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Since the exit of the US troops from Iraq in 2010, questions have been raised regarding the effectiveness of the withdrawal. During the withdrawal of troops, there was moderate stability in the region with moderate peace and a newly formed democratic government in power. However, there was always the fear of how the Arab and non-Arab neighbors would react to the American military withdrawal from Iraq. Today, when the fear of ISIS looms large on Iraq and Syria, many argue that the time of departure of the American troops from the Iraqi soil was hasty and their work there was left unfinished. However, there are still others who argue that the misadventure did not start when US troops were withdrawn, but when they landed in the country in 2003. The US failed whenever it tried to intervene in the nation-building process (e.g. South Vietnam and Haiti).1
This trend seems to have continued in Iraq. This is because the desire to change the country’s regime radically has lead to administrative failures. Therefore, when the US tried to change the authoritarian regime in Iraq, it prompted a stressful realignment of the Iraqi politics. The presence of the US troops and the lack of a stabilizing-force in Iraq led to the Iraqi troop’s demise, and the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Consequently, was the breakup of Iraq inevitable after the withdrawal of US forces from the country? Further, how far is such a breakup more likely with the civil war in Syria? This paper will try to answer these questions using Bueno de Mesquita’s selectorate theory model and historical perspective.
Theory of Foreign Intervention
Exogenous state-building attempts in Iraq have failed, historically. According to the selectorate theory presented by Mesquita and Downs, a majority electorate that comprises of the people of the nation chooses a leader.2 The leader remains in office and retains support by creating public policies and goods for the people. When he loses support due to failed policies, an autocrat is likely to become the leader. Intervening states, which try to establish a democratic government by overthrowing a non-democratic state structure (e.g. communism or autocracy), often face problems, as they are not part of the selectorate. Thus, the actions taken for the target country may directly affect the prospects of the intervening nation’s foreign policies.3 A democratic intervener convinces its electorate that such intervention in a foreign country is essential to provide certain public good, such as safety of national security.4
The main interest of an intervening state is to change the policies of the target country, and in certain cases, create a democracy as has been observed in the case of Vietnam and Iraq. However, uncertainty becomes the biggest hurdle for such policies, as it is impossible to ensure if the target state will adopt the policies of the intervener.5 According to the selectorate theory, a democratic intervener will leave a symbolical democratic trait in countries that have negligible democracy vis-à-vis countries that have not experienced intervention.6 In addition, in countries that have some degree of democracy, the intervener is more likely to leave a symbolic democratic traits and nothing more.7 Thus, in the case of Iraq, the democracy that should have been left behind by the US in 2010 was not close to what the selectorate theory demands. In the end, the stability of the state will depend on the perception of legitimacy of the majority of the target country’s electorate. Therefore, the state-building process in Iraq was symbolically successful in creating a symbolic democracy when the US troops were withdrawn in 2010. However, as predicted by the selectorate theory, the majority of the people were not happy with the government supported by a foreign country, representing only a part of the population.8 This led to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country, which eventually took the form of ISIS.
Historical Outlook of Democratization of Iraq
Historically, if the process of democratization of Iraq is observed, it is seen that both the US and the UK failed to establish legitimate democracy in the country as they failed to gain support from the majority of the population. State building in Iraq by the British in the 1920s and the US in 2003, tried to form a coalition with a section of the indigenous population. As both Britain and the US were foreign countries, with the support of a local ally, the majority of the people of the country perceived their intervention undesirable. Their effort was to rebuild the collapsed state machinery and help the people.9 However, the ideologies of the intervening country, and not that of the target country, drive external state-building effort. The democratization process in 2003 created a gap between the intervener and the population, thus, alienating the external state-builders from the electorate. This is one of the crucial errors committed by the US in its state-building efforts in Iraq.
Iraq: A Case Study
When the US troops were withdrawn from Baghdad, the half-baked state-building effort had left the country vulnerable. The US successfully overthrew Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian government, only to form a government exposed to the often competing self-interests of the regional powers.10 The Iraqi politicians were trampled by the interests of their neighboring Arab nations and the US along with the expectations of the people of the country. Therefore, when the US withdrew its forces from Iraq, the political system in Iraq remained volatile and fell prey to the growing Islamic sentiments. The different facets of the post-withdrawal Iraq were the US-Iraq relations, Shia community’s political proclivities, oil producing block and federalism, the role of women in Iraqi politics, and the issue of Kurdistan.11 Some other factors that played a major role in determining peace in the country were Shia-Sunni dynamics, nascent Iraqi armed forces, and the opposing political blocs.
Further, the rise of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has changed the political map of the Middle East as it strives to claim a free land.12 The reason for this sudden upsurge in regional militant unrest, especially in Syria and Iraq, is due to the absence of a legitimate government.13 Iraq and Syria both have been haunted by the rise of a number of political ideologies such as such the Arab nationalism, Islam, jihad, and Salafism.14 The people of Iraq have started trusting the religious groups and parties to provide services that the state machinery is supposed to provide. The issue is related to the inclusion of Kirkuk, which is an oil-rich region, in Kurdistan.15 This problem is one of the most serious difficulties after the departure of the American troops from Iraqi soil. Saddam had subdued the Kurds. However, when the US forces overthrew him in 2003, these regional Kurdish leaders set aside their differences and started to form a strong presence in the region. In the 2005 elections in Iraq, the Kurdish leaders gained 26 per cent of the votes due to high Kurdish and low Sunni turnout. This gave them the power to choose a leader they preferred – Jalal Talabani.16
The rise of ISIS poses a threat to the Syrian, Iraqi Kurds, as well as the political scenario in the Middle East. On one side are the Kurds, who want to establish the teaching of Abdullah Ocalan’s philosophy of a bottom-up democratic autonomy free from the oppressive nation-state, while on the other side is ISIS that aims to establish the rule of the caliphate.17 Thus, both Syria and Iraq have become stateless regions with no governmental system.
The departure of US forces from the Iraqi soil led to the uprising of the opposing Kurdish and the Sunni Islamist leaders who fought against one another to gain control over the regions of Syria and Iraq. This was an inevitable consequence as the US troop’s departure left a vacuum for the rising militant groups to take over, as the Iraqi army was too young to fight them. Thus, the uncertainty of the Kurds and the Sunnis in Iraq led to the rise of the conflict between the Kurds and ISIS. The reason for this unrest is the intervention of an external country to establish democracy. Once the Saddam regime was overthrown, the incumbent intervener favored the Kurds and formed an alliance with them. However, this move isolated the Sunnis, thus creating distrust between a group of the host population and the intervening country. Thus, when the government was formed with the Kurdish leaders at the helm of power, it did not gain legitimacy among the Sunni population who rebelled immediately after the departure of the US forces. Therefore, the US had created a symbolic state in Iraq, which was not sustainable.
Brownlee, J. (2014). Was Obama wrong to withdraw troops from Iraq?. The Washington Post. Web.
Dodge, T. (2006). Iraq: the contradictions of exogenous state-building in historical perspective. Third World Quarterly, 27 (1), 187-200.
Gunter, M. M. (2015). Iraq, Syria, ISIS and the Kurds: Geostrategic concerns for the U.S. and Turkey. Middle East Policy, XXII (1), 102-111.
Mesquita, B. B., & Downs, G. W. (2006). Intervention and Democracy. International Organization, 60, 627-649.
Romano, D. (2010). Iraqi Kurdistan: challenges of autonomy in the wake of US withdrawal. International Affairs, 86 (6), 1345–1359.
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Stansfield, G. (2010). The political parameters of post-withdrawal Iraq. International Affairs, 86 (6), 1261-1267.
- Jason Brownlee (2014). Was Obama wrong to withdraw troops from Iraq?. The Washington Post. Web.
- Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and George W. Downs (2006). Intervention and Democracy. International Organization, 60, 627-649, 629.
- Ibid., 629-30.
- Ibid., 630.
- Ibid., 631.
- Ibid., 632.
- Ibid., 632.
- See Mesquita and Downs (2006) to understand the ethnic and Islamic political unrest in Iraq and Syria, 632-635.
- Toby Dodge (2006). Iraq: the contradictions of exogenous state-building in historical perspective. Third World Quarterly, 27 (1), 187-200, 190.
- Gareth Stansfield (2010). The political parameters of post-withdrawal Iraq. International Affairs, 86 (6), 1261-1267, 1262.
- Ibid., 1263.
- Michael M. Gunter (2015). Iraq, Syria, ISIS and the Kurds: Geostrategic concerns for the U.S. and Turkey. Middle East Policy, XXII (1), 102-111, 102.
- Ibid., 103.
- Ibid., 103.
- David Romano (2010). Iraqi Kurdistan: challenges of autonomy in the wake of US withdrawal. International Affairs, 86 (6), 1345–1359, 1346.
- Ibid., 1349.
- Gunter, 102.