The Myth of a "Free and Democratic" Iraq

Was it wrong to experience a kind of satisfaction—I don’t want to call it perverse but maybe wicked in a good way—when I read that the constitutional delegation appointed by Iraq’s “transitional assembly” had failed to meet the August 15 deadline specified by U.S. occupation authorities? I confess I felt the same gratification I experienced as the days dragged by after January 31 and the elected Iraqi representatives failed to appoint a prime minister, president and cabinet. “Serves ’em right,” I thought. “Those neocon bastards. They figured it’d be so easy to stage this ‘democracy’ farce as cover for their occupation so obviously rejected by the Iraqi people. Instead they find that they’ve opened up a Pandora’s box by their criminal invasion, and they’re not going to close it so easily.”

Finally many weeks later they were able to announce a government. The next big step was the drafting of a constitution, but now that too is off schedule, for what I think are obvious reasons reflecting the accumulated sins of imperialists past and present. The nation of Iraq is an artificial construct the borders of which, embracing a vast Kurdish region but excluding Kuwait (once part of the Ottoman province of Basra, lobbed off by the British after World War I) make little sense. The Iraqi state (like Nigeria, Indonesia, Lebanon and so many ethnically torn modern states) doesn’t correspond to a pre-colonial nation-state but is rather a creation of European colonialism—in this case British imperialism as of 1920. Iraq was led for decades, following quasi-independence in 1932, by iron-fisted rulers who tried to smash autonomy movements in order to preserve those boundaries carved by foreigners. Those rulers were for the most part, from 1958, committed to the construction of a secular Arab state and therefore hostile both to Kurdish nationalism and Shiite religious fundamentalism.

The Baathist Party rooted mostly among secular Sunnis (but enjoying some support from Shiites and Christians) kept the powers of the Muslim clergy under close wraps while promoting greater equality for women, and universal non-religious education. This was all more or less fine with the U.S., as of the 1950s, when according to Roger Morris, a former National Security Council staffer in the 1970s, the CIA chose the Baath Party “as its instrument” in combating both Islamic fundamentalist groups and the Communist Party of Iraq (once the largest in the Arab world). This remained the case in the 1980s, when Washington pursued a policy of encouraging Sunni Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan as an anti-Soviet ideology, while discouraging Shiite fundamentalism as found in Iran following the overthrow of the shah. But it ceased to be the case following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. At that point the U.S. decided to weaken and isolate Saddam’s regime, and as neoconservatives took control of foreign policy under the second Bush administration, they targeted the Baath Party (and a strong secular Iraq in principle) as threats to Israel as much as anything else.

By destroying Saddam Hussein’s administration and the Baath Party, the Bush administration removed the glue holding the Iraqi nation together as a secular state. So while initially planning a long period of direct U.S. rule, the U.S. was forced by the Sunni resistance as well as Shiite mass protests to create an Iraqi administration. It assigned it to compose a constitution. The difficulties and delay in writing that constitution reflect the artificiality of the nation created within the colonizers’ borders, and expose the naiveté and arrogance of the Bush administration in supposing that an Iraq agreeable to all its communities and to itself could be easily established under occupation and outside pressure.

One isn’t supposed to say this, but present chaos and threat of civil war in occupied Iraq, as well as the attacks on the rights of women, Christians and others make the era of iron-fisted Baath rule appear in contrast, at least in some respects, progressive and benign. Under the old regime girls walked to public schools to receive their secular educations, unconcerned about Islamic dress regulations and the threat of attack, abduction, and rape. Owners of liquor stores and video shops operated without having to worry about fundamentalist Muslim gangs enforcing religious law. Churches enjoyed the protection of the state, and Christians saw no need to flee in fear to Syria. Surely Saddam can mutter in his cell, “It’s because I kept the lid on with my harsh rule, based on intimidation, fear and the demonstration of ferocious vengeance on my enemies that Iraq remained stable and secular. Then the Americans, my former allies, for their own imperial purposes, decided to lift the lid, empowering the clerics, pitting communities against one another, and inflicting chaos on my country!”

The failure of the U.S.-approved Iraqi constitutional commission to meet the U.S.-imposed deadline, due to the issues of federalism and the role of Islam, is a setback and embarrassment for the Bush administration. Its illegal war and occupation may yet result in the breakup of Iraq into its Kurdish, Arab Sunni, and Arab Shiite components. I can imagine worse things. I have lived through the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. Why not Iraq too? This is the Iraqis’ business; only they can liberate themselves, or short of that high ideal at least disentangle themselves, as one or several nations, from the imperialist tentacles embracing them. Those tendrils, powerful though they may be, are slipping and sliding and might not stick. If not, fine. If the failure of neocon plans for Iraq prevent the execution of U.S. (and Israeli Likudist) schemes for Iran, Syria and Lebanon, the world in general will be better off. Better, near term, a Shiite Iraqi state aligned with Iran than a unified neocolonial Iraq serving as the base for an attack on Iran. Better a Kurdish Iraqi state encouraging Kurdish separatism throughout the region than a unified Iraqi state complicit in the repression of Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. Better a Sunni Iraqi state at war with its neighbors than a united Iraq at war with its Sunni minority. Better an empire thwarted by those it would rule—whatever the nationalist, religious or political reasons for resistance or merely “unhelpful” behavior—than one that successfully consolidates its conquered turf and moves on to devour more.

The neocons celebrate “creative chaos.” Well, let us do so too, as things fall apart in directions neither they nor anybody else can control. The lid’s off; they opened it. In Ovid’s telling of the Pandora myth, when the woman opens the jar she received from Epimetheus “there escaped a multitude of plagues for hapless man, such as gout, rheumatism, and colic for his body, and envy, spite, and revenge and scattered themselves far and wide.” Well, health care has certainly suffered in “liberated” Iraq, accumulated resentments are everywhere in evidence, and revenge-killings are the bane of trigger-happy U.S. troops. These and other plagues are not going to disappear with the promulgation of a constitution. The optimism of the Bush administration, like the Hope lingering in Pandora’s box, is an illusion. Unleashed evils are out there blowing around in the Mesopotamian sandstorms, jamming the equipment, closing things down, confounding the creators who seem to profoundly despise human beings.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: