The Failure of Nation-Building

British Imperialism and the Present Attempt of the USA to bring Democracy to Iraq in Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied

The United States has come dangerously close to following in the footsteps of the British imperialists of the 1920s. It must be understood that democracy shall never arrive and be accepted in Iraq unless it occurs organically within its own borders. We have seen the failures of nation-building time after time, especially in Iraq where we are still blind to the true nature of the state. The political structure of the state is woven into society and is the source of its violent control; but at the same time all its problems.

Since the end of the First World War Iraqi politics have been dominated by extreme levels of violence as a method of dominating and re-creating society. Similarly, communal and ethnic divisions were exacerbated by the same administrations to cause civil unrest. State resources have also consistently been used to buy favor with certain powerful factions of society, and crude oil revenue has been the cornerstone of establishing Iraqi economic autonomy. These are all contributing factors to Iraq’s domestic illegitimacy. It is important to understand this when considering the present state of the nation, and the current attempt to bring democracy to Iraq.

The remaining traces of civil society were wiped out during the Baathist regime, especially within its last ten years of power in which sanctions were designed to explicitly cripple state institutions. Saddam Hussein, as it turns out, was not the cause of – and thus executing him was not the solution to – Iraq’s violent political culture. Nevertheless the United State’s thirst for reprisal following the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City was enough to blind logic and rationality. If there is one thing we can learn from the political history of Iraq it’s that foreign occupations are met domestically with suspicion and hostility. And with good reason: the people of Iraq have been abused and taken advantage of for nearly a century, so it would be illogical to expect anything other than a violent response.

One of these strategies used by Hussein to retain power was to tie the population to the state. After the Gulf War, an estimated 40 percent of Iraqi households were directly reliant on government payments for survival. Trade unions were obsolete since the government required workers to petition the government on an individual basis for improvements to wages and working conditions. UN aid came in 1996 which required citizens to fill out a ration card application if they wanted to receive the benefits. These cards provided the government with significant information about each household that applied, and the regional constraints on use of the ration card prevented citizens from traveling. About sixty percent of the population depends on these handouts day-to-day. Hussein’s networks with his extended clan, the al-Bu Nasir, and affiliated tribes helped maintain order and social cohesion in exchange for government support. Members of these clans held top positions in every state institution. Dodge describes this system as a “shadow state” which involves “flexible networks of patronage and violence that were used to reshape Iraqi society in the image of Saddam Hussein and his regime.”[i]

The fundamental problem that British colonizers experienced – and the problem the US apparently fails to realize presently – is the way they understood Iraqi society. The British colonial administration was planning a brief occupation with minimal costs, followed by a clean withdrawal and continued access to their oil fields. In order to minimize costs they required Iraq to be self-supportive, although they could continue vicarious control through British advisors and puppet governments. As it turns out, the cheapest way for the British to keep order came in the form of regular airstrikes to prevent an uprising. Eventually, they set about allocating power to those individuals they believed to have social influence. They channeled resources through these individuals in hopes that social order would be maintained, and the result was a state whose social order had a shaky foundation. These individuals also used extreme violence to keep order and prevent a coup, in the same manner as the British. This constant destruction prevented state institutions from ever penetrating society. As Dodge puts it, “Autonomous collective societal structures beyond the control of the state simply do not exist.”[ii]

There are many similarities between British mandated imperialism and modern US attempts to stabilize Iraqi politics. Repeated mistakes and misunderstandings make one wonder if the Bush administration truly had no idea what they were doing early in their occupation, or if they in fact hoping to achieve a state of destruction and chaos for personal benefits. Nation-building has become increasingly popular since 1989 despite its no-success history in Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. So whether or not direct foreign intervention in a country’s political structure can be successful, we have no way to determine the tactics that actually work from the tactics that breed chaos and violence.

Likewise we can draw a parallel between Britain’s past behavior and the US’s present behavior. The US also had little understanding of Iraqi society upon entering the war. The dangers are that the US will recognize the aspects of the “shadow state” to be the authentic representations of Iraqi polity, or the US could re-imagine Iraqi society to be dominated by tribal and religious structures which could lead them to make the mistake of re-instituting the structures previously set up by the Baathist dictatorship and Saddam Hussein. That is, in fact, exactly what the US proceeded to do when searching for “figures of social influence” like the British imperialists. The administration appointed intermediaries hand-picked by Hussein to be his eyes and ears, so to speak. They were chosen by the US for the same reason they were chosen by Hussein, and the same reason the British allocated power to influential individuals originally: they would become channels for resources, generating good will among the population, and power for the administration that appointed them. This increased hostility of Iraqi society toward American occupying forces.

There is no question that bringing democracy to Iraq would greatly improve the quality of life, quality of governance, international trade, and global status. However before we attempt to bring democracy in the form of airstrikes on Baghdad, let us first try to sever the connections of the clans to the government and provide guidance to help establish a stable infrastructure. The people of Iraq are becoming increasingly resentful of Western nations playing with their country like it’s their own puppet show, so this would require precision and speed above all else. Realisticly, the cost of occupying another country is too great for any long-term investment; as was realized by the US and the British before them. As we are presently trying to extricate ourselves from the mess we made of Iraq there should be one lesson learned: Nation-building doesn’t work.


[i] Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: the Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (New York: Columbia 2003) 159

[ii] Dodge, Inventing Iraq: the Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied 159

Picture: Steve Cadman [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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