Mideast “Experts” Got Iraq Wrong

By August 4, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 88

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Almost all the doom and gloom scenarios for Iraq predicted by the so-called Mideast experts have failed to materialize. The Iraqis already have accomplished that which was almost universally thought to be impossible: a consensual federal constitution and government, against which there is no popular opposition; the country has not splintered into separatist movements; and there is no civil war between Sunni and Shiites, and the Shiites are ruling reasonably responsibly – if not well – and siding against radical Islam. The experts will still be wrong even if the predicted failures eventually come true, since it is now clear that decent Iraqi government had a good chance of succeeding. If it fails at this late date one of the important causes of failure will be various effects of the erroneous cynicism of the “expert” consensus, which is still singing the same old song about Iraq’s future.

Before the attack against the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in March 2003 there was a large degree of consensus among Middle East experts about what could happen in Iraq if Saddam were removed. This near consensus was shared by academics, diplomats, and most of those with experience in the Arab world, including both those who had been sympathetic to Muslim enemies of the West and those who were firmly opposed to “Islamism.” It included opponents of George Bush and also many of those (few) who were Bush supporters. However the consensus was not shared by a small group of experts, the most senior of which was Bernard Lewis.

While of course the experts differed on many nuances and matters of degree and approach, it is fair to say that virtually all of them shared at least most of the following views.

First of all, they correctly reported, Iraq did not have a long history as a nation. It was formed less than 100 years ago when its previous ruler the Ottoman Empire was defeated and went out of business. Therefore, the experts said, Iraqis don’t identify with Iraq and don’t see themselves as Iraqis; they see themselves as Muslims, Arabs (or Kurds), as members of their tribe – Dulaimi, or whatever – in some cases as Baghdadis or Baswadis. Therefore, said the consensus, they would not be Iraqi patriots determined to build Iraq and keep it together.

Secondly they emphasized Iraq’s bloody and uncompromising history, and asserted that Iraqi society had virtually no capacity to become a democracy or to sustain consensual government. Everyone agreed that the only form of government that could survive in Iraq was what was politely described as a “strong man,” by which most experts meant a military dictator.

Furthermore all agreed that democracy held little appeal for Iraqis. After all, they were Muslims and (mostly) Arabs, part of a culture with different values and little if any experience with democracy or democratic values. They did not think in terms of making Iraq into a democracy and didn’t assume that legitimacy depended on elections, or that civil liberties were a high priority.

The consensus had three additional reasons why consensual government in Iraq would not be a possible outcome of Saddam’s removal. One was that the Shiites would insist on revenging themselves against the Sunnis for the cruelties they had suffered during Saddam’s rule. Second, the Sunnis would never accept Shia rule because Sunnis had controlled Iraq for generations, felt that they had a right to rule, and saw Shiites as an inferior population. And finally, the Kurds wanted to be independent and could only be kept as part of Iraq by force.

The experts were confident that unless Iraq were tightly controlled, the animosity between Sunni and Shiia would probably – or inevitably – produce a civil war between these two groups. No one in this sophisticated group thought that Sunni and Shia Iraqis could find a way to join together in a free Iraqi national government.

There were different views about the likely outcome of the Sunni-Shia conflict, but it was generally agreed that if the Shiites ended on top they would be dominated by Iran, and thus Iraq would be a pawn in the hands of the revolutionary government of Iran. It was also widely assumed that a Shiite government of Iraq would inevitably be against the US and on the side of Islamic radicals, and would impose Shiite religiosity on the Iraqi people.

Most sophisticates warned that a government installed by the US (and other foreigners) or associated with the US invading forces would never be accepted by the Iraqis and would inevitably be defeated because of its inherent unpopularity. Many thought that the US war in Iraq was unwinnable – not because of poor US tactics, but because of the inherent futility of trying to impose an alien government on the Iraqi population.

Finally, the sophisticated consensus generally rejected – or was at least extremely skeptical of — the claims of the external Iraqi opposition movement to be representative of the great mass of Iraqis who had stayed in the country. The umbrella organization known as the Iraqi National Congress was seen as the typical exile group, composed of squabbling politicians representing not much more than their own ambitions, and without standing to provide even interim leadership for Iraqis.

At the beginning of 2003 this set of judgments about Iraqi potential was not unreasonable. Certainly if these predictions had been made as possibilities or dangers rather than as inevitabilities no one could say they shouldn’t have been take seriously.

Furthermore it is quite possible that these dire expectations may yet come true. There may be a civil war between Sunni and Shia. The constitutional, federal regime now governing Iraq may fall apart with Iraq breaking apart or unable to govern itself, and eventually ending in the hands of a military dictator. And if the US signals that it wants to withdraw from an active role in regional affairs, and Iran becomes a nuclear power, it is still possible that a critical share of Iraqi Shiite leaders might yet decide that their safety requires that they become pawns of Iran.

But even if one of these long-predicted outcomes comes to pass the expert consensus will have been wrong. The Iraqis have already proven that they were sharply different than the cynical experts thought, and they have already accomplished that which was almost universally thought to be impossible. The Iraqis have created a consensual federal constitution and government that has been ruling Iraq for some four years. While no one is happy about the current government, essentially all of Iraqi political life is conducted within this structure. There has been no major political movement to reject the current regime and start something different.

There has been general freedom of the press and freedom of political organization since 2003. There have been several free elections with honest counts, and Iraqis have voted proudly and enthusiastically – in many cases risking their lives to be able to vote. Iraqis seem to regard elections and democracy as desirable for Iraq, not as foreign impositions alien to their character. But they have not yet had time to demonstrate that they will be able to maintain the understanding and commitment to democratic ways that is likely to be necessary to enable democracy to be sustained. (And now Iranians too are demonstrating that they care about the reality of elections – perhaps at least somewhat influenced by the example of Iraqi elections next door.)

All mainstream political movements and political leaders have favored holding Iraq together – working to craft the compromises necessary for national unity rather than starting separatist movements. (An exception is the young Kurdish radical oppositionists who favor an independent Kurdish state.)

The Shiite parties running the government have not systematically oppressed or mistreated the Sunni community, or taken improper revenge for Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Shiites. Nor have they tried to install a system of forced religion on the population. Nor have they been pawns of the Iranian regime.

There is no civil war between Sunni and Shiites. The country was on the way to such a war in 2006 (and some say it had begun), but it was not because such a war was the inevitable result of the animosities or conflicts between the groups; it was because of large outside efforts to ignite such a war by massive murders.

While there is great antagonism to the US among Iraqis, many of whom celebrated the US troop withdrawal from Iraqi cities on June 30, 2009, hatred of the US did not prevent Iraqis from supporting the Iraqi government that was created during the occupation with US help and endorsement. There are also less demonstrable signs of extensive pro-US feelings among Iraqis – alongside a fierce determination to be independent. And there is no sign that the Iraqi government will side with Islamists against the US. Certainly it will be much more on the side of the US than the regime of Saddam Hussein was.

Finally, after 6 years of free Iraqi politics, most of the organizations and individuals who were the leaders of the Iraqi National Congress exile movement are primary figures in the elected government of Iraq. The “exiles” or “outsiders” turned out to have been quite acceptable to the Iraqis who stayed in Iraq. And looking back, the exile movement organized in the Iraqi National Congress now looks reasonably representative of the Iraqi political world.

Perhaps some will argue that Iraqis have done so much better than the experts thought possible only because of the wise guidance and strong control provided by the US and other foreign forces, and that all Iraqi accomplishments will fall apart soon after the US leaves. We shall see. The US certainly provided important help to the Iraqi government. The expectation that the US would protect Iraqis from anarchy or foreign domination may have been an important reason why Iraqis had the confidence to build their country.

On the other hand most of those familiar with the specific ways in which US policy affected Iraqi politics believe that US efforts to guide the Iraqis often increased the difficulty for Iraqis to settle their differences and move toward democratic compromise. Partly this is because the US does not understand Iraqi politics well. Partly it is because part of the US contingent in Baghdad, especially CIA personnel, for a long time thought that the US needed to make it possible for a strong man acceptable to the Sunnis to gain control of the Iraqi government, and worked to achieve that goal. Partly it is because for a long time the US thought that the obstacle to Iraqi unity was Sunni reluctance to accept Shiite rule and that therefore the Sunnis had to be courted or paid off. And many other missteps. Thus, Iraqi internal political success most be credited mostly to the Iraqis.

In general, then, almost everything the experts said about what would or could happen in Iraq has turned out to be wrong. And they will still be wrong even if the predicted failures eventually come true. Since it is now clear that decent Iraqi government had a chance of succeeding, if it fails at this late date one of the important causes of failure will be various effects of the erroneous cynicism of the expert consensus.

Now these same experts are almost all explaining why we should not expect the current Iraqi government to survive for long – mostly using the same arguments they made in 2002. They may be right. But perhaps we shouldn’t pay too much attention to these experts until they explain why what happened since 2003 has been so different from what they expected.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Dr. Max Singer
Dr. Max Singer

Dr. Max Singer, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a founder of the Hudson Institute. He specializes in US defense policy, US-Israel relations, and long-term strategic planning. Email: [email protected]