Common wisdom has it that replacing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the cornerstone of fixing Iraq. But just as pretending that toppling Saddam Hussein would bring Iraqis to the streets to throw roses and sweets on their liberators, replacing Maliki – while required – will change little in Iraq.
From experience, we have learned that crises in Arab countries are not the work of one person or one group, no matter how tyrannical they may be. Corrosion in these countries runs deep and wide, and toppling the ruler is not a comprehensive solution. Whether through American military power a la Iraq, or through popular revolts such as those in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, the removal of dictators shakes things up. What follows, however, is rarely democracy but instead more of the same, or sometimes something even worse.
We now know in hindsight that Saddam Hussein, like Maliki, was no anomaly but rather the product of his society, of its ethics, and of its expectations. Saddam was not born blood-thirsty; experience taught him to be such. Saddam did not create a brutal system; he perfected one, and having done so, he broke the vicious cycle of violence by monopolizing it and flushing out rivals who either conceded, went underground, or fled the country. When America went after Saddam, his rivals – who are cut from the same cloth – did not come back to the “new Iraq” that Washington wanted, but to the old one they had left and worked so hard to maintain.
By now, we know that killing Saddam was not turning a page, but continuing on the same one. Saddam was not tried for the crimes he committed against all Iraqis, but for razing the town of Dujeil, where the Islamic Daawa Party had tried to assassinate him. The late Iraqi dictator was hung in the same building that his security apparatchiks used to torture and execute Daawa members.
Having exacted this revenge, Daawa’s Maliki went on to concentrate power in his own hands, ejecting rivals and depicting himself as the country’s savior. His behavior has been similar to Saddam’s, albeit less bloody. And today, whoever replaces Maliki will most probably behave similarly. Revenge will continue and more blood will be spilled.
The cheapest way for the West to deal with the Middle East’s endless vendettas is to let them play out and deal with the consequences by watching for spillovers. But Sunnis and Shiites may never tire of fighting, in which case international intervention would be required, at least on ethical grounds.
An intervention would need to break the cycle of violence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which in turn would require the isolation of these countries from regional standoffs. Iran and Russia will oppose any plan that might limit their influence; to change their minds, Tehran and Moscow will have to watch their protégés be pounded hard. Taking sides in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon should be made to come at a cost, not only for the Iranians and Russians but for any other ambitious powers as well.
Using power – whether from the air or through international peacekeepers – should not serve as a means for exacting revenge against one party or another as it was in the Iraq war, but rather for “reset” purposes, after which a comprehensive solution is forced.
All contending parties – including Bashar al-Assad, Al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah – should be invited to the table and a general pardon issued. Then, international organizations such as the UN and the World Bank should supervise the reconstruction of both government and society. Cultural relativism should be put aside, and skewed ideologies like the Shiite Wilayat al-Faqih or the Sunni Islamic State thrown out. Crises in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt will continue as long as some groups mix religion with public life and the state.
While such a solution is beyond the scope of impatient democracies whose policies are short-term and tied to election cycles, democratic governments should understand that sometimes they face crises abroad that require long-term plans. Otherwise, these democracies will find themselves dealing with failing states that produce terror, spike oil prices, and threaten world peace.
Solutions in the Middle East should be formed from the bottom up. This in turn requires greater visionaries than today’s local politicians and Western diplomats. People who oversee solutions should have a deep understanding of the socio-economic constructs of Arab societies and an awareness of their histories. Any solution short of a complete overhaul of the socio-cultural, political, and economic situation will only produce the same people, the same leaders, and the same crises.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain