The Beltway Consensus: Iraq Edition

The illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq undertaken by the Bush administration is one of the American republic’s darkest moments. I rank it as the fourth-worst policy in our history, just after slavery, the extermination of the Indians, and the invasion and occupation of the Philippines and just before Jim Crow and the New Deal. Invading and occupying Iraq rejected the American notions of liberty and justice, individualism, republican government, and free trade. It also further damaged American credibility in the eyes of the world.

For the most part, populations have been okay with Washington’s antics since the end of World War 2. There are certain expectations that everybody has of a world hegemon, and the Cold War atrocities that Washington committed were largely understandable. But attacking a third world despot in the middle of the Islamic world – for no apparent reason except to “bring democracy” to the region – not only undermined the US’s claim to be defender of the peace, but it exposed the extent of the republic’s intellectual decay that has been going since the New Deal. Not only does nobody believe our claims when we attack a helpless state, but they don’t think we have the intellectual capacity to do the job, either.

My own perspective on the crimes against humanity that Bush and his cronies committed are much more superficial, of course (I live in LA, after all!): we have basically copied the British imperial model. Not only are my taxes being spent on killing innocent people abroad, but Washington is not even doing it creatively! The following article in Foreign Affairs illustrates my point perfectly.

After making a list of all of the problems caused by the Bush administration’s ugly, authoritarian, condescending, and stupid war, the two authors conclude that:

The American public is no doubt fatigued by the recent decades of involvement in the country and the region. But to avoid disaster, the United States urgently needs to review its Iraq policy. Washington needs to show the Iraqi people that its intent is not to divide Iraq and keep it weak — even if that appears to have been a main outcome of the U.S. intervention. U.S. President Barack Obama succeeded in keeping his campaign promise of withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. In its second term, the Obama administration should stop supporting a status quo that is driving Iraq toward both authoritarianism and fragmentation. The United States should make clear that it neither condones nor supports the prime minister’s consolidation of power and blatant use of the Iraqi Security Forces — which the United States helped train and equip — to crack down on political opposition. Washington should make its aid to Maliki — or any other Iraqi leader — conditional on his behaving within democratic norms.

You see? Nothing has been learned at all. Not only is Washington simply cutting and pasting from the (failed) British imperial playbook, but Beltway consensus seems to think there is nothing wrong with British imperial policy either.

I’ll start with the big picture: the idea of Iraq as a state to begin with. Iraq was created by the British. Not only was Iraq created by the British, it was patched together, in the way that it is, to counter the geopolitical climate confronting imperial Britain at the end of World War I (almost 100 years ago). Prior to Iraq, the Ottoman Empire (think “imperial Turkey”) had divided the Mesopotamian region into three provinces based around Iraq’s three principal cities, Mosul, Basra, and Baghdad. Conveniently enough, these three provinces roughly coincided with the demographic boundaries of Shia and Sunni Muslim populations, and the non-Arab Kurdish population of Mesopotamia.


Ottoman Iraq circa 1914.
Iraq’s 2013 ethnic and religious demographics.
Map of Ottoman Iraq
Ottoman Iraq circa 1914.

Imperial Britain decided it would be better to unite the three provinces in order to form a large buffer zone that would be capable of thwarting imperial French and Soviet ambitions in the region.

No consideration of the actual population of Iraq was considered, of course.

This is not to say that the British did not take Iraqi grievances into account. One would have to be foolish indeed to not listen at all to the wishes of a conquered population. Mesopotamia, as the maps show, was not a homogeneous area. There were, and are, lots and lots of different factions, and all of them had very different ideas about where the region should head. The British legitimized the ideas of the nationalists, who fit their idea of where Iraq should head best, despite the anti-imperialist wing within the movement, and clamped down on the rest. The co-author of the Foreign Affairs piece above is a successor to the nationalist Yes Minister movement of Iraq.

The Beltway ideology concerning foreign policy is a lot like Beltway ideology concerning domestic policy: only a strong centralized state has what it takes to promote peace and prosperity. Notice how the Foreign Affairs piece believes that only a strong, centralized state can succeed in Mesopotamia, condescending democratic overtures notwithstanding. The idea of a world without Iraq, or even a decentralized Iraq, is viewed as a policy failure rather than as a good thing for people of Iraq.

One can spot a policy failure a mile away if one looks closely for any contradictions within such a proposal. The Beltway consensus, as exemplified by the FA piece, lumps state ” authoritarianism and fragmentation” together, as if the two are somehow dependent upon each other. Oh the humanity! One can only guess how the American author of the FA piece (“Emma Sky”) votes in elections. Adjunct lecturers at universities – Obama’s bread and butter – around the republic are suddenly finding themselves out of their part-time jobs as colleges struggle to find ways to cope with the new rules mandated by ObamaCare.

Authoritarianism necessarily leads to more centralization. One cannot impose authoritarian measures on a society if it is politically decentralized. Likewise, fragmentation logically leads to more liberty (and prosperity), as it is harder for authoritarians to impose their beliefs on everybody. So the Beltway consensus prescribes for Iraq a policy of more centralization in order to avoid the strong man authoritarianism that has plagued the region since the collapse of the Ottoman state at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nice.

If the post-colonial world wishes to avoid any more eras of authoritarian strong men, then it is going to have to embrace decentralized governance. It is going to have to throw off the intellectual yoke placed upon it by European imperialism at the end of World War I. The nation-state nationalism of that era, and especially the economic nationalism that accompanied it, is going to have to be rejected. If the US is to earn back some of the goodwill it has lost over the last three decades in the Middle East, it would do well to take a look in the mirror and acknowledge that decentralization and individualism have been the keys to its prosperity, not national economic plans and imperial ambitions. That this decentralization may lead to the disappearance of whole states in the region is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I’d argue that such a turn of events will only lead to a better world.

6 thoughts on “The Beltway Consensus: Iraq Edition

  1. Therefore, we should be missing Saddam Hussein? How about a rehabilitation effort for Saddam? Maybe a bust somewhere in a central Iraqi plaza. After all besides a few hundred thousand Iranians, and even fewer Kuwaitis, he only killed Iraqi citizens, and only a few tens of thousands at a time. How could it be any business of ours?

    The “illegal” invasion of Iraq was authorized by 293 to 133 in the House and by 77 to 23 in the Senate. That’s an inferior showing if you compare it to the legislation authorizing the invasion of Afghanistan: 420 to 1 and 98 to zero, respectively. It was a bigger margin though than the congressional authorization of the 1991 Gulf War.

    I don’t even mention the several UN authorizations for the liberation of Iraq because I don’t think of the UN as a government and I hope that the author of the diatribe above does not either.

    • Saddam Hussein attacked Iran with Washington’s explicit backing. He murdered Kuwaitis and Iraqis with weapons purchased from contractors in Washington, some of whom ended up in George W. Bush’s administration. Washington made Hussein, just as it did several other ruthless dictators. Invading a fiefdom created by the US and installing a new strongman (al-Maliki) in the old one’s place hardly qualifies as justification for destroying the rule of law at home and all credibility abroad.

      Congress did not declare war against the Iraqi state before it invaded and occupied it. That makes it unconstitutional. Quick thought exercise: Congress created the Department of Education with a majority vote, so does that make it constitutional?

      Conservative Marxists are so cute! Quick Dr. J, tell us about how awful government is when it comes to domestic policy and magically delicious it is when it comes to all things foreign! We’re just dying to know!

  2. Maliki was “installed” by the US ? He did not become Prime Minister as a result of an election with high participation that hundreds of neutral observers on the ground declared legitimate?

    Do elections matter a little? I ask because it’s not always obvious what you think in this respect.

    And sure, the business of government, especially in this constitutional republic, is to protect ordinary citizens from assault from external enemies. And, yes, you are fairly perceptive: Government (the federal brand, in this case) does not have much of another role.

Please keep it civil

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