the reconstitution of the Iraqi polity after the invasion, which sets the scene for Maliki’s rise to power, is both detailed and concise. He argues that the destruction of the Iraqi state by war, years of sanctions, and the invasion left room for a small circle of figures from political parties dominated by exiles to take control of Iraq and impose a ‘victor’s peace’ on the country. The ‘victor’s peace’ was violently contested, argues Dodge, because it was founded on the exclusion of “key indigenous political elites from any role in government,” namely Iraq’s Sunnis. This arrangement was midwifed by the United States, whose government was eager to rid itself of the problem of ruling Iraq.

Dodge therefore describes the civil war that gripped Iraq after the American invasion as primarily a clash between those with political power and those without, with both sides using religious imagery to justify their cause and mobilize their supporters. Each claimed to defend their community from the other, as, in his words, “local and national elites, marginalized by the exclusive elite bargain put in place at the end of the war, deployed violence in an attempt either to demand a place at the governing table, or to overthrow the whole settlement.” In particular, Dodge recounts how the Iraqi government used police units as sectarian death squads against Baghdad’s Sunni population, while simultaneously denying them essential services in order to drive them out of the city.

The account of the attempts to resolve these terrible problems is equally bleak. The shift in American military strategy towards counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and the famous “surge” of US troop numbers did play some role in the new Iraq government’s success in resisting the insurgency, according to Dodge. Interestingly for students of modern, network-centric warfare, however, he argues that a key development was the expansion of mobile phone ownership to millions of Iraqis, which allowed US special forces to gather a great deal of useful intelligence and eliminate many insurgent leaders by tracking them via their phones. Whatever the role of the US military in reducing the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, Dodge concludes that it ultimately did not resolve the underlying issue: the exclusion of a significant chunk of the population from political power. As for the US-funded Sunni Awakening movement pioneered in Anbar province, Dodge recounts how it was ultimately undermined by Maliki’s Shi'a-dominated government, which used the pay and identity records of the participants gathered by US forces to arrest (and kill) key members of the movement, neutralizing it as a political and military force once it had served its purpose.

One question the book does leave unanswered is what can be done to recast the elite bargain that Dodge argues is deforming the country’s politics. The reader is left with two suspicions as to why he has chosen to avoid this topic. First, Dodge’s description of the way that sectarian fears have been stoked and manipulated by politicians like Maliki to undermine attempts to build cross-sectarian coalitions suggests such attempts are predestined to failure. Second, Dodge has seen firsthand how Iraq has suffered from the attempts of outsiders to re-shape its government and society. In a more optimistic interpretation, the first step to solving any problem is to identify it, and Dodge has done so concisely and skillfully in this book.

Overall, the analysis of Iraqi politics that Dodge offers in this work is a lucid and insightful. It is a useful tool for both researchers and the general reader who wishes to understand the fate of the country after the US invasion and the obstacles to democratizing it further.

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