Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Collapse of Iraq

Steven E. Meyer


By Steven E. Meyer

June 30, 2014


Iraq is on the verge of collapse as a unified state, and the United States has no good options to reverse the situation. The forces of the Sunni-dominated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) ultimately may not be able to —or want to— conquer the entire country, but Iraq’s problems are so deep seated that it will be virtually impossible now to stitch the country back together.

The context is instructive. The Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 between France and Britain in the concluding days of World War I constructed Iraq and other countries in the Middle East from the remnants of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. These new countries were established to serve the imperial designs of France and Britain, not the interests of local inhabitants; there was no internal logic to Iraq.

 Iraq was not built as a democracy and has had little tradition and historically few institutions of democratic rule. When Saddam Hussein overthrew the weak Iraqi government in 1968, any hopes that the country would take the path of full-fledged democracy came to a halt. Saddam Hussein’s rule, although autocratic and often harsh, guaranteed stability and national unity. By 2002, the Bush administration erroneously saw Iraq as the key to defeating terrorism and establishing stability in the Middle East, launching the now infamous invasion a year later. The current tragedy unfolding in Iraq is not only a repudiation of the Bush strategy, it signals the end of the post-Ottoman borders established by Britain and France.

The usual “blame game” is well under way in Washington. The question being asked now, just like who lost China to the communists in 1949 and Viet Nam in 1975 is “Who lost Iraq?”  Was it the fault of President Bush’s initial invasion or President Obama’s pulling out too quickly? The implication is that Iraq’s fate rests solely in the hands of American policy and decision making, and that analysis is as pretentious as it is false. Certainly, American policy and action can make some difference, but contemporary world affairs go far beyond the scope of American policy, especially in the Middle East. 

Secretary Kerry is encouraging the government of Prime Minister Maliki to form a “more inclusive government” that will include more Sunni Arabs and Kurds. He has also pleaded with the Kurds not to “give up” on Iraq, but for all intents and purposes, they already have. Finally, he has promised to “protect our interests” in the region. Although what this means is unclear, the United States will likely use air power to strike ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq. American air power could stop ISIS attacks for the time being, but it will not correct the fundamental situation.

Deep, abiding religious, geographic, and culturally based ethnicity is the most critical phenomenon defining life in Iraq. The state as the locus of political community is a forced concept. The three major blocs of Shias, Sunni Arabs, and Sunni Kurds have always viewed interests in their own terms and not as national questions. Consequently, cooperation among the three groups, as well as among several smaller ethnic communities, is driven by how well a policy or an action benefits the given community. The United States has never understood this reality of Iraqi life. Washington, perhaps ignoring the evolution of our own march to national unity, has forgotten how difficult the process is and has attempted to superimpose our own ideas of what Iraq should look like and what kind of “democratic” system it should have. This kind of nation (i.e. state) building has never worked, especially when we violate deep cultural, religious, and political realities.

Now the experiment is at an end. We may delay the disintegration of the country for a while with air power and in conjunction with Iraq’s most elite troops, but the United States does not have the tools to change the basic realities and to build the Iraq that it had envisioned. Apparently, the only one who does not see that the emperor has no clothes is the emperor himself.

These issues are vital for American Christians to understand. The Christian community in Iraq is under dire threat of extinction, not because of the disintegration of Iraq per se, but because of the intolerance of emerging political forces that believe so strongly in the “purity” their own form of faith that they cannot accept the existence of those who are different—be they Christians or other types of Muslims. The survival of the Iraqi Christian community depends quite literally on whether the new forms of political community can be persuaded to tolerate religious diversity.

If the United States is to be useful at all, it needs to accept that Iraq will not be re-unified. Borders are not sacred; they are political inventions and, as history has shown, they will change.  At the same time, we can use air power to disrupt ISIS’s march—not to regenerate the old Iraq, but to create an atmosphere in which all sides recognize that they will be denied a military victory and will be compelled to negotiate a different reality, one that accepts a brand new map as well as religious differences.     


- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice


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