The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue by an American armoured vehicle in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003 became a telling reference point in Iraq’s recent history. The event marked the end of the battle for Baghdad, which shown live in many parts of the world had been hailed as proof that the US was still the world’s master, less than three years after the trauma of the 11 September, 2001 attacks.
Although the event was portrayed as one of great significance, important aspects were missed in the United States and the rest of the Western world. For instance, it was obvious that the crowds present there were small, and their enthusiasm not great.
Before the statue was toppled, US marine corporal Edward Chin covered the statue’s face with an American flag. The crowd became silent, and one woman shouted at the soldiers to remove the flag, which was replaced with an Iraqi one. Cynics later suggested that the whole event had been staged by the United States military.
Post-Saddam triumphalism then so overwhelmed the American psyche that president George W Bush, just three weeks later on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, proclaimed this a “mission accomplished” moment. Within a month, Bush had appointed Paul Bremer as governor of Iraq, and dissolved the Ba’ath Party and armed forces — moves that in effect dismantled Iraq’s state structure. The logic was that only by destroying all the old regime could a Western-style democracy modelled on America’s vision be created.
Examples of post-conflict reconstruction in Japan and Germany after their defeat in World War II loomed large. However, both of these defeated powers were wealthy with advanced systems of their own before the war. The versions of democracy created as part of reconstruction had distinct Japanese and German cultural and national imprints.
It was assumed that a new Iraqi state after the 2003 invasion would equally have a strong imprint of Iraqi culture and historical experience. However, when after almost nine years of occupation the American military presence formally ended in December 2011, few could say this had been achieved.
Iraq’s chaotic emergence from eight years of occupation in 2011 was a reminder of what can go wrong in state- or nation-building, particularly when the victorious power’s cultural makeup is radically different from that of the defeated country. The cultural values on which a society is founded take long to evolve, and are so durable that any change involves risks and uncertainties.
However, Iraq is not a solitary example exposing the limits of American military power and its capacity for state-building in this century. As the world’s only remaining superpower, the US had visualised a world in its own image — a community of docile nations who would not challenge American power.
After experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently Libya and Syria, Washington remains far from achieving this. Although America’s overwhelming power enables it to intervene and occupy foreign lands, the country’s ability to sustain war against resistors and undertake the task of state- or nation-building has been found wanting again and again.
Ruthless rulers emerge
Decisions taken immediately after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow were aimed at creating a new state structure to replace Iraq. Instead of a return to stability and rise to democracy, Iraq sank into a vicious multi-layered conflict after 2006, forcing the outgoing Bush administration to negotiate America’s exit — not the dawn of democracy Bush envisioned before leaving the White House. The downbeat exit in 2011 marked an embarrassing finale for the Bush presidency and a painful beginning for his successor, Barack Obama.
Democracy in Iraq is a forlorn hope. The continuing violence in which scores of people are killed and maimed every week is a largely forgotten story in the Western world. The Iraqi state, weakened by harsh American-led sanctions in the 1990s and dismantled in 2003, never regained the capacity to impose control over a fragmented nation, which was created under the 2005 constitution along with a new power elite.
The Shiite majority in the south and the Kurds in the north, long suppressed under Saddam’s rule, have become dominant. The minority Sunni elite that dominated the erstwhile power structure has been isolated, even demonised, in the absence of the effective checks and balances that a real democracy requires.
As sectarian violence prevails in today’s Iraq, ruthless and manipulative politicians like Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki have emerged. The country is neither a democracy nor a US ally.
A graveyard for nation-builders
Instead, Iran, once Iraq’s fiercest enemy, is now its closest ally. America’s neoconservative political establishment and its military-industrial complex may derive perverse satisfaction that Iraq is now unable to challenge the United States in the way that Saddam Hussein had attempted, but this seems cold comfort in the wider context.
Iraq has become the most serious failure in America’s democracy promotion enterprise thus far in the 21st century. But there are other examples, both in the immediate past and in the previous century.
The 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington prompted a US response in Afghanistan for the second time in two decades — the previous response being in the proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. The enemy changed from communism to the Taliban militia; the motive was to shape events in West Asia in the West’s interests under the auspices of spreading freedom and democracy.
The US intervention in support of Afghanistan’s mujahideen against communist rule, in particular after the Soviets invaded the country in December 1979, revealed contradictions often seen in other places. An external power’s backing for radical groups in an internal conflict changes the balance in ways that have long- and short-term. In conflicts like Afghanistan, when the intervening power supports a weak non-state or state player, the motive is to gain a foothold and then permanent influence. However, the power thereby contributes to a culture in which violence becomes the primary means of settling disputes and keeping order.
Armed groups may not enjoy support in the wider population, but they gain ascendancy. Constitutional arrangements are under sustained pressure until they lose legitimacy. The result is a new fragmented society in which different militant groups occupy their own domains. This is the very opposite of democracy, which takes a long time to evolve.
The failure of nation-building in Afghanistan since the mid-20th century has been due to a combination of factors: conflicting ideological visions of the Soviet Union and the United States as they fought for influence in West Asia during the Cold War, and interests and motives of regional players, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and India.
America’s stated aim was to build state institutions, but the war undermined all such efforts. Since the decade of democracy in the 1960s, the legislative, executive and judicial branches of state were supposed to bring various interest groups together at the centre in Kabul and build a system of checks and balances based on the Western democratic model. Persistent foreign involvement made certain that the reverse happened.
The destruction of the Afghan state from the 1978 communist coup to America’s overthrow of the Taliban regime in December 2001, weeks after the 11 September attacks, was complete.
America’s return after years of neglect raised new hopes for Afghanistan. Those hopes, however, began to fade with the Taliban’s revival barely three years later. Since then, a combination of violence, societal resistance and corruption has created obstacles which have proved insurmountable, steadily draining America’s will to sustain its nation-building mission.
The Afghan experience
Amid a serious crisis of confidence between the Obama administration and President Hamid Karzai in his final months as president, the December 2014 deadline for US military withdrawal is rapidly approaching. A proposed military agreement to keep a limited number of troops in Afghanistan has not been signed, but left to President Karzai’s successor. Like Iraq, the United States is about to leave Afghanistan with its mission of nation-building far from successful.
After 13 years of US-led occupation, the Afghan state remains fragile. It is dependent on massive foreign aid, and its fragmented society is a threat to itself and others. The United States’ presence over these years has halted Afghanistan’s slide into disorder. But the US military’s heavy-handed tactics, such as drone attacks and night raids on the homes of Afghans have also fuelled resentment against the US.
The Taliban’s campaign of violence against the 2014 presidential elections in March failed to frighten away voters, who defied threats to turn out in large numbers. However, tribal societies are built in ways that give certain individuals and groups power beyond their size – a danger that still exists.
Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries have their own particularities, and not to fully comprehend them is central to America’s difficulties in the region. Power in these societies flows from tribal sheikhs who disburse the means of livelihood in rural communities; village imams who interpret customary law, act as judges to settle disputes and issue edicts; and traders who control the bazaar. The king has needed all three to stay on the throne. When the ruler has lost support of one or more sources of real power, he is in trouble.
Great powers who have attempted to impose a new model on these countries have encountered great difficulties. When a king is bought, or a weak individual is installed by an outside power, there often is a rebellion from below involving local elites. When a people feel manipulated by an external power, there is often a sense of resentment and victimhood in that society against the outsider.
In countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, the United States has supported dictatorships to win advantage in the race for influence. The result is deterioration of legislative bodies which are supposed to represent citizens, and judiciary that delivers justice in which people must have confidence. Hence, the nation’s political system becomes hostage to great power ambitions. It has happened not only in the Middle East and South Asia, but elsewhere during the Cold War and after – for instance, in the Philippines, South Korea and South Vietnam; Somalia and what was Zaire; and Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
These and other countries have seen some of the most brutal right-wing dictatorships and human rights violations, supported covertly or overtly by Washington, because they served US interests. Twenty-five years after the Cold War ended, the trend continues, and the cause of democracy and nation-building suffers as it runs counter to American geopolitical interests.
Washington’s policy towards popular uprisings across the Arab world has illustrated its contradictions in recent years. When massive protests broke out against authoritarian rule in Tunisia and spread towards the Persian Gulf, including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, the Obama administration was caught by surprise, and appeared unsure about what to do. Libyan and Syrian rulers had challenged United States policy in the Cold War, aligning themselves with Moscow; Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain were close military allies of Washington, serving America’s interests in the region.
Freedom, democracy, human rights and state-building were therefore all important in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed by anti-Gaddafi militias backed by the United States and allies. In Syria, Washington first backed anti-Assad groups, then got cold feet. Assad survives for now, but the conflict has left Syria in ruins, and atrocities by both sides have caused great misery for millions of civilians. Syria’s refugee crisis is among the worst today.
Libya under Gaddafi was a failing state ruled by a maverick dictator through strictly controlled people’s committees. Now, it is a failed and fragmented state. Rival militias fight between themselves. Much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. People live in fear, and the country has become a leading source of weapons to militants who fight in conflicts across the Arab world. Even the prime minister of Libya cannot feel safe.
A history of failures
United States policy towards Saudi Arabia’s theocracy is mostly one of respectful silence. The Saud family exercises absolute power, state institutions are few and governance is according to the ruling family’s own strict interpretation of Islamic law. When relations between Washington and Riyadh are strained, such as over the Obama administration’s attempts to improve ties with Iran and his decision not to launch air attacks against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, it is the United States that makes overt attempts to repair those relations.
Saudi Arabia is too important as an oil supplier to the industrialised world, buyer of sophisticated weaponry and as the leader of Sunni Islam to alienate. Amid all the push for state-building, democracy and free institutions elsewhere, change in Saudi Arabia takes a back seat. Since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s decision to break from the Soviet Union and join the United States in the 1970s, and his signing of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the US alliance with Egypt has been too important to jeopardise American interests in the Middle East.
America’s unease over Egypt’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power and the Obama administration’s soft reaction following President Mohammed Morsi’s removal by the military illustrate the difference between the reality of American actions and the rhetoric about the freedom agenda and nation-building in Washington.
The question remains whether the real motive of the United States is to build free, democratic and sustainable nations. Or it is to eliminate perceived threats to American interests, and if state-building proves too arduous, to leave such countries weak and vulnerable.