Iraqi Nationalism Means Danger, Opportunity

June 6th, 2004

From April through mid-May, the situation in postwar Iraq sank to a new low. During this period, the United States was convulsed by waves of criticism, censuring the invasion of Iraq as a failure and demanding a change in Washington’s policy on the country.

Reacting to the deteriorating situation in Iraq, some began calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Islamic country. Among them was columnist William Pfaff, whose critique of the situation in Iraq was seminal in that he questioned the very fundamentals of the U.S. perception of the country.

Pfaff does not regard Iraq as a country divided along ethnic and religious lines. Instead, he sees it as a country based on nationalism, which he says the U.S. occupation has further fueled.

Indeed, no internal strife has taken place between Sunnis and Shiites–contrary to preoccupation worries. Terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is linked to Al-Qaida, had predicted Sunni uprisings would be the key to sparking rebellion against the United States. To this end, he had tried to provoke conflicts between the country’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The events in Fallujah in April proved that such maneuvers were unnecessary. While Sunni Muslims in the town rebelled against U.S. control, insurgents loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also revolted. Common to those developments was anti-Americanism, a form of Iraqi nationalism.

In a sense, Pfaff’s theory has a common origin with the thinking of neoconservatives in the United States, even though the columnist’s policy prescriptions are completely different from the neocons’.

From before the invasion of Iraq until the present day, there have been persistent doubts about the possibility of bringing democracy to the country. Responding to such skepticism, Pentagon leaders maintained that Iraq was the most secular of the countries in the Middle East and that its people were the best educated in the region. Therefore, they reasoned, the Iraqis were likely to embrace freedom and democracy once they were freed from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

Saddam’s regime had edged the country toward modernity in certain respects: The dictator said women did not have to wear head scarves and allowed people to drink alcohol and pursue their education, albeit mainly as regards technical skills. During the Saddam era, Iraq could have transformed itself from a tribal, Islamic state into a modern nation-state.


Nationalism and democracy

What are the typical characteristics of such modern states? After 1648 (when the Treaty of Westphalia ushered in the era of modern international relations), nationalism and secularism became the norm. Then, following the revolutions of 1848, parliamentarianism, or democracy of one kind or another, was added to the mix. This became the norm for modern states, with even communist nations paying at least lip service to the idea of democracy.

So, while Pfaff and the neocons focus on nationalism and democracy, respectively, they are talking about two sides of the same coin.

According to renaissance political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), it is extremely difficult to change a country’s political system. Where the political system is similar, he said, it is much simpler to remove the existing leader. If Iraq is indeed a modern state, then Machiavelli’s analysis suggests it would have been advisable to remove Saddam but leave the rest to the Iraqi people.

Among essays released in the United States of late are ones arguing that U.S. troops should have got out of Iraq immediately after they disposed of Saddam, or that the greatest mistake was the destruction of the administrative apparatus of the Baath Party. These comments come too late to have any beneficial effect. What people have to do now is to build on the achievements of a year of occupation–a period during which the relevant authorities made tremendous efforts to rebuild the country, indeed with considerable success.

Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had earlier demanded that general elections be held immediately–a move the United States feared would lead to the establishment of a majority Shiite regime, in turn threatening to spark civil war with Sunnis and Kurds, both of whom would feel threatened by Shiite domination of the country’s politics. To prevent such a situation, a framework guaranteeing minority rights in Iraq has been in place since late February under the auspices of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Lately, some critics of the occupation have also been demanding that general elections be staged as soon as possible to allow the creation of a legitimate government in Iraq. No one knows what the outcome of such a poll would be.

In modern nation-states, many ethnic groups peacefully coexist. People in those countries expect a peaceful life–not wanting to shed their blood unless their lives are threatened. This may be what the Iraqi people desire, or it may be that they really want to divide their nation along ethnic lines. In either case, the country in February put in place the basic building block of the modern nation-state–the guarantee of minority rights.

As for former members of the onetime ruling clique, the Baath Party, they were initially banned from working in the public sector. That ban itself is an asset based on which new recruiting is possible. The easing of their exclusion mirrors similar turns of events in postwar Japan and Germany. Now the question is how to reemploy competent and skilled people from among the ranks of military officers and technocrats who had served Saddam.

I see a ray of hope in the U.S. recruitment of a former Baath Party general in Fallujah to restore security and stability in the Sunni stronghold. In any country, the military is a standard bearer for nationalism.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi troops never yielded an inch to the Iranians in Basra even though the front lines were piled high with their dead. Presumably, their bravery did not stem from loyalty to Saddam. Of course, military professionalism played a role, but it seems certain they were driven by a Mesopotamian nationalism fostered over centuries of rivalry with the Persians. If this is the case, there must be leaders from the former Iraqi armed forces who continue to be regarded by the Iraqi people as upholders of the country’s nationalist past.


Parallels with Japan

When the U.S. forces occupied Japan after the end of World War II, U.S. Army Gen. Robert Eichelberger was a real soldier and enthusiastic to praise the prowess of Japanese troops as fellow professionals. To counter the Soviet threat, he proposed that Japan be allowed to establish a new military by recruiting the best and brightest of the defunct Imperial Japanese Army and Navy. The supreme commander of the Occupation forces, Douglas MacArthur, flatly rejected the idea.

If Eichelberger’s proposal had been realized, what we now call the Self-Defense Forces would have played a key role in fostering Japanese nationalism in the postwar years, acting as a counterbalance to the upsurge of the Cold War communist propaganda.

Furthermore, Japan would have not been criticized for being a free rider on U.S. security policy and, instead, would have served as a genuinely reliable military partner for the United States. Then Japan could have fostered a relationship with the United States based on equal cooperation between democracies, as is seen in Anglo-American relations.

One desirable form of polities for Iraq may be based on creating a balance between the majority Shiites, who command the political supremacy, and Sunni professionals, who bear the bulk of administrative and security responsibilities.

It remains to be seen what kind of nation Iraq will become. Nonetheless, one thing is clear–nationalism can be one of the country’s central driving forces. Countries that have no foundation in nationalism cannot expect to survive for a long time. If Iraqi nationalism becomes pan-Arab nationalism or anti-American nationalism, the Iraq policy of the United States will be in ruins.

The United States still has a chance to make Iraqi nationalism its friend. To that end, the United States should act as a good partner for Iraq by respecting the patriotism of the country’s soldiers and police. Protecting the safety of one’s compatriots is a logical and relevant cause for nationalists.

Freedom and democracy likely will prevail in the end. It is inconceivable that any nationalist regime in the world today will be able to resist the pressure for freedom, especially if it hopes to have close relations with the United States.