Iraq, a Failed State

With elections in Iraq due on 7 March I reprint below a paper I wrote in April 2005, now right on five years ago. I believe what I wrote was, and still is relevant 

The events of the past week in Iraq, the abortive attempts to form a government amongst the fractious parties have brought into sharp relief the deep and inherent differences separating them. The situation has more than ever underscored the importance of applied Geopolitics in nation building.

This post is a lengthy one, but if the subject is to be studied seriously, there are many considerations to be taken on board and analysed. Bear with me.

In order to consider as objectively as possible the viability of an “Iraqi” state or nation I believe it behooves one to look both into history and political philosophy for reference points.
Since August 2002 I have written often of my belief that an invasion of Iraq with the objective of promoting democracy and transforming that country into a stable nation state would prove well nigh impossible and counterproductive. My reasoning was based on a study of Geopolitics and how it relates to foreign policy, and not prompted by US domestic politics preferences. In that regard, there is not, nor has there been in recent history, any substantial difference between the two major political parties.

Now, almost three years later, just over two years after the invasion and two months following the elections in Iraq it would appear my fears are being realised.

In August 2002 I warned that the US was once again ignoring history in favour of wishful thinking. I pointed to the British experience in Mesopotamia in 1920; the ill-fated attempt to bring together the disparate parts of that benighted territory – the Sunni and the Shia, who were at each other’s throats in a bloody war. The British did indeed bring them together, redrew the map and created a new country which they duly anointed “Iraq”. The irony and tragedy of that success was that the warring parties bonded to fight and eventually drive out the infidel British. Finally, after constant strife and loss of 2000-3000 troops, the British turned over “Iraq” to an off the shelf monarch, Faisal, in 1921. Since then, that arbitrary geopolitical creation, Iraq, has been ruled by a succession of despots, the only way it could survive given the incompatibility of the constituent cultures.

For those wishing to read more on the subject of the British experience in Iraq I refer you to the following two brief articles:


The United States, having ignored or having been ignorant of that historical episode, decided to proceed on the same well trodden and failed path in 2003.

What the US has been trying to do not only ignores history, it flies in the face of what my professor of Geopolitics at SFS Georgetown University described as one the basic principles of Geopolitics, raison d’etre; it goes against the basis of what constitutes a nation or nation-state, a reason for being.

In writing this post I thought it a good idea to re-examine the nature of a nation or nation-state under the lens of contemporary thought; then, see if present day Iraq, or rather its fissiparous parts, qualify for that appellation.

If one consults dictionaries or an encyclopaedia, one is more likely than not to come up with some fairly simplistic definitions, to wit:

Merriam Webster: nation-state, a form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state; especially : a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities

Brittanica: People whose common identity creates a psychological bond and a political community. Their political identity usually comprises such characteristics as a common language, culture, ethnicity, and history. More than one nation may comprise a state, but the terms nation, state, and country are often used interchangeably. A nation-state is a state populated primarily by the people of one nationality.

Then there are the following:
A people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language; a nationality. A relatively large group of people organized under a single, usually independent government; a country.web-savvy.com/river/schuylkill/glossary.html

Once a synonym for “ethnic group,” designating a single culture sharing a language, religion, history, territory, ancestry, and kinship; now usually a synonym for state or nation-state.highered.mcgraw-ill.com/sites/0072426527/student_view0/chapter12/key_terms.html

In researching this topic one of the most reasoned but lengthy discourses I came across was produced by Dr. John G. Boswell, Professor of Education, George Washington University. The link to his full tract is below:


For purposes of this post I shall merely extract some of the relevant arguments in which he takes care to differentiate amongst State, Nation and Nation-State. I quote:

“Looked at from the point of view of an individual nation, the state is a centralized organization of the whole country. Those studying this dimension emphasize the relationship between the state and its people. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that in order to avoid a multi-sided civil war, in which life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” individuals must necessarily surrender many of their rights — including that of attacking each other — to the “Leviathan”, a unified and centralized state. In this tradition, Max Weber and Norbert Elias defined the state as an organization of people that has a monopoly on legitimate violence in a particular geographic area. Also in this tradition, the state differs from the “government“: the latter refers to the group of people who make decisions for the state.”

“For Weber, this was an “ideal type” or model or pure case of the state. Many institutions that have been called “states” do not live up to this definition. For example, a country such as Iraq (in June-July 2004) would not be seen as truly having a state since the ability to use violence was shared between the U.S. occupiers and various militias and terrorist groups, while order and security were not maintained. The official Iraqi government had very limited military or police power of its own. (This situation has been called that of a “failed state.”) The official Iraqi government also lacked sovereignty because of the important role of U.S. domination.”
“A state is an organized political community occupying a definite territory, having an organized government, and possessing internal and external sovereignty. Recognition of the state’s claim to independence by other states, enabling it to enter into international agreements, is important to the establishment of its sovereignty. The “state” can also be defined in terms of domestic conditions, specifically the role of the monopolization of the legitimate use of force within a country.”

nation— or an ethnos (“ethnic group”)— is a community of people who live together in an area (or, more broadly, of their descendants who may now be dispersed); and who regard themselves, or are regarded by others, as sharing some common identity, to which certain norms and behavior are usually attributed. In common usage, terms such as nation, country, land and state often appear as near-synonyms, i.e., for a territory under a single sovereign government, or the inhabitants of such a territory, or the government itself; in other words, a de jure or de facto state.”

He goes on to point out “Nations are often thought of as having a common language. However, language fits Japan and Britain, but not India and Canada, and certainly not Nigeria. Ethnicity is another attribute often used in thinking about nation. While the Japanese see themselves as ethnically homogeneous, the Swiss are multi-ethnic. Religion is another often used characteristic of nation, but, the rise of secularism in the modern world that has made religion less of a force in some societies. Further, for every Poland and Saudi Arabia with their single, dominant religion, there are an India and a United States with varieties of religious belief.”

So where does all this leave us in characterizing the status of Iraq Version 2005?

Going beyond Boswell’s statement above that Iraq is a “failed state”; that it lacked sovereignty because it shared the necessary tools of violence and because of US influence, I believe there are other more salient arguments. Let us take the various common points raised in the several definitions of nation or nation-state and see how they apply to a unified Iraq.

Religion: As Boswell posits, there are indeed nations which have diverse religions such as India and the United States, but the former has been wracked by internecine religious warfare for centuries. As for the United States, secularism was dominant but it would seem to be losing out to increasing influence of religious fundamentalism and is in danger of acting as a divisive not a unifying force. North Ireland can hardly be regarded as a example of people living together in religious harmony, nor can Nigeria with its periodic civil strife between Muslims and Christians. Then, and more to the point, where do the Sunni and Shia live in complete peace – that is, unless they are united in fighting a common enemy? Weighted value: Considering the almost fanatical loyalty and belief extant in Islam I would have to award Religion a value of 85.

Common ancestry: Despite the assertion by the Kurds that they are distinctive, in the mists of history they do share a common heritage of sorts bound together by living in the same general neighbourhood as the Sunni and Shia. Weighted value: Almost insignificant – at most a 5
Language: There is a common language, Arabic, shared by the Sunni and Shia, but the Kurds take great pride in promoting the use of their own Kurdish tongue. I have often contended that language is the glue that holds a culture together, but I believe it is not the only factor necessary for cultural cohesion. Without a common language it is difficult, even in well developed countries such as Belgium and Switzerland to carry on daily civic affairs. At the very least a fully multi-linguistic society creates an enormous bureaucracy and paperwork to satisfy the sensibilities of the various language groups. The old USSR laboured for seven decades to impose the Russian language on all its Republics without total success. However, against the backdrop of religious differences in the context of Iraq it is not as significant. Weighted Value: 10

Common Interest: Here is the rub and the nub of the problem. For people of diverse beliefs and culture to live in harmony, there must be an overriding common interest, a benefit in the case of the Sunni and Shia that will override the trenchant differences that have divided them for centuries.

One must ask what the relative advantages are of a unified Iraq that could overcome the seemingly rigid ideology that stirs such passion?

For the Kurds, I see no advantage. They have within the territory considered theirs, The Asset, oil. From that they can build a prosperous society, and have their long cherished dream of being independent, of having a Kurdish State. I am not arguing the external considerations here, namely the objections by Turkey, the fear of a Greater Kurdistan. I am merely putting forward what is of interest to the Kurds.

The Shiites also have nothing in particular to gain from melding their culture with the Sunni or with the Kurds in the north. Under Shia soil lie some of the biggest oil reserves in the Middle east. All that is lacking is development and there will be no wanting for countries happy to finance and carry forward that work, something that was already in process before the war. Furthermore, their Iranian Shia brethren to the East will be on standby to provide political and military support to them should it be needed.

Ironically, the Sunni are the ones that would profit the most from a unified Iraq, yet they are the least disposed to collaborate. Why? Two reasons: 1) because of the profound religious differences separating them and 2) as a distinct minority, they are loathe to subjugate themselves to people they formerly ruled and repressed. The Sunni, electing to be marginalised will, I fear, become a refuge and platform for continuing instability in the region. They have no industrial or natural resource base but they will be sustained by negative forces, internal and external, whose interests are to create turmoil.

The latter point takes us back to my question as to whether there are common interests and practical considerations which can overcome ages old prejudices and cultural divides. I conclude that in the case of Iraq the answer is a resounding NO. Self interest, even if destructive, plays a more decisive role.

Weighted Value: Theoretically common interest should be a major factor in encouraging cooperation and the formation of a Nation-State, but in Iraq, ideology and self interest trump – Value 0.

All considered, it is possible that Iraq could be held together into something vaguely resembling a Nation-State, but only in the short term, and only in an atmosphere of continuing strife and civil war. In the medium to long term, the internal, centrifugal forces would tear it apart.

My final words are that I recommend the US foreign policy establishment review the basic principles of Geopolitics before embarking on similar misadventures or before staying with the present policy that can lead only to an Iraq that is a Failed State.

2 April 2005


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