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Iraq and the Question of the Nation State in the Middle East

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How to defeat ISIL. Really?

The source of populace energy trapped in Baghdad and the South of Iraq is the system of governance in the country. Strangely, this is the same source, albeit in a totally different perspective, for the energy seen in Central Iraq that helps ISIL. In Baghdad and the South, the system is seen as incapable of preserving the unity of Iraq and of efficient governance. In the Center, the system is seen as sectarian.

While both diagnosis testify to the shortfalls of the system in Baghdad, they are different in content. An efficient government, in terms of bureaucratic performance, does not automatically mean a non-sectarian one. Technically, there could be a sectarian government that is efficient as such. Therefore, the term good governance should not be defined on “technical” bases. It should always be understood in social, political and economic terms in addition to the efficiency of its internal mechanisms. Even inclusiveness does not make governance good. The issue, particularly in Iraq, goes far beyond these limits, contrary to the common political lexicon used when people talk Iraq.

This is said on commenting on the US Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA) recent efforts to develop a better understanding of how the Middle East could be in 5-15 years, parts of it were covered recently in published papers.

The first fact that should be discussed is related directly to the fight against ISIL. The hard core of ISIL cannot be placed in the group of “interest-driven”, neither in the group of “grievance-driven”. It is ideological, religiously and historically based. True that it cannot be separated in any absolute manner from the two previous groups, interest driven and grievances driven, yet it transcends them to an extent that makes the distance between this ideology and the grievances or interests of the hosting environment quite remarkable.

While this represents a difficulty to ISIL to adapt, it also contributes to the misunderstanding of the term “defeating ISIL militarily”. Military action against ISIL is indeed necessary. Yet, it should not stand alone. What should stand beside it is not a political solution that is merely based on “clean” and good governance or a politically inclusive one. For what still remains to be done either in Syria or Iraq is the political solution that assist the historical process of nation-state building.

The second fact that should be debated is that the integration of multiple “spaces” into one country is a function of not only good governance, but also market integration and interdependency. In the South, and within its common sectarian-geographic boundaries, we see Basra, for example, drifting away from Baghdad in a slow but clear motion. So even if Iraq is divided, there is a chance that the division will be further subdivided even under “good governance”.

After the Second World War, General Charles De Gaulle was faced with a strong separatist movement in Bretagne in the north-west of France. After all the region is racially Celtic, it had its own language that is not French and it was economically backward. The central government put a comprehensive plan to integrate the region into France. The plan was correctly based on economic interdependency as much as it was based on cultural assimilation. The separatists in Bretagne are now nowhere to be found except in scarce graffiti on the walls in rare occasions.

The nation-state in the Middle East or anywhere else is not merely a political issue. Neither could it be reduced to fit the Clausewitz’s trinity of “Government-Army-People”. For Clausewitz presupposed the existence of a nation state at one point or another of its evolution. In Iraq and Syria and some other regional countries we do not have the luxury of such a supposition.

In the case of Iraq, which could be the future case of Syria, “reforms” should gain a little wider definition. They should include planning for the integration of the three spaces economically in spite of all sectarian and national difference. In Europe, we have seen this process starting spontaneously before the formation of the embryo of the modern political state. In the case of Iraq or Syria, we had the political state seated on social reality that cannot be defined by any stretch of imagination as nation states. These states were created to solve the Colonial powers’ dispute about areas of influence, not as indigenous product of social evolution.

Yet, it is a dangerous notion to “rethink” Sykes-Picot borders in the present stage of the region’s history. It is even more dangerous to leave the current spontaneous forces draw the map as they wish, for the division process will continue to produce sub-divisions. The point of start should be preserving the current borders and trying to explore ways to assist its content to evolve.

In Europe, we had the modern political state as a culmination of a prior process of nation forming. In the Middle East we had this kind of “modern” state imposed by colonial power before this process reaches any reasonable degree of evolution. What should be done now is what General De Gaulle did in the 50’s with the Bretons.

The concept of national integration should be looked at not as a replacement of anti-ISIL military action, but as the valid way to inject a specific component to the term “good governance”. In other words, reforming the central government in Baghdad and even going as far as succeeding in the political process of including the Sunnis in a representative governmental functions are not sufficient to construct the elements necessary to build a nation state.

The political “solution” in Iraq is misunderstood.

The integration of the culture and market and interdependency of the productive activities of regional populations is the one missing element without which preserving the unity of Iraq will remain an almost empty term. A corruption free, if that is possible, and fairly representative government is as necessary as defeating ISIL militarily. Yet, they, together, are not sufficient to stabilize Iraq and keep it one.

We are witnesses to the laborious process of nation-state forming in both Iraq and Syria. This process takes many deceptive and twisted paths even in the minds of those Iraqis and Syrians involved actively in it. There is no guarantee whatsoever that this process will indeed reach what it drives at. The process may stumble in illusions, past images and deceptive ideologies, and the two countries may end divided.

As the process in the region is going opposite to the way it took in Europe, the political governments should be aware of where their problems are, as much as the great French General was. You can preserve the unity of a country by sheer oppression like Saddam or the USSR did. Yet, time will reveal that you did not really create a unified country. This is not to say that Iraq and Syria are not nation states. This to say that they are in an early point of evolution towards that end.

This process was delayed for many reasons, historical (colonialism), political (post-independence military dictatorship) and economic (oil, planned economies and corruption). But this process is the true name of the crisis of the political state in the Middle East. They are states that are supposed to be ruling nations which actually do not really exist, or still at one point or another of formation.

The real root of instability lies in this diagnosis. And the challenge is to constitute a clear position towards the current historical phase in the Middle East provided it is clearly analyzed and reconstructed in the mind. Therefore, the “political” solution in Iraq is not merely building a “clean” and inclusive government. It is unifying the nation.

Putting some Sunnis beside some Shias and Kurds “quantitatively” together in one sac and calling it a government does not make a country or a State. As long as the social and market base is not expanded and integrated, Iraq will continue suffering instability for decades to come. The manifestation of this instability will vary in form, yet it will be always pointing to this delayed process of forming a nation state.

In fact, defeating ISIL or any other similar organization is conditioned by proper definition of where the problem is. The proof that Iraq during Saddam was a “false” nation state is that some loyal “nationalist” Saddamists are now the leaders of the supranational organization.

In the present situation in Iraq, the political energy to build a nation which emerged in a spontaneous form in the recent street protests has not been absent from the minds of a considerable portion of Iraq’s middle class. This energy has a limited chance to gather momentum and push forward. The Iranians for example, as a wannabe hegemonic power, condemned the protests as anti-Islamic. Iran’s army JCS Gen Hassan Fayrouz Abadi said that there “Hidden un-Islamic” players standing behind the protesters who were chanting “Not Sunni, Not Shia. But Secular”. Iraq as a nation is not in the agenda of Tehran.

The protesters do not reflect the general sentiments of the population in general. But no protests do in any case. The politicians who are not corrupt and who supported the protesters were reflecting more accurately this sentiment of “enough with corruption”, the trigger motto that represent the minimum denominator of the awakening of the civil society in Iraq.

Defeating ISIL, in a multi layered assessment of the task, requires reformed, efficient and representative governance. But that alone does not say what this governance has to do. If it was to take pictures of new Sunni political reps hugging their Shia colleagues and to tell the Sunni smilingly that they have a portion of the political power, that will soon melt down due to the absence of a real nation state on the ground. You cannot cheat history.

Iraq should be helped to see the long due list of “Do” that was not done by history or previous governments, dictatorial or sectarian. Rail roads, networks of connecting roads, assisting small and medium business to start, better cultural understanding, etc, are waiting. But they should be seen in their political, security and social value before anything else.

We should not content ourselves with the poor judgements like: If we reach a semi-clean, inclusive government in Baghdad, that will be it. It is not “it”. What is “it” is what such government will do. The US is not required to dwell again in ridiculous doctrines like “nation building” in the Middle East or anywhere else. Nations are built by their peoples. If it is built for them it will not be a nation to start with. While they do the job of building their nations, the job does them as well.

The triumph of the concept of collectively building a nation state by an inclusive and properly functioning Iraqi government is in itself the ultimate defeat of ISIL, and any similar group, both culturally and operationally.