Topic: Must Read
If you’re going to opine on politics and current events, it helps to have some actual knowledge of the subject. This thought—no doubt heretical in the minds of many pundits—occurred to me recently. As the Obama Administration’s Iraq policy began to show signs of collapse, I thought I’d post about it. But Tom, I asked myself rhetorically, what do you really know about Iraq? The answer, which boiled down to “nothing much,” led me to a soon-to-close-forever Borders outlet, where I purchased a copy of Charles Tripp’s A History of Iraq at a knock-down price.
Tripp is Professor of Politics in the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. His survey history of Iraq spans more than 200 years, from the period of Ottoman rule to the fall of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of the current parliamentary republic. For anyone who might still be sanguine about the prospects for stable democracy in Iraq, it’s a sobering read.
I learned from Professor Tripp’s book that Iraq is a country utterly without experience of democratic governance. From the foundation of the state in the 1920s to the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq has always been ruled by a despotic government of elites, whether civilian or military, with no real power devolved to the people. Moreover, changes of regime have typically been effected by violence. When the monarchy was overthrown by a cabal of army officers in 1958, King Faisal II and several members of his family were shot dead outside the royal palace after their surrender. The coup leader, General Abd al-Karim Qasim, became prime minister of the new Republic of Iraq until he too was deposed and summarily executed in 1963. Qasim’s bullet-riddled body was displayed on Iraqi TV.
None of this is to say that the desire for freedom is absent in Iraq. Clearly it exists. But the sad truth is that neither Iraq’s current rulers nor the people of that unfortunate country really understand how to make freedom workable within the framework of a representative government.
Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions make the emergence of a stable democratic government seem even less likely. One of the most interesting aspects of Professor Tripp’s book is its discussion of the Kurdish issue. Decades of oppression by the Arab-dominated governments of Baghdad have permanently estranged the Kurds from Iraq. Having achieved substantial autonomy in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Kurds have no intention of giving it up now and are clearly determined to achieve full independence. These aspirations run in the opposite direction from Iraqi nationalism—if such a thing can really be said to exist.
Of course, it’s possible that Iraq will beat the odds by fashioning itself into a decently governed country. But considering its troubled history, its deep internal divisions, the ill will of its neighbors and its lack of a democratic tradition, this seems unlikely. Now that the United States has, thanks to the near-criminal ineptitude of the Obama Administration, abandoned Iraq to its fate, the country’s future appears grim indeed.
A History of Iraq helped me to understand how difficult a task America assumed when it tried to implant democracy in Mesopotamia. Perhaps, in fact, that task was impossible. Or maybe we just gave up too soon. Read Professor Tripp’s excellent, accessible book and judge for yourself.