Iraq's Future: The Canadian Approach

February 2, 2008

Literary Review of Canada

An optimistic look at the longer view for this war-torn country

In May 2006, two enterprising Canadian diplomats organized an international conference to discuss the crisis in Iraq and its possible solutions. Given the political sensitivity of this topic and the Harper government's willingness to muzzle its own officials, just gaining ministerial approval to hold such a meeting seems like an extraordinary accomplishment. But then again, the two meeting organizers were far from ordinary. David Malone, a denizen of these pages and a scholar of the United Nations, is currently Canada's high commissioner to India. He was, in 2006, the senior official in charge of "global issues" in the Ottawa headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Ben Rowswell, a 30-something Oxford graduate and rising star in the department, was sent to Baghdad to serve as Canada's one-man diplomatic mission following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Two years later, he returned to Ottawa to work for Malone.

 

Malone and Rowswell saw an opportunity and a need for more "long-term thinking" on the Iraq crisis, and they decided to bring together a group of 70 prominent Iraqis, Iraq experts, representatives of multilateral institutions, Canadian academics and officials to discuss "the prevention of future conflict in Iraq at a time when civil war threatened to engulf the country and the region in another generation of violence." The conference, organized in conjunction with Markus Bouillon of the International Peace Academy, the New York-based think tank that Malone directed for several years in the 1990s, took place at the Pearson building in Ottawa.

 

Their book is a selection of 19 short essays by conference participants. Rather than focusing on the U.S. invasion and occupation, the contributors take a broader historical view. They seek to explain the origins of instability in modern Iraq and to look beyond the current crisis and toward the longer-term challenges of reconstituting a functioning, peaceful Iraqi state.

 

That the volume pays relatively little attention to the American invasion may surprise some readers, but Bouillon, Malone and Rowswell construct a convincing case that the sources of instability in Iraq long predate the arrival of American GIs. The country has suffered from "chronic instability" for decades and it will continue to do so, the editors argue, until there is progress toward the negotiation of a new social contract among Iraqis and the construction of government institutions that are viewed as legitimate by its people.

 

These are ambitious aims, given the country's steady unravelling and the gruesome daily toll of victims from suicide bombings and intercommunal violence. But to its credit, the book does not sugarcoat these challenges. Several chapters dissect the process by which the Iraqi nation has disintegrated into factions and subfactions. Phebe Marr, a prominent historian of Iraq, describes how the series of elections in 2005 and 2006 revealed and accelerated this process, empowering leaders who played to "ethnic and sectarian identity to mobilize and organize a base" of electoral support. Her essay is fittingly titled "Iraq's Identity Crisis."

 

A companion chapter by University of Windsor academic Abdel Salam Sidahmed traces the complex, interacting histories of Iraqi nationalism, Islamism and sectarianism, from the rise of the Baath Party in 1968 to the present, while several other chapters examine the principal divisions within the major Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities. This is essential information for anyone who wants to understand the unfolding conflict. Tensions within Iraq's major ethnic and religious communities are often overlooked in media reports, yet they are an increasingly important facet of the civil war.

 

The book is better at describing the forces driving Iraq's disintegration than explaining how to put these pieces back together. This is not surprising, nor is it a serious criticism, because there are no obvious solutions to the crisis. While many prominent observers now argue that Iraq cannot be reconstituted as unitary country, and that it should instead be partitioned into three or more informally or formally independent states, the contributors to this volume, to a person, reject the partition option. They all seem to agree that the only hope for Iraq is to build a united post-Saddam state based on inter-communal accommodation and dialogue-although they differ on the details of federal structures, constitutional arrangements, and the like.

 

Most of the contributors also oppose calls for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq on the grounds that this could, in the words of James Dobbins, "make a bad situation even worse." Some kind of major international presence-be it American or otherwise-will be needed in Iraq for a long time, the editors suggest, because the consequences of failing to stabilize the country "are too grave for the international community to sit back and wring its hands in despair." In spite of the fact that this crisis was provoked by the Bush administration's reckless invasion of Iraq, Bouillon, Malone and Rowswell believe that it is time to stop thinking about the resulting mess in Iraq as a mainly American problem to fix. The international community needs to play a larger role in helping to stabilize the country-and what's more, the job is likely to take a very long time.

 

But what exactly would this larger role entail? After making their pitch for greater international involvement, the editors concede that there would be little appetite among non-coalition states to deploy military forces to Iraq and that the prospects for major increases in financial assistance are also limited. In the end, their prescription for a bigger international role amounts to a call for more ambitious diplomatic efforts aimed at promoting "constructive dialogue" among the Iraqi parties as well as among the key states in the region. Furthermore, having the "international community" involved more directly in this effort would introduce "greater international legitimacy into the equation."

 

In fact, just a few weeks after this book was published last summer, the United Nations decided to take on the task of encouraging "national reconciliation" within Iraq and "regional dialogue" between Iraq and its neighbours. The decision was significant for many reasons. First, it represented a success for the Bush administration, which had lobbied strongly for a larger UN role. More precisely, it was a victory for traditional diplomats in the administration over those who, for ideological reasons, have been opposed to relying on the UN for anything. second, the decision may be the first of several leading the world body back to the diplomatic forefront of the Iraq crisis. Members of the security Council seem newly willing to deal with the U.S. pragmatically on the Iraq issue, after years of understandable anger.

 

How this new UN role will play out remains to be seen. The book under review offers an excellent chapter by Bruce Jones, a Canadian scholar at New York University, who maps out the various options for international engagement, drawing lessons from Bosnia and elsewhere. But the key difference between these past cases of post-conflict peacebuilding and the current situation is that Iraq is not a post-conflict state. The immediate priority (more than delivering "reconstruction assistance") is to convince the Iraqi parties themselves that it is in their interests to compromise with each other, rather than continue to struggle over the helm of the Iraqi ship of state as it sails into a maelstrom.

 

Yet there is little reason to believe that the UN is better placed than the U.S. to bring about such a compromise. Of course, no effort should be spared to promote reconciliation, including a larger UN role, but the key diplomatic challenge is not just to bring the parties to the negotiating table and to enjoin them to see reason. It is, instead, to exercise leverage over these actors through a combination of sticks and carrots, and thereby to change the parties' own calculation of the costs and benefits of compromise over continued struggle. That is the only basis for a settlement.

 

This is more or less how the war in Bosnia ended in 1995. The United States and other outside powers manipulated the local balance of power among Serbs, Muslims and Croats-specifically, by training and arming the Croatians so that they, in combination with Bosnian Muslims, were able to fight the Serbs to a standstill. Only then, when the stalemate was clear to all, and following three years of exhausting conflict, did the warring parties agree to a peace settlement. Yes, international negotiators played an important role in facilitating this negotiation, but their efforts were fruitless until the power realities facing the combatants had shifted in favour of a compromise.

 

The power realities in and around Iraq do not currently lend themselves to compromise-either among the Iraqi parties or their neighbours-and the UN itself does not have the ability to change these conditions. The problem is not the absence of a legitimate international mediator (in this region, it is worth recalling, the legitimacy of the UN is deeply questioned in any event), but rather, the continued presence of an American force that is too weak to impose a peace and too strong to be ignored.

 

Unlike Afghanistan, where there is still a reasonable chance of a stable outcome and where most citizens support their government and its international backers in opposition to the Taliban, most Iraqis have effectively taken sides in a civil war and view their government and the presence of U.S. troops as illegitimate. Many Iraqi groups (including, implausibly, some in the minority Sunni community) seem to think that they could prevail if the U.S. left Iraq. As long as they believe this, the prospect for achieving national reconciliation will be vanishingly small. At some point, settling this conflict will probably require America to get out of the way-to remove the bulk of its troops, whose presence is effectively freezing in place the current state of political limbo and insecurity in Iraq.

 

If and when the United States makes this decision, the United Nations could play an important role by convening regular meetings of countries in the region, in the hopes that such discussions will reduce suspicions among Iraq's neighbours and dissuade them from pre-emptively intervening in the country to "protect" their respective interests. And if and when the Iraqi parties reach a workable compromise, the United Nations could also play a useful role in facilitating post-conflict reconstruction efforts. For now, however, it is far from clear how "internationalizing" the management of this crisis will make the Iraqi and regional parties any more amenable to a negotiated settlement than they already are.

 

Bouillon, Malone and Rowswell certainly know this already. In some ways, their book is an expression of hope. The message is: Don't give up on Iraq. One day the conflict will end, and when it does the international community must help the Iraqi people build a legitimate, functioning state that is not based on the dual pathology of repressiveness and personalized rule. The vision of a democratic, inclusive Iraq is tremendously appealing, but what chance does it really have of coming to fruition? With more than four million Iraqis displaced by the violence and many others uncertain if they or their children will return home from a day's outing, the simple desire for security through any means, including "strong leadership," may trump aspirations for inclusive governance.

 

But all is not lost. Recent months have seen a modest improvement in the security situation in Iraq: fewer attacks and bombings, and declining monthly casualty rates. Needless to say, everything is relative. In October 2007 alone, the Iraqi health ministry recorded 758 Iraqi civilian deaths from bombings, suspected sectarian attacks and other war-related violence. That is the equivalent of a 9/11-size loss of civilians every four months. How could this possibly be "good" news? In January 2007, the figure was 2,076 Iraqi civilian war deaths per month, almost three times higher than in October.

 

The big question now is whether Iraq's leaders can take advantage of this "lull" to fashion some kind of deal that would allow for effective Iraq government. Few observers are hopeful. Nevertheless, Bouillon, Malone and Rowswell have provided a guidebook, of sorts, to possible governance arrangements that could be pursued-if Iraq's leaders ultimately choose to compromise with each other.

 

In its optimism, its focus on constitutional designs for good governance in multi-ethnic societies, its emphasis on the United Nations as a key player and its relative inattention to the grim but unavoidable realities of power politics, this book has a distinctly Canadian sensibility, even though most of its contributors are not Canadian. And it is remarkably well written and engaging, particularly for an academic volume.

 

Most of all, the book encourages reflection on Iraq's future, including the role that the United Nations (and other international actors) might play in responding to the turmoil in that country. For too long, the question of what to do about Iraq over the longer term has been overshadowed by the urgency of the day-to-day crisis in that country. This volume forces us to step out of the present and to look back and forward in time. It is exactly the type of research and analysis that policy planners in foreign ministries should be encouraging.

 

Roland Paris is the director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa and the author of At War's End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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Roland Paris
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs

University of Ottawa

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rparis@uottawa.ca

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