Violence in Iraq has progressively declined throughout last summer and is now at record-low levels. Positive internal developments, while conveniently neglected until very recently (read: before the election), have lately flooded the media scene. What are we to make of Iraq today? Two of the most trustworthy independent reporters following the evolving situation on the ground –Michael Yon and Michael Totten– are offering conflicting assessments based on their latest experiences in Baghdad.
Yon is as optimistic as to declare the war won. He perceives successes largely from a military perspective and emphasizes the maturation of Iraq’s security forces under American training with the resulting gains in stability. He acknowledges that much remains to be done but considers the attained achievements to be significant and sustainable.
Totten looks beyond the success of U.S. military efforts and points out the rampant dysfunctionality plaguing Iraq’s social, political, and infrastructural landscape. He sees ubiquitous corruption, political instability, and basic infrastructural deficiencies as potentially fatally corrosive to Iraq’s future as an independent country once its statehood is no longer subsidized by direct U.S. intervention.
We can reasonably hope the insurgency is waning permanently and uncontrolled violence doesn’t manifest after an eventual American pullout. Yet, Iraq’s challenges extend beyond the scope of basic stability, infrastructural proficiency, or even manageable corruption levels. The legislative and institutional flaws of the new Iraqi state apparatus, once sympathetically tolerated in the context of extreme conditions afflicting the country, might emerge to actually be structural, degenerative, and inherent in the political blueprint Western allies devised for Iraq immediately after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. After the overhaul of his dictatorial apparatus, the fresh opportunity to politically redefine Iraq has been largely squandered. America felt exceedingly vulnerable to seething accusations of “Imperialist intentions” regarding its involvement in Iraq. Rushing to reaffirm its “non-imperialist” international standing, the U.S. government prematurely handed over political and administrative control to a corrupt and backward caste of Iraqi leaders. Immediately achieving the “consent of the governed” became such a paramount goal that it trumped any concerns over the long-term political viability of these hastily erected institutions.
Nation building initiatives were successful in West Germany and Japan after WW2 because the U.S. was sufficiently confident in the universal virtues of its government’s founding principles to impose them on these defeated countries even if they seemed to cut against the nations’ cultural grain. A cursory glance at the new Iraqi constitution reveals an astounding lack of ideological assertiveness on behalf of the Coalition Provisional Authority: Islam is promoted as the official religion and primary source for legislation, an unspecified notion of democracy comes second in the hierarchy of political principles, while the respectability of individual rights and freedoms is paid much mitigated lip service last. If it remains unaddressed, this explosive triangulation of conflicting governing principles has the potential to generate power vacuums and internal fractures within Iraq’s frail institutions. Unless the U.S. assertively guides Iraq’s evolution toward a sustainable Western model, all the impressive gains achieved so far could be not only evanescent but worse: never worth the blood of coalition troops or the burdening of U.S. taxpayers in the first place, unless the mission had been to create only a slightly less despotic dictatorship in the Middle East.