Iraq: A way Forward


This article is based on a presentation given at the Third Conference of the International Association of Contemporary Iraqi Studies held in London on 16-17 July 2008. The Full PowerPoint Presentation, comprised of 36 slides, is attached which provides detailed information and references. I hope readers would find some of the statistics relating to Iraq’s downward decline in the last few decades useful, albeit somewhat depressing.

The article is not meant to depress though. The intention is to provide pointers as to the best course of action to extract Iraq from its present distressed state. To make real progress, the article argues, requires an impartial and unemotional assessment of how Iraq was reduced to such a lowly position in the league of the world’s nations. The conclusions might displease some readers as they suggest that Iraqis, and especially their leaders since the revolution of 1958, have to accept a large proportion of the blame along with the ‘usual suspects’; the USA, etc.

It goes without saying that I am against any interference in Iraq’s affairs by external parties. Furthermore, I have no hesitation in believing that very early withdrawal of all foreign forces and militias from Iraq is both necessary and desirable. However, such actions on their own would not do much to improve conditions in a sustainable manner. For that Iraqis themselves must take steps to uplift the country on a self-help basis. This has been done by other countries in distress and there is no reason to think that Iraq would be an exception. It has excellent human and natural resources that many other countries lack.

Iraq, like all other nations, is a complex system

Looking at Iraq as a complex system helps us to understand why it suffered such a marked decline in recent decades and what needs to be done now for best results. Adopting a complexity viewpoint leads to a number of important, and it has to be said relatively obvious, conclusions:

  •  A Nation is the main architect of its own fortunes.
  •  Dictators, wise and not so wise, are the worst thing that could afflict a nation. Admittedly there are historic rare exceptions.
  •  Reliance on the good intentions of external powers is just as bad if not worse.
  •  Success requires focus on current essentials.

Fundamentally, a complex system is marked by the interactions that take place between its internal elements. If the elements are able to interact freely in accordance with simple rules of engagement then the system would be expected to perform reasonably well on the ‘fitness landscape’ that it inhabits along with other systems. There are no guarantees of success, but such a system would have sufficient internal variety and flexibility to withstand unexpected changes in its external environment. It would detect and assess conditions, adapt, and then evolve to maintain its fitness among other systems.

In a nation, such as Iraq, the internal elements are people; as individuals and groups. If the citizens are healthy and educated then they are able to interact. But there are two further conditions for the nation to perform well. The citizens have to be free to interact and there have to in place simple rules that command popular support. Ability, freedom, and rules of interaction are fundamental requirements.

The do’s and don’ts for managing a nation

In countries that are doing well, say Australia, Norway, etc., the three elements are in ample supply. This is not an accident. Even before knowledge became available about the way complex systems behave, these countries concluded, through trial and error, that liberal democracy in which health, education, and the rule of consensual law are given top priority is an appropriate model for sustainable success. After complexity gained wider acceptance the situation became even clearer. Governments come and go but these fundamentals are maintained.

Knowledge about complex systems defined the basic requirements that would allow a nation to function well, and sustainably, on the global fitness landscape. However, the same knowledge defined conditions that would inhibit the ability of a nation to perform well. These adverse conditions were not unknown before: colonial powers and local dictators regularly contrived to impose conditions that made it very difficult for a nation to resist the demands of these external and internal powers. Fundamentally, a nation of unhealthy and uneducated citizens devoid of just laws that provided a secure environment for normal day to day interactions is in no position to argue. Interactions are curtailed, variety is reduced, innovation is eliminated and the nation as a complex system gradually shrinks into one of two extreme states: unrelieved inactivity and sameness (as in the case of North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Iraq under Saddam for example) or debilitating chaos (as in the case of Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq currently).

Stable countries such as Sweden or Britain inhabit a zone of complexity that lies somewhere between these two polar extremes. Their flexible and pragmatic forms of government allow them to tiptoe between crises in what seems, deceptively, as a regime of mild incompetence, short-sightedness, and lack of decisive control. In reality, in an unpredictable world that is all a government could do in practice.

When such countries are confronted by major crises they simply hold elections and new faces come in to continue to do more or less what the previous government did. It is a frustrating form of governance and looked at from afar it seems on first inspection to be inferior to rule by a ‘wise and resolute; dictator. And that is the start of trouble for the nation concerned because a complex system with its built-in unpredictability responds very badly to compulsion in the shape of command-and-control from the top. The only viable strategy has to rely on what has become known as Soft Systems Management (SSM) based on reiterative trial and error that simply seeks to define a desirable direction of travel without worrying too much about the details.

All this sounds pretty obvious. In fact the workings of complex systems are now an integral part of government systems in the UK, Australia, etc.; as shown in one of the slides in the presentation.

Iraq was damaged as a functioning complex system

In the case of Iraq everything was done; not just by external powers but by domestic forces, through ignorance and/ or design, to mismanage the country. The outcome of decades of negative actions reduced Iraq to a dreadful state in which the citizens are both unable, through ill health and lack of education, and not free, through instability and oppression, to interact normally.

Contrary to popular perception this did not happen in 2003. The US led ’2003 misadventure’ was a continuation of a process that has gone on for several decades. It is difficult to apportion blame between foreign powers and domestic dictatorial governments. Both had a role to play in destroying Iraq as an operating complex system. And both had a reason for doing so. In the case of Iraqi rulers it was not always the case that they had ill intentions. Basically, they were mostly people with little or no experience in the domestic and international political economy. Once they attained power the task became one of simply holding on to that power come what may.

There was no conspiracy; in the sense of secret agreement between several partners, on the part of foreign powers. States try to promote their interests whenever possible: Realism, one of the leading schools of international relations, is clear about this. They set out, when allowed, to undermine the target nation. Iraq was an obvious target because of its oil and its geopolitical significance. For half a century Iraq did not have governments with sufficient awareness and expertise to resist or deflect these efforts. If anything, the rulers of Iraq, albeit unknowingly, seemed to make the wrong choices at almost every turn. Lengthy, and totally fruitless and unwinnable,  wars were fought needlessly. To make matters worse, actions were taken that made it possible to subject Iraq to thirteen years of the most punishing sanctions ever experienced by any country. Then more actions were taken to hand foreign powers the excuses they needed to mount the 2003 war; a war judged by some to be both illegal and unjustified.

Iraq was finally reduced to a compliant country; a malfunctioning complex system.  How did they set out to cripple Iraq as a complex system? Obvious: they attacked its elements; the citizens. That was done at both ends. The top layer of educated and experienced people was subjected to constant upheavals for several decades but nothing like what was done after 2003. At the other end; younger people who provide the next generation, was not ignored. Education and health services in Iraq, once the envy of other countries, were reduced to those found in the most backward societies.

The 2003 war, as mentioned above, was only the latest episode in a lengthy process. And Iraqi governments up to 2003 cannot be absolved of a fair measure of responsibility. But the 2003 war demonstrated in sharp relief the negative application of complex systems theory to reduce a country to a state that oscillates between abject inactivity and unbound chaos.

First, the bombing in the few days of the war included the virtual destruction of Iraq’s already dilapidated infrastructure. There was hardly any military resistance. Bombing was aimed at destroying Iraq’s ability to function. Then the army and the top echelon of government employees was eliminated for the same purpose. The country’s culture was not neglected: the archives, museums, and other institutions were ransacked. To complete the process, academics, doctors, engineers, etc. were kidnapped, terrorised, killed or persuaded to leave Iraq. Other members of the population had already been devastated through decades of neglect, wars and sanctions; see for instance under-5 mortality statistics given in  the presentation. The invading forces did not do all that. However, once they entered Iraq they had a duty to protect its people. This they did not do. More to the point, it seemed at time as though they actually did not care or even approved of the ensuing lawlessness.

A candid look at Iraq’s fortunes.

Iraq has paid a heavy price. Foreign powers could be criticised and with good reason. Many books and articles have already been published on this topic. But three points have been relatively neglected:

  • There is more to ‘the US government’ than Bush and the neoconservatives. The US ‘government’ is a huge complex system comprised of numerous interests with agendas that sometimes agree and at other times conflict. US foreign policy is the outcome of a very messy process. However, at all times the focus is totally, and naturally, on US interests. To this extent, the US is not a solution to Iraq; it is part of the problem.
  • The role of successive Iraqi governments and factions in causing and worsening Iraq’s plight must not be underestimated. Sensible governments find ways to handle and deflect pressures from powerful foreign interests. In many way, therefore, the role of successive Iraqi governments is the more significant element in Iraq’s decline because without their inexperience and incompetence foreign powers and agitators could not have succeeded so spectacularly in destroying the country.
  • Human resources are infinitely more important than oil.  Even sovereignty is somewhat meaningless if a country is stripped of its human resources. At the end of the day, they define the fortunes of a nation to a large extent.
  • Iraq’s downward slide happened at a time when oil was nationalised, when the country was supposedly independent, when the country was ruled by ruthless dictators who managed to impose stability, and when Iraq was supposedly powerful enough to wage lengthy wars.

This last point is very significant. A country could have many ‘assets’ and still stride towards ruin. In fact, looked at from a complex systems viewpoint, some of the factors mentioned above were precisely the causes of Iraq’s decline.

Iraq has to be restarted as a functioning complex system.

The last ten slides in the presentation put forward ideas that might help in moving from the present low ebb. It must be stressed that there is no magic formula to get Iraq out of its present mess. Whatever is done will take time to yield discernible results. And moreover, there is no one solution. A number of measures will have to be adopted, most of which rely on a change in Iraqis’ view on life.

Essentially Iraq will have to use the tools used against it in the past but this time in reverse. This is by its very nature a project that will take much time and effort.  There are many serious issues of concern (oil, security agreement, federalism, …) but nothing is more important to Iraq’s future than to address education, health, corruption, water, electricity,….

Image is a key factor in international relations. The Iraqis have difficulty in understanding this and even worse in doing something to change the situation. In some cases the opposite is true. Certain individuals, driven by whatever domestic gains they might seek, have no idea, or they do not care, that they are also helping in compromising Iraq’s image. This helps those who prefer to continue the occupation of Iraq. Suicide bombers and those who take part in factional quarrels based on religion or ethnicity are examples of practices that need to be publicly addressed.

Above all else Iraq is badly in need of an extensive civil, and independent society that could in time provide a voice that could not be ignored. There are clear indications that this is actually happening. Academic, art, literary, sport associations and interest groups concerned with a variety of topics have emerged and are growing fast. Many more are needed of course but this is a positive development that should be recognised and encouraged.

Iraq has produced many talents over the ages. It is not beyond reason to suggest that with some effort Iraq would come out in better shape than the one it is currently saddled with. Some, or even many, of the educated and experienced individuals who were driven out of Iraq especially in the last five years are unlikely to return. However, use could still be made of their services. An organisation is needed to consider practical ways for this to be done.

In the final analysis though, hope has to be pinned on the upcoming generation, and those who stoically stayed inside Iraq, which takes the discussion back to education, health services, etc.