Author of ‘Iraq: A Political History’ explains why he wrote his book

Historians in the News

The idea for this book took shape in the post-2003 period as I searched for answers and tried to make sense of the quagmire into which Iraq seemed to be sinking. Successive governments, first appointed by the Americans, later elected by the Iraqis, would fail in the most rudimentary functions of governance. More than six years into the new era, the state was still less than capable in extending essential services and providing security for its citizens, with the result that in the perceptions of many Iraqis, state institutions would recede almost into irrelevance.

As America’s footprints sank deeper in the treacherous quicksand of Iraq’s discords and tensions, it was obvious that the seeming failure of the American project in Iraq was not just a failure of state institutions. The new masters, strangely unschooled in the ways of the land over which they now held dominion, would fail in two other undertakings: molding a unified Iraqi identity that would overcome ethno-sectarian loyalties, and fashioning robust representative institutions.

But was the American endeavor really so unique, indeed so alien, to Iraq that it was bound to fail? In fact, the narrative of a socially fractured Iraq and the way that state and civil institutions tried to deal with this seemingly intractable problem did not arise after April 2003. The story is as old as the history of Iraq itself.

My book examines the political development and institutional evolution of Iraq from the inception of the state in 1921 to the post-2003 years of political and societal turmoil. Its premise is that from the very beginning of the state, the Iraqi project devolved into three separate, yet interrelated undertakings: the construction and consolidation of the institutions of governance; the effort to legitimate the state through the framing of democratic structures; and the creation of an overarching, and thus unifying, national identity.

When the British installed Faysal bin Husayn as king of Iraq in 1921, the project to create a national identity, to sculpt a ‘nation’ out of the different and disparate communities, became a critical undertaking as essential to the future of Iraq as building an effective and credible process of governance. The British and the newly-crowned king also recognized early on in the monarchical period (1921-58) that a key route to amalgamating the country’s disparate groups into a coherent whole was through the construction of civic and representative institutions.

My purpose in this book is to demonstrate that the most useful and effective way of making sense of the post-2003 seeming waning of the country—the failures of state institutions, the frailty of democratic attitudes and commitments, and the fragility of a coherent national identity—is through a systematic understanding of the same three projects as they were first undertaken by the British and the Iraqi ruling elites in 1921, and then developed, with a few successes and many failures, during the life span of the country right through to the tumultuous events of the post-2003 era.
Read entire article at Adeed Dawisha at Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH blog)

comments powered by Disqus