Iraq at Crossroads: The Test of State Resilience
“For the King, yes, of course. But which King? … Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they will foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. Do you understand?”
— Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard
The problems of Iraq are multiple, but most of them seem to originate from few deep rooted and long suppressed causes that, once released in 2003, started their uncontrollable tornado-like movement. However, in spite of their scary manifestations, neither the problems nor their effects are inherently deadly — they do not pose an existential threat to the present Iraqi state. There is a real danger though, that if not properly addressed they would keep unfolding and paralysing the state and the society and, as a result, bringing more dysfunctionality, misery and suffering.
The only way out of the current impasse is for the country’s polity, backed by regional and global powers, to negotiate and enforce a set of political arrangements that reflect both the historic tradition and political culture, and the aspirations of contemporary Iraq’s diverse populations. Theoretically, there are two alternatives to consider:
— One is to disintegrate, partition into independent states with dominant ethnic or sectarian population in each. There are three scenarios: two states — Arab and Kurd; three states — Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd; and four states — Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd and Turkmen.
— Another alternative is to preserve the Iraqi state in terms of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, through undergoing political reforms. Under this alternative one can distinguish two scenarios: to create a fully federal state with much power devolved to autonomous entities; and to strengthen resilience of the present state through institution building and decentralisation.
Neither of these alternatives is easy, straightforward or free from limitations and controversies. They will demand a commitment to concerted and sustained effort of all major sides concerned.
Although it may look to some as a quick-fix solution, the partitioning of Iraq does not appear a feasible solution when brought to close light, for a number of reasons.
First, the issue of borders is contentious. Each side claims more ground (and thus more resources) than others would give up. Mosul is the case in point. Unsettled land and border disputes have caused tensions and fighting in the past and present. Moreover, no third party would dare engaging in this dispute.
Second, it does not solve the issue of minorities, ethnic and sectarian divides, since the population elsewhere across the country is heterogeneous. Therefore, the sense of insecurity will remain as it cannot be solved automatically in such a set-up, and inter-group tensions will be inherited by now newly established states. Exchange of population runs risks of abuse, forceful deportation bordering with ethnic cleansing.
Third, divisions within each ethnic or sectarian group won’t disappear with the creation of new states. To the contrary, chances are high that once left on their own the local factions will fight each other for controlling the power even more fiercely. This rivalry tends to be quite violent and destructive, considering that each group has own militia at disposal.
Further, there is a risk that violent confrontation will weaken and put their survival as sovereign states into question. On the one hand, various extremist groups will take advantage and fill the power vacuum. On the other hand, small states with predominantly mono-ethnic or mono-sectarian population and weak political institutions may easily become satellites of influential neighbours.
There is also an international dimension to partitioning. Creation of new states based on ethnic and sectarian principle would raise tensions in the region: inspire calls for independence and alert the governments which are afraid of those aspirations as threatening the integrity of their states. Think of sectarian minorities across the Middle East and North Africa region. Think also of reactions of the governments in Ankara, Damascus and Tehran to creating an independent Kurdistan state. Today no one is ready to deal with this issue, under constraint of other pressing problems and the uncertainty of outcome — neither among various Kurdish groups, nor in the countries with Kurdish population in the region and in Europe, United States and Russia.
And finally, from economic perspective this option does not look attractive either. The new economies will be vulnerable due to their heavy reliance on oil and non-mineral exports. Industrial production and agriculture are at rudimentary levels, while for building technology-driven production and services they lack basic components such as communications infrastructure and skilled labour. The fact is that today the Iraqi economy is immature and thus cutting it in smaller pieces and distorting even those tiny existing value chains will further expose weaknesses and limit the capabilities for economic regeneration and growth in those states.
Most probably, this all will lead to even more inequality in wealth distribution, higher poverty and disenfranchisement of ordinary people. To sum up, the partitioning risks creating three failed states in place of the one struggling to avoid failing.
By the constitution of 2005, Iraq is a federal state whereby Kurdistan region is an autonomous federal unit with its own government. The relations between Baghdad and Erbil haven’t been always smooth and have been marked by numerous tag-of-war-like situations when important decisions and pieces of legislation were blocked in the Parliament or in the Council of Ministers. This rather tactical manoeuvring notwithstanding, it is right to say that federalism in Iraq has survived its test thus far.
Under this scenario Iraq would comprise three or four federal units with majority ethnic/sectarian population, respectively. This set-up is not impossible but requires a new constitutional arrangement with new devolved powers clearly stipulated. If properly designed and, most importantly, respected and implemented afterwards this constitution and the system it introduces may well work. It will to certain degree equalise the rights of Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a Arabs, in exercising the power and control of resources while (again, to certain degree) guaranteeing the rights of minorities in each federal unit. What it will not solve in and by itself is patrimonialism, corruption, divides between the country’s multiple political players, and the inefficiency of its public administration.
There are two features of federalism that must be accepted by Iraq’s political elites (especially its Shi’a establishment) before they all decide to endeavour in this direction. One is that, although federalism offers a solution through decreased ethno-sectarian tensions (especially in a short term), it also encourages and fosters demands for secession over time. To borrow from the English constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey, ‘there is no midway between federalism and independence.’ This is already an issue in Kurdistan, where the leadership has announced their intention to take course on the independence referendum — a move that makes Baghdad’s political establishment feeling uneasy. How would they react if two entities decide to secede one day? These are not easy things to digest. Therefore, accepting a legitimate right of each federal entity to break away through a popular vote at some point is one precondition to this scenario.
Another feature is about the degree of decentralisation. How much power does the federal government retain? In which policy and decision making domains, areas? And how deep down the hierarchy the power would devolve (entity, region, province, municipality, community)? What about tax collection? Which provisions would allow federal government taking full control and command and how do they define those exceptional and extraordinary circumstances (like wars and natural disasters)? These questions sound rather technical, but as ever the devil is in this sort of details. Finding the right balance between the empowering of federal units and the limiting of central government’s powers is a delicate business, but also vital one for the functionality of the future federal state. More clarity is there from the start, more of these are agreed upon and stipulated formally higher chances are that it will work smoothly.
The real problem of Iraq lies in its institutions, which struggle to adapt to the changed regime type, on the one hand, and to the fast evolving external circumstances, on the other hand. This puts the state’s resilience under serious test. Iraq is undergoing an evolutionary process, albeit under extreme circumstances, where it has to transition into a stable and modern democratic state. Take, for example, the recent political deadlock when the attempts of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to reform to improve the effectiveness of government were met with unanimous resistance of political elites who benefit from existing institutional arrangements. The fact that the collision between political decay and regeneration has taken an extreme, at times violent, forms does not change or deny the nature of this process — which is and remains inherently dialectical.
This scenario therefore aims at strengthening the regenerational, reformist forces within the Iraqi political system. It will do so by institution building and strengthening the resilience of current government apparatus without attempting to change the country’s constitutional set-up. In fact, it has been recognised by practitioners and in academic literature that the Iraqi constitution has all provisions in it to ensure democratisation and devolved governance, to guarantee the rights of minorities. The problem, as frequently the case, is not with the constitution itself but with its implementation.
There are four factors necessary for the success of any reform. First is about the constellation of power — that is, how strong are the pro-reform forces, how well organised and cohesive is their coalition, and how inclusive it is in covering the geographic and administrative areas as well as various segments of society. Second is about the independence of bureaucracy (understood in Weberrian, technocratic terms) from undue political influence — that is, the ability of civil servants and public employees to do their job without being significantly constrained by political parties and blocs. Third factor is about technical capacity of government to perform. It concerns both the capacity of individuals and the quality of administrative processes. Fourth factor is about domestic ownership. It is driven by commitment to reform of politicians, public and private employees, entrepreneurs, citizenry at large and their organised groups who see the change necessary, not merely desirable.
I won’t speculate on the parameters under each factor, but analysis of available information and personal observations allow saying that all four factors are present in Iraq today, although neither is strong enough to make it through without sustained, long-term, and quite intensive and targeted effort.
The success of this scenario is strongly conditioned on performance and tangible outcomes. The government will need to achieve and convincingly demonstrate results continuously, in order to prove its effectiveness and maintain its legitimacy and credibility. To do so, the government, along with resources, will have to (a) fight the systemic corruption effectively; (b) endeavour in meaningful justice and rule of law reforms to enable reconciliation and enhance the sense of patriotism that crosses the ethnic and sectarian divides; and (c) adopt flexible approaches that would enable it to manage by discovery, timely adapt to the changing circumstances and to build the overall resilience of the system.
I do not conclude this piece with traditional summary of findings and recommendations; the aim was to outline the options with certain degree of detail on their advantages and limitations — this all is a work-in-progress, after all. However, it is clear from the above that I favour the institution building scenario.
Because political history of Iraq as a modern independent state in the course of last hundred years, since the end of World War I, makes a strong case for its resilient capabilities and thus, backs this scenario. From the Hashemite royalty set up by the British colonial rule, through pan-Arabism to Ba’athism, and most recently extremist political Islamism the Iraqi statehood has been put at test. The processes within these contestations have complicated the religious, ethnic, linguistic, national and regional identities. Nevertheless, every time Iraq struggled but bounced back to preserve its integrity.
Also, because this option points clearly to the way forward without grand theories behind (hardly anyone would agree that they are suited for Iraq today) and instead rests on a series of relatively small but manageable tactical interventions. And finally, because it is the only option which is practically implementable to deliver tangible results in the immediate term — and time matters.
A full version of this article was first posted on PolicyLabs under the title This is Iraq’s Call: The Road to Take. The article is the last in a series of Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change.
Part III: State security, Human security
Part IV: Alternatives, Scenarios
I would like to thank Dr. Munqith Al Baker and Dr. Richard Huntington for their substantive comments, valuable conceptual insights and factual contributions made in the course of the work over this series of articles.