In commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Egypt Independent spoke to American historian Rashid Khalidi on the effects of the war on Iraqi and regional politics, American foreign policy and the prospects of democratic change in a currently destabilized and fractured Iraq.
Egypt Independent: I would like to begin by hearing your impressions on how the 2003 US invasion of Iraq has impacted Washington’s foreign policy, noting that it is widely considered a failed undertaking. Furthermore, how has it affected Iraq internally?
Rashid Khalidi: The invasion led to the dismantling of the Iraqi state, and this is not just a structure that was manipulated by the Ba’ath Party dictatorship. The court system, archives, aspects of the rule of law, routinization: All of those things were swept away. Everything was destroyed.
The army and the security services were fired, we know this, but basically the entire government bureaucracy was released, and so everything that had been done since the middle of the 19th century, since Midhat Basha was the wali [governor] of Baghdad — I mean literally the 1850s — was swept away as if by a tsunami. And there were other debilitating social and economic effects: Maybe one in five or six Iraqis became internal or external refugees.
So there were these material effects on Iraq — tens of thousands, maybe scores of thousands of people killed; the infrastructure of the economy and society were badly damaged. And then there were the sectarian and long lasting political effects: When the United States imposed the sectarian model on Iraq, which I think, in large measure, was copied from Lebanon.
That was not a very good idea. That model produced three civil wars in Lebanon from the 1860s up until 1990, when the last war ended.
By introducing political sectarianism in the Iraqi system, the United States responded to the legitimate complaints of the Shia and the Kurdish sectors of the Iraqi people by dealing with the poison with poison. The antidote to sectarianism wasn’t the institutionalization of sectarianism, and that is what was the United States did with what Iraqis call Bremer’s constitution.
On the other side of the ledger, the Iraqis have got rid of Saddam Hussein, which is a good thing, but of the anniversary pieces I have seen, a lot of them are not saying, “Oh happy days, we are so pleased that Saddam is gone.” Even the ones who hated him are not terribly happy with the status quo.
As far as the impact on the United States, along with the Afghan war … it reanimated the so-called Vietnam syndrome, which is a reluctance of the American public opinion to go along with their leaders in overseas military adventures. That’s one reason the Obama administration came to office in 2008, a reaction to Bush.
And that’s one reason this administration has been so reluctant to carry out overt military intervention, anywhere — Libya, Syria, the most recent example. That also means that the United States is using indirect means like drone strikes and other covert means to achieve its end rather than direct military intervention.
EI: How urgent is the sectarian question within the regional context? Was it purely a tool in Iraq? How relevant are Sunni-Shia divisions within a broader regional context, with Iraq situated between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the seeming existence of a cold war between these Sunni and Shia bastions?
Khalidi: The United States entered into this whole affair at a time when it was engaged in an American-Iranian cold war, which is ongoing. But there’s also a very intense rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a very intense rivalry between Iran and Israel.
[Saudi Arabia and Israel] are the two closest American allies in the Middle East, and so one of the things that has in fact happened here is that the Iraq war, which was intended to create a pro-American bastion to help in the struggle against Iran, has done quite the opposite. With the weakening of the Syrian regime, the closest, most reliable ally that Tehran has is the [Nouri al-]Maliki government in Baghdad. This is not an intentional outcome of the invasion, but it is a direct result.
In order to unseat the Ba’athist regime, the United States helped to cultivate sectarian tensions and put together the coalition of Kurds and Shia against Sunnis in Iraq, thereby exacerbating existing sectarian problems, and, sooner or later, causing a problem for themselves because they had a Sunni resistance on their hands. The point here is that, obviously, sectarianism existed before the Iraq War — in Iraq and in the region — but it’s been used … as a tool by the United States, by Saudi Arabia, by Israel, each in its own way to distract attention from all kinds of other things.
The invasion, by destroying the Iraqi state, by creating this unstable, internal sectarian conflict, turned Iraq into a battleground, which is now replicated in Syria between regional powers, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
EI: What are the implications of Syria’s civil war on Iraq’s unstable political fabric — the cost of insurgents moving freely between Syria and Lebanon, and even Syria and Iraq?
Khalidi: Syria represents the third Arab country which has been subjected to this kind of dismantling of state structure, through civil war and the devastation of a large part of society and the economy. Lebanon was the first case of a civil war, which was also a proxy war between all regional powers, [notably] Syria, Israel and the Palestinians. After the 2003 American invasion, Iraq has been devastated.
We are now witnessing a third successive instance of an Arab country being subjected to civil war with different parties in that war being supported from the outside. So I think it has the potential … for reigniting the civil wars in these two adjacent countries.
The fact that you have cross-border sympathies of populations, which in fact are only artificially divided by these borders, means that you now have people move. Fighters move from Iraq to Syria or from Lebanon to Syria just as before people moved from Syria to Lebanon and from Syria to Iraq.
EI: Discussions on Iraq are always couched in sectarian terms. How much of this is really reflected on the ground? Is this more emblematic of politicians and the media drowning out the street?
Khalidi: That’s a very good question. Actually, I was just reading a news story which said that in Iraqi universities, astonishingly, you don’t get this sectarianism amongst Sunni and Shia students. Yet the politicians, on their soap boxes, are playing it for all it’s worth.
And I know from my older Iraqi friends that sectarianism played very little role in Iraq — yes, the Sunni dominated; yes, the monarchy was Sunni, yes, yes, yes — but you know, people inter-married. There were Kurds and Arabs who intermarried, there were Sunni and Shia.
It would appear for young people it doesn’t have quite the valance as some of the older folks involved in politics and for whom sectarianism has proved to be a path to political power, given the system established by the United States after the occupation.
EI: Have the Arab uprisings had a significant effect on Iraq? Could recent street mobilizations there bring about regime change?
Khalidi: Well, I don’t know about that. There is a huge security service that has been installed by the Americans and the Iraqis, [and] a very large army. I wonder how easy it would be for an uprising to take place.
In addition, when you have a population that’s divided on a sectarian basis … it’s very hard to organize among those sectarian lines.
I would argue Iraq is a little bit like Palestine, which is not divided on a sectarian basis but which has this problem of, do you rise up against the occupation or against the Palestinian authority, which many people see as the handmaiden behind the occupation. Do you deal with the problems of internal governments, the problems of Hamas and Fattah and their ineptitude and their lack of strategy, their selfishness and corruption, or do you deal with the Israeli occupation, which is the framework for all of this?
I think the Iraqis have a bit of the same problem: They have the sectarian issue and they have the problem of, where is the real target? Is it the people who created this mess, the Americans? Or Iran, which dominates the regime? Is the problem the regime? And how does one organize across those sectarian lines?
It’s hard to cross those sectarian barriers to have a people’s uprising in Iraq, even though clearly there is sentiment that is similarly dissatisfied with the government and with the extraordinary corruption, with the inability of the Iraqi government to provide electricity for its citizens. This country exports … energy to the entire world, but they can’t provide energy for the people for more than a few hours a day? It’s obscene.
The Americans spent billions of dollars on so-called reconstruction, but they don’t have electricity? It’s quite astonishing, the levels of corruption. There’s a lot to protest in Iraq, and yet I’m not sure it’s possible across these hardened sectarian lines.