Everyone needs to know when to throw in the proverbial towel.  That’s rock-solid, common sense advice, and it could have saved Mitt Romney, the Washington Generals, and Saddam Hussein a lot of trouble had they heeded it.  Writing appears on the wall from time to time, and people ignore it at their peril.

Years ago, it was fashionable to talk about breaking up Iraq into three new nation-states.  That was during the height of the insurgency against the U.S. occupation in 2005-06; a fine as time as any for throwing in the towel, geopolitically speaking.  Now, with Islamic State controlling a full third of the country after the fall of Anbar’s provincial capital, Ramadi, the question must be begged yet again: when can we just wipe the name “Iraq” off the map?

After a great deal of patience, blood, and hand-wringing.  

  • Who broke Iraq?  Well, it wasn’t made well to begin with, but you can really blame the Americans.
  • The old Iraqi social contract, wobbly and occasionally evil though it was, is on life support.  What will decide if it lives or dies will be the aftermath of this war against Islamic state.
  • If Iraq’s social contract does die, it will mean its time to break Iraq up.  But that will require absolutely incontrovertible proof that it’s failed for the international community, which does not want to make more states in the Middle East.
  • Alas, that’s probably going to be pretty easy to come by; the other option will be a failed state in the heart of the world’s energy markets.

So how did we get to this?  Let’s make long stories short.

A nation-state is supposed to be a contract between a group of people with common cultural, linguistic, ethnic, or religious traits and a government.  It mostly boils down to a protection racket: the state promises to keep the nation safe from enemies and provide the systems needed for economic prosperity, while the nation promises to do what the state occasionally asks to make all that work.  Sometimes, the state goes full mafia, as Saddam Hussein’s did, in which protection is provided to the nation from the state itself.  (“Boy, I’d sure hate if your protesters upset the army and then they burned down your entire village and buried you in a mass grave.”)

Not wholly untrue, though at least you get schools and roads in exchange. (Source: taxguru.net)

A nation-state doesn’t work very well when there’s more than one nation to govern, or when there’s no nation at all.  While all nations are made up (the species, after all, did not start with flags), nationhood as an identity can become central to how a group of people see themselves should a state and its elites do their job well.

Alas, Iraq’s state never really had the chance to fully develop Iraqi identity to keep Iraq together.  It had bad things going against it from the get-go; the British administrators who drew its borders assumed an Arab king could hold together Arab tribes just as their own monarch held together disparate tribes throughout its empire.  They totally overlooked that, in case of uprising, the British empire could call upon its mighty military to put down said rising; the fledgling Iraqi kingdom had no such power. Worse, they chose a Hashemite king with pretty much no tribal connections to Iraqi tribes.  This very vulnerable monarchy was ousted peacefully during World War II by Arab nationalists, who were in turn ousted by a British invasion.  That saved the monarchy.  But it underlined the helplessness of the Iraqi state.

Being a de facto part of the British empire kept the monarchy afloat until 1958.  By then, the empire’s sun was setting, and the United States had made it ultra-clear it did not want further British meddling in the Middle East following the Suez Crisis.  When yet another group of elites challenged the weak Hashemite monarchy in 1958, there was no one to save the royal family as they were shot to death in their palace.

The fact that the Iraqi state was ruling over a collection of clans and tribes rather than a united nation meant another coup was inevitable.  A series of them happened back and forth in the 1960s, with elites from the army as well as various political parties jostling for power in the streets of Baghdad.  They dabbled in Arab nationalism, socialism, and communism trying to find some political formula that could overcome the social gaps that kept producing coups.  Eventually, the Ba’athists settled on the only system that worked: ruthless dictatorship.

Saddam being civil. But he didn’t keep Iraq stable long enough to create a sustainable Iraqi nation. (Source: Washington Post)

This was not the same as building an Iraqi nation.  But it provided the stability needed to set down its foundations.  With the state now predictably governed, the concept of a united nation could be introduced in schools, the media, and wider culture.  Oil helped push this further along, and when war came with Iran, Iraqi nationalism hit its high point.  There is, after all, nothing like a war to unite people; Iraqi Shi’a conscripts were sent to die on the front just as Sunni were.

But none of that belied the very real weaknesses of the Iraqi state up until then.  Saddam managed 10 years of peace and prosperity in the 1970s; that was not enough to bridge the cultural gap between Arab and Kurd, who had little beyond religion in common.  And while the Shi’a elite and middle class of the 1980s did lean towards being seen as Iraqi first and Shi’a second, the Iranian Revolution awoke a sectarian bent in the Middle East that had long been dormant.

What firmly killed the hope of an Iraqi nation were its two wars with the United States: the first against Kuwait and subsequent Shi’a rising proved Saddam was reliant upon Sunni elites to hold together his state, while the second totally broke the Iraqi state altogether.  The Americans then went about replacing what had been the only working political formula in Iraq’s history with an utter mess; then they went home.

Now the old social contract is near death, and the only thing that can save it is a wisdom that’s so unlikely that it’s not worth betting on.

Saddam promised not to hurt you and yours if you kept quiet; now Saddam is gone, and the new Iraqi state has promised to maybe make the electricity work for a while if you say you like it in a YouGov poll.  That is hardly a compelling contract; worse, it’s been betrayed regularly by new, immature Iraqi elites who have ruthlessly purged and punished their enemies from the Saddam era.  Few have faith in the Iraqi state to do much beyond steal something on their behalf; most just merely hope not to be stolen from.

The Kurds have already wisely bolted; they are a nation-state in all but official declaration, cooperating with Baghdad only so much as they see fit.  Their success gives credence to the argument that Iraq is better off dismembered.

All this corruption, combined with private death squads settling scores left and right, left the state far too weak to deal with the rise of an organized threat.  Like the Hashemite monarchy in the 1950s, when someone came calling, the Iraqi state could not defend itself.  The Islamic State’s capture of Mosul and now Ramadi should make more sense in light of that.

Black is IS, purple Iraqi government, and yellow Kurdish. Should IS be defeated, it’s highly likely some other force will emerge out of the Sunni regions to try another stab at rebellion. (Source: wikimedia.org)

Sunnis now see a state that will only steal from them or deny them benefits; Shi’a see a state that should give it the lion’s share of power and resources, yet is somehow unable to keep the lights on; the Kurds see an opportunity to bolt from a bad country they never wanted to be part of.

If a wise set of elites managed to return services to a decent level, reconcile Sunnis to the new government, and assure Kurds that no Arab army would ever come marching their away again, Iraq might be saved.  But that’s more hopeful than the situation probably warrants.

So who’s holding this mess together?  Well, right now, the international community, and that doesn’t just mean the United States.

Virtually every neighbor wants to keep Iraq together.  Saudi Arabia does not want to break up what was once the most powerful Arab state, especially considering its own restive Shi’a might like to join an Arab Shi’a state (and with their Shi’a sitting on Saudi’s oil reserves, that’s very much a non-starter for peaceful discussion).  No neighbor wants to set up a Sunni state that might just become a permanent country for Islamic State, while Turkey, Iran, and what remains of Syria fear that a free Kurdistan will expand into their own Kurdish regions.

Further afield, not one great power wants to see more troublesome Arab states quarreling endlessly over the same turf, especially when they fight over oil fields.  This is the same reason that a break up of Libya is not being considered by any outside power; to do so might create more stable nation-states in the long run, but in the short term, it would shock oil markets and possibly cause chaos to spread.

The only way the break up of Iraq will be allowed is if there’s incontrovertible proof that a break up is better than unity.  That’s the sad lesson of the Sudan-South Sudan war; it took nearly 60 years of genocide and war before the UN decided it was best to let them go their separate ways.  Iraq as a hobbled, near-failing state can be sustained relatively cheaply for a long time; that bodes poorly for the people of its several nations, who will be asked to sacrifice pointlessly in cycles of violence until either one side is totally defeated or until the world concludes smaller, more homogeneous states would better serve the Middle East.

None of that changes the de facto dissolution of Iraq that’s evident today, with three very different groups holding three very different regions.  It merely keeps a fiction on a map.  Alas, that fiction can kill.  More woe must befall Iraq before the world concludes otherwise.

More possible by the day. (Source: rferl.org)