Robert Tollast
Last updated: 13 March, 2012

The situation in Iraq through the eyes of a US Marine

As a serving military officer with extensive experience in the region, few people are better placed than Peter J. Munson to discuss the military situation in Iraq. Munson is a Marine officer and Middle East Foreign Area Officer currently assigned to US Marine Corps Forces Central Command. A frequent contributor to multiple journals and blogs, including his own he is also the Editor of the Small Wars Journal. All opinions expressed here belong to him and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

Robert Tollast for Global Politics/Your Middle East (RT): At the beginning of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer tried to halt the death penalty in Iraq. His logic was that:

“The former regime used certain provisions of the penal code as a means of oppression, in violation of internationally acknowledged human rights.”

Yet many Iraqis demanded the execution of Ba’athists. Bremer remarked that de-Ba’athification was “the most popular” thing we did in Iraq. But he had unwittingly fueled what Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa has called the “culture of revenge.” When we talk about justice and reconciliation in the region, I’m concerned that we have encountered the same problem that Bremer faced – we’ve hit a cultural barrier. From your travels in the Middle East, do you think this is always going to be the case?

Peter Munson (PM): I don’t know that I would agree with the characterization of a cultural barrier. A barrier connotes something that cannot be penetrated. When we talk about cultural barriers, we give ourselves an easy out. We tell ourselves that the other is so different culturally, and clearly wrong or misguided, that our interactions are doomed to failure. I think we are guilty of two bad things that, when you add them together, are even worse than their simple sum. We choose not to view the world through others’ eyes, projecting or mirror-imaging our beliefs and logical systems onto them. We also believe that we are virtually omniscient and all-powerful when it comes to using our modern technologies and sciences to manipulate our world. Combined, our hubris is a recipe for disaster.

In order to interact with other cultures, we need to be able to see the world and our actions through their eyes. We also need to understand that culture is often a human adaptation to specific sets of historical and current influences and that some aspects of culture can change quickly, while others will not. At the same time, we talk about culture as an unchanging thing on the one hand and assume we can change a culture conditioned by fear and oppression into one of liberalism and democracy overnight through elections and laws. The reality is that culture is constantly changing, but at its own pace. Our attempts to manipulate it often spin wildly out of our control. So, I don’t think that attempts to foster justice and reconciliation in the region will always be stymied. I do think, however, that our manipulations and the cognitive dissonance between our desires for change and stability make for impossible expectations.

Justice and reconciliation are a tall order. Justice for one is often repression for another. How does a society achieve justice and reconciliation without resorting to simple domination and repression as has happened in our western past (i.e. in European state formation)? It takes a long perspective, a strong state, and some economic interdependence. The reason why there is a culture of revenge in developing states is the same reason why there is a culture of revenge in gangs or the mafia: there is no state to protect you so the credible threat of retribution is your only shield. It takes time for the state to build capacity and it takes time for people to place their trust in the state.

RT: We went into Iraq basically trying to build big government institutions from the top down, only to run into several messy layers of cultural differences. A bureaucratic failure led to military disaster. It wasn’t until several years after the Iraq invasion that we understood that, rather than a simple ethno-sectarian breakdown, Iraq and the wider region requires a high level of sociocultural anthropological understanding. Later, we saw the US army develop the “tribal configuration matrix” and the concept of “human terrain” to understand their areas of operation. How important are concepts like “human terrain” in understanding a region that often defies national borders and religious identity and can these ideas inform civilian commentators? A lot of people still look at a country and say something unhelpful like, “oh, they’re 80% Sunni.”

PM: First, I don’t agree with the statement that a bureaucratic failure led to a military disaster. The failures certainly were not solely bureaucratic. There were military failures, strategic failures, and most unfortunately failures of imagination and critical thought. To that end, I am very skeptical about how we would operationalize the idea that the ‘wider region requires a high level of sociocultural anthropological understanding.’ It is certainly true that we need to have an understanding of the complexity of these societies, however the knowledge available at the outset was sufficient to have forewarned and forearmed both planners and strategic decision-makers against making the mistakes that they did, had they chosen to request and heed such advice.

We surely have a much better understanding of Iraqi society down to the very local level through the human terrain program and I think this knowledge has and will inform great scholarship. The fundamental problem, however, was not the lack of knowledge but rather the lack of strategic caution and foresight that had us rushing headlong into a disaster without consultation or consideration of those who might have known better.

As we look at future scenarios, I don’t think the lesson is that we need to be ready to do more human terrain analysis. This is a throwback to a British colonial administration type of thinking to my mind: we need to understand these people so we can administer them. No, we need to let people work out their own administration and we need to stop listening to the hucksters and expats who will tell us stories for their own advancement that simplify and distort the real situation on the ground there. Finally, we must stop telling ourselves that these complex human terrains are some sort of cosmic new problem. If you look back at the history of state creation in Europe, you’ll see that the human terrain that we now imagine is homogenously French or German was not long ago an extremely complex patchwork of different socio-cultural and even linguistic groups. Our states and nations are constructed, not some natural and eternal constant. We should look back at western history to understand that what we’re seeing in the rest of the world should not be all that unsurprising.

RT: You’ve written about whether it is appropriate to impose Western ideals of democracy on Arabic countries. Iraq scholar Reider Visser points out this month that a Sadrist MP who ran for a seat in Kurdistan and only achieved 3 votes was then tactically moved to a seat in Baghdad. The reason is unclear but under Iraqi law, this man should not be an MP. Some people would take this as an example of why we should just leave the Middle East alone – it’s too complicated and they don’t “get”democracy. Are they correct?

PM: Those who have not read my book may take your summary of my writing as quite condescending to Arabs. It is not that I think that Arabs are incapable of democracy. I think in many ways portions of their population reject some of the ‘Western ideals of democracy.’ These are societies that have a much more collective understanding of local resources, decision-making, and propriety. The concepts of tribal and family solidarity also militate against individual decision-making. This is not some aspect of genetic makeup. This is a rational response when there is not a welfare state that has taken full responsibility for protecting and providing for individual citizens. There is no true collective or conception of the public good at the nation-state level because the state is not powerful enough to make such beliefs pay. So, you need to look out for yourself and the people you have bound yourself to through markers of identity. Altruism is stupid when there is no reciprocity, making for a chicken-and-egg problem that takes some time to overcome.

This unsurprisingly manifests itself in politics. When the rule of law is not strong, people will take advantage of the rules. Once again, I will cite the arrogance of our historical memory. The egregious improprieties of Iraqi politics and governmental corruption would be wholly familiar to American politicians of the Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall ilk not so long ago in the American past. At the same time, let’s not forget that flooding a country with money with little to no oversight makes many people dishonest, including U.S. contractors and military officers as well as Iraqi businessmen, sheikhs, and politicians

Do Iraqis and Arabs ‘get’ politics? Absolutely. As a matter of fact, I think they are far shrewder than many of their western counterparts. Until the state slowly becomes more capable and more ‘real’ in peoples’ lives, however, they will fend for themselves. And let’s not forget that westerners didn’t ‘get’ democracy either until despotic rulers had, over time, forged very complicated societies into entities that had some understanding of themselves as a nation based on the contrived narratives of state and until the industrial economy had uprooted people from their traditional surroundings and repositioned them in an industrial economy. Understanding our own history is paramount to understanding where the developing world’s states are at today.

RT: This month there has been more news of coordinated al-Qaeda attacks across Iraq, although it remains debatable whether this is a long term trend and whether al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) will ever win back the appeal they once had. Writing for The National Interest, security analyst and Iraq expert Dr. Michael Knights had the following to say:

“Following U.S. military withdrawal, al-Qaeda—not the Iraqi government—has been the fastest to grasp the concept of a population-centric military campaign. Indeed, AQI’s vision of the Iraqi government as an Iranian-backed Shiite dictatorship is squarely in line with the feelings of the Sunni Arabs following the mid-December crackdown by the Maliki government on Sunni leaders and provinces.”

If Knights is correct, then defeating AQI will require the Iraqi security forces (ISF) to adapt to population focused counterinsurgency (COIN) and Maliki to change his attitude. Can the ISF benefit from FM 3-24 (US army counterinsurgency field manual which advises that protecting and assisting civilians is more important than killing insurgents) or is defeating AQI essentially a political problem?

PM: The tenets of pop-centric COIN have come under increasing question recently, as has FM 3-24. I do not want to try to enter that debate in a few sentences here. I will just say that FM 3-24 is written from an outsider’s perspective as to how to conduct COIN, which is one of its major flaws – that being, conducting COIN on behalf of someone else instead of letting others take care of their own problems with some assistance (e.g., foreign internal defense as the military terms it). I question how much AQI is really conducting, much less winning, a campaign to win over the Sunni populations. While there are increasing references to Maliki’s growing strongman status and his relationship to Iran, I don’t see that as driving the Sunni population into the arms of AQI.

There are two aspects to combating the threat of AQI specifically and the threat of a renewed Sunni uprising more broadly. First and foremost, the issue is political. There is an uneasy stasis right now as many of the most difficult issues in Iraq – constitutional amendments, modification of de-Ba’athification laws, federal powers and resource distribution, and resolution of Kirkuk – continue to be kicked down the road. Additionally, people on all sides looked at the potentially explosive confrontation surrounding the charges levied against Sunni VP Tariq al-Hashemi and decided to back away from the precipice, set it aside, and continue to act as if all was well.

There is a lot left to be resolved in Iraq politically and it is unclear to me at this time which of many roads will be taken. Maliki and his supporters may be biding their time to increase their power before resorting to harsher measures to consolidate his control and marginalize the Sunnis. Conversely, cooler heads may be encouraging leaders to set divisive issues aside as the government gets on its feet and the transactional interaction of daily life cools tempers before attempting to resolve these powder kegs. In either case, few Sunnis are willing to follow AQI headlong into another civil war and will continue to feel that way until Maliki or other actors provoke them by taking harsh measures from a more consolidated position of superiority. On the other hand, the biggest step the government can take to defuse support for AQI is to resolve the outstanding friction points. Doing this prematurely, however, could be a disaster. For now, uneasy stasis is the best we can hope for and I don’t think we will know which way things are going until the next election approaches.

The second aspect of the AQI problem is undoubtedly military. Even if all the right political moves are made, AQI irredentists are not going to give up their fight. The irredentists, however, will eventually be isolated and killed off as long as the government does not do anything to inflame support for them.

RT: The US State Department recently trumpeted the continuation of one of its exchange programmes with Iraq:

“Since its creation in 2007, the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program has brought more than 840 young Iraqis ages 15-22 to the United States for summer exchange programs focused on leadership and civic participation. In 2012, another 230 young men and women from all parts of Iraq will participate.”

This is just one example of “capacity building” in Iraq. But they have run into serious cultural problems in the Middle East, despite being a cornerstone of Obama’s regional policy. I can’t help thinking that simply teaching Iraqis IT could be a better idea than traditional development – the key driver of change in the region recently is of course Facebook. In fact, PRTs (US run reconstruction teams) donated computers and IT training to Iraqi regional governments. IT seems pretty neutral to me. Based on your travels in the region, should we focus more on IT and less on “civic participation”?

PM: I think that programs such as this State Department exchange are incredibly valuable. The best thing we can do is simply expose, and I emphasize expose only, young Iraqi leaders to their counterparts in the United States. Leadership and civic participation is incredibly important, especially in a society that has been as devastated over the course of the past several decades as Iraq has. Iraqi society has been decimated by the targeting of leaders and of the spirit of civic participation and leadership, first by internal security agents and then by warring groups. So, exposing Iraqis to young leaders in healthier societies is a proper step forward.

Where we get into more trouble, however, is going beyond exposure to try to foist our morals and worldviews on others. The people doing engagements, both within government and in the non-governmental community, are very well intentioned, however they sometimes do not understand the culture they are operating in and do not realize how their efforts could be counterproductive to the ends they would like to achieve. Often, transactional and bland issues such as IT are the best venue to encourage civic participation, leadership, and other values, but only if it comes through natural exposure and not the awkward messaging we try to load into engagements sometimes.

On this note, let’s not kid ourselves. There may be some areas where we can teach Iraqis about IT, but when it comes to social media and the like, a certain stratum of the Arab population is as far down this road as anyone. In all, I think we need to be a little more humble and a lot less overbearing in thinking that we can and should “teach” and “help” and “show” the world how to live. Iraqis have a lot of healing to do, but they have a proud legacy of cultural and intellectual production. They’ll pull themselves together as long as we give them some time and space and as long as the flawed political system we put in place doesn’t send the whole project into the abyss again.

To that end, encouragement of leadership and pluralism in the wrong way may actually be counterproductive when it comes to political campaign season. One of the reasons why the big religious Shi’a parties did as well as they did was because a lot of the more liberal and secular voices and votes were lost in a mess of small parties and single candidates. That is an issue that the non-governmental community may want to look at for the next election. The field may be pretty static, though.

RT: Recently there was huge controversy over Exxon making contracts with the Kurdish Regional Government, contrary to Iraqi government law. The Iraqis in Baghdad threatened to blacklist Exxon, perhaps their most important client for oil service work in southern Iraq. But Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Rosh Shaways sees things differently, saying of the threat to blacklist Exxon:

“These statements will give a negative picture to investors and violate the state’s public policy of opening the economy and promoting investments in all fields”

When you think about the legacy of dictatorship – the struggle to crawl away from a centralised economy, that is a pretty remarkable statement. In fact, foreign investment in Iraq is huge and growing, and funds are being haphazardly plowed into big infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, the Sadrists managed to push a proposal through the Iraqi parliament that allows a proportion of surplus oil funds to be allocated directly to Iraqi citizens which is, of course, a very socialist idea. It seems an economic fight is now happening in Iraq, between the old position (Sadr) and the new (Shaways.) When you wrote Iraq in Transition, did you ever think Iraq would even get as far as this debate?

PM: I did think it was possible that Iraq would get to this point, but I’m still far from optimistic. Iraq could still go in any direction. It is very early in the transition and it is far from consolidated. Most scholars would not consider Iraq a democracy despite the existence of elections and such. The next elections will be very telling. If those are relatively free and fair and if they mix up the government somewhat, we may see more confidence to address the remaining difficult issues.

As far as the dispute between socialist and free market principles, I don’t think that this is a question of old and new. Yes, Islamist and especially Shi’a Islamist political thought in Iraq is colored by a legacy of socialist activism, but I don’t see a debate over distributing a portion of the oil revenues to the population as startlingly socialist. This happens in many places, to include Alaska, that aren’t particularly socialist to say the least. What I think is more instructive is to look at the populist techniques that Sadr and the Sadrists have used to rally their base.

Populist politics are still politics. So, I’m still cautious to pessimistic about Iraq, but I am less abhorred by people like Sadr than others. The more we vilify people like him, the more populist credibility he has.

In closing, my mantra is that the fate of Iraq is up to the Iraqis now and we need to learn to accept that. This is not wrong, nor a failure of policy. This is life. In my forthcoming book I talk about the contrast between the exemplar and the crusader schools of American foreign policy. We have been very much crusaders over the past decade. I suggest we need to go back to being exemplars. Our military crusading has undercut the very strong Gramscian hegemony that America built up over the years. We did what we did and now we have to sit back and see what the Iraqis can do with the situation they find themselves in. The more we intervene, the more we will distort the outcome and prolong their transition.

Western state-formation took place under very different international circumstances. We forget how messy, corrupt, and violent it truly was. We expect states in the developing world to magically transform into democracy overnight through elections and to change while remaining stable. Our worldview is so flawed and dissonant in this respect that we cannot help but be disappointed. Nonetheless, we must let others find their own solutions and dispense with the hysteria and insecurity that blows every issue around the world into an existential threat. We are so spoiled and pampered here in the west that we expect the government to forestall every calamity and mitigate every risk, but to do so without interfering in our lives or costing us any money. We simply cannot pander to this delusion any longer.

Peter J. Munson is the author of two books, Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and The Prospects for Democracy (Potomac, 2009), and War, Welfare, and Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History (coming out in autumn 2012). A frequent contributor to multiple journals and blogs, including his own, he is also the Editor of the Small Wars Journal.

This article was first published in Global Politics and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. To see the original article, please click here.