Iraq in Turmoil by Yousseff H. Aboul-Enein is a synthesis of key passages in an eight volume work entitled, Social Glimpses of Iraqi Modern History by Dr. Ali al-Wardi. Although this is not a long book (173 pages) I wouldn’t recommend anyone other than specialists (academic or military) read it, and even then that they do so only if they keep one key point in mind:
Nothing went as planned (nothing really was planned, truth be known) after the United States-led Coalition toppled Saddam Hussein because U.S. non-planners did not understand the society and history they were entering.
Iraq in Turmoil isn’t only about Iraq because Iraq is inseparable from the larger region of which it is a part, and that region, for thousands of years, has seen governments and monarchies come and go while persisting in its distinctive shape-shifting forms of tribal alliances and betrayals.
If you break down any government in “the Middle East,” you will find an underpinning of tribal and clan networks that will persist. Saddam Hussein ruled in one sense; in another sense, he didn’t rule. He passed through Iraq as the British once passed through and the United States has passed through.
What remains is a mixture of Bedouin and urban social organization and fractured interpretations of Islam, spiced by ethnic variations and their sub-groups. Kings and presidents and dictators have discovered this, and it is well-told by Dr. Ali al-Wardi and somewhat choppily retold by Youseff H. Aboul-Enein.
We often hear it said that Iraq is an artificial country because three main groups comprise it: Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. This is true but only partially true. Through the course of history, all three of these groups have conspired with and against one another. At a given point of social/military stress, whatever structure of governance or “power” exists is quite likely to crumble into its fundamental components and those components will move this way or that depending on key leaders then active and key foreign forces then trying to influence things.
To read Iraq in Turmoil’s account of the Brits’ miseries dealing with Iraq in the 1920s is more or less to read an account of quite similar American miseries in the years 2003-2010.
There was a story-line after the U.S.-led invasion that read this way: we toppled Saddam and now the insurgency is led by former regimists trying to climb back into power, complicated by the fact that they were mostly Sunni and the majority of Iraqis are Shiite. Actually, that wasn’t the case. There were old Saddamists afoot, no question, but the intricacies of the insurgency had more to do with tribes and clans and sects interacting with one another against “the intruder.”
The Middle East is a region dominated by families and Islam. That’s the message of this book. The families change from century to century, Islam changes, too, but these core building blocks are not susceptible to Western adaptation.
The U.S. military likes to talk about this sort of thing in terms of confronting “the human terrain.” Okay, let them put it that way, but it doesn’t help. It hasn’t helped in Afghanistan (which is just like Iraq, but lacks oil) and it wouldn’t help in Syria (which is historically almost indistinguishable from Iraq, meaning, where is the border? what is the difference between these societies?)
At the moment, Washington is aflutter because President Obama declined the advice of his national security team to arm the insurgents in Syria.
Apparently he understands what he has been saying: there is no certainty whatever as to what will happen in Syria. Deals might be made that will shock us. We might be snookered before we finish shaking hands with our new partners. We might be pleased and see a tiny glimpse of something we can work with in encouraging peace. The fighting might stop, just like that, almost inexplicably, when the dictator gets on a plane to Switzerland or Swaziland.
None of this means the Middle East has no future and that we will never be able to deal with it peacefully, but the idea of talking about recent events there as some kind of “Arab Spring” is questionable. Some might say the Arab Spring happened fifteen hundred years ago.
In simplest terms, one has to understand that any strategy toward the region will break down into very particular, specific, tactical maneuvering at the drop of a dime. It is vital to be minutely informed if you are actively involved in the Middle East. Iraq in Turmoil makes that point abundantly clear, but it’s even more vital to be cautious. Any arrangement made there--in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq or nearby--is provisional. That’s why I particularly love the word “glimpses” associated with al-Wardi’s initial book (upon which Iraq in Turmoil is based). Eight-volumes and all you get are glimpses. Good way to put it. This is one complex, ever-changing region.
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