To Hell with Iraq: Ten Years of Western Ignorance, Incompetence, and Bureaucratic Madness
by Reidar Visser
The decision by the United States to go to war in Iraq in March 2003 changed millions of lives, my own included.
As someone who had studied Iraq since the early 1990s, I experienced the outbreak of the war in 2003 as the first in a series of onslaughts by the West on the complexities of Iraqi history and civilisation. In late February, when the decision to go to war seemed almost final, I defended my doctoral thesis on the subject of regionalism in southern Iraq at Oxford. In the same period, as a newly graduated “Iraq expert”, I experienced zero interest in my angry newspaper letters about how the war would create more problems than it would solve.
Gradually, as the cakewalk vision disintegrated and the problems of “liberated Iraq” multiplied leading to the killings of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the Bush administration did begin listening to greater array of academic voices. After I had published my doctoral thesis on Basra as a book in 2005, the US government began inviting me regularly to conferences with the CIA, State Department, Pentagon and other decision-making bodies in Washington. I didn’t get the impression my suggestions about how to extricate the US from Iraq in a responsible way were really being acted upon, but there was at least some sort of dialogue. If I had any influence whatsoever in that period, it was probably related to my harsh criticism of the idea of partitioning Iraq. Other Iraq experts knew they would be in for the same criticism that I meted out to people like Peter Galbraith and Joe Biden, and with the exception of Michael O’Hanlon, few academics in DC joined the calls for partition. In my writings, I urged that Washington should refrain from reinforcing regional and sectarian identities unnecessarily – and that a less polarised form of Iraqi politics, independent from regional pressures, would have a greater chance of emerging if the outside world simply stopped reiterating the paradigm of a fragmented Iraq eternally divided among mutually hostile sub-communities.
In 2009, quite despite the fact that the Iraqis themselves for the first time since 2003 seemed to free themselves from that stranglehold of ethno-sectarian identities, complex ideas about Iraq came to receive even less attention in Washington once Obama was in power. Not only was Joe Biden’s simplistic theme of a tripartite Iraq alive in a conceptual way among Democrats, who kept focusing on “a power-sharing government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds”. Increasingly, one could also get the sense that the idea of Shiite-dominated Iraq gravitating towards the Iranian zone of influence – possibly in exchange for some kind of compromise on Israel, nuclear, or both – was seen not only as inevitable in DC, but in fact as desirable. Quite in line with this, Obama did absolutely nothing to intervene when the climate of Iraqi politics deteriorated dramatically in a sectarian direction during the de-Baathification antics prior to the March 2010 parliamentary elections. At the annual conference of the combined Iraq units of the CIA and DIA during the government-formation process of autumn 2010, I argued against the idea of a strategic policy council as window dressing that would never achieve anything in the real world. For their part, Washington voices maintained the council would “make Sunnis happy” and thereby form a sound basis for a power-sharing government “with all major sects and ethnicities represented”.
In February 2011, my Iraq career for the first time came under direct attack from a Western country, when the Norwegian government began persecuting me for an academic project that was unrelated to Iraq. Unhappy with my inability to travel as much to the Middle East as I wanted for health reasons, I had for some time been doing street photography for a future historical-sociological project on street fashion. Without me realising it, this had caught the attention of the Oslo police. The police apparently understood my project was perfectly legal, but they disliked it – though without ever telling me. Instead they went on to punish me extra-judicially with harassment and disruption methods normally employed against organised crime: 24/7 tailing, extensive sleep deprivation, and a Stasi-style public witch hunt based on strictures on my alleged sexual preferences.
With a workaholic lifestyle typically involving 70 hours per week focused on Iraq and no holidays to speak of since the beginning of the war in 2003, I was slow to realise what was developing. However, soon enough the police operation began interfering with and threatening my work. Already in March 2011, a meeting at the oil ministry highlighted the contradictions whereby parts of the Norwegian government were paying my salary and others were seeking to destroy me. Inside the oil ministry building, I gave an invited presentation on Iraq after the formation of the second Maliki cabinet; on a hilltop overlooking the ministry, the same plainclothes officer from the organised crime section of the Oslo police that were keeping me awake at night had positioned themselves with an SUV pointing its main beam right into the conference room.
After four weeks of harassment and constant sleep deprivation, I realised Norwegian police were bent on using illegal and criminal methods in an unlimited way. I fled to the United States where I thought my extensive work for the government on Iraq might insulate me from further illegalities. During April, I held a series of invited presentations for the CIA and the State Department. On 22 April 2011, at the National Press Club, I suggested to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Greta Holtz that the US needed to win the debate over a residual American force that would remain in Iraq – if not Maliki would become overly reliant on the Sadrists and Iran. However, even as I was giving these briefings to high-ranking members of the State Department, FBI agents and State Department police were actively continuing the harassment within the precincts of US government ministries.
While I was still in the US, I got an invite to Qatar issued on behalf of the foreign minister, a close relative of the ruler. Despite that invite by a member of the royal family, I ended up being harassed by the emiri guards once I arrived in Doha. Norwegian plainclothes police officer were even allowed into the conference area at the Sheraton to intimidate me during the academic proceedings.
In mid-May 2011, I travelled on to Jordan, where I made an attempt at offering my services to the US government through their embassy in Amman. Apparently, the FBI or diplomatic security services interfered with my attempts to talk to diplomats, staging instead a meeting with an alleged CIA station officer who seemed untrustworthy and behaved out of character. I never got to see any diplomatic staff. After having loyally provided services to the US government on Iraq for 5 years, I was asked to never come back to the embassy. This response came across as particularly odd given that officials working on Iraq at the State Department and the White House continued to solicit my opinions in e-mail correspondence for a long time following the incident.
Still convinced that some forces in Washington might be ready to listen, I continued to publish articles with suggestions for how the Obama administration could exploit the SOFA negotiations to create political dynamics in Iraq more favourable to US and Iraqi interests alike, at the expense of regional powers. Obama and his closest Iraq aides appeared uninterested in such potential complications for their withdrawal scheme. The US military left Iraq in shambles in December 2011.
As my travails continue, reports from Iraq are getting increasingly bleak. I feel vindicated regarding my warnings about the precarious and hollow nature of the November 2010 government-formation agreement and the subsequent failure of the US government to use bilateral negotiations to break the Shiite alliance into smaller pieces that would be less reliant upon Iran. Of course, when many pundits in Washington see the maintenance of such a sectarian alliance as a virtue, it is unsurprising that they should be steering the country directly into Iranian arms. Unsurprising, too, is it that the preservation of the Shiite alliance in Iraq has played a significant role in keeping the Iraqi government so closely aligned with the regime in Syria during the civil strife that erupted in 2011.
For their part, by way of response to these new trends, the Sunnis of western Iraq have taken unprecedented steps in the direction of federalism. Importantly, though, this is not a linear development that has evolved since the time Biden prescribed his partition fix in 2006. In 2009, these tribes were talking about forming a coalition with Maliki, precisely along the more non-sectarian ways of politics that I and others had been advocating. It was only the sectarian atmosphere of the 2010 parliamentary elections and widespread disillusion following the subsequent failed power-sharing deal that precipitated this new radicalism on the part of Iraq’s Sunnis – a trend only emphasised by recent defections from the Maliki government by ministers associated with the Sunni areas. Of course, to a considerable extent, this development can be described as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy after Western commentators and policy-makers have played their part in impressing upon Iraqis the significance of their sectarian identity in order to get listened to in the post-2003 chaos. If there is a lesson from the Iraq War, Fareed Zakaria, it is to stop thinking and talking in simplistic and reductionist terms about places that simply are too complex for your talkshow format.
A note on the broader regional atmosphere seems in order here as well: The suggestion that the Iraq War served as inspiration for the Arab Spring comes across as ahistorical in the extreme. By 2006, the Arab world had largely concluded the war in Iraq was a disaster. If anything, by the end of 2010, with sectarian fronts hardening in Iraq again, this impression had only grown stronger. In fact, a cogent argument in the opposite direction can plausibly be made: If it hadn’t been for the increased sectarian polarization in Iraq under the Obama administration, the Arab Spring – a natural result of stale authoritarian regimes crumbling under their own weight – might well have taken on a less sectarian direction, with fewer opportunities for regional states like Iran and Qatar to fish in sectarian waters.
Ten years after the beginning of the war, Iraq is in the midst of preparing for local elections set to go ahead on 20 April, the seventh such mass-scale polling event since the beginning of the war. There will be plenty of voices suggesting that these superficial steps towards democracy indicate the war was a wonderful success. But look closer, and things are not as satisfactory. Maliki’s State of Law alliance now looks more like a sectarian list than ever, for the first time incorporating Shiite heavyweights like Badr and Fadila. Even more important is the phenomenon of three all-Shiite alliance in areas north of Baghdad with Shiite minorities (Diyala, Salahaddin and Mosul). Four years ago, during the last local elections of January 2009, Maliki not only ran separate from the other Shiites here. He also engaged in significant coalition-building efforts with Sunnis in the period after the elections, something that seems rather unthinkable in today’s polarised climate. No major Shiite list has even bothered to run in Anbar where there are no Shiite voters. (Reports today say the provincial elections in Anbar and Nineveh will be postponed for a maximum of 6 months due to security concerns.)
And take another indication of potential success: The recent passage of the annual budget by the Iraqi parliament. It is true that Maliki managed to collect enough votes for this to reach just above the critical 163 mark. However, he did this mainly by relying on sectarian support from the Sadrists and ensuring only a few secular and Sunni deputies who changed their mind in the last minute (reportedly from the Mutlak bloc of Iraqiyya as well as the Free Iraqiyya and White breakaway blocs of Iraqiyya). That does not send any strong signal about a viable parliamentary base for the Iraqi PM. Compare with July 2008 and the parliamentary vote on similar issues regarding the relationship between the central government and the Kurdistan federal region, when Shiites and Sunnis were far more united during the debate on special electoral arrangements for the disputed city of Kirkuk. Whereas the recent passage of the annual budget was basically about a majority of Shiites winning over a handful of Sunnis and secularists in the last minute, voting patterns in 2008 testified to the existence of a broader cross-sectarian alliance.
As for my own continuing travails, some of my readers have suggested that my Iraq writings may be the real reason I was targeted so disproportionally by the Norwegian government. Many have pointed out to me the fact that Joe Biden, whose various plans for Iraq I criticised robustly and relentlessly in 2006-2008, is now the US vice president and in some ways the highest US official directly involved in Iraq policy-making. They have also referred to the fact that my criticism of Kurdish oil deals circumventing Baghdad may have been difficult to swallow not only for many Kurds, but increasingly for Western oil companies. Finally, some have pointed out that the ambassador in Amman at the time when I was so thoroughly spurned by US authorities in May 2011 was Robert Stephen Beecroft. He is today the US ambassador to Iraq.
Personally, even though it might have been very convenient to do so, I have refrained from suggesting a causal link between what I am experiencing and the apparent turn in US policy-making under Obama towards greater acceptance of an Iranian role in Iraq – perhaps with a concomitant migration of US oil interests to the Kurdish-dominated north. Despite the superficial signs of convergence and the fact that the Norwegian government’s efforts to silence me and destroy my research may have played well in certain corners in Washington, I still adhere to a theory of bureaucratic madness as far as the actions of the Norwegian police are concerned. I think the idea that my writings should prompt any sort of inhumane response from the US government rather overstates my importance as an analyst, which was mostly limited to the steadily shrinking Iraq policy-making community in DC and never amounted to any leading role in shaping public opinion about the Iraq War. Even if some may have disagreed with my more politically oriented articles defending the vision of centralised government in Iraq south of Kurdistan, many seemed to think there was some value in what I provided of empirical detail on subjects like elections results, local council alliances, and federal supreme court rulings. Even after I was forced to change my research subject, many readers continue to follow my occasional Iraq writings without paying attention to the defamation campaigns and whispering that certain competitors in the field have embarked upon. It seems more significant to me here that in the second I began criticising authoritarian tendencies in the Norwegian government, the authorities there moved quickly to sack me from my job at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
In this way, my story offers yet another example of how Western policy in Iraq is so full of contradictions. Since 2011, the Norwegian and Dutch governments have used the full extent of their state machineries to extra-judicially destroy a person who by all accounts appeared to be somewhat useful to the US government, a NATO ally of theirs. By letting police loose on someone who had committed no crime but provided detailed insights about Iraq, the Norwegian government helped further erode knowledge about Iraq and contributed to a less informed policy-making environment. The mental image of State Department police officers engaging in acts of harassment on the instructions of the FBI and Norwegian police during meetings I had with leading US diplomats in April 2011 is but one of thousands of similar episodes of Western governments working at cross-purposes in the Iraq War.
It is an ironic source of consolation to me that while the Iraq War changed my life in disastrous ways, it also provided me with the background to understand extra-judicial punishment as one of the most monstrous excesses of the modern state, across cultures and continents. What I am being exposed to in terms of a modern day-witch hunt orchestrated by the Norwegian government is extremely reminiscent of what many Iraqis experienced in terms of extra-judicial de-Baathification in 2010. Of course, the lacklustre response by the international community to that affront to the rule of law should give pause. When I raised the legal issues concerning de-Baathification in 2010, the response from Western policy-makers wasn’t exactly deafening. Some worried about whether it affected Sunnis. Some Americans were able to point out some happy Sunnis. Great! The Sunnis are happy. The US ambassador to Iraq Chris Hill couldn’t identify any major problem, whereas UNAMI representative Ad Melkert, a Dutchman, bombastically declared that the elections had been conducted “according to the books”. No one was suggesting fundamental rule of law issues were at stake in any shape or form.
I had got used to the many jokes about the Iraqi “state of law” concept – a term that refers to the lofty aspirations of the political alliance of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and is also sometimes an unfitting description of the real-world Iraqi government. I now realise such jokes apply more broadly, to what we like to describe as “advanced democracies” like Norway and the Netherlands. Our governments’ incompetent handling of the challenges of our time – especially the evil twins of terrorism and organised crime – is clearly having effects upon our own supposedly liberal societies, often to the point where we contradict our own most basic values. When I see how savagely and irrationally these governments can turn against their own citizens, I realise it was perhaps naive of me to think that we could ever make any positive contribution in complex places like Iraq. It is of course gratifying that my articles about rule of law problems in Iraq are still being read, but it is ironic that only a minority is prepared to read my articles on similar problems in Norway, for which my source base is actually a lot better.
Conspiracy theories posit too much unity of purpose and rationality in modern bureaucracies. A theory of consistent Western ignorance, incompetence and bureaucratic madness seems much better fitted to understanding the complexities of the Iraq War and its casualties. But these wars aren’t over: Neither Iraq nor I have been completely destroyed despite the onslaught by irrational Western governments.
Also of possible interest: My op-ed on the Iraq War legacy in The National