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Did the US occupation of Iraq taint the concept of democracy for the country?

Brzezinski claimed that there is “no such thing as ethical foreign policy” (Fouskas) as every war, invasion and occupation is a merely a strategic move on a global chessboard where the struggle for primacy is played. The US war on Iraq was no exception and the attempt of the United States Peace Institute to contend with Brzezinski’s claim is unconvincing considering America’s aims in Iraq to “re-establish law and order”, “establish effective provisions for the protection and advancement of women’s rights” and “secure a democratic framework for civil society” (Serwer & Bajraktari) were not achieved. The contradictions inherent in America attempting to forcefully impose democracy in Iraq show that America employed and manipulated liberal values to mask their own economic incentives. Achcar highlights the blatant hypocrisy that America has “long since opted to prop up despotic regimes as guarantors of their own interests,” (Achcar 2013) including keeping Hussein in power after the 1991 war amidst fears of popular revolt, yet also invokes “democracy promotion” to justify intervention. This inconsistent approach has created a sense of insecurity among the Arab regions which “perceive Western domination as a factor inimical to their political determination and economic sovereignty” (Achcar 2013). To quote Huntington’s democracy paradox: “adoption by non-Western societies of Western democratic institutions encourages and gives access to power to nativist and anti-Western political movements”. (Achcar 2004)

Prior to 2003, Ba’thist Iraq remained one of the only Arab states to resist the neo-liberal market model enforced by international organisations such as the IMF, WTO, and World Bank (Parker & Moore), and their economic independence threatened US economic hegemony. It was not until the US “reconstruction” policies, justified by so-called democratic principles of economic freedom, and implemented during the occupation that the Iraq economy essentially came under US control. These policies did not only fail to revive Iraq’s economy but were deliberately designed to weaken it, restricting economic and social mobility thus undermining democracy in the eyes of Iraqis. Occupying Iraq enabled the US to “establish a kind of suzerainty” (Zunes) where Iraq was nominally independent, but their economy was ultimately under American control. Zunes notes that Bremer’s reforms parallel “structural adjustment programmes imposed upon indebted nations by the IMF” suggesting America was attempting to dominate the region by ensuring conformity to the norms of the international market.

These reforms included: privatisation of public enterprise and the outsourcing of ownership to foreign companies which transferred power over essential segments of Iraqi economy into American hands; an almost complete elimination of import tariffs which stimulated an influx of foreign goods into Iraq, outcompeted local Iraqi companies and contributed to high unemployment levels; enabling of 100% repatriation of profits crippling national reinvestment; and a reduction of minimum wage contributing to growing inequality and poverty. The US justified these measures under the guise of “economic freedom” and yet in a 2004 poll a mere 6.6% of the population supported a free-market system versus a huge 65% who preferred a state-controlled economy (Zunes). Contentions that the US was attempting to rejuvenate a fledgling economy destroyed by Hussein, are contradicted by the Human Development Index which shows that prior to the Gulf War, “Iraqis enjoyed one of the highest rankings in the Third World” (Zunes) America’s significant economic intervention coupled with the absence of this pre-Gulf war prosperity indicates America was not prioritising Iraqi interests but “dragging periphery states into the world capitalist system and putting in place durable mechanisms for the exploitation of their resources” (Hinnebusch); thus the decline of the Iraqi economy was inevitable.

It could be argued that America was simply overwhelmed by destructive Iraqi insurgency forces however Schwartz posits a compelling case that Iraq’s economic collapse was an intended consequence of American policy. Using the oil pipeline at Al-Fatah as emblematic of the pattern of US reconstruction efforts, he demonstrates that America damaged, seized control, sabotaged, and abandoned integral economic infrastructure. This pipeline cost $70 million more than necessary and the protracted reconstruction lost the Iraqi economy approximately “$5 million a day in oil revenues” (Schwartz). The US did not simply run out of resources considering they had $592 million to spend on the biggest embassy on Earth at the time with power and water plants independent from Baghdad’s suggesting that American authorities were “not expecting the rejuvenation of any element of Iraqi infrastructure” (Schwartz). Hossein-Zadah supports Schwartz’s assertion, writing that war-profiteering is “key to understanding why the ruling elite [was] reluctant to pull troops out of Iraq” (Hosein-Zadah). In justifying these debilitating reforms under a democratic agenda, US deconstruction efforts tainted the essence of democracy for Iraq.

Sectarian divisions are not unique to this wartime context however the US occupation authorities put certain measures in place which encouraged them. In abolishing the Iraqi army and purging the government bureaucracy they diluted the bastions of secularism thus creating a “power vacuum” (Khalidi) in Iraqi politics. By establishing provisional Iraqi rule based upon religious and ethnic identity rather than skill they paralleled the French-imposed system in Lebanon, where political decisions favoured sects over principles. Having been politically weaker under Hussein, the US backed Shi’ite authority ensured they maintained this power by pursuing counterinsurgencies against the Sunni community who predictably responded to this with aggression. It would be naïve to assume that the US was merely encouraging self-determination in line with their democratic beliefs as this policy did not extend into the MENA region, take for instance the opposition to Palestinian desire for statehood. Unfortunately, this divide-and-rule approach can far more realistically be attributed to the perceived threat of pan-Arab nationalism and Islamism, only containable, in the eyes of neoconservative American intellectuals, through the division of the Middle East into smaller states. The US took an active role in dismantling Iraq’s political system for their own ideological and economic gain while creating associations of division and violence with the notion of democracy in the eyes of Iraq.

Carothers concludes that “any hope of advancing a regional democratic agenda had been hopelessly undercut by the Iraq war. Arab leaders are able to use the war to reinforce their long-standing message to the citizens of the perils of rapid democratic change.” The insistence that the US was establishing a democratic political model in Iraq has tainted the very notion of democracy, seen by Iraqis as synonymous with war, occupation, economic devastation and colossal human suffering. This was not a blunder but motivated by the American-centric desire to contain pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, characteristic of the US approach to communism during the Cold War. Furthermore, the irony apparent in the war-on-terror rhetoric cannot be ignored for US intervention in Iraq created the very thing they were claiming to contain. The ambiguity of US intentions and clear devastating consequences of their actions towards Iraq made other countries in the MENA region “question the reliability of the American security umbrella” (Hasbani) and react by turning to their own militant groups for protection. The US war on Iraq fuelled the previously “imaginary set of enemies” (Khalidi) into something far more concrete, understandably suspicious of so-called democracy, the credibility of which the US had irrevocably eroded. In short, the US woke up to the bitter reality of the democracy paradox.


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Kristy Richards is graduate from the University of Oxford, currently studying for her Masters in Near and Middle Eastern Studies with Intensive Arabic at SOAS. Her main areas of interest are migration and diaspora studies, inter-sectional politics and human rights discourse.