Foreign Policy

The Myth of the Sectarian Problem and the Solution in Iraq

Simon Leitch*

The ISIS attack on northern Iraq has triggered a predictable blame game over who “lost Iraq.” Was it Secretary Rumsfeld with his small footprint occupation of Iraq in 2003? Was it President Bush for overseeing failed efforts at reconstruction and nation building? Was it President Obama for cutting and running from the Middle East in favor of a rhetorical pivot to Asia? Was it Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for not being inclusive enough and marginalizing Sunni Muslims? Was it simply a confluence of unfortunate events and “systems effects” rippling through the region despite everyone’s well-intentioned efforts to halt the carnage?

Whatever the political outcome of the blame game, nothing substantive is going to be resolved until one key fact is understood in the Western iterations of the blame game – since the fall of Saddam Hussein, no one has ever “had” Iraq at all because the paradigms used for thinking about the maintenance of order in Iraq are still based on misunderstandings of past strategies and misplaced faith in democratic institutions. Post-2003 Iraq was always likely to become fragmented in the short to medium term, or move towards Shiite dominated authoritarianism. In trying to prevent both outcomes Western states have been paralyzed.

First, to shatter some misconceptions about Iraq, there has been an Iraqi state in the past where religious communities could live together in relative peace. Saddam’s or Feisal’s authoritarianism wasn’t loved, and the fate of those rulers and their dynasties attests to that fact, but both the support and the resistance to those regimes cut across sectarian divides. Sectarian divides induce specific political effects under specific circumstances – simply asserting that Iraq can never work as a single state because it happens to have a sectarian divide is ridiculous. Many major states have sectarian divides without civil war, whilst many civil wars have nothing to do with religion or ethnicity.

Second, Iraq cannot be subdivided into new territorial entities without chaos. As the U.S. ambassador remarked, a division of Iraq would probably create a new Somalia – that is, it would cause a complete breakdown of society in the region. A sectarian division of the country would only incentivize Balkan-style ethnic cleansing and terror campaigns to homogenize the different regions and it would legitimize the kind of sectarian politics which is so destructive to the regional order in the first place. It would also create a new scramble for influence amongst the House of Saud, the Iranians, the Hashemites, Turks, Kurds, Israelis and Syrians to name just a few within the region, not to mention those external powers with deep parochial interests.

Third, the fact that Iraq is not a working liberal-democracy with pluralistic, secular politics doesn’t mean that forcing Iraq to become more liberal, more democratic or more secular is the answer to its problems. The Maliki government has been taking a public beating from American and Western officials and pundits in recent weeks for not reaching out to Sunnis and granting them the kind of concessions which will turn them into loyal, state-supporting, civic-minded Iraqis. Maliki, a Shiite, had been cutting his own throat by being a Shiite and not an Iraqi, and therefore the crisis is of his own making, so the argument goes. This argument, to be blunt, is based on a lack of understanding about the kind of politics Maliki was introduced into when he became prime minister in 2006. Does anyone remember the utter anarchy masquerading as a state which was Iraq in 2006? Maliki’s survival as a politician (and as a person) revolved around delicate balances and alliances which preclude simply letting the Sunni minority have an equal say in running the country.

New electoral democracies are frequently unstable and frequently illiberal. New cleavages are created, new divides open up, old ones are revived or forgotten, new leaders manipulate new or old ideas for new or old constituents. In short, the transition to electoral politics is rough, and Western states should know this given the rivers of blood spilled in their transition from monarchy to liberal-democracy. Bashing Maliki because he isn’t being inclusive enough or casually advocating division of the country along sectarian lines sound like good solutions to moralizing Western liberal-democratic publics and officials, but these are solutions based on inappropriate historical analogies which will not work in Iraq (at least not now and not neatly).

Iraqis need security, rule of law and political stability – everyone knows this – but achieving these things will not come from Maliki simply rolling over to Sunni complaints (Maliki won’t last long as PM if he is perceived as a Sunni stooge), granting more democracy or more regional autonomy. It will require years of good policing, investment in bureaucracy and clever leadership of the Shiite constituency. Instead of complaining about Maliki’s Shia sectarianism, Western states interested in upholding Iraqi stability should complain about his poor organization of the military, border controls and intelligence. In other words, start concentrating on policies which can be improved independently of ideological political constraints.

Critics assert that without satisfying the Sunni minority nothing will work and Iraq will remain unstable. This is a bizarre assertion considering that few states in the region, and few Muslim states more generally, treat their citizens to liberal-democratic standards of human rights or legal protection. In fact, you only have to go across Iraq’s borders to see that governments are perfectly capable of ignoring the civil-political rights of the entire society, much less the minorities. Strong, stable government doesn’t mean appeasing everyone all the time and in some cases (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey) it might mean annoying a lot of people a lot of the time. Iraq needs a formula for good governance, certainly, but it doesn’t automatically follow that there is a particular path to Sunni appeasement that will be viable and will work.

Maliki is a Shiite in charge of a Shia-dominated state. That is the way things are and this is natural in a new electoral democracy. Still, no one, Maliki included, has yet “had” Iraq, and no one is going to get it any time soon unless the capacity to govern increases. Indeed, the risk that Iraq will get more rather than less “lost” is real. If Western states are going to help Iraq (it is an entirely different debate as to whether that is actually a good idea) they need to do so by assistance in capacity building, not by changing substantive partisan political practices.

*DrSimon Leitch is the Editor in Chief,  Foreign Policy and International Affairs,Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University.  His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: Foreign Policy, Iraq, ISIS, Politics, Uncategorized

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