Most realist pundits have faulted the Bush administration for promoting “nation building” in Iraq as opposed to just securing U.S. interests in Mesopotamia. But some of those who have called on the administration to abandon its Wilsonian scheme still insist that Americans should “stay the course” in Iraq to ensure that it doesn’t fall under the control of another tyrant or degenerate into a civil war.
But these realists need to turn their narrative of the Iraq war on its head. The U.S. invasion of Iraq wasn’t part of a nation-building scheme. Ironically, beginning with the First Gulf War and ending with the ouster of Saddam Hussein, U.S. policies interrupted and eventually ended a process of nation building led by Saddam. Idealist pundits who in recent years have compared nation building to a holy mission to be undertaken by the United States and its league of democracy crusaders, would probably take issue with the notion that the Evil Tyrant of Baghdad was a, well, nation builder. But to suggest that a bloody tyrant like Saddam and his fascist Baath party were engaged in nation building is only to affirm that they were following in the footsteps of some of the most brutal but effective nation builders of the Twentieth Century: Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
In fact, since “Iraq” was nothing more than a geo-political invention of the British imperialists, and the “Iraqi nation” was a fictitious entity, the only way to bring together the mishmash of tribal, ethnic (Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans), and religious (Sunnis, Shiites, Christians) groups and turn them into a viable nation state was through an authoritarian centralizing political power in Baghdad. Previous attempts at holding together the Iraqi state involved applying a variety of phony and authentic identities (Arab, Muslim, Assyrian) to unify these rival groups against real and imagined outside threats (Iranian, Israeli, American).
Through the control of the military and the security services, and by nationalizing the economy, Hussein and his tribal and political cronies were pursuing the Middle Eastern modus operandi of nation building favored by other autocrats such as Kamal Atta Turk and the Shah of Iran.
There are only two realistic choices open to the “Iraqi people” in the post-Saddam era: either restart nation building or take the road towards self-determination along ethno-religious lines (the Kurds, Arab Shiites and Arab Sunnis). It’s difficult to make an argument why either of these two alternatives does or does not reflect American values or squares with U.S. interests.
Americans cannot deny any people the right to decide whether they want to live together or separate. Figuratively speaking, the English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians are still married, but the Czechs and Slovaks got divorced. We can certainly hope that that decision over whether to separate or remain together would be made through peaceful means (e.g. Czechoslovakia) and not war (e.g. Yugoslavia).
But even civil war along the lines of what took place in Yugoslavia shouldn’t confront us with a moral obligation to intervene on behalf of one or more parties in such a conflict in Iraq. Indeed, U.S. experience in the Balkans demonstrated the moral ambiguity involved in taking sides in a civil war.
Forget morality, respond some realists. U.S. interests would be served by maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq since the disintegration of the country into two or three states would lead to intervention by the Turks, the Iranians, and the Syrians, who are opposed to Kurdish independence. Equally important are considerations about how a breakup of Iraq would benefit Iran, and could lead to the emergence of another Shiite state. Indeed, proponents of a long-term occupation often argue that the collapse of Iraq would ignite a general Middle Eastern war.
Such nightmare scenarios assume that U.S. military power in the region can help maintain the balance of power and can forestall these events. But it was an American-led war that ended up threatening the status quo in the region and making such scenarios possible.
The United States should permit the regional players to protect their respective interests and reach accommodations by using a mix of diplomatic influence and military force, on the understanding that the United States retains its authority and ability to protect our security and vital interests. Such an approach would force the Kurds to consider the interests of the Turks, and leaves open the possibility that Iran may or may not emerge as regional hegemon. Realists favoring a long-term military presence in Iraq will then have to explain why core U.S. national interests would be harmed by such developments.