Iraq elections: democratic delusion?

I am by no means an expert on Iraqi politics, but it strikes me how much it still divides the Comentariat. Even at the LSE, we have three quite striking stances on the recent Iraqi elections in the last few weeks.

On the one hand Fawaz Gerges, LSE Professor of International Relations, writing in the Majalla, says:

Far from making Iraq ripe for democracy, the 2003 US-led invasion has established a sectarian-based political system like neighboring Lebanon where sect and ethnicity trump other loyalties, including the nation. Now sectarianism has become deeply entrenched and institutionalized, threatening the national unity and integrity of Iraq. On the whole, Iraqis did not vote according to party and ideology but tribe and sect.

Supporting this largly negative picture, Tody Dodge, Research Associate at LSE IDEAS, writes today in the guardian:

The ramifications of the 7 March vote are still unfolding and are starting to look much less positive than Obama had hoped…The idea that elections are the be-all and end-all of democracy is naive at best. At worst they are a shallow and unsustainable justification for the carnage that followed invasion and regime change. Iraq’s new ruling elite was brought back to the country by US and British troops; they are now presiding over a country that has repeatedly gone to the polls but received precious little beyond politically motivated violence, widespread corruption and now a flagrant disregard for the rule of law by their elected politicians.

Yet in contrast Ranj Alaaldin, PhD Candidate in LSE International History dept., also in the guardian sees more success:

Granted the whole thing is messy and at times complicated. And it is, for Iraqis, disappointingly the case that there is no one party – either Shia or Sunni, secular or sectarian – that has a significant cross-sectarian appeal. However, let us not ask too much from Iraqis just yet. What is important is that there is progress in Iraqi democracy and politics. You now have both splits in the Shia, Kurdish and Sunni votes, as well as an open-list system that has punished underperforming officials, like those from the interior and defence ministries.

Combined together, they set Iraq’s democratic process miles ahead of its neighbours and exceed the honest expectations of the international community. Iraq does not have the perfect democracy, but it has a functioning and genuine democracy.

I suppose that as horse-trading in Baghdad continues, so will such debates…

Miliband’s grand Middle East delusion

The foreign secretary is wrong: Britain’s soft power in the Middle East has much greater influence than its show of force in Iraq

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian 12 March 2010

There is a common ritual that I, like most Britons, have regularly encountered when riding a taxi in Damascus, Amman or Cairo over the past seven years. Talkative and curious, most cabbies will immediately ask where you are from and, on hearing London, raise the usual questions about Tony Blair and Iraq.

Seven years after the invasion, British citizens are still taken to task for their government’s actions in 2003. It is therefore hard to take seriouslyDavid Miliband’s claim earlier this week that the Iraq war has boosted Britain’s reputation in the Arab world.

Called before the Chilcot inquiry, the foreign secretary stated:

“People in the region do respect those who are willing to see through what they say [they will do]. Even people who disagreed with it say to me, ‘You’ve sent a message that when you say something, you mean it’ … In the Arab world today, I don’t believe that the Iraq decisions have undermined our relationships or our ability to do business. Some of our ambassadors say we are in a stronger position.”

Though diplomats in Israel and Kuwait might support the foreign secretary’s view that Britain’s reputation was enhanced by Iraq, the reality on the Arab street is quite different. Militarily and diplomatically, London appears weak and tied to Washington, while economically it lags behind European competitors for influence in the region. The UK’s main area of success and influence is actually in the cultural sphere, where institutions like the British Council provide a degree of soft power. But military misadventures like Iraq, far from enhancing Britain’s reputation in the Arab world, serve to undermine the soft power that these institutions have spent decades acquiring.

The Iraq war did no favours for Britain’s military reputation in the region. The operations of the first Gulf war in 1990-91 and the bombing of Iraq in 1998 had already built the image that Britain’s armed forces were an extension of US forces, and the blind loyalty shown by Blair in 2003 only cemented this view. Marc Lynch has shown how, since 1998, millions of Arab viewers of al-Jazeera have watched Iraqis killed by Britain – which became a daily occurrence in 2003. On top of this, allegations of prisoner abuse by British soldiers were widely reported, as were claims about the under-funding of UK troops. Far from enhancing respect for the military, the Iraq war has allowed the Arab media to portray it as subservient, abusive and weak.

Subservience to the US has also characterised the Arabs’ perception of British diplomacy since 2003. The initial refusal to seek a ceasefireduring the 2006 Lebanon war and a similar reluctance in Gaza are two prominent examples. Even recent diplomatic shifts, such as Miliband’s commendable lobbying for the relabelling of goods produced in Israeli settlements, or his visit to previously pariah Syria, are interpreted as reflecting the new priorities of the Obama administration rather than independent British initiatives. This perceived diplomatic dependence on America is emphasised by other actors’ comparative freedom in the region, notably France, which has re-engaged under President Nicolas Sarkozy, deepened its ties with Syria and Lebanon and opened a military base in the UAE.

Economically, Britain’s influence is similarly limited. While Lord Davies, the minister for trade, investment and small business was in the UAE this week trumpeting the increased trade between Britain and the Middle East, Britain lags behind Germany, Italy and France, which take a far greater share of the Arab market.

One field where Britain still excels is arms sales, particularly to Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. However, far from using this trade to leverage influence, Britain seems more eager to appease its customers. This was seen in the dropping of corruption charges in the BAE-Saudi scandal, and the continued sale of arms to Israel after the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Yet in spite of perceived military and diplomatic subservience and economic impotence, Britain does maintain an influential cultural presence in the Arab world. While critics may attack organisations such as the British Council as a waste of taxpayers’ money or “cultural imperialism”, arguably their many educational, cultural and developmental projects enhance Britain’s reputation far more effectively than the billions spent on the Iraq war. The British Council itself recognised this fact in 2007, substantially expanding its presence in the Arab and Muslim world.

Though the Arab press often hails the role of the British Council in supporting local projects, its reputation can be easily tarnished by the government’s foreign policy. In 2006, for example, when Britain was alleged to have a role in Israel’s capture of a Palestinian militant, the British Council in Gaza was attacked. Moreover, Britain is not alone in promoting cultural ties and soft power in the Arab World. France’s Institut Francais and Germany’s Goethe-Institut have expanded their impressive operations in the Middle East recently, without fearing a backlash against their government’s policies in the region.

As Chilcot continues and the British establishment tries to understand what went wrong in 2003, perhaps it should take the opportunity to reassess how Britain projects its power and influence in the Arab world. David Miliband is deluded. Displays of hard power on the coat-tails of the US won’t enhance Britain’s reputation. Military misadventures like Iraq only serve to undermine the soft cultural power that is far more effective in promoting a positive picture of Britain in the Middle East.

Tough Love: The Paradox of Syrian-Iraqi Interdependence

By Christopher Phillips, The Majalla 21 December 2009

Iraqi Prime Minister Nour Al-Maliki’s response to the 8 December Baghdad bombings that left more than 110 dead, carried with it a sense of déjà vu. As with a similar bloody attack on 19 August, Maliki claimed militant former Ba’athists based in Syria were behind the attack and accused Damascus of harbouring Baghdad’s enemies. These accusations are symptomatic of a recent decline in Syrian-Iraqi relations which has seen both sides exchanging insults that echo the days of hostility seen under Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad. However, despite this recent increase in aggressive rhetoric between the regimes involving both ambassadors being recalled in the summer, instances of economic and cultural cooperation between the neighbours is at its highest level in years. Are Maliki’s accusations mere short-term politicking, rather than a return to the dark years of enmity?

Hostility between Damascus and Baghdad is nothing new. Though both adopted Ba’athist governments in the 1960s, Iraq and Syria were ruled by different wings of the party following an ideological schism. Once Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein assumed power in each state this theoretical opposition was transplanted by a deep personal disdain. This contributed to Damascus breaking Arab ranks and supporting Tehran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and then sending troops to Kuwait in alliance with the US in the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis.

However, the fall of Saddam in 2003 and subsequent insurgency made Syrian-Iraqi relations far more complex. On the one hand, Damascus feared the success of the US neo-conservative project in Iraq and President Bashar Al-Assad, like most Arab leaders, publicly opposed the US invasion. Syria was accused of promoting instability by the Bush administration claiming Damascus was facilitating the insurgency by allowing Iraqi militants to use its territory as a base. On the other hand, Assad moved to mend relations with the new Iraq regime. Damascus recognised Maliki’s government by fully restoring ties in 2006, and the US reported a notable decrease in militant activity originating in Syria.

Central to Damascus’ seeming ambivalence to the success or failure of the US-led transformation of Iraq have been economic and political concerns. The early years of the insurgency, where Damascus at the minimum turned a blind eye to militants crossing its borders, coincided with a huge wave of at least 1.2 million Iraqi refugees fleeing to Syria. Whilst some brought needed skills and capital, the majority were poor Sunnis fleeing sectarianism who overwhelmed Syria’s already over-populated cities and over-stretched services. Moreover, it was in these early years that Assad’s regime appeared most threatened by the Bush neo-conservatives, with many in Washington arguing for US forces to continue on to Damascus after Baghdad. Chaos in Iraq was therefore of greater value to Syria than prosperity.

However, the picture has changed in recent years. The threat of US-imposed regime change has diminished as prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dissuaded American policy makers from seeking to repeat the model in Syria or elsewhere. Moreover, the improved stability in Iraq has fed economic growth in Syria, with GDP up to 6.5%. In 2008 Iraq was Syria’s largest export partner, with 30% of Syrian exports heading East, and Syria was Iraq’s greatest import partner, with 26% of Iraq’s imports originating from its immediate West. More importantly, last year work began to restore the crucial Kirkuk- Banyas oil pipeline, from which Syria is expected to earn up to $1.5 billion a year in transit fees.

Yet the advantages are not one-sided, and Iraq benefits enormously from its renewed ties to Syria. The new pipeline with Banyas, like the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan route through Turkey is essential to both maintain economic autonomy for Iraq’s northern provinces and also to guard the whole oil economy against any future disruption to routes via the straits of Hormuz. Additionally, Baghdad recently agreed to link its electricity grid to Syria alongside Iran and Turkey. Iraq also relies on Syrian good will to maintain the flow of the Euphrates river – an issue of vital importance given Iraq’s recent droughts. A further factor for Baghdad to consider is the millions of refugees still living in Syria. A recent report by Al-Arabiya illustrated how a worsening of ties between Baghdad and Damascus might lead to their expulsion – thrusting an unwelcome influx of people onto the fragile Iraqi state.

Maliki’s blaming of Damascus after the bomb attacks therefore appears unwise given the increased level of interdependency between the two states. His motives for doing so are likely political and short term. Iraqis soon go to the polls and Maliki will be seeking re-election on a platform of security and unity – something questioned by the devastation of such bomb attacks. Blaming an outside power is a convenient scapegoat and Syria, given its history with the insurgents and its comparative weakness compared to other influential neighbours like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, fits the bill best.

For now Syria is too dependent on Iraq for continued economic growth to register its frustration in a manner more substantial than rhetoric and back-biting. Moreover, Damascus may chose to stay its hand until after the Iraq elections when it may well be facing a new Premier in Baghdad. Yet Syria’s reaction to these accusations will be swayed by the paradox of its relationship with Iraq. Both sides need each other and are becoming more and more interdependent through economic and cultural ties every year. However, on a political level hostility does have its shot term advantages.