den Ouden/My Turn: Iraq’s people must choose

Mesopotamia, which much later became Iraq, has a cultural history lasting over 10,000 years.

Its fertile crescent is where agriculture first emerges in Europe and Asia. The food surpluses generated by planting cereal crops made possible leisure and with it written codes, epic poetry and public discourses. Arabs have largely populated this region since ancient times. Iraq was conquered in the Seventh Muslim Rashidan Caliphate and became a cultural center in the golden age of Islam.

What an interesting contrast today.

Islam in Baghdad and in Seville, Granada and Toledo was inclusive of other religions and cultures. Jews, Christians and Muslims studied medicine, science, agriculture, philosophy and theology together. They learned each other’s languages and read each other’s texts. Scholars from all over the known world came to the greatest center of learning of the time, i.e., Baghdad.

In the centuries preceding the 20th century, this region was ruled by Iran and later the Ottoman Empire. With the end of WWI and suffering defeat as an ally of Germany, the Ottoman Empire came to an end. Britain and France signed a secret treaty dividing up the colonized world with plans to establish boundaries for newly formed nations. Iraq was then administered by the British Empire, which in turn established the Kingdom of Iraq. The British put Faisal I in power, as the U.S. did some time later, by installing the Shah of Iran.

Faisal I was a Hashimite from Saudi Arabia with no local ties to Iraq. The Kurds, the Sunnis and the Shiites opposed him but the British rigged the election. Iraq became a nation state because European powers drew boundaries, established protectorates and created artificial government structures often alien to the cultural and political history of the region. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, it was viewed by most recent residents of this nation as another colonial power, which would establish its own form of government and directly or indirectly choose a leader.

Perhaps Iraq should be allowed to fragment. The Kurds want a separate state in the north and the Sunnis and Shiites continue their 14 centuries of rivalry and hatred. The extremist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS has captured Mosul and many Iraqi troops have deserted.

Democratic nation states can only be created and endure if the population transcends ethnic differences and agrees on a common set of principles encoded in a constitution. When ethnic identity is primary, democracy and the rule of law are clearly secondary. Sunnis view the military as an instrument of Shiite power. They increasing show that they are unwilling to fight for a weak state. Troops fleeing from Mosul left weapons, equipment and even uniforms behind all which the U.S. had given them. They want to sever any tie with the central government. The training of these units militarily did not result in loyalty to a newly formed government.

U.S. President Barack Obama says we should support Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki if he develops a government that is inclusive with an appropriate balance of ethnic participation and representation. If al-Maliki moves in this direction, how genuine will it be? So far, diversity in his regime has been token in character and he knows that his only real power base in among the Shiites.

Perhaps Iraq can only be held together by a dictator such as Saddam Hussein. This was also true for Yugoslavia, even though Tito was far more enlightened than Saddam. Dictators provide a form of unity, coerced or otherwise. They also provide public safety if one does not oppose them. I visited Spain during the months after Franco died. Most Spaniards were glad to see him go but talked nostalgically about how safe the cities were under Franco’s rule. Spain used a constitutional monarchy to transition from one-man rule to an emerging democracy.

Iraq, with no tradition of national solidarity and collective identity, followed the rule of a dictator with a makeshift system of government largely designed by the U.S. There is no deep cultural legacy of freedom and equality in Iraq in which their democracy can take root. The overthrow of Saddam’s government was not an Iraqi revolution. How often does the U.S. have to impose a revolution on other nations and expect democracy to flourish or even begin to grow before it realizes that imposed democracies are not sustainable?

The people of Iraq should have thrown Saddam out themselves. If they chose not to do so, then they also chose to live with tyranny. Iraq is not ours to win or lose. We have spent more than enough blood and treasure there. If Iraqis want a unified nation, they will have to figure out how to live together and let go of ancient hatreds and unending propensities for revenge. The ISIS must be stopped by Iraqis and other nations of the region — not by the U.S. and Europe.

Bernard den Ouden, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Hartford, gave lectures in Tunisia and did field study on UNFP and on CARE International projects in Egypt. He resides in North Heath.

Dr. den Ouden has shown a bright light on our foreign policy blind spot. Democracy requires a long and difficult maturation process; it cannot be surgically implanted like a new heart into an unconscious patient. Sadly, the majority of the people of Iraq aren't ready. Given that we continue to make the same mistake, perhaps we should wonder who benefits from these disasters.

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