It should come as no surprise that winning the peace in Iraq after winning the war a decade earlier proves harder in practice than in theory.
After years of occupation, an election and billions of dollars in U.S. funding, the all-inclusive society of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds has failed to materialize. A new military built from the ground up as Saddam’s forces were disbanded turned tail at the first signs of organized radical resistance. Add to the transition equation a porous Syrian border in civil war, well-funded radical groups pursuing a mythologized Caliphate and a stream of foreign fighters eager for a new front — Iraq’s unresolved domestic fissures could only expand.
All of the official optimism about a new pluralistic Iraq, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, flew in the face of what political-military planners, historians and diplomats knew as far back as the late 1990’s when Iraq War I was waged.
Democracy is a tough sell.
In a region where centuries of animosity and mistrust continue to fuel a cycle of violence and counter-violence, pluralism, let alone democracy, has never been an ideal. And no amount of U.S. troop presence would change historical momentum fueled by ideological, ethnic and tribal divisions. Not at least without a new identity forged by the Iraqis themselves.
Why would the Kurds, for decades suppressed, gassed and murdered, find comfort in Baghdad under any rule but their own? The borders of modern Iraq, after all, were lines drawn by the British forcing traditional enemies together into a tentative order.
The Sunnis too, had no home in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new Iraq. Once an oppressor-class under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, they were quickly forgotten by the new Shi’ite-dominated government.
There has never been a South Africa-styled national reconciliation. No new equality in the ebb and flow of power and pain in the Middle East. Only old wounds and new scars.
Perhaps the existential threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the latest in a long line of radicalized groups, and its military rout of Iraq’s major cities, will fuse a fractured nation into a common front. That’s the most the U.S. could hope for (and support) until Iraq’s larger fate can be addressed.
New calls for al-Maliki’s ouster will hardly solve the problem. President Obama has insisted on a “political solution” while ISIS takes Mosul and marches towards the capital. Inclusion certainly helps, but now it must be in the fight for a unified Iraq.
First Iraqis will have to rally under one flag. Then they can decide for themselves whether to create a future of partition or pluralism.