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Don’t Hold Your Breath

by Colonel Norvell B. DeAtkine, U.S. Army (retired)

In the congressional and public debate over the “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq, reconciliation, defined as achieving some eighteen benchmarks, quickly became the measure of progress. As the surge reduced the level of violence, politicians, the news media, and the public became impatient with an Iraqi government slow to approve legislation presumably essential to the reconciliation that would permit rapid withdrawal of American ground forces. In light of Iraq’s tortured history, Colonel DeAtkine describes such thinking and the resulting expectations as “unrealistic.” – JLA, Contributing Editor

The word “reconciliation” has become a synonym for success in Iraq. It was enshrined as the centerpiece of the 18 benchmarks imposed on the Iraqi government by domestic American political pressures, presumably to have some measure of success or failure in an unpopular conflict.

The concept as enunciated in the troop surge was that the calming of Baghdad would give the Iraqi politicians time to work out the differences between the various sectarian demands. The press and popular opinion picked up on this, and as the statistics began to illuminate a downward trend in violence, the issue of reconciliation became the burning issue. Unfortunately, it was never a realistic requirement and was oblivious not only to the realities of 2007 Iraq but also its tortured history.

These benchmarks spawned numbers of studies, reports, and political commentary that often quoted and replicated each other. The harmonic effects they produced reinforced the conventional wisdom that it was simply a failure on the part of the Iraqi government, and specifically its Shia base, represented by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to get the political process moving.

For some, a U.S. removal, presumably by force, with replacement by someone like Iyad Allawi, a Shia who has been openly campaigning for the job, would solve the problem. Allawi, one-time enforcer for Saddam Hussein, would somehow bridge the sectarian gap. Those openly contemplating this apparently had forgotten that al-Maliki was democratically elected and that our Vietnam experience was disastrous after the forceful removal of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Allawi may be the choice of some U.S. pundits but not the Iraqis. His precipitous flight to the UK after his tenure as interim prime minister tarnished his reputation as a tough leader. Moreover his campaign to rehabilitate former Baathis, combined with his past affiliation, and more recently his open declaration that he was talking to Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri — one of the last at-large members of the Saddamist coterie — enraged the Shia community.

Treading the Thin, High Tightrope
Perhaps more important, al-Maliki has consistently been personally and professionally underestimated. In my experience a pronounced and understandable tendency among Americans is to think of an Arab leader who speaks English well as someone more amenable to Western thought and practices. Al-Maliki, who speaks very little English, also presents a rather dour appearance that does not appeal to Westerners. Moreover, the view of al-Maliki and the Shia government is influenced by an Arab Sunni-centrism deeply embedded within our academic and U.S. government organizations. While Pan-Arabism has proved to be a chimera, the nostalgia for the Nasser era remains strong among many who write about or analyze the Middle East. A critical element of this Pan-Arabism is that it has always been identified among the Shia as an exclusionary Sunni Arab movement.

Prime Minister al-Maliki and President Bush

Despite a number of calculated walkouts by various factions within the Iraqi government, al-Maliki has shown considerable skill in treading a delicate middle line. The very fact that almost all the political factions in Iraq, including his own Dawa Party, have been offended by some of his moves underlines the fact that he is not a captive of any faction nor of the Coalition. While he has allowed Americans and the Iraqi security forces to go after leaders of Moqtada al-Sadr’s organization, to the dismay of many in the Shia community, he has also stoutly resisted pressure to bring back higher level Baathis into the government. To do so would immediately raise red flags throughout the Shia community, which has a pervasive fear of a return of the Baathis to power.

The critics of al-Maliki also overestimate the power he has to bring about this reconciliation, both constitutionally and in the domain of public opinion. He cannot hire or fire any member of the cabinet without parliamentary approval, and as commander in chief of the army he is severely limited by the realities of having to work with the Coalition. He once complained that he could not move a platoon without American approval. In the public domain, there is no way he can personally make the Shia and Kurds erase from their memories the decades of Sunni tyranny and oppression.

In the Reconstruction Context
I was thinking of this desire for reconciliation and the situation in Iraq in terms of our own history after the War Between the States, as we Southerners like to call the Civil War. Where I live in coastal North Carolina, I see Confederate flags flying from homes, some with an American flag, some without, and many Confederate stickers on bumpers. About a mile from my home is a car repair shop, which in front features a mock gallows. On the gallows are two figures, one in grey standing on the platform and another in blue dangling from a rope. As chairman of a political party a few years ago, I became aware there were still people who refused to attend Lincoln Day dinners.

Even in our fast-moving society, history and legacies die hard.

I am of a vanishing generation. I went to segregated schools and read history books that scorned the competence and honesty of blacks who had briefly taken over power in the South after the Civil War. I remember living in Alabama at the end of World War II and watching the masked men of the KKK, on horseback with torch lights, riding through the streets of Anniston. While the Confederate flag is considered a proud part of a rich history to many white southerners, African Americans violently object to the sight of it flying over a state capitol, just as the Kurds view the tattered Iraqi flag of Saddam’s Iraq flying over government offices as a similar symbol of oppression. One remarked to me that the sight of the Iraqi flag gave him a sense of humiliation.

Mississippi state flag

It is now more than 140 years since the Civil War ended. Yet we Americans expect that Iraqis who have had a much more traumatic and violent history than our own will in the space of a few months embrace enemies and forget decades, perhaps centuries, of history.

The Shia are the metaphorical Reconstruction African Americans of Iraq, who without ever having power in their hands are expected to produce pristine, competent government, and feel secure enough to bring back into their political systems their recent overlords and oppressors. Like the blacks of the era of U.S. Reconstruction, they are ridiculed for their incompetence and corruption. On the other hand, many in the Sunni Arab leadership have the same attitude as those parading through the streets of Anniston so many years ago. They cannot let go. Their struggle is not about equitable revenue sharing. It is as Ali A. Allawi, a long-time Baathist opposition leader, wrote in his book, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (Yale University Press, 2007), correctly called existential. To them it is the end of their dominance, the Pan-Arab dream, the leadership of Iraq in the Arab world.

Appreciate the Situation

Much is rightly made of the fact that Iraq was basically a colonial creation, a pulling together of three disparate provinces and putting them under a king who was not from Mesopotamia. But more important is the fact that for the majority, their identity had always been Muslim within an Islamic empire. Not only was the state a European creation but the whole idea of nationalism as well.

As important as the ethnic conflict, the dysfunctionality of the society has been a much greater problem. The famous Iraqi sociologist and historian Ali Al-Wardi called Iraqi society schizophrenic. He saw it as the product of a clash between riverine-settled peoples and nomadic tribesman, both with very different cultures and values yielding a society passive in subjugation but tyrannical in authority, fragmented, without civic consciousness, and susceptible to flamboyant oratory and conspiracy theories.

These characteristics were exacerbated by the Baathists of Saddam Hussein. It was not just another Arab authoritarian regime. It was a totalitarian rule that controlled not only the political system but also the social and cultural life of the Iraqi society. It sought to supplant the three great institutions of Arab life — family, tribe, and Islam. Traditional family and tribal life were deliberately attacked by a system that sought to replace, or at least tailor them to a Baathi ideology and the personality cult of Saddam Hussein. Communities and tribes were moved from centuries-old homelands to lessen their threat to the regime, or in some cases to bolster regime security in certain strategic areas.

Saddam Hussein in 2003

Untold thousands of children had lost fathers in the earlier Communist-Baath conflict, the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq War, and the two wars with the Western Coalition. Without family ties or parental authority, masses of young men were rootless and susceptible to the anarchy that followed the initial occupation of Baghdad. The third great Arab institution, Islam, became state-controlled, and the Shia subject to severe intimidation.

In short there were few institutions on which to build when the United States occupied Iraq, with the result being an Iraq that has to be rebuilt from ground level.

Rather than be continually castigated by an unfriendly media and often Western diplomats as well, the Iraqis should be encouraged and given the praise they deserve for doing as well as they have. The suffering ordinary Iraqis have endured is not appreciated nor understood by an American public, who then reach for simplistic answers such as Islam and/or Arab culture is incompatible with democracy. Democracy is always a fragile political system, and placing such unrealistic demands as benchmarks are a detriment, not a facilitator, to a political system that could be an inspiration to the rest of the Middle East.End.

“Reprinted from PROCEEDINGS with permission; Copyright (c) 2008 U.S. Naval Institute/”


Norvell B. Deatkine
Norvell B. Deatkine

Colonel DeAtkine is a former U.S. Army Middle East specialist and graduate of the American University of Beirut. He was director of Middle East Studies at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and school for 18 years. He is a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy.


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