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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Iraq War and the Fate of Nation-States in the Twenty-First Century

Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: We did not, and do not, understand the nations of the world.

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(MAURICIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images)

The nation-states of Europe and the Anglosphere are presently caught up in a two-fold movement, each at odds with national sovereignty. The aspiration for supra-national sovereignty has captured the imagination of many of their national elites, who intend to use whatever state power remains at their disposal to dispense with the nation-state itself and replace it with global governance, though not with global government. Countervailing this supra-national development is the proliferation of sub-national sovereign sites, identifiable not as distinct territorial claims within which long-standing cultural patterns have emerged and stabilized, but rather as territorially dispersed group “identities,” which have also captured the imagination of many national elites, who intend to use whatever state power remains at their disposal to protect and “affirm” an ever-proliferating array of “innocent victims.” 

The Europe and the Anglosphere citizen who loves his nation, and whose predicates are secondary or ephemeral, is being replaced by the “innocent victim” who seldom loves his nation or the traditional mediating institutions without which no nation can long endure, and whose “identity” purports to be sovereign. No one knows how this twofold movement will be resolved. In Europe and in the Anglosphere, the apparatus of the state is today put in the service of advancing causes that undermine national sovereignty from two different directions.

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Iraq is not caught up in this two-fold, contradictory movement. Some of its elites dream of an Islamic Ummah that supersedes the nation-state—that recent and fraught arrangement introduced into the Arab World by Christian scholars at the American University of Beirut in the twentieth century, who feared a pan-Arab theocracy in the region. Iraq, whose boundaries were constituted during the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire by the French and the English, is artificial—or rather, it was. 

Today, patriotism in Iraq is visceral. The supra-national temptation that captivates the European and Anglo imagination, with its promise of egalitarian universalism unimpeded by national particularism, is nowhere to be found. The “universalism” about which the turbulent Muslim world dreams is past tense, not future tense, as it is for Europeans and Anglos. The one occasionally longs for retrieval, in order that a comprehensive way of life may be recovered; the other rushes headlong into a future that purports to release its haunted nations from the burden of their guilty history. For the one, the state can accommodate the occasional dream of Islamic Ummah; for the other, the state must sacrifice itself on the altar of universal egalitarianism.

Within the state of Iraq, there are indeed sovereign claims that threaten to destroy the integrity of the whole. Unlike European and Anglo subnational sovereignty, which takes the form of identity claims based on innocent victimhood, in Iraq, sovereign claims are territorial. Importantly, “identity,” insofar as it is invoked at all, is based on kind, rather than on innocent victimhood. Thus, the Kurds make a sovereign claim against the state not because they are innocent victims, but because they are a distinct kind. The notion of the innocent victim, we must remind ourselves, is central to Christianity, not to Islam. Christ, the incarnate God, is the innocent victim who “taketh away the sins of the world.” 

When religious civilizations become disoriented, they do not become secular, they rather cling to the artifacts of their religions, but now without a holy place for them to reside and cohere. Such is the fate of Europe and the Anglosphere, wherein several artifacts of Christianity—irredeemable stain, the scapegoat, the innocent victim—have taken up residence in a political party, and given rise to identity politics, whose defining feature is attentiveness to the category of the innocent victim. That is why the sub-national sovereign claim of the Kurds is rather different from the sovereign identity claims, based on innocent victimhood, in Europe and in the Anglo-sphere. Will the sort of claim the Kurds make, that different kinds deserve their own state, prevail, to the detriment of an Iraq presently conceived as a federal republic? That is unlikely, in no small measure because the Kurds benefit financially from the current federal arrangement, and could not now make it on their own as an independent nation. The cause of Kurdish nationalism in the Kurdish region of Iraq is funded by the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.

I have not mentioned that the Iraq War, which began twenty years ago this month. Many reasons were given to justify the American invasion—WMDs, democratization, peace in the broader Middle East. I confess to have supported the war, but on different grounds: Iraq has always been, with Egypt, an anchor point of Middle Eastern civilization. Prior to the Ba’ath takeover, Iraq had a rich political culture and a generally sophisticated people, who knew well their ancient pedigree. I report this as someone who was, so to speak, once “in the field.” During the 2008-10 academic years, I took leave from my tenured position in the government department at Georgetown, and became the acting chancellor of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. The university today is one of the few success stories that came out of the war, and currently has an enrollment of over a thousand students. 

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During my two-year stay, I was thanked, almost to a man, that my country had toppled Saddam Hussein. The grim stories of his reign, of the suffering he took glee in inflicting on his own people, haunt me to this day. That was the reason I supported the war effort to oust him. I knew what Iraq had been, and what it could be again. But after the gracious “thank you,” I heard about an American military, and about the host of parasite groups who came over to “help,” that damaged or destroyed almost everything they touched. I will be among the first to say that America is “exceptional.” But the meaning that Tocqueville, who coined the phrase, had in mind must not escape us. America is the exception to the rule, he wrote. And the rule is that the rest of the world is oriented, still, by aristocratic sensibilities—about men and women, about honor, about loyalty, about patronage, etc. Therein lies the root cause of the damage we inflicted. America said to itself, “I got this.” It didn’t. And still doesn’t. 

That is why American foreign policy is such a catastrophe, and has been for some time. Gone are the universities that once trained the area specialists who could inform the Pentagon, the State Department, and the CIA, that a plan it had devised was ill-advised because of the facts on the ground, which they, the area specialists, knew from a lifetime of study. Today our universities in America teach students fear and guilt, but little else. They teach history to establish culpability, not to nourish understanding of the agonies and hopes of mankind. What was once Area Studies has, since the end of the Cold War, become Comparative Politics; in this transformation, deep knowledge has been supplanted by social science pseudo-theories based on parochial and impoverished accounts of human action in society. 

Into the moral vacuum that such social science produced has recently rushed identity politics, whose moral imperative is to establish who is owed and who owes. Hence, the fixation on diversity, equity, and inclusion—which are fancy names for retribution. We no longer understand other nations of the world. Nor do we seem to care that we do not understand; all that matters in our universities is separating the pure from the impure, and purging the latter. From this teaching is emerging a generation of incompetent leaders who will misjudge the world. Democratic peoples, Tocqueville wrote, will always look for a single measure, by which they can judge the whole world. Under President George W. Bush, that single measure was “freedom.” In the current regime of President Biden, that measure is “identity.” From this unsound frame of mind, we can only expect never-ending blunders. 

Iraq will recover. It will face a set of problems that the war helped create—not least, an imposed constitution oriented around group identities. But these problems are surmountable, in part because Iraq does not face what now faces citizens in Europe and in the Anglosphere, namely, the relentless attack by those who hold the power of the state, and wish to use it against the state—from above with an End of Days longing for universal egalitarianism that has captivated the imagination of national elites; and from below by pernicious identity politics victimhood claims whose only remediation entails the destruction of the state itself, the history and institutions of which are claimed by those elites to be stained and irredeemable.