The Return of Nation-Building in Iraq?

by ANDREW E. HARROD September 23, 2016

Iraqi "security is going to flow from responsible politics," stated Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Eric Brownat Hudson's September 9 panel concerning Iraq's future following a military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).  While a costly Iraqi regime change failure has helped sour Americans on Muslim democratic nation-building, Hudson's expert panel explained that lasting defeat of ISIS will require an American-aided Iraqi political settlement.    

Introducing the panel, Brown stated that a "continuing meltdown of governance, political order across the greater Levant from the eastern Mediterranean to western Iran" had abetted ISIS' establishment.  ISIS therefore indicated a "longer term problem of reconstituting a political and security order in the greater Levant that works for the people in the region."  Yet often "there has been a single-minded focus on the military defeat of ISIS and not enough thinking about what the political defeat of ISIS and indeed dealing with the core political and security vacuum in the greater Levant means."

Middle East Research Institute (MERI) Research Fellow Dylan O'Driscoll noted that America and its allies "can defeat ISIS militarily very easily, but this will be a hollow victory" without long-term Iraqi reconciliation.  ISIS could simple reemerge in strengthened form in a politically instable "ecosystem for reincarnation of that enemy, mutation of that enemy," stated Washington Institute for Near East Policy Soref Fellow Bilal Wahab.  He stressed "issues of governance, of nation-building, of institution building, making sure that the goal is not just defeating ISIS but leaving a stable country behind."

Recent history demonstrated how both the United States and Iraqi Kurds "are very good at winning wars and losing the politics," O'Driscoll stated.  MERI President Dlawer Ala'Aldeen described how in Iraq America's post-2008 "complete disengagement was a mistake" leaving behind Iraqis who "are very good experts in disagreeing, in polarizing, in fragmenting."  While Iraq had shown some potential for democratic development following the 2003 American-led regime change, "ISIS was able to break Iraq almost beyond repair" and Iraq's central government in "Baghdad is a dysfunctional state now."

Among Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious populations, "every component you name is fragmented" politically, Ala'Aldeen stated, particularly in Kurdistan once described by columnist Tom Friedman as a regional "island of decency."  Wahab noted a recent "moment for Kurdish independence, Kurdish statehood, more autonomy, maybe a flag of Kurdistan in the United Nations" for Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).  Yet "we are escaping that moment more and more because of our own undoing" amidst Kurdish divisions.  Rivalries between opposing sides of a brief civil war settled in 1994 by American diplomacy are reviving in the "absence of an overwhelming power that could engage both of them; that could engage and encourage nation-building."

The KRG showed Brown that the "focus really needs to be for all peoples of Iraq right now to build up their institutions of sovereignty from which their true security will flow."  "Independence is not worth anything for Kurds and for their allies around the world if it is not viable independence."  "The only way to defeat terrorism is rule of law in your country," Ala'Aldeen similarly concluded.  He cited his former medical students from Mosul who considered current ISIS rule there "heaven compared to the previous period" of Iraqi governance marked by violence and corruption.

Ala'Aldeen called for America to "engage constructively, use leverages available to make the Iraqis do what is right for their country," otherwise "left alone we will not be able to do it alone."  While Iraqi Sunni Arabs would welcome American influence as a counterbalance to Iraq's Shiite Arab majority, Iraqi Shiites as well would favor American aid given growing Iranian domination over Iraq's Shiite-dominated central government.  The central government is moreover already very dependent upon American aid to fight ISIS, but so far "American diplomats are very shy" in exerting American leverage. Brown also criticized deficient leveraging of American policy and advocated linking American military aid to the KRG to its integration of various Pershmerga militias into a unified military, a measure that would also spur Kurdish political integration.

Hudson Institute Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent's criticism focused on anti-ISIS military strategy emphasizing a brute combination of Baghdad-directed, Shiite-dominated fighting forces and American airpower.  By contrast, the successful counterinsurgency tactics of the Iraq war American "surge" developed local Iraqi Sunni forces to fight ISIS' Al Qaeda predecessor.  Current strategy is "rubbling towns, depopulating Sunni areas, and replacing an ISIS flag with an Iraqi flag and calling it success," but "that is not what success looks like," this is a "temporary PR event."

Pregent predicted that such ground gains were merely "going to push ISIS into an Al Qaeda model" as ISIS abandoned pretensions of a sovereign state holding territory and emulated Al Qaeda's covert organization.  "ISIS is moving away from planting flags" as these jihadists "are learning quickly that unless you can shoot down American aircraft you should not plant a flag."  While he desired to replicate the Surge's Anbar Awakening success against ISIS, the "Sunnis of the northern Middle East are looking to the West and are not seeing the America they knew in 2008 that was a guarantor, that was an ally."

The editor disagrees with the conclusions of those panelists who still insist that the United States must maintain a Roman Legion style permanent garrison in Middle Eastern nations to continue on the neocon path to "nation building" that has been such a disaster. Those conclusions of the panelists are offered  more as evidence of the continuing refusal of the establishment to conclude the obvious: Occupation does not breed friendship in Muslim nations even if it is called "nation building." What is called "leverage" is actually forced compliance by occupation or the buying of compliance using dollars borrowed from China or worse dollars ‘created' by the Federal Reserve.

Pregent and his fellow panelists laid bare the folly of President Barack Obama's precipitous exit strategy from an Iraq barely and/or improperly pacified under President George W. Bush.  Obama reacted to Bush's costly neo-Wilsonian Iraqi venture with the axiom "don't do stupid s-t" and scorned 2008 presidential candidate John McCain's suggestion that United States forces stay in Iraq for "maybe 100" years.  Yet as McCain's explanatory references to longstanding American troop deployments in places like Germany and Korea indicated, the question is not whether America must engage in places like Iraq, but how.  As McCain warned in 2008, American withdrawal from Iraq likely "means chaos...genocide...undoing all the success we've achieved."  As Ala'Aldeen noted, given such substantiated security concerns the "United States cannot shelve the Middle East, cannot shelve Iraq."

A version of this piece also appeared on

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School.  He is admitted to the Virginia State Bar.  He has published over 400 articles concerning various political and religious topics at the American Thinker, the Blaze, Breitbart, Capital Research Center, Daily Caller, FrontPage Magazine, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Independent Journal Review, Investigative Project on Terrorism, Jihad Watch, Mercatornet, Philos Project, Religious Freedom Coalition, Washington Times, and World, among others. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies.  He can be followed on twitter @AEHarrod.

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