Kadhimi’s Iraq: An Interlude of False Hope or the Dawn of a New Era?
(Hassan Mneimneh, November 24, 2021)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Hassan Mneimneh is Principal at Middle East Alternatives in Washington DC. He is a Scholar at the Middle East Institute and Contributing Editor at Fikra Forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
He was previously Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Director of the Center for Global Engagement at the Institute for American Values. Between 1999 and 2008, Mneimneh assumed leading functions at the Iraq Memory Foundation, the Iraq Foundation, and the Iraq Research and Documentation Project.
Mneimneh specializes in the affairs of the Middle East, North Africa, and the wider Islamic world with a particular emphasis on radicalism and factionalism. In previous capacities, he has focused on the significance of socio-political and cultural developments in the MENA region to US and European policies; assessed civil reaction to radicalizing tendencies in Muslim societies; and studied the evolution, record, and prospects of radical Islamist formations worldwide. He has written, in English, Arabic, and French, on political, cultural, historical, and intellectual questions concerning the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. I am happy today to welcome back an old friend of the Westminster Institute with whom we have done other programs on the Middle East and Iraq, and that is Hassan Mneimneh. He is a principal at Middle East Alternatives in Washington, DC, and a political analyst who appears daily in the Arab media. He is a contributing editor at Fikra Forum at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was previously Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Director of the Center for Global Engagement at the Institute for American Values. Between 1999 and 2008, Hassan Mneimneh assumed leading functions at the Iraq Memory Foundation, the Iraq Foundation, and the Iraq Research and Documentation Project.
He specializes in the affairs of the Middle East, North Africa, and the wider Islamic world with a particular emphasis on radicalism and factionalism. In previous capacities he has focused on the significance of socio-political and cultural developments in the Middle East region and assessed civic reaction to radicalizing tendencies in Muslim societies. He has written in English, Arabic, and French on political, cultural, historical, and intellectual questions concerning the Arab and Muslim worlds. Today Hassan is going to discuss: Kadhimi’s Iraq: An Interlude of False Hope or the Dawn of a New Era? Thank you, Hassan, for joining us. That is quite a question that you have chosen as the topic for today’s discussion.
Thank you so much, Bob, and thank you for the Westminster Institute. It is always a pleasure to participate in your thoughtful, always important topics. What I would like to cover today is where Iraq stands at this moment. What we are actually facing is two major events that may or may not shape up as we expect them, [which] will take place in Iraq sometime in the coming months. One is the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of the year. And two is the selection of a new Prime Minister in light of the results of the elections that happened in October. These two events that normally in any I would say setting that appears to follow the proper expectations should not be trouble. However, in Iraq we face a different situation.
Let’s start with the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. Now, here we have a situation in which the transition from one administration to another has allowed forces within Iraq that are not the forces of government, actually, but forces that are proxy powers, proxy agents for Iran to try to reassert themselves.
We have to underline here: remember the context. If I may, I would like very quickly to establish the context in order to see what is at stake. What we have in the region is an Iranian expansion project that is in full swing. Again, from the point of view of Iran it is just resistance against what appears to the Iranian leadership to be an attempt on the part of the U.S., its partners, and its allies to besiege Iran. But actually, even objectively one can see that Iran is not really besieged.
What Iran has done has completely subverted the political, social, and economic processes in at least four neighboring countries to its west. Actually, we can point to a few to its east, too, but that is beyond the scope here. We are talking about Lebanon, which is in a state of disaster, Syria, in which Iran has supported the regime and has enabled the regime together with a far bigger contribution from Russia to survive, Iraq, which is the grand prize from the Iranian point of view but where it has not succeeded in completely owning the place, and Yemen, where it has capitalized on genuine local issues in order to cause trouble to Saudi Arabia, and to make of Yemen, actually, a pawn in its regional project.
Iran’s Regional Proxies
The reason we can term it a regional project is because Iran’s approach of choice is not to engage governments, although in the case of Syria the government being a tyrannical, despotic one, it seems to have had no problem engaging the government at the expense of the people, but elsewhere Iran engages para-national forces, subnational forces. It creates its own proxies, it creates its own agencies.
It allies itself with whoever has a grievance of some sort, typically capitalizing on affinities such as, in particular, religious affinities, Shi’i groups in particular but not solely. For example, the case of Hamas. Hamas is not Shia, and Iran has nonetheless been able to effectively insert itself into the already thorny, already complex, already difficult Palestinian-Israeli situation in order to make it even more difficult to the advantage of Iran.
The Case of Iraq
In the case of Iraq, Iraq as I mentioned is, from an Iranian point of view, the grand prize, meaning if Iran could control Iraq and lose all of the others, it is fine with Tehran. The project of expansion can continue later on, but the important thing is to be able to assert itself in Iraq, and it seemed to be able to do that, really, after the fall of the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein.
It seems to be able to do that largely as the result of U.S. errors, plenty of errors in the course of occupation and the withdrawal. However, due to multiple factors, some of which are intrinsic to Iraq, which has a national identity, which has nationalist forces which are not exactly willing subjects of Iran, but also due to Iranian limitations and to support from elsewhere, Iraq has not been absorbed into the new Iranian empire, an empire of a hidden character of some sort. It has not been absorbed, but nonetheless, Iran has multiple, multiple tracks of influence, multiple tracks of, actually, subversion within Iraq.
Iran Allowed Mustafa Al-Kadhimi
What seems to have been the case is that with the Trump administration, with the hardline approach of the Trump administration, Iran was effectively rattled. And the killing of Qassem Soleimani and some of the Hashd leaders actually pushed Iran to a little bit, if you like, stop-loss measures, including allowing the selection of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as Prime Minister. Mustafa al-Kadhimi is definitely not Iran’s first choice. Mustafa is a liberal, Mustafa is Western-oriented, [and] much more important Mustafa is a patriot. Mustafa al-Kadhimi puts the interests of Iraq first, and therefore he is not exactly the profile that Iran seeks.
Nonetheless, from the Iranian perspective, given what seemed to be at that point determination on the part of the Trump administration to force ahead, it seemed to have been a kind of a good measure, a good step from Iran to allow Mustafa to be Prime Minister because Mustafa is someone who seeks the type of relationship with Iran that is peer-to-peer but that is neighborly. There is no antagonism here in principal vis-à-vis Iran. There is antagonism towards anything that Iran does in order to subvert, to upend Iraqi democracy, but not one of, if you like, an existential nature.
So many of the elements, many of the tools that Iran had developed in Iraq had to be, in fact, almost forced by Iran to accept the choice of Al-Kadhimi. We are talking particularly here about multiple factions, multiple militias that Iran had to convince by diktat, actually, that okay, you will have to accept Mustafa al-Kadhimi, not because we like him but because he is the best choice right now given the situation that is difficult for us.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi is Trying to Save Iraq
Now, what has happened since Mustafa al-Kadhimi called the bluff of Iran and acted as a patriot, not as basically someone who serves Iranian interests. He tried hard and actually gave hope to many in Iraq to assert, to show that politics in Iraq can be other than corruption and subservience. Up until Mustafa al-Kadhimi one can look at the various heads-of-state, heads-of-government in Iraq as having fallen into one or the other, either subservience to Iran or basically corruption in order to enrich the acolytes and the cronies who enabled the Prime Minister to get to power or actually both. In many cases it was both.
But in any case, here maybe I am being a little bit unfair, generalizing because some prime ministers have tried to do the right thing but typically failed. In the case of Mustafa, Mustafa came to the position of Prime Minister at a time when Iraq had witnessed major protests that effectively changed the nature of the discussion in the country away from identity politics into what can be termed either as generational politics of some sort or basically the normal politics of people seeking betterment of their lives, that of their children, and that of their country altogether, so a rationalization of politics of some sort, [albeit] with limitations.
Actually, we need to talk about these limitations later on, but Mustafa came in. He did his best to embrace the feasible and positive aspects of this movement, but was not exactly completely identical in his approach to the demands, and here, as a digression that might be of importance, it is really crucial to understand that for many of the protestors – the protestors in Iraq were still operating (I am talking even about the young) from the perspective that they had been raised, to expect that of an entitlement and not that of an opportunity, along the lines that young people, having finished their university studies, expected to be hired into the state agencies, the state departments, and therefore many of the protests demanded employment.
They did not demand opportunities in order to create employment, they demanded employment, and this is not exactly something that any state on earth today, definitely not Iraq, is in a position to offer. This socialist fiction that some in the Arab world have entertained in the past is not tenable. So clearly, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi operated in a certain sense to address, to engage, to negotiate with the protestors, but he was not their candidate and his vision did not coincide with theirs, completely.
Nonetheless, he was tasked and he delivered free and fair elections, and he tasked himself and he delivered national politics. These are the two, main, if you like, results, achievements, of the Mustafa Al-Kadhimi era, and these two results point to something very important. If they were to continue with Mustafa Al-Kadhimi or without Mustafa Al-Kadhimi does not matter. But the notion of national politics and free and fair elections [matter].
National politics, which means, basically, arguments that are debated back and forth as a function of the national interest and not of the diktat or the influence of outside powers. That is one major achievement, and the second [major achievement is] free and fair elections, that irrespective where the political division, where the political distribution stands, the elections come to ratify or to change or to question or to hold accountable the political class. In a certain sense if we are to think about a Al-Kadhimi formula, this is it. It is national politics, free and fair elections.
Will Kadhimi Stay as Prime Minister?
Now, will Al-Kadhimi be Prime Minister? Chances are he will not. It is not impossible in the context of Iraq for him to be re-chosen if months pass and the various political parties are unable to choose a new Prime Minister. While they might default back on him that in my opinion, a biased opinion I have to say because I know the man and I think he is really devoted to his mission as basically a public servant in Iraq, and this is actually even this is kind of a novelty in a place where prime ministership and presidencies are assumed to be positions of prestige, and of power, and of basically privilege as opposed to being the privilege of being a public servant, which Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is, indeed, but whether Mustafa is there or not, we have had in Iraq the model over the past two years with considerable side achievements of this combination of national politics and free and fair elections.
I have to point in here, for example, to the fact that Mustafa understood, like many in the region and beyond understand, that Iraq in its geostrategic position can either be a battlefield for various powers, regional and international, or a buffer and a force for good, for change if you would like towards limiting the conflict, de-escalating, and ultimately maybe even finding solutions. Clearly, I mean when we talk about national politics, it goes without saying that the choice here is not to let your country be a battlefield, and this is something.
Again, I mean that the regional conference in which the French President participated is a good example of that. Iran participated, Saudi Arabia participated, and both countries which are one binary in the region that continues to cause trouble, I mean the conflict between the two is the source of many troubles in the region. Both of them participated and held subsequently multiple meetings in Iraq in order to find some common ground somewhere. Again, under Iraqi auspices with the whole notion that Iraq will not be the battlefield, Iraq will be the buffer, Iraq will be the median for resolution.
So this is where we are. We have a formula. Imperfect? Absolutely. Has Mustafa Al-Kadhimi been a perfect prime minister? Not at all, no one can be, but has he provided the kind of new approach that shows that a different kind of politics can be played, can be engaged in. Yes, he has, a focus on Iraq and a focus on elections being truly not a way to rubber stamp power but a way to check power, in other words to restore sovereignty where sovereignty is supposed to be, in the electorate, in the people, in the citizenry.
Qasim Suleimani’s Death
I have to underline here that I would say that the action of President Trump, of the previous administration, of killing Qasim Suleimani and some of the Hashd leaders might have spooked, might have surprised, and might have actually raised objections among many, me included, nonetheless, I concede that that action has enabled that space for Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to effectively to try this experience, and therefore irrespective [of] whether that was planned or not, and I do not think it was planned, but here we have a situation in which we ought to recognize that Mustafa Al-Kadhimi would not have been prime minister and would not have had the chance of showing that his formula can be applied with a measurable success had it not been for the situation that was created with the assassination, with the killing of Qasim Suleimani.
I have to point here, too, just in order not to end on this note of praise for the past administration that the Hashd, those groups in Iraq, those factions in Iraq that belong in one way or another, but actually not completely because they are unruly, but belong to Iran, are under Iranian influence, we are talking about these militias, these factions that constitute the Hashd, are actually copying bit by bit the ‘stop the steal’ strategy of the Trump camp with regard to the elections by irrespective of how many courts, how many reviews, how many recounts happen in Iraq, they keep on insisting fraud happened, that fraud happened at a large scale, and therefore this election is effectively null and void. So here we have really maybe two inadvertent effects of American politics on Iraqi politics. but nonetheless two substantial ones and chances are Iraq will not be the last place that sees such effect.
But now, keeping the focus on Iraq, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi provided what amounts to a small model, an experiment if you would like, that shows that a different kind of politics is possible. Whether this is going to be carried or ignored is a function of many factors, but I have to underline here once again the weight, the value, the importance of the United States. The Biden administration that is lukewarm about supporting democracy in Iraq would seal the fate of Iraq in the direction of effectively wasting these achievements and these gains.
The Biden administration or whoever comes after Biden who shows a commitment, a real interest in making this experience succeed will have a long way, will have really a weight in doing so. It is in the best interest of Iraq, the region, stability in the world for Iraq not to be the battlefield that it has been and that we can fear that it might get to be, and for Iraq to be, indeed, the place where people and countries in this agreement can meet, can talk, and under Iraqi auspices can find solutions.
How the U.S. Can Support Iraq Now
Robert R. Reilly:
So tell me, Hassan, how would that support from the United States express itself?
Well, already Mustafa Al-Kadhimi was in the United States and engaged in conversations of a strategic nature about effectively rationalizing, normalizing the relationship with the United States. However, one has to realize that even that conversation lacked the clarity and lacked, ultimately, the real results that were anticipated. Now we are at a point where the talk is by the end of this year, by the 31st of December combat troops will withdraw. Advisors and trainers will remain in there. It is important for that not to be token. This is where the issue is crucial. It is important and when we are talking about advising and training, the idea is not to repeat.
And lots of people are hoping and lots of people are feeling that what the Biden administration has committed in Afghanistan will be done again in Iraq, so it is important to underline the fact that Afghanistan was also a crucially important place, but whether irrespective of how we assess it, the deed is done. In the case of Iraq, it is not. It is crucial for American interest, for U.S. interests, for the stability of the region, for the stability of Iraq, not to abandon Iraq. And therefore, when we scale back our presence from combat to advising and training, for it to be genuinely and substantively so, and not merely a way of basically turning the page.
Unfortunately, like the Obama administration had done at one point and caused a major setback in the unfolding of events in Iraq, let us underline that this successful experiment with Mustafa Al-Kadhimi (partly successful, I am not here claiming stellar success, but we are talking about this counter model) is many years delayed because once again of U.S. abandonment in a certain sense. So let us hope that the Biden administration will learn from the mistakes of the previous [administration], the Obama administration, and would capitalize on, whether deliberate or inadvertent, what the Trump administration has enabled in Iraq, in order to show that American resolve is there, is adamant, is continuous, and therefore will not allow Iraq, that is heading in the right direction, to slide back into chaos to the detriment of everyone.
How Infiltrated is the Iraqi Army?
Robert R. Reilly:
Let me just ask a quick question that is not directly so much on the points you have been making, but since you invited the comparison with Afghanistan, I have to ask you this. As many suspected, and as I myself was one of those, the Afghan National Army simply melted away. It did not have a sufficient feeling of legitimacy to cohere as a national army and they just went back to their tribal regions and home after all of the investment and training that was given by U.S. and allied forces. Now, Iraq is a very different country even though it has still a strong tribal component, and if the United States is remaining to train military forces, do you have any sense of the condition in which the Iraqi military is today? Is it too infiltrated and beholden to Iran or does it share the sense of nationalism that Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has [shown]?
Well, you will not be surprised if I tell you it is a little bit of both, but let us underline the fact here that the meltdown that happened in the case of Afghanistan is not the fault of the soldiers or the officers or the rank and file of the Afghan army. Yes, the tribal component is there. Had the Afghan leadership given an alternative to those young men and older men to stay and fight for their nation, for their society, for their future, I would suspect that maybe not all of them, maybe a plurality, maybe a majority, would do so.
Unfortunately, in the case of Afghanistan it is our failure to recognize that while we were training the army, we were allowing a regime that was built on corruption to basically dominate and therefore no, a soldier will not give his life and deprive his family of his responsibility towards them just to enable a corrupt politician to steal more and run away. This is what happened in Afghanistan.
In the case of Iraq, it is not simple. Something similar did happen in Iraq. Let us not forget. It was a band of a few hundred, maybe a couple of thousand at the most, fighters from the so-called Islamic State that attacked an army that we had trained, equipped, provided weaponry, provided, if you would like, a doctrine of engagement, etc. in Mosul and in much of Iraq, and the army evaporated because at that point once again – maybe actually in that case we were not as serious in terms of training the Iraqi army because I know for a fact that many of those who were supposedly being trained were just names on a sheet of paper and the money was siphoned away for other purposes.
Again, I mean this a problem [that is] endemic, the problem of corruption is endemic, but at that point there was no leadership that framed the fight and framed the national army as one that is protective of its nation. In fact, in Mosul and in quite a large fraction of Iraq at that point the Iraqi army was viewed almost as an occupation army because basically soldiers and officers from elsewhere are brought in with their communitarian biases, and they do abuse, and they are not interested in service. They are simply interested in siphoning away whatever resources are available. That experience we have witnessed.
Let us not forget that Mustafa Al-Kadhimi despite the fact that he comes – I mean his background is not military but he was head of a security service, the intelligence service – and he was one of many (he was not the only one) one of many leaders of such services that were warning of such an outcome and had taken measures against such an outcome, but this very brief period of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi as a Prime Minister has demonstrated for the army and for all those services, talking about the security and military services, is that if you are put in harm’s way, it is not for politicians to get away with loot, it is in order for your nation to proceed, and therefore does that mean that all the military is now in line with such a vision? Absolutely not, but it is positively not Afghanistan. In Afghanistan there was no such core, and the proof is even before we were out, they were out, talking about the politicians with their loot and with their god knows what else.
So, in the case of Iraq what we have here is we have a proof of concept, what Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s short prime ministership was a proof of concept that the nation of Iraq, which has a solid identity that transcends factionalism, that transcends communitarianism, that transcends the religious sectarian identities and ethnic identities, that nation can be re-established, can be reset on a course towards being a functioning state, a functioning democracy. The proof of concept has been provided. It is now up to the next prime minister, next to the next political elite, actually, to carry through and push through.
The security forces and the army might suffer quite a bit of attrition as a result of infiltration that is attempted, no question, but this infiltration is not to the point where Iran owns the armed forces. Otherwise, they would not have the need to cater to those warlords, and many of them are gangster-like warlords that Iran nurtures in Iraq in order to balance the security forces that are moral.
Election Turnout is Down
Robert R. Reilly:
If we can, Hassan, let us go back to the election. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi promised early elections and he kept his promise, and I believe this was the sixth election in Iraq, parliamentary election, since 2003, and the foreign observers were impressed by the integrity and the fairness of the process despite the fact that you mentioned, that a number of disgruntled parties have brought suits. However, only 41 percent of the Iraqi electorate participated. What does that tell you?
Well, it is 41 percent, it is not the low single digits or at 10 percent and 12 percent in Afghanistan, and that should tell you something. The fact of the matter [is] we are not – across the Middle East and, actually, I would say this is a global phenomenon – there is a certain attitude of suspicion vis-à-vis political systems. We have a broken trust between electorate and political systems, electorates and political – I should not call them classes except in some cases, but basically anyone who engages in politics. This is an endemic problem that has become even more acute as a result of social media because it enables those malign actors that would like to amplify, to effectively make a problem that exists an even worse problem, not limiting themselves to misinformation, engaging in disinformation in mal-information. It enables them to be active and they are active.
In addition to the fact, one has to recognize that Iraq, which has lived under dictatorships for so long, has had to be weaned out of the patriarchal state, out of paternalism into assimilating, gradually, the notion of the citizen sovereign, that sovereignty and the right, basically rule [of law] is rule by the citizens with delegation to the political elected, members of government, and not basically an entitled class that rules. And no one can claim that this process is complete, that this process has reached where it should be.
This is why we cannot talk today about Iraqi democracy. We can talk about actions and movements on the path to democracy in Iraq, and again, this is the force, this is the power of the Mustafa Al-Kadhimi experience because it is one that basically shows that the degeneration that has happened in the course of close to two decades since the fall of Saddam is not organic, it is not something that is built into Iraqi society, it is the artifact of basically wrong models and wrong and faulty approaches that have been applied, and with the right approach improvements can happen.
And the vector of progress is what matters in here and when we are talking about proof of concept, we are talking about a major vector of progress in that direction, so the more we get delivery, the more we get participation. I mean after a while we all know from how it happens in the West. Once you have enough delivery, the participation retreats because people are satisfied and therefore less incentivized to participate, but we are not there in Iraq.
We are in a place where you have a new generation that says the politics of the past two decades are obsolete, we want new politics. What Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has provided is not exactly what they want, but really it is actually important here to see it more as a discussion, a negotiation, between this new generation, with what it wants and what it is used to, and what the new model has offered and what the new model can offer, and how it can change, and how basically a meeting can happen irrespective [of] who is at the helm. Really, this is not a matter. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has presented himself throughout as selfless in his action, in his actions in Iraq. Whether one accepts that or not does not matter. Whether Mustafa Al-Kadhimi stays on board or not does not matter. What matters is we have a good model.
Who Would Sadr Crown?
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, let us look at the complexion of things as the result of these elections. As you know, Muqtada al-Sadr gained the largest number of the seats, 70 or so. Is he the king-maker, and if so, whom would he crown?
Well, whom would he crown I would not even try to guess for two reasons. A, this is a political game that is with the cards hidden. For the months to come we are going to talk because on his own he is unable because he needs to create the kind of coalition that can allow some sort of a choice, but I mean there is another reason beyond, if you like, this rational political reason that makes me in the case of Muqtada al-Sadr say, let us not try to anticipate here any action. Muqtada al-Sadr and the Sadrist movement is one of those ambiguous political phenomena in Iraq today.
Is he an Iranian asset or not? I have talked to people who will promise you that he is absolutely an Iranian asset, albeit one that is activated in different ways from the various militias. Others would tell you not at all, he is the expression of Iraqi patriotism, to everything in between, including his visits to Saudi Arabia, including his typically – I mean his signature style of being utterly incoherent. No, in being incoherent he is not showing you, he is not trying to distract you, he seems to be himself distracted throughout.
So, I mean, again, here we have – he survives on the glow of his father, who was one of the most important religious figures in Iraqi history and maybe in Shia history in the 20th century for sure, and his father who tried to basically protect the community, the Shia community, against a Ba’athi regime that was adamant at trying to disintegrate any structure that does not belong to it. You see a totalitarianism that we had seen in the Soviet Union and elsewhere has succeeded in creating this kind of allegiance to his lineage to Muqtada al-Sadr. Really, to think of the merits of the man, I mean that he has not exactly achieved much at all. He has not been consistent at all, but he is now, whether we like it or not, indeed, as you put it, Bob, the king-maker.
Robert R. Reilly:
And what about the other factions, the Fatah group. Is it all way too fluid now to think of how a majority might congeal and behind whom they might do it?
I do think so, but they are engaging in a game that is a little bit risky. Actually, not a little bit, a lot risky, quite a bit risky, which is having lost (all of them have lost, I mean a considerable number of seats), so they are trying to leverage the utterly fictional claims of the militias that basically there has been widespread fraud and there has been a conspiracy to eliminate them, etc. They are trying to leverage those claims in order to reach a ‘compromise,’ quote-unquote, that would enable them to gain a little bit more in order to have more leverage.
Really, the risks here are to undo one of the two major achievements of what we can term the Mustafa Al-Kadhimi episode, which is delivering free and fair elections, because if you engage in any sort of compromise, having had an electoral commission that is independent, having had a court system that is transparent and has seen that no, there has not been the type of fraud that you are claiming at all, having had all of that, if you allow any kind of compromise, it is signaling to the population that their cynicism prior to this episode is the way to go.
The cynicism vis-à-vis the democratic process that has always been since the times of Saddam and before Saddam, it has always been a way for those in power to simply claim more power. It was never a question of measuring what the people think of those in power. It was always trying to get more endorsement. Actually, it was never real because in the case of Saddam, I think in one case, he indeed got 100 percent of the vote, not one dissenter in the whole country, but irrespective [of that], even if you do it differently, meaning in a less crass way, if you bypass the technical verdict that these have been free and fair elections, you basically invite the Iraqi public not to be trusting of the electoral process, and therefore this building block of democracy, the foundational building block of democracy is exposed, and therefore it is really undoing the positive of this previous period.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, as the parliamentary wrangling begins over the composition of the new government, Mustafa Kadhimi will remain as prime minister, as a caretaker, but as we know from previous episodes, that could last for a considerable period of time, and might that eventually incline them to accept him for another term?
That is not impossible, actually, but I would not count on it. I would not bank on it for the simple reason that while Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has set a course for a new type of application, a new type of delivery in government, one that fights corruption, one that seeks the public interest, one that is both proactive and corrective, we have seen him rush to situations where that had gotten out of control in order to fix them, and we have seen him plan in order to avoid having such situations happen.
This is a model which actually let us – I mean while giving him all the credit that is due to him, that is what a politician is supposed to do, that is what a prime minister is supposed to do, and therefore we are not talking here about a super, super superman, we are talking simply about someone who took his job seriously and did what he is supposed to do while across the political spectrum you have many people who had promised themselves, prior to Mustafa Al-Kadhimi becoming prime minister, promised themselves their turn in that position, not just of prestige but a flute of plunder, and have every intent of finding a way back, whether directly, personally, or whether through someone who would be a façade and enable them to go back to that means.
So here we are talking once again, even if you have free and fair elections, that you elect whoever is potentially a candidate, when you have a saturation level, candidates who represent these interests. We are not talking about a revolution, we are talking about a gradual evolution that will require someone of the caliber of Mustafa al-Kadhimi to come. [When I say] someone of the caliber of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, I am simply referring here to a public servant, someone who thinks of themselves as a public servant, and to continue the work [for] enough time in order to create that core of an Iraqi state that is resistant to corruption, and that ultimately will end up generating the type of leadership that we would like to see.
But for the time being I would say I do not consider it to be a high probability that they will settle on him, but if they get to an impasse and if – I mean ultimately, if everyone is convinced that they themselves have no chance, they might want to make sure that the others do not have a chance at loot either, and in that case it is Mustafa.
Robert R. Reilly:
Is it the former prime minister Maliki who might return?
Maliki definitely is actually offering himself as the alternative and [is] actually using the type of language that still has resonance with some sectors who belong to the militias but actually is repulsive to many others because the idea here is that Mustafa is an agent of the West, Mustafa is an enabler of the Americans. For most of the population in Iraq today, first of all, that is not exactly an insult or an accusation, and second, they see that that is not the case. I mean Mustafa did not create enmity with Iran. Actually, he had very cordial relations with Iran, but he insisted on a peer-to-peer relationship with Iran. He did not always get it, but actually, this was the push, this was the drive, while at the same time he insisted on a peer-to-peer relationship with the U.S.
Basically, this is what I when I referred to, he has given the model of national politics. It means the national interest first, it means Iraq first.
Robert R. Reilly:
We might add peer-to-peer with the Pope.
Well, no one is on a peer-to-peer basis with the Pope.
Robert R. Reilly:
I am joking, of course, but that very successful visit of Francis to Iraq, which was quite stunning, really.
Absolutely, but this is exactly part of the byproducts of having a national government, having national politics that are in place. It encourages those of good faith, and the Pope is the prime example of that, of actually seeking, connecting, engaging, and being there, and this is what has happened with the Pope. It happened with a lot of leaders. It happened with a lot of normal people. Again, Iraq all of a sudden, even if it is just for those few months, the couple of years when Mustafa al-Kadhimi was there not as a grand leader, he was no grand leader, he was a public servant, but Iraq in many of its aspects seemed like a normal country.
That is the aspiration. It is not grand, it is not Great Iraq, it is not the empire of Iraq. Who cares? I mean what matters here [is] normalcy and when you have politics that are centered on the interest of your constituency, that is normalcy. When you have a system of accountability, that is normalcy. Was it achieved in its authority? Absolutely, positively, no, it cannot, you see. But has the course been set? Has the direction been pointed to? Yes.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, our friend Kanan Makiya wrote the one of the most singular books about Iraq called Republic of Fear that characterized a society living under state terror as it had lived in that condition under Saddam Hussein for so many years. That is a very hard thing to come out of. How normal these many years later from 2003, and then also going through the terrible Daesh violence and the assassinations and kidnappings and so on, but how normal is Iraq today? How normal is the society?
The good news is that the majority of Iraqis today have not experienced the kind of systems that were copied, and not by accident, copied by design from the Soviet, East German, and other systems that had created the republic of fear. The republic of fear was not a Saddam innovation or invention, it was his take on Stalinism, his take on the kind of totalitarianism that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe had imposed on their populations. The difference is that it was done with the redundancies to account for the inadequacies of many of the systems and therefore maybe was even more oppressive if such a thing can be believed.
The current generation has not experienced that. They have a sense of that in lot of the apathy and the dependence that their parents may show towards the political system, the cynicism of their parents toward the political system. They themselves, the generation of today, has other reasons to be cynical about, and to be really actually resisting of, it is that combination which is actually the two sides of the same coin; terrorism and corruption.
Corruption and Terrorism
Corruption enables terrorism. Terrorism enables corruption. They have lived through it, and therefore the previous elections in some cases. We do have in Iraq an enlightened religious leadership that has done its best. I am talking about Imam al-Sistani, actually. He has done his best to steer Iraq out of falling into the Iranian trap of a theocracy, and at the same time avoiding a fall into anarchy, so he has acted as a guiding light from behind the scene in some [cases], pointing towards what is, if you would like, first steps towards democracy.
Again, this is not an ideal arrangement at all, and counting on the goodness of a religious leader in order to shape the way to democracy is definitely not the formula to be applied everywhere, but given the scarcity of elements, of positive elements in Iraq, that was one positive element. And actually, talking about Ayatollah Sistani, his actions saved literally hundreds of thousands of people because he has issued fatwas, although he tried to avoid having fatwas, but he has issued fatwas in order to avoid the kind of fracticidal wars that happened in Iraq. In any case that is a different issue here, Bob.
What matters is that Kanan describes a society that suffers from ills. The society suffered from ills under Saddam not because of the person of Saddam. When we think about Hitler and Nazism, it is not Hitler who set the course for all of Nazism, and yes, I am comparing the two because in both cases we have, basically, leaders who claim to be the ultimate, and claim to provide solutions, and end up providing solutions that kill a lot of people.
So that the fact of the matter is it will remain really an obligation on Iraq, on Middle Eastern societies, that in general, on Islamic societies and beyond Islamic societies, even Christians in the Middle East, and others to review, really, what makes it possible for such systems and for such leaders to emerge. Is it built just into the economy, into the culture, into the mindset, into the religion?
These are longer-term discussions. Really, what we have been facing is a matter of livelihood, a matter of survival, and this is why I go back to the practical approach of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, again, inductively seen. I have not spoken to with Mustafa Al-Kadhimi about it at all, but as an observer I see what he has done is try to fix the problems and anticipate the problems, not of the existential or of the total sense problems that that have an immediate effect.
We have lost in the past few years someone in Iraq who has been maligned and who has been actually at times held as a genius, at other times as a demon. I am talking about Ahmed Chalabi. Ahmed Chalabi also had the kind of vision, and he tried to go beyond, if you would like, the immediate, beyond even the intermediate into the comprehensive, into thinking of a regional order that would enable Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, others to live in harmony.
We are not at this stage. One has to accept the fact that we are today at the stage that most people would like to make sure, A, that they are safe, B, that they have enough to eat, and C (and probably the most important longer-term), they have an opportunity to prosper and to leave for their children something better than what they had.
Again, everyone shares these concerns, but I would argue that in the paternalistic cultures of the Middle East, especially after a century of grand narratives that try to promote paternalism into a new patriarchy, we have a lot to do in order to basically graduate into the sense of [citizenship], really. And the citizen who has these needs has to – while acting with the collective – but has to be in charge of his own needs, and try to seek them and expect of his government to provide the framework, the opportunity for him to deliver and not to provide him with the entitlements, basically, with the various entitlements and [a] job is today still viewed as an entitlement.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hassan, let us take a look at the very rough neighborhood in which Iraq resides. You have spoken of Iraqi-Iranian relations and of Al-Kadhimi’s attempt to keep those peer-to-peer. I think we both remember back in 2003 that success in Iraq after the invasion had been defined in ways that were inimical to the interests of both Iran and Syria, which would have led anyone who knew the area to expect those countries to massively interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq, which they both did without paying a penalty. Can you take us around the region and tell us how things stand for Iraq, country by country? If you want to start in the west, [start with] Syria.
Sure, Bob, there is good news here. [The good news] is that from a purely, if you like, objective, rational perspective the Iraq has no real enmity with anyone, maybe except with Turkey on water grounds. Other than that, Iran, too, actually. Iran also has blocked a lot of the water resources that flow into Iraq, but these are technical issues and I see no reason why these issues cannot be resolved, especially with better water management, etc. I mean let us keep in mind water security, food security, energy security. These are the real issues going forward, but these are issues that militate towards cooperation between everyone.
The problem that Iraq faces today is that there is indeed in the region a project of hegemony that pretends to be a project of resistance. I am talking about the Iranian project in particular. There are other, if you would like, lesser projects such as does Erdogan have some sort of a dream of a neo-Ottoman realm? Maybe, but he really can be discouraged, dissuaded against going [down] that path rather, if you would like, with far less effort than trying to wean Iran out of the empire as resistance model that it has engaged in.
And here is the really the catch: it is to the detriment of Iran itself for this project to continue because while there is some potential gain in the mid-term such as would Iran be able to control Iraq? Maybe, if the situation really gets to be in its favor for some, I do not know, astrological configuration. I do not know, but can Iran [in the] longer term hold Iraq? Not at all. And can Iran threaten Israel? By all means, it does. Will Iran be able to survive a real confrontation with Israel? Not at all. You see at least I can promise you Lebanon will not survive such a confrontation, and Syria will pay the price, Iraq will pay the price, Iran will pay the price.
So the fact of the matter [is] we face a rather, I would say, intricate situation in the region, that objectively speaking there should be a way to secure the interests of all the countries in a reasonable way, avoiding the excess greed that animates most people. Absolutely true, but nonetheless, and this is not doable because we have still the illusion of an empire being possible on the Iranian side.
Robert R. Reilly:
You use the term, Hassan, empire through resistance. By that you mean Iran’s support for the popular mobilization forces in Iraq?
Iran is in the business of forging, creating a new Persian empire while pretending to the whole world that it is the champion of resistance movements. Resistance as empire, you see, or empire as resistance, but it is what I am underlining here is this is not tenable. It is not that, well, they are on the way to success. They are not, okay? And it is not [that] they are on the way to creating a MAD situation, mutually actual destruction. They are not, you see.
So, what they are on the way to – look for every place that they have been able to become to prevail, whether it is Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, they are on the way of completely destroying these places and gaining in the process just some temporary leverage. So, Lebanon is worth some temporary leverage for Iran, Yemen the same, and ultimately these leverages will vanish and Iran, which is already itself suffering.
So, I mean the point is there is a path once again here. I mean there is a path in the region that includes Israel, that includes Turkey, that includes Iran all the way to Ethiopia. We are talking about, really, a region that has to have some certain level of integration. There is a way to think of a future that is not based on conflict and that actually satisfies the interest of everyone.
No one can claim that, well, demographic considerations make it impossible. Well, that argument about demographic considerations making it impossible was the argument presented 50 years ago at the time when the demography was not even a tiny fraction of where we are today, and will be presented probably by protagonists 50 years from now with looking back at today as being the good old times. The fact of the matter [is] the longer this problem is left to fester, the more intricate, the more difficult the solution, but this is not a problem that is not resolvable. This is the issue that needs to be underlined.
Robert R. Reilly:
That means, basically, that these problems are not ideological.
They pretend to be ideological. The ideology is there and one cannot discount that for some people, I would argue a minority of people, they are truly ideological. For another fraction of the population, they have an ideological side to them (pride, religion, name it whatever) and there is a concrete aspect to it at the same time, but for many, many others the ideological coating is just the way it is framed to them, maybe convincing certain days, maybe not convincing at all most of the time.
The issue here if we have the kind of courage at the level of leadership that says ideology notwithstanding, we are set to be together, we are set to share this region one way or another, no one is going to leave, the Iranians are here to stay, the clerical regime will have to reconsider, recalibrate its ideology. If it is indeed what Iran would like to have, a clerical regime, so be it, but not an empire. The empire is not that choice because empire is not about Iran, it is about outside of the borders of Iran, you see.
So the issue here is that it is possible to negotiate, to be reasonable if trust is rebuilt because let us put let me put it this way: I know for a fact that many supporters of the Iranian project do think of it as being the resistance project because there is that – what I would consider completely false narrative that, well, there is a neo-imperialist, Zionist (name it whatever you want) that is here to suck the blood of this region and take its resources.
And what I keep on wondering [is] where are those resources that are to be taken out? Are we talking about the oil that is obsolete or are we talking about agricultural lands that have been completely destroyed? Are we talking about water resources that are no longer there? We need a certain sense of rationalism, but more so we need to start building trust.
Robert R. Reilly:
Can we just touch quickly upon that very dramatic episode from early November when this drone strike on Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s residence inside the Green Zone was seen clearly as an attempt at assassination?
Robert R. Reilly:
Though apparently nobody has put forth a credit a claim of credit for it.
Well, they do not need to. The tools used are signature tools. We are not talking here about a generic drone that is available in any electronic store all over the world, we are talking about drones that are owned, that are Iranian, that originate from Iran, and they were handed to a number of militias in Iraq. And it is a part and parcel of the malicious kind of atmosphere that [is] promoted by these militias.
And I have to underline here that does that mean that Iran has tried to kill Al-Kadhimi? I do not [know]. I would not necessarily jump to that conclusion because there is a tension between Iran and many of its assets in many of these places. Maybe the one exception is really the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the relationship is one of subservience, but where it is completely clear. In the case of Iraq these militias are obedient 90-plus percent of the time and troublemakers about 10 percent of the time.
Is this part of the 10 percent? I would tend to think so. Maybe someone somewhere in Iran knew that it would happen and thought it might not be a bad idea to send the signal that we are back, especially the signal would be sent not that much to Al-Kadhimi but to the Biden administration, that you are not Trump and we are no longer in fear, so it is that kind of thing.
Robert R. Reilly:
There was another item in the news recently that was very sad because it included some Kurds from northern Iraq who had been taken to the Polish border in the attempts to basically push them over and create a breach that would allow a number of refugees to flood into there and into the EU, and they were turned back, and then indeed, flown back I believe to Kurdistan. We have not talked about Kurdistan yet. What is the current status of the intra-Iraqi relationships there? It does not seem to be quite the flashpoint issue as it used to be in the past. Has something settled down in that respect?
Again, it will require a completely different discussion, Bob, but in two words: there are affinities between what happens in Kurdistan, between what happens in Irbil and what happens in Baghdad. I am talking both at the level of government and also at the level of the citizenry, and the latest student protests that we have seen in Kurdistan are indication of that. We are talking about, similar concerns, a similar mood, but we have to recognize the fact that Kurdistan going its own way since the 90s has created two societies that have a lot of affinities and that have a lot to share, but nonetheless that have also different dynamics.
While Kurdistan today is not on a course to independence, but speaking as someone who has looked into the matter in a very close way, in a very detailed way, I would say that the aspiration for independence will remain there, and ultimately will happen, hopefully as a friendly kind of separation, re-evaluation of the encounter with Iraq, but this is not the subject of today, meaning Kurdistan today is a region of Iraq, and the Kurdish politics are going their own metamorphosis from family-based to something else.
What is this something else? It has not shaped completely. There is a new business class in Kurdistan that is influential there. There are new connections with all sorts of places globally, but there is also a certain consciousness that is both local and global, so this is something to watch over the next many years.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, in referring to Kurdistan having gone its own way since the 90s, by so doing it turned itself into a pretty normal place, would you agree?
Absolutely, I mean, again, everything has to be placed in context. I mean definitely. There is a certain Kurdistani pride and I am calling it Kurdistani pride and not Kurdish because actually part of how Kurdistan is evolving is recognizing the diversity that is in Kurdistan and embracing it, and that is actually something that is, I would say, rather rare in the Middle East. I would expect it to flourish more because it is rare today after a century of reductionism, but it is more reflective of the regional history than one would like, that one would assume.
Robert R. Reilly:
Let me close with this sort of reverie. Iraq actually has historical periods which you can look back upon with pride, and as a model. We know that in the 1950s Iraq was the most prosperous, best-educated, normal country in the Middle East. It had a European standard of living. I mean, maybe Portuguese, but nonetheless, a lot better than its neighbors, no, a normal place, and as you know a parliamentary monarchy and a civil society, independent judiciary, a relatively free press. One would only wish right for those things in the places for which they disappeared long ago. Is that just a reverie or is it a not tomorrow but in some foreseeable future – I mean are the young people even aware of what Iraq used to be like and that it may be able to become again?
Let me just underline, Bob, that in the collective memory of Iraqis, Iraq was all of that but at the same time it was also something else. There were drastic, dramatic, sometimes tragic differences between urban centers, Baghdad in particular, Mosul and Basra to some extent, and much of what remains of Iraq. So would that model that actually was applied, implemented, was visible in Baghdad would it be able to be applied elsewhere?
Maybe, I mean the answer from much of the young people today we do not want any return to any ’50s, we want to look at the 2050s. You see and the 2050s, yes, I mean the models that people seek are a very localized version of a global civilization. This is not looking back, this is looking forward. You are right about the need to never forget because after all we are what we are sort of in the sense that we carry with us in our language, in our genes, in our way of life what preceding generations had done, have achieved, but it is also refreshing to see that you do have in Iraq evolving today an openness, not just on what they were but also where the whole world went.
And let me underline that Iraq is maybe the one place on earth that can claim to be really the cradle of civilization. This is where not just kind of in the Middle East, okay, this is the cradle of Western civilization. This is the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, all of that this is where our whole history starts. Clearly, our humans and the human family have lived long before but we started recording it there and to a certain extent we still carry a lot of what was decided then. Our week, our months, our constellations, all of that is still a carry through from there so I would hope that the Iraqis recognize that place in time and space in certain sense and keep on looking forward.
Robert R. Reilly:
One of the worst things about Daesh or ISIS was their actual attempt to destroy the memory and the artifacts of the glorious past, and those civilizations to which you have just referred.
Absolutely, we have gone in the region and beyond, but in the region we have gone through many instances of total rupture with the past, okay, I wonder to what extent it is possible in our world today. You see there has been times where, let us take it from the example of Egypt, it was possible to kill the educated elite in order to deprive the Egyptians for two thousand years of their whole millenarian heritage, you see. You had to wait to the 19th century for it to be discovered. Today such ruptures are no longer possible, maybe. The Islamic State is nothing, but let us not give them any credit more than what they were, terrorists, killers who were defeated, and hopefully the society will have to look deep into what made the appeal of such a destructive ideology there for young people and find ways to correct it.
Robert R. Reilly:
Great. Well, I am afraid we are out of time today, but I would like to thank Hassan Mneimneh for joining me to discuss Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s Iraq: An Interlude of False Hope or the Dawn of a New Era. I invite our viewers to go to the Westminster Institute webpage or visit our YouTube channel where you can find Mustafa’s prior lectures for the Westminster Institute, which I would I suggest to you are evergreen [talks], still worth listening to again, and other Westminster talks, ranging from China to Russia and other Middle Eastern subjects. Thanks for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly, director of the Westminster institute.