Having lived in the Middle East and made a career in anthropology, I take a particular interest in the unfolding events in Iraq. One of the most important insights we can have in this matter is the profound difference between our type of society and theirs.
We are organized into a nation-state, which provides us with innumerable rights and freedoms we take for granted. In contrast, Iraq and Afghanistan are actually better described as “territories” inhabited by various “tribes” (some of which are allied, others feuding) distinguished on ethnic and religious grounds, largely corresponding to Islamic (Shiite vs. Sunni) factionalism.
Nation-states in Africa and the Greater Middle East are creations of former colonial powers, such as France and Great Britain. These states frequently make little sense in regards to the people they encompass. Many tribes were grouped together that had been fighting for centuries; whereas other tribes were separated by national borders. Some distinct groups, such as the Kurds, should have been given their own state but were denied.
With the tribal differences in Iraq, the nation-state model is difficult to implement. Saddam Hussein, with all his vulgarity, was the main force holding Iraq together. Eliminating him destabilized the region. Our assumption that we could create a functional nation-state in Iraq was further undermined by Nouri al-Maliki’s rise to power, for he is a Shiite nationalist with no interest in inclusion or reconciliation with his former Sunni oppressors under Saddam Hussein.
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Hence, the belief that people will come together in Iraq under a unifying flag, army, and sense of nationalism is probably unrealistic. The most influential form of governance in such locations is the rule of the clan. That is where peoples’ true loyalties reside.
The glaring problem in Iraq today is not the dissolution of the colonial nation-state, but the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), aka ISIL, in which ardently anti-American religious fanatics are trying to establish an old fashion caliphate (Islamic state). ISIS is largely a jihadist offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq that became so extreme and inhumane that even al-Qaida has disavowed them.
It’s worth noting that there was no significant presence of al-Qaida in Iraq prior to our 2003 invasion. The removal of the strongman who held Iraq together was very destabilizing and al-Maliki’s political ascent was a formula for eventual collapse of the nation, particularly with him being Shia and many of the combatants against us, including al-Qaida, being Sunni. In fact, at no time after our invasion has Iraq been well established for long-term stability.
Upon taking office, President Obama inherited a troop withdrawal agreement (for us to exit Iraq) worked out by the previous administration — Dick Cheney boasted about it. For us to have militarily remained until today, against the will of the Iraqi government, would have been expensive, contrary to the desires of the American people, and would have placed us in the position of imposing an illegal military occupation.
Moreover, a pre-emptive U.S. military engagement in the chaotic and ugly conflict in Syria, as some people have advocated, could easily have backfired on us.
America will take a huge leap forward if and when we overcome our belief that we can use our military to solve the world’s problems.
In order to take productive action in the Middle Eastern region, we need to better understand the nature of their societies and the causes of their grievances. Religion, honor, custom, and tribalism are their main organizing principles (not individualism capitalism, and patriotism).
To some extent,we should allow people there to humanly redraw political borders better corresponding to their unique histories and culture.
We need to be fair, respectful, and inclusive in our approach. It is, for example, important to value Palestinian lives as much as Israeli and to work with tribal leaders of different persuasions.
ISIS is probably an exception, however, for they are a murdering mob, and military force seems to be the only language their sociopathic minds comprehend.
But, overall, we should be the calm, reflective mediator, not invader. Supporting Middle Eastern countries in becoming smaller, more homogenous societies might actually be the best way to promote the development of modern, nation-states there. Let’s be the consistent voice of freedom and reason, with a minimum of military intervention.
Mark Mansperger is an associate professor of Anthropology and World Civilizations at WSU-TC. Growing up in an Air Force family provided opportunities to see much of the world, although Richland is now his home.