The militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have captured several towns in Iraq, including the second largest city Mosul, over the last couple of days, only a year after the American and British forces left after staying there for more than a decade. When the Sunni rebels attacked, the Iraqi security forces simply abandoned their posts and uniforms and ran away.
US President Barack Obama and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have blamed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki, a Shia, for his failure to reach out to the Sunnis and secure Iraq. A majority of commentators in America and Britain has dragged their governments over the coal for this debacle or for the seeds sown for it.
Maliki, a sectarian leader who alienated the strong Sunni minority, is partly to blame for the success of ISIS. But let us not forget he was America’s man. Besides, America and Britain disbanded and destroyed the Iraqi security forces after they invaded Iraq, creating a vacuum they could not fill by spending more than 25 billion dollars over a decade to build and train new police and military forces.
According to a news report, 30,000 Iraqi troops fled when 800 ISIS militants launched the attack in Mosul. It raises doubts about the quality of training and other efforts to build capacity and confidence in the troops, something America must have ensured. Washington and London have promised military support, without boots on the ground, to repel ISIS. But such limited support will not bring lasting peace in Iraq. Only careful nation-building, based on inclusive politics and broadening economic pie for everyone, will help achieve that objective.
While the blame game will continue, one thing has been proven beyond doubt: The democracy project has miserably failed in Iraq. Former US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair invaded Iraq, citing falsely that then-Iraqi President Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. When no such weapons were found, they justified the invasion as a democracy project.
Under the project, the United States had promised peace, prosperity, democracy and human rights for the Iraqi people. But the Iraqi people have none of it. Rather, more people have been killed after 2003 than under the three-decade long dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis have become poorer and more desperate. Public services have deteriorated. The Iraqi government has been unable to defend its people from militants. And it seems increasingly likely that Iraq will disintegrate into Shea, Sunni and Kurdish nations.
The democracy project is a brainchild of the United States. In the wake of World War II, when communism began to spread in Europe under the Soviet Union’s communism project, America implemented the Marshall Plan to help the war-ravaged western Europe to recover, to rebuild democratic institutions, to secure markets for American goods and services and to prevent communism from moving west. The European Economic Community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were part of this grand project.
The project has succeeded in some countries, partly succeeded in some and miserably failed in others. It was a great success in western Europe, where countries did not fall for communism and became more democratic, more prosperous and more cooperative. This success motivated America to try the project elsewhere, and western Europeans have been supporting the American endeavor.
In countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Algeria, Tunisia, South Africa, etc., the project has been partially successful. It has delivered elected government, largely free media, and relatively independent courts. But it has not made these countries more prosperous than less democratic China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, or Malaysia. In several states, the project has miserably failed. Iraq is only one of them. Afghanistan, Haiti, etc. are others.
A few reasons are clear about why the project’s success in Europe could not be equally replicated elsewhere. First, nation-building is the primary element of the democracy project. The recent crop of western leaders did not have experience in nation-building; neither the currently incumbent crop has it. Their countries developed generations ago, they are only reaping the harvest from the field that was sown by their forefathers. Besides, these leaders have little knowledge of and sensitivity towards the local culture and society necessary for the project’s success beyond their borders.
Second, the democracy project is meant to safeguard and promote American national interest. It has largely lost its credibility due to the fact that the United States supports the most undemocratic regimes when they serve its core interests, as in Saudi Arabia, helps topple democratically elected government, as in Egypt recently, and touts democracy, human rights and freedom elsewhere in the same breath. Many countries and peoples have doubts about the project’s lofty goal and sincerity in genuinely helping them.
Third, part of the difference in the success of the project between Europe and other countries can be explained by the difference in their political structure, society, culture, institutions, and level of development. American leaders understand Europe better than other continents.
But the project has served America well. Now the United States is the largest economy; controls the global economy through its multinationals; and dominates the modern world with its literature, arts, films, educational institutions, and values. Western European countries have often supported the project either for their own advantage or in deference to American interest.
For instance, they worked together with America against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya because they had shared interest in oil. There was no western invasion in Syria partly owing to their unpleasant experience in Iraq but more importantly because Syria does not have much oil to make it worth the cost. At times, European countries have supported Washington in deference to American interest. They helped America destroy Al-Quaida in Afghanistan; they are serving American geopolitical interest in Ukraine, even though it my alienate Russia, a major source of their energy supply.
The United States is not alone in promoting its political brand and economic interests. Indians, Chinese, Romans, Turks, British, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch have done it in different phases of history. They used armies, weapons, faiths and ideas to achieve their objectives and to keep their rivals at bay. They launched Dharma yuddhas, crusades, and jihads and secular wars. The journey of weapons, started with sharpened sticks and stones, advanced to guns and cannons.
They funded religious missions to convert people in target countries, and these missions persuaded, bribed, deceived and intimidated peoples to join their faith. Trade was also used as a weapon to colonize and control far-flung territories. These old empires wrapped their naked ambition for power and resources in moral and material superiority of their armies, faiths, ideologies, knowledge and products.
America too has used wars, weapons, faith, political ideology, trade, and culture to dominate the world. But the context in which it has to promote its brand has become infinitely more complex. The world has weapons of mass destruction and is more connected economically and socially. We know more about our human rights, are more sensitive to cultural and social differences, and have more freedom to criticize without the fear of being punished. We also value our sovereignty and territorial integrity more than ever. Whistle blowers and courts often restrain the ruthless efficiency of government in silencing the opposition.
But this complexity does not absolve the United States of the mess it has left behind in Iraq or will leave behind in Afghanistan. The old adage says do not try to fix something that is not broken. But if you break it, you own it. The United States and western Europe brought down Saddam Hussein and installed Maliki in Iraq. So it is their responsibility to put Iraq back on its feet.