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“There Is No Enjoyment in This Life”

By (April 1, 2014) No Comment

Struggle for Iraq's FutureThe Struggle for Iraq’s Future
Zaid Al-Ali
Yale, 2014
As I write this, of the twenty best-selling books about “Iraq history” on Amazon.com, seventeen are soldier’s memoirs, one is a combat pilot’s memoir, and two are different versions of the same book: a memoir by the recently retired Secretary of Defense. Click to the next page and you will find another eighteen soldier’s memoirs and one book on modern military strategy. Holding strong at number 34 is a diary by a young Iraqi girl that is frequently used in classrooms.

Nations are solipsistic creatures. For cultural and geopolitical reasons the United States is more parochial than most, but not exceptional. Who, after all, weeps for the dead of the lands they invade? But incuriosity is a dangerous and persistent affliction. In Vietnam, a war Americans remember but do not know, the United States, obsessed with communism and its standing in the world, battled to freeze dominoes; the Vietnamese fought a war of independence. Three presidents succumbed to the lure of their country’s virtuous mythology. The despots in Saigon told them the Vietnamese wanted Western-style freedom but needn’t have bothered: the Americans believed it already.

The same wishful projection marked the second invasion of Iraq, but there was a twist. The Bush Administration believed the Iraqi population was irrevocably divided along religious and ethnic lines, and they designed for their new wards an American-style system in order to channel sectarian tension, purge Iraq of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist supporters, grow a modern capitalist economy, and cultivate an ally. This absurdist scheme grew out of the words and advice of a questionable assortment of experts and Iraqi exiles. In a terrible and foreseeable irony, everything worked out un-according to plan. This forgotten side of the twenty first century’s most ill-advised war – the institutional history of Iraq’s last ten years – is the subject of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, Zaid Al-Ali’s important new book.

Al-Ali is an exile, too. He knew but did not belong to any of the expatriate groups that sprang up during the Hussein era, printing magazines, meeting in cozy rooms, lobbying for Western money and intervention. His father served in Iraq’s foreign service, in Sweden, Spain (where the author was born), and finally at the UN mission in New York, a post he resigned after Saddam invaded Iran. This condemned father and son to exile and the rest of the family in Iraq to vindictive firings and harassment. After they moved to London – the heart of Iraq’s expatriate community – in the late 80’s, Al-Ali attended meetings of exile groups with his father. “Although I rarely participated in any of the discussions,” he writes, “the experience gave me important insights into many of the individuals who would later collaborate with the US occupation after the 2003 war.” With these insights he skewers those men on the page.

It is difficult to imagine doing any different in his place. Al-Ali was working in international litigation and arbitration when Iraq was invaded. About a year later he moved to Baghdad for a position with the UN, where he would work on the drafting of the constitution, parliamentary and judicial reform, and other projects until 2011, when the hopelessness of his position and the green shoots of the Arab Spring drew him to North Africa. The Struggle for Iraq’s Future is recent history, not memoir, but the grim anecdotes and constant disappointments of Al-Ali’s experience sharpen his narrative, and provoke the rage which he does such an admirable job of channeling.

As convention has it, the struggle in Iraq is a simple one: the US and its allies (and now Iraq alone, with US aid) are fighting to suppress the insurgency in order to give Iraq’s nascent democratic institutions room to breathe. This narrative holds credence far beyond the daily news organizations, where simplification is understandable if not forgivable. Late last year, Norman Ricklefs wrote in The Atlantic that “Any examination of the last 10 years in Iraq demonstrates that the main problem facing the country since 2003 has been the rise of armed groups outside the control of the central government.” Violence aside, he says, “All the other indicators in Iraq are actually very good, especially for a post-conflict environment.” But the problem, as his narrowly conceived article demonstrates, is that for the West, violence has often been the only problem. “Most of Iraq’s political groups,” Ricklefs tells us, “are now fighting in the political sphere, using all the levers of power and influence available; parliamentary democracy is alive and well.”

This is the misconception that Al-Ali aims to correct, and this he does so by demonstrating that the Iraqi political system, conceived and shepherded by American advisors and well-connected exiles, is one of the “main reasons” Iraq is yet again growing more violent, and that far from being “alive and well,” parliamentary democracy in Iraq is corrupt, opaque, and actually rather undemocratic.

The problem is rooted in the period before the war, in the council halls of the American government and the meeting places of Iraqi exiles. As Al-Ali explains,

US and UK policy makers and their Iraqi allies understood the country’s history and its community relations from a perspective that was informed by their own prejudices and their own narrow (and deeply flawed) understanding of history, according to which the country’s communities had always been antagonistic towards each other.

But before the uprisings against Saddam after the first Gulf War, Al-Ali points out, Iraq had not experienced a period of large-scale sectarian tension for almost two hundred years. Whatever strife lay between Iraq’s communities in 2003 was a recent phenomenon, one largely a product of the Baath era, of Saddam’s divide-and-rule favoritism for the Sunni minority and the deprivation he and the rest of the world co-created under the sanctions regime.

The Bush Administration believed sectarianism was a law of nature, but ironically, before they could put their foolish plan into motion their incompetence nearly made it so. There were about 150,000 coalition troops for the invasion, not enough to maintain order in a country of 25 million, not even enough to secure the weapons of mass destruction they were supposed to be hunting. They failed to secure the stockpiles of conventional weapons that Hussein seeded all over the country for his Fedayeen units, whose irregular tactics the coalition also failed to anticipate, despite ample warning. These errors were compounded by the Coalition Provisional Authority of L. Paul Bremer III, which disbanded the Iraqi Army and purged thousands of Baathists from government, two of Iraq’s most important sources of employment. Al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers, who would have met American troops wherever they went, now had weaponry and motivated allies – they had a base.

You could call these blunders common knowledge – they were, at least, widely reported. The Struggle for Iraq argues that the failure of the occupation and the acceleration of sectarian violence that followed it began with the aid America and its European allies provided to Iraqi exile groups, who would use the money they received and the relationships they forged to take an outsize role in planning the future of a country many of them had not seen in decades.

“Although privilege and deference were a general problem under the Baath,” Al-Ali writes,

many qualified individuals survived the system… But after 2003, whatever remained of Iraq’s educated class of professionals disappeared, to be replace by a caste of former exiles, each of whom demanded to be treated like a monarch… they sought to mask their insecurity with even more arrogance than their predecessors… Aside from their undeserved self-confidence and their lack of developmental skills, many of the former exiles were also well schooled in militarism and in the art of distrust and secrecy – so damaging in a multi-party democracy…To make matters worse, many exiles had joined religious or sectarian parties, which meant that they had condemned themselves to seclusion within homogeneous and artificial bubbles that bore little resemblance to Iraqi society… the contrast between the former exiles and those Iraqis who had remained in the country was striking.

At first this seems scattershot, even bitter, but by the end of the book it is hard to disagree.

Zaid-Al-AliPerhaps the most important document in modern Iraqi history was intended to be provisional. Technically, it was. Iraq’s interim constitution was supposed to establish a transitional government until Iraqis took over. It was expected that it would be flawed, but subsequent elections and an in-depth drafting of the final document would provide correction. But the drafting process “was so secretive,” Al-Ali writes, “that Iraqis were not even told that an interim constitution was being prepared.” The drafting board consisted of several American experts and academics, and two Iraq-American exiles. Their first draft was in English.

The government it envisioned was extraordinarily weak by modern standards, though perhaps Jefferson would have approved. The “real power,” according to Al-Ali, lay with the regions, which had under their purview control of the nation’s airspace, transportation networks, and health and education infrastructure. The social and economic guarantees traditional to Iraq’s previous constitutions were heavily qualified, and Iraqis even attained the right to bear arms – a constitutional given in the United States, an absurdity to most of the rest of the world. The body that drafted the final constitution was in theory more representative than the first, but the process was again controlled by the US and its Iraqi allies, who often worked in secret, and in the end Iraq’s final constitution bore an uncomfortably strong resemblance to its temporary one: vast swathes of it were simply copied over, and new provisions that strengthened the federal government were quietly removed.

Iraq, of course, would never return to a presidential system. A parliamentary model was decided upon, but “the system was so permissive that there was practically no minimum threshold for entering parliament.” This kind of laxity rarely works in practice (witness the Israeli government’s decade-long paralysis). Collaboration is essential, but for the exiles self-interest, intrigue, and the acquisition of power were the order of the day. “Together,” the author writes, “the new political class had re-created the atmosphere and the processes that they were used to.”

In the first years after power was transferred to the Iraqi government, three features defined it: sectarianism, weak central government, and corruption. Sectarianism encouraged factionalism – a mindset the new leaders were already familiar with – as did corruption. But the various groups fighting for power were competing for a second-rate prize: leadership in a parliament (and thus possession of the Prime Ministership) that had little power over the country’s regions and few of the traditional tools of state. In order to stay in power, the Prime Minister’s office had to be strengthened at the expense of everything else. Thus the Iraq constitution, in the chaotic atmosphere of the occupation, provided the means for its own subversion. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki (an exile like his predecessor, Ayad Allawi, and like Ahmed Chalabi, former Deputy Prime Minister, whose Iraqi National Congress provided much of the false intelligence the Bush Administration used to justify the war) has bullied the Supreme Court into neutering oversight committees; conducted mass arrests of alleged Baathists, political opponents, professors and protestors; presided over disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and secret prisons; and browbeaten and harassed the media to ensure that his people do not know about it.

In the American system, federal power is checked by the judicial branch and by the sheer size and complexity of the local and federal bureaucracies that are required to run the country. In Iraq, Parliament and the Prime Minister simply enact legislation whenever they wish, paying no heed to the procedures and speed bumps encoded in law. Judicial rulings are often ignored, and committees, ministries and bureaucrats who would normally carry out oversight are purged of resistance and turned into vehicles for patronage. In recent years these organizations have been further weakened, as the newly confident Prime Minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, does what he wishes regardless of the law, brazenly trading conscientious officials for reliable toadies.

Besides the careers of the few bureaucrats and department heads willing to buck the Prime Minister, Iraq’s corrupted institutions have other victims. For the Western media, Iraq’s progress, when it is not measured in the relative visibility of corpses, is often spoken of in terms of GDP, oil production, and electricity. Iraq’s GDP is growing but its gains accrue unevenly, while aid money often simply disappears from graft (for instance, of the $9.19 billion disbursed to the Development Fund for Iraq by 2010, fully 96 percent was not properly accounted for). Oil production lags far behind stated goals, not so much due to violence as theft and incompetence. And electricity, the most visible of indicators, is unreliable almost everywhere for the same reasons. It is sadly unsurprising that in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, the capitol city last summer made do with about 6 hours of electricity a day. The sick who have money go to Jordan for treatment, because Iraq’s hospitals often fatally lack the back-ups Americans take for granted.

Iraqis are understandably frustrated and fearful. Violence is increasing again, while the administrative ligature of society continues to falter. It is foolish to assert that these are unrelated, and even more foolhardy to deny the existence of the latter. It is true that Iraq’s various factions are mainly carrying on their disagreements in the political realm. But the government continues to ossify, freezing out large swathes of the population from representation, while young men increasingly find employment in militias or “security forces” tied to Iraq’s political parties, whose mere existence some so carelessly praise. The country nearly came to civil war once, and it may again.


Accounts of the war in Iraq tend to focus on the debates inside the White House or the military, or tell of the experiences of American soldiers. All but a few simply ignore the daily grit of living, as a powerless citizen, in a war zone. The Struggle for Iraq’s Future leavens its history and reportage with such stories, keeping its narrative from straying too far into the abstract. One simple anecdote in particular has stuck with me:

The sense of frustration can be felt everywhere and at all times. In summer 2011, I stood by the side of the road in west Baghdad, waiting for friends to pick me up and drive me to the airport… A soldier who saw me from a distance came over and questioned me briefly. I asked where he was from. ‘Nasariya’, he said, a southern province that used to be predominantly agricultural, but that now offers up its young men to the security services. He asked what life was like in Beirut, and I told him it would be easy for him to visit and see for himself. ‘And what would I do there?’ he wondered. ‘You could relax, enjoy yourself by the sea or in the mountains.’ He smiled ruefully. As he turned around and walked away, he muttered: ‘There is no enjoyment in this life.’

At this point, there is little the United States is willing or able to do about the state of the country it so recently transformed, just as it is unwilling to pressure or withdraw funding from allies like Saudi Arabia or Qatar – for America, stability is king. Al-Ali lays out several proposals, like writing a new constitution, regulating the funding of political parties, and limiting the army’s remit in domestic affairs. He sounds almost optimistic, but given the state of things, which he has so powerfully laid out, I don’t think many of his solutions are likely to see daylight. Somehow, I don’t think he does either.

Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.