Heirs of Sargon

Robert D. Kaplan
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
Center for the National Interest
IRAQ HAS never been left alone. The late British travel writer and Arabist Freya Stark writes: "While Egypt lies parallel and peaceful to the routes of human traffic, Iraq is from earliest times a frontier province, right-angled and obnoxious to the predestined paths of man."1 For Mesopotamia cut across one of history's bloodiest migration routes. It was the subject of foreign invasions and the by-product of ethnic conflicts.
Political Geography
Iraq, Egypt
Adeed Dawisha, Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 408 pp., $29.95. IRAQ HAS never been left alone. The late British travel writer and Arabist Freya Stark writes: "While Egypt lies parallel and peaceful to the routes of human traffic, Iraq is from earliest times a frontier province, right-angled and obnoxious to the predestined paths of man."1 For Mesopotamia cut across one of history's bloodiest migration routes. It was the subject of foreign invasions and the by-product of ethnic conflicts. Whether Iraq is being attacked from the Syrian Desert in the west or the plateau of Elam in Iran to the east, this is a country constant victim to occupation. From as early as the third millennium BC, the ancient peoples of the Near East fought over control of Mesopotamia. From the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes who ruled Babylon, to the Mongol hordes that later swept down to overrun the land, to the long-running Ottoman rule that ended with the First World War, Iraq's is a tragic history. Increasing the bloodshed, Mesopotamia has rarely been a demographically cohesive country. The Tigris and Euphrates that run through Iraq have long constituted a frontier zone where various groups, often the residue of these foreign invasions, clashed and overlapped. As the French orientalist Georges Roux painstakingly documents in Ancient Iraq (1964), since antiquity, north, south and center have always been in pitched battle. Rulers of the first city-states, the southern Sumerians fought the central-Mesopotamian Akkadians. They both fought the north-inhabiting Assyrians. The Assyrians, in turn, fought the Babylonians. And this was to say nothing of the many pockets of Persians who lived amid the native Mesopotamians, forming another source of strife. Not since its earliest existence has Iraq been free of violence. And it has always taken totalitarian rule to control the people. For though totalitarianism may be a product of the twentieth century, megalomania and its attendant personality cult first broke ground in the mud swamps of Mesopotamia. Only the most suffocating of tyrannies could stave off the utter disintegration to which this frontier region was and remains prone. As Adeed Dawisha notes in Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation, "The fragility of the social order was structural to the land of Mesopotamia. . . ." And this fragile order, which pitted group against group in a densely populated river valley with no protective boundaries, led ultimately and seemingly inexorably to a twentieth-century tyranny straight out of antiquity: a tyranny which, the moment it was toppled, led to several years of bloodcurdling anarchy with atrocities that had an ancient aura. That is why, with Saddam Hussein, one came face-to-face with the living past. Here is the late-seventh-century-BC Assyrian ruler Sennacherib describing his deeds against Babylon: "I devastated, I destroyed, by fire I overthrew."2 Here is Saddam in 1990, prior to the first Gulf War: "I will consume half of Israel by fire . . . the earth will burn beneath [the Americans'] feet . . . no military leader can become master of the world unless he controls Babylon." AND CONTROLLING Babylon is no easy task. Through the Ottoman occupation to the twenty-first century, Iraq remained a vague geographical expression-a loose assemblage of tribes, sects and ethnicities-much more than a clearly defined state. When the British tried to "sculpt" a polity between the Tigris and Euphrates after the fall of the Ottoman Empire (and the beginning of Iraq's existence as an independent state), they created a witches' brew of Kurdish separatism, Shia tribalism and Sunni assertiveness. To connect the oil fields of Kurdistan with a port on the Persian Gulf-as part of a land-and-sea strategy to defend their then-colony India-they joined the three ex-Ottoman vilayets, or provinces, of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, bringing together explosive ethnic and sectarian forces that would be nearly impossible to assuage by normal means. Dawisha notes that "there was almost no political constituency in Iraq that cared at all about Kurdish political or cultural rights," providing the Kurds with a very real sense of separateness that has never been diluted. The Shia of southern Mesopotamia had connections with next-door Iran that were in some ways more extensive than those with Baghdad. In return, the Sunnis came to distrust their Shia neighbors as much as they once did their Ottoman occupiers. And doesn't this sound familiar to a contemporary American: the British during the mandate period from 1920 to 1932 worried that the withdrawal of their forces "would hasten the demise of the Iraqi state." This was at a time when there were one hundred thousand rifles at-large, even as the state authorities possessed only fifteen thousand. The early years of Iraqi self-rule were a time of rebellions and hard-to-reach treaties. In the period between the summers of 1935 and 1936 there were seven tribal insurrections. Order of a sort returned not because of democracy but because of the rise of a new Iraqi army and air force, which, among other strong measures, thought nothing of bombing Shia villages. In this turbulent period, only a thin strata of the elite thought in terms of a nation-state or about politics in general. The mass of Iraqis kept their heads down as they struggled for survival. A saying at the time was, "Kiss the hand that you cannot sever," which might have been uttered twenty-seven centuries earlier in the days of Sennacherib; or several decades hence during the rule of Saddam. Iraqi history, it would seem, is a severe case of geographical determinism, a dark unending tunnel of misrule with no exit-anarchy masquerading as tyranny. THE RISE of Arab nationalism following World War II led to further divisions. Officers and politicians were pitted against each other: those who saw Iraq's problematic identity as best subsumed beneath the rubric of a single Arab nation versus those who strove against heavy odds for a united Iraq that would quell its own sectarian passions. In any case, four decades of fractious, unstable and feeble democracy, interspersed with revolts and semiauthoritarianism in the name of the royal palace, came to an abrupt end on July 14, 1958, when a military coup toppled Iraq's pro-Western government. King Faisal II, who had ruled for the last nineteen years, and his family were lined up against a wall and shot. The prime minister, Nuri al-Said, was shot then buried; later his corpse was disinterred, then burnt and mutilated by a mob. This was not a random act but one indicative of the wanton and perverse violence that has often characterized Iraqi life. The new ruler was Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim, with whom, as Dawisha relates, power was "concentrated at the center in a way not known before." Iraq had known the totalitarianism of its past and the mild authoritarian streaks of Faisal and al-Said. But Qasim's rule was of a different order. Suddenly everything revolved around the leader; politics as normally practiced was snuffed out. Qasim sought absolute fealty. On one occasion, after an officer had sworn his loyalty to him, Qasim barked back: "Why then did I not receive a telegram from you on the anniversary of my miraculous escape from the bullets of the traitors?" The author observes: "That Qasim would monitor the thousands of telegrams that were sent to him and pinpoint the delinquents speaks volumes about the personalization of political power in Iraq after 1959." Things couldn't get worse, except that they did. Coups ensued. Qasim was executed in a February 1963 takeover; a second followed that November. When, on the morning of July 17, 1968, Iraqis awoke to martial music and a military communiqué, there was little surprise, as this was the seventh such announcement of a coup over the last decade; four of them succeeded. But this time it was different. It brought to power the Baathist Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, whose principal henchman was the thirty-one-year-old Saddam Hussein-ambitious, organizationally gifted and sadistically brutal even by Iraq's grisly standards. Dawisha has only the worst of superlatives for Saddam's tyrannical regime, which was made official in 1979 when al-Bakr stepped aside. Saddam's was a regime that ruled "without rules," that held "an entire population hostage to the will and whim of the President," that "translated" physical cruelty "into a breathtaking expansion of the institutions of coercion." People would suffer "unspeakable atrocities" for the "slightest divergence" that could in no way be characterized as dissent. Though Dawisha doesn't include this in his book, it is telling that when Saddam-loyalist Taha Yassin Ramadan became minister of industry in 1972, he told his new subordinates: "I don't know anything about industry. All I know is that anyone who doesn't work hard will be executed." And thus Saddam-like a nightmare straight out of Mesopotamian antiquity-would pulverize any vestige of civil society, destroying all civic and professional organizations as well as other intermediary groups that make for stable human organization. The only loyalties to survive in any form under him were those of family, ethnicity, sect and tribe-a social landscape of anarchy lurking under the carapace of his "procrustean totalitarianism." SO IT would seem that the Iraq War was a doomed enterprise: doomed by geography and the cultural, ethnic and tribal realities which determined Iraq's path from Sennacherib to Saddam. But the problems are not insurmountable. And, in fact, there is another history of twentieth-century Iraq which Dawisha, the careful chronicler, also gives us in the interstices of this generally depressing story. As he writes: Historical recollection is neither linear nor cumulative. . . . So while undoubtedly much of Iraq's history was authoritarian, there also were rays of democratic hope that those in charge of the new Iraqi project could hold on to in their effort to build democratic structures. To wit, the monarchical years between 1921 and 1958 saw many sustained periods of parliamentary accomplishments, principally in the way that legislators and ministers debated with each other in language that was intense yet couched in pragmatism. These four decades of semidemocracy and semistability are nothing to dismiss lightly. This is particularly true of the period from 1945 to 1954, when King Faisal II ruled and the prime ministers under him tempered their authoritarian impulses, accepting dissent as not necessarily indicating treason or sedition. In particular, the figure who looms above the others during Iraq's thirty-seven-year-long experiment with democracy is Nuri al-Said, who, while too crafty and domineering for his own good, was little worse than many of the leaders of fledgling democracies across the globe in our own time. Nuri, it could be argued, stands today as the least noxious (and yet effective) Iraqi ruler of the twentieth century. Under his tutelage, Iraq had many decades of feisty democracy and freewheeling press. As Dawisha says, "One is hard put to find . . . the kind of feral viciousness that was the hallmark of the Saddamist order." Indeed, this was a long period that saw the development of a professional middle class with a national consciousness encouraged by, among other factors, opposition to British guardianship and influence. Neither was the period of military emergency rule beginning in 1958 all bad all the time. Qasim did away with many slums and, in addition to building houses for the poor, gave them access to education. The status of women was dramatically enhanced: polygamy and underage marriage were prohibited. Women were accorded equal rights in matters of inheritance and in court testimony. Saddam, in the 1970s, presided over the dramatic expansion of this middle class through his promotion of private enterprise. But, of course, he threw such oil-driven prosperity away with his decision to invade Iran in 1980. His penchant for wars and invasions-of Iran and later Kuwait-harked back to his own long-standing crisis of legitimacy; he evidently felt that he could only remain in power under conditions of both extreme cruelty and wartime emergency. Saddam was history's and geography's nemesis: combining all the bleaker attributes of Iraq's age-old story and situation into the personality of one man. IRAQ AND its history were never abstractions for me. I experienced them intimately during visits in the 1980s, the worst years of Saddam's tyranny. I had my passport confiscated by his security services for ten days while I visited pro-Saddam Kurds in the north. The country was like a suffocating prison yard lit by high-wattage lamps. The only comparison I could find from my own experience was with Nicolae CeauÅŸescu's Romania. Going to Hafez al-Assad's Syria after Saddam's Iraq was, as I've said and written before, like coming up for liberal-humanist air. I believed the stories about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction not only because experts from around the world believed them, but also because I could only believe the worst about Saddam. I also believed that Iraq, despite its overall history and geography, was salvageable. Yet the greater the gamble, the more meticulous must be the planning for it, and so I and others argued for an invasion by an American administration that proved negligent in its planning. But that doesn't make us innocent. You can play the counterfactual game all you want-if only we had actually planned for an occupation, if only President George W. Bush had replaced General George Casey with General David Petraeus earlier-but at the end of the day you are still stuck with over four thousand Americans dead as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, a fate worse than even continued rule by Saddam.3 Indeed, the carnage that resulted from the invasion was a case of supreme geographical and historical blowback, to which Dawisha again supplies the gory details. And yet we should not give up on Iraq, for Dawisha doesn't. He never loses his calm or objectivity. Despite his often-gruesome account, he gives the many reasonable arguments for the 2003 invasion in neutral, noncondemnatory terms, and goes on to cite the dramatic improvements in security as a result of President Bush's significant change in personnel and strategy known as the "surge." In June 2007, as Dawisha reminds us, there were 1,646 civilian casualties and 101 American combat deaths; six months later the numbers had dropped to 481 and 23, respectively. So there is hope. Little in human affairs is predetermined, not even the fate of the invasion, much as we have to own up to its consequences. For the moment, as Dawisha suggests, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's circumstances are similar to King Faisal I's in the 1920s and 1930s. Just as Faisal would publicly take issue with some British policy or action in order to assert his independence, and then be forced to bow to reality, Maliki has operated similarly vis-à-vis the Americans. It seems he is always bickering with us, whether over the integration of Sunni fighters into the armed forces, the status-of-forces agreement, the legal status of private contractors and so on. Indeed, for Maliki to stay in power he has to be seen to be constantly in opposition to us. For such are the wages of democracy. The Americans are leaving as the British once did. They did so, in 1932, hoping and tenuously believing in a stable and democratic Iraq, which they continued to nurture with close ties and advisers; we, following an invasion and occupation that greatly tempered the nation's internationalism and blew a mile-wide hole in the Republican Party. In fact, if Iraqi democracy takes root even to the limited degree that it did between the 1930s and 1950s, it will ironically be declared a success. For four decades in the twentieth century, Iraq made an "uneven march" toward democracy and away from primordial loyalties. Parliamentary government would endure "extended period[s] of harassment" and then suddenly be allowed to function, only to be harassed again. Tyrants like Qasim and Saddam were the eventual result. But Qasim and Saddam did not have to happen, and now-in much different historical circumstances than in the 1950s and 1960s-neither do their equivalents have to happen again. The more drawn-out and deliberative our withdrawal, the higher the degree to which we can quietly embed military and civilian advisers in Iraqi ministries, and the more that we can improve bilateral relations with Iraq's neighbors Syria and Iran, the better the chance Iraq will have. Maybe this time Iraq will finally escape the vicious cycle of its past. Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.