George W. Bush’s Legacy in Iraq

Happy Hanukkah, Happy Winter Solstice.  Now that that’s out of the way, I’m in a bad mood–on account of a reflection.  If any confusion remains about this, George W. Bush wasn’t just a poor manager of our nation’s resources, good will and foreign relationships, he was uselessly so to boot.  While the Arab Spring uprising has trivialized the purported democratization mission of the Iraq War at so far a comparably minimal cost of blood and treasure, Iraq’s current political leadership has found it in its interest to make a mockery of the enterprise itself.  The political news coming out of Iraq right now is decidedly bad: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the ruling Shi’a-Arab Islamic Dawa Party waited until the withdrawal of the last US forces from Iraq–withdrawn because we could not work-out an agreement with his government on terms of basing and training of Iraqi troops that wouldn’t leave our soldiers open to Iraqi arrest and prosecution–to charge Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi with running a death squad.  He has fled to Iraqi Kurdistan–the autonomous northern mountain region populated by Iraq’s large ethnic-minority Kurds; their Peshmerga militia is comparable in size to the Iraqi Army itself, so they may not feel compelled to obey the Prime Minister’s demand that al-Hashemi be extradited–er, remanded to Baghdad to stand trial on these charges.

The Iraqi Prime Minister said in 2009 that he didn't want to run for another term as Prime Minister. He won that new term he didn't want in the controversial spring 2010 national elections. Now, in response to the Arab Spring protests, al-Maliki says he won't run for a 3rd term in 2014 in the interest of the movement for Arab democracy. Maybe he means it, and maybe we should bear in mind that President Hosni Mubarak kept Egypt in a "state of emergency" for 30 years, and that Ali Abdullah Saleh promised several times to relinquish power in Yemen this year, and yet he is still contending to regain control after a wounding attempt on his life this summer. Just sayin'. Photo courtesy of REUTERS.

Prime Minister al-Maliki seems to be able to run the modern Iraq; the question is whether the question is whether this is actually a fact that commends him.  David Ignatius made this point precisely in a column 1 week ago in which he rightly identified Maliki’s ethical failures as his tactical merits: Nouri al-Maliki is “a man of the shadows,” the sort of man who rises to the top of a consensual government in Iraq following years of extreme authoritarianism.  He is also a perfect specimen of the sort of public figure it must be able to overcome in the future: Iraq labors for want of good intellectuals, reformers, and public servants; of those tolerated or able to endure Saddam’s regime, many were demoralized and fled the new Iraq while others were killed in its apparent chaos of contending factions.  The survivors, Ignatius reasons, were the schemers.  1 of  them was good-enough (and lucky-enough) to become Prime Minister.  Now he is casting stones, seeking to do away with political opponents whom the country’s constitutional structure and democratic procedures have granted a share of power.

The Iraqi Prime Minister may face sufficient institutional constraints and insufficient resources to become a dictator on the Cold War Arab state model, but a combination of national paranoia, a combination of ethnic clientelism and ethnic triumphalism, politically-convenient security charges against the Sunni political opposition and patronage fed through oil money could render the new Iraq about as corrupt and unaccountable as any Gulf state. Given its geo-strategic situation, demographics, resource endowments and peculiar ethnic divisions and history of oligarchic institutions, Iraq if anything appears to have been a poor choice for President W. Bush’s presumptuous social experiment.

The new Iraq will probably welcome alliance with the United States even if the government was hostile to US basing (as it appears it will be eager for the material assistance to balance against Iranian influence). Iraqi oil will be open to international markets, which will be good for us and a positive improvement, whatever the details, over Iraqi isolation and starvation. But this is a shamefully-meager result considering the money we spent, the bridges we burned, and the blood we both lost and spilt in the 8 1/2-years of war in Iraq. The most-remarkable thing about the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and even the Palestinian Territories is how trivial and peripheral our invasion and reconstruction of Iraq was to all of that.

Thanks to this ill-conceived attempt to seize control of History or whatever, there is now a fair prospect of a succession of ethnic and sectarian disputes roiling every country from Lebanon to Iran, including Turkey. I know counterfactuals always presume too much, and previous repression and clientelism by Saddam’s regime might have made some level of violent social dysfunction during a democratic transition unavoidable. But I don’t see how the arrival of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia or the ethnic cleansing work of the Shi’a militias enters into the picture on that account.

All we’ve got for our trouble is no Army bases, another felonious oil ministry to deal with, larger budget deficits, a raised Iranian profile in the region, and a religiously- and ethnically-segregated Iraq enjoying the kind of nominal republican government currently being overthrown in other Arab countries by young people organized principally by telecommunications. George W. Bush deserves our contempt now that we’ve seen such an absurd end come to such a needless war.

I GUESS WE HAVE YOU TO THANK FOR THIS: Outgoing President George W. Bush shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who it seems brooks no opposition, just over 3 years ago. Photo by Thaier al-Sudani-Pool/Getty Images

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