Defeating ISIS is beside the point; Iraq does not exist anymore

Until the politics – rather than the military aspects of the problem – are dealt with, the region is likely to remain mired in instability

Dr. John C. Hulsman
Dr. John C. Hulsman
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“War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.”
--Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Foreign policy analysts have a terrible in-built tendency to ignore historical failures. Philosophically, they skew toward Hegel rather than Burke, believing that every intractable problem always contains the seeds of regeneration and reform. No situation can ever be written off as a beyond redemption.

Yet history is full of such cases. The Roman Empire never managed to wholly secure its borders with the Barbarians, the Spanish Empire never was able to control increasingly rampant inflation, and the United States has never manged to fully shed its missionary impulse in international relations, wrongheaded though it often is, as in Vietnam and Iraq. Adopting the more historical approach favoured by Burke allows for the analytical insight that history is as littered with failures as it is adorned with successes.

Judging by a wealth of facts on the ground, it is time for Burkeans to burst the Hegelian bubble about the viability of Iraq and face stubborn facts. Iraq as a state has ceased to exist except in theory and shows no real signs of being revived. Despite real battlefield successes against ISIS, the collapse of both Iraq and Syria as coherent political entities capable of controlling their respective boundaries, leaves a gaping hole of instability in the centre of the region.

Until the politics – rather than the military aspects of the problem – are dealt with in an entirely new way, the region is likely to remain mired in instability for the foreseeable future. Sometimes the historical answer is no, and it is up to both analysts and decision-makers alike to realise this bleak but valuable political lesson.

The interests of the patchwork quilt of Iraqi political factions are simply too entrenched to give away the government patronage that is the enduring source of their power

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Regime botches reform again

Two basic problems bedevil the Iraqi state, both of which have proven intractable. First, the well-meaning but weak government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has proven itself utterly incapable of advancing its much-needed reform agenda. Despite having the declared support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – the most popular figure in the country – and the swelling impetus of the Sadrist movement behind his tentative steps toward reform, the Abadi government has stumbled at every turn.

On July 15, thousands of supporters of firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr returned to the streets of Baghdad, protesting the chronic delays in reforming the Iraqi government, purging it of its endemic corruption. For a year, Abadi has called for an end to ethno-religious quotas for government positions, instead wishing to appoint officials based on merit.

Further, Abadi has declared his preference for forming a government of technocrats, experts who can begin to dig the country out of its fiscal hole, caused in equal measures by endemic corruption, the collapse of global oil prices, and the need to prosecute the costly war against Islamic State. It has gotten so bad that the government cannot guarantee the continued flow of electricity, even as summer temperatures in the south of the country have exceeded a scorching 50 degrees centigrade.

Yet despite these internal and external forces making the logic of reform overwhelming in policy terms, precious little has happened. The interests of the patchwork quilt of Iraqi political factions are simply too entrenched to give away the government patronage that is the enduring source of their power. Further, at the end of June, an Iraqi federal court disallowed even the government’s tepid recent efforts at renewal, nullifying Abadi’s attempt to streamline the cabinet and remove the parliamentary speaker.

This domestic political failure is reflected at the strategic level. For all practical purposes, the Kurdish portion of the country has been autonomous now for a generation, with Baghdad’s political remit stopping short in the north of the country. In addition, the Sunni centre and west of the country either remains under the control of ISIS or is just emerging from the war zone that has been central Iraq for the past several years.

Given the Abadi government’s obvious inability to govern the more peaceful portions of the country long under its control, it is highly unlikely that Sunni Iraq will be integrated back into the Iraqi state in a successful manner. If this proves to be the case, the defeat of ISIS will be entirely beside the point, a mere respite while the world waits in dread for the next incarnation of radicalism to arise from the fertile ashes of continuing Sunni disenfranchisement.

A different way forward

Given all these realities, inconvenient facts that must not be swept under the analytical rug, it is probably too late for Iraq to survive as a state in anything other than name. The only way this might change – long-shot though it is – would be for a two-fold successful reform drive to eradicate the corruption that is the cancer of Iraqi domestic politics, coupled with a concerted effort to confederalise the country, devolving as much power as possible to the restive Kurdish, Sunni and Shia sub-national groupings that are the organic, politically legitimate building blocks of power there.

Barring these dramatic developments, it is time to see Iraq for what it is: A failed state.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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