Book Review: Descent into chaos

An Iraqi author describes how the foundations for sectarianism, civil war and corruption grew out of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

Iraqi christians from Mosul, who fled from violence in their country, rest at the Latin Patriarchate Church in Amman. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraqi christians from Mosul, who fled from violence in their country, rest at the Latin Patriarchate Church in Amman.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The trouble with writing on a current event or ongoing crisis is that the publication is sure to be outdated by the time it goes to press. This is particularly evident in writing about Iraq. Zaid al-Ali’s book The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy ends around late 2012 or early 2013. However, the text remains relevant for diagnosing, and in some ways predicting, the future failure of an already failed state.
Ali is a lawyer specializing in comparative constitutional law and was a legal ad - viser to the United Nations in Iraq from 2005 to 2010. As such, he is excellently placed to provide a diagnosis of what hap - pened to the state after the US-led inva - sion of 2003.
The author is an Iraqi who was exiled as a child. He writes that  “I was involved in the effort to rebuild the state – not for professional or financial reasons, academic interest or curiosity, not as a stepping stone to other opportunities, nor to kill time while I waited for something else to do.” Rather, he says, it was a personal endeavor – in his words, an intense “rediscovery” of the country he had been denied as a child.
The author is cynical in painting a tra - jectory of Iraq falling into the grip of sectarian violence and corruption.
“In the 1970s Iraqis generally eschewed corruption and theft... by the time [for - mer prime minister] Nouri al-Maliki’s second government was formed in No - vember 2010, moral standards had plum - meted, in large part because of an un - derstanding that anything that was not stolen would just be wasted or gobbled up by the political parties anyway,” he writes.
This is a romantic picture, perhaps, of the past. We know today that the regime of Saddam Hussein, despite mass human rights violations, did invest in infrastructure, as well as healthcare reform, but this is a double-edged sword one finds in his - tories of the Soviet Union as well: Crime, corruption and other issues may have been kept under control by the Soviet sys - tem, but the dark side is that they came exploding to the surface afterward. Ali’s assessment doesn’t necessarily take this issue into account.
Ali paints a dismal picture of modern Iraq. Born under the British and their support for King Faisal, who was from the Hijaz in what is now Saudi Arabia, the state was cobbled together and dragged into the modern era after a brief rebellion in the early 1920s. When the monarchy was overthrown in a brutal military coup in 1958, Iraq was restructured as a republic. But hopes for a more open system faltered. The Communist Party was suppressed. “An election law was promised but never delivered,” Ali writes, “and in time all ministers who were affiliated to political parties or ideologies were dismissed from government.” Then came Saddam, the Gulf War and finally the 2003 invasion.
Iraq already had a bloody and chaotic past; the question was whether the coun try could be reconstructed.
In analyzing the post-2003 period, the author first concentrates on the ruling elites who emerged under US auspices.
“For decades the US and the UK had been cultivating allies among the Iraqi exile and opposition groups,” he notes.
He describes an immature class of people, such as current Vice President Ayad Alla - wi, who grabbed onto power despite hav - ing little support in Iraq.
In addition, he says, “many exiles did not have any valuable work experience...
many of those who expected to occupy senior positions had never worked for the state at all.” This was one of the other re - sults of Ba’athism and the attempt to remove all the Ba’athists after the invasion.
Unlike in the rebuilding of, say, Germany after World War II, or the US South after the Civil War, there was no large profes - sional class to rely on. The middle classes had been eviscerated during the period of sanctions.
From the start, the new Iraq was plagued by sectarianism. This was, according to the author, particularly true in the new parliament. It was “the most sectarian institution in the country. Posts in parliament were distributed on the basis of what was described as ‘balance’: each of the country’s three main ethnosectarian groupings was given adequate representation, based on their respective de - mographic weight.” This was a recipe for worse to come.
Hampering the initial political developments were US occupation, a violent insurgency and sectarian violence that tore the country apart and caused thousands of deaths. The author describes how it looked to drive north of Baghdad: “What should have been a two-hour drive could often take half a day or longer... by 2009 over sixty Iraqi army checkpoints dotted the highway.”
The rise of Maliki was the last nail in the coffin of what had seemed like an improving state in 2009, but was actually built on faulty foundations. Maliki sought to aggrandize power in the hands of the Shi’ites. “Service delivery and standard of living” did not improve, the author says.
He concludes that this “will spell disaster for the state’s survival in the mid to long term.”
This is a prescient analysis. We know now that it did spell disaster.
The author describes the country lurching from one failure to the next. Minority Christians were attacked and bombed and kept fleeing the country. Yet even as violence increased in 2012, the government ministers continued to congratu - late themselves. Ali describes a meeting in Amman where Iraqi government officials “showered themselves with praise, de - scribing success after success.” But it was all a charade.
He also describes conferences about Iraq attended by Europeans “who had nothing to do with Iraq.” This was part of a parade of internationals, bureaucrats and others, punching their tickets on the way to better jobs at the EU or better academic appointments.
One of Ali’s pet interests is the decline of the Iraqi environment and the increasing deterioration of farmland due to dust storms, in which villages were buried and farmers driven from their land. It is perhaps symbolic of the rest of the tragedy of Iraq: decimated by dust storms and real storms sweeping over the Middle East.