Editor’s note: This week, Lawfare is running a series of essays on federalist governance in the Middle East. This essay is the sixth in the series. Read the introductory essay here.
The post-colonial states of the Middle East have long faced challenges to state- and nation-building. Despite relatively large bureaucracies and parastatal sectors—that is, those economic sectors run or “owned” by the state—many states in the region have exercised power ineffectively over populations that are politically, socially and religiously diverse. International actors are now proposing federal solutions to the management of conflict and political instability in the Middle East. This is a dangerous proposition, particularly if proposals for administrative division are based on U.S. and Western perceptions of identity affinities.
In his exploration of international interventions in the wake of the Bosnian War, David Campbell warns about how an “impoverished discourse of identity politics” crippled the international community’s response to conflict resolution. Federal institutions have the potential to exacerbate and harden identity cleavages, particularly if they force citizens to envision their place in a federal structure as conditioned by differences in religious or ethno-sectarian identity.
Federal “solutions” to the challenges facing governance in Iraq, for example, should be viewed with a critical eye with regard to both the guiding assumptions of such efforts and the likely political and social externalities. In Iraq, political elites have long sought to create the foundations of a centralized, modern Iraqi state built on a shared national identity.
For example, despite relying on forms of regional and tribal favoritism in staffing the core security elite, the Baathist regime—like its predecessors—sought to impart a sense of Iraqi national identity to the citizenry. Indeed, even in the most private of regime correspondence, Baathist officials avoided the use of explicitly sectarian discourse to describe political cleavages within the country. Loyalty to the regime superseded identity considerations as the regime sought to maintain internal security.
Scholars of Iraqi politics—like Dina Rizk Khoury—have argued that the form of sectarianism that emerged in Iraq after the 2003 American invasion was new to the country. Extremists—like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—attacked Shiite targets with the goal of manufacturing a sectarian war. And U.S. attempts at state building and institutional engineering generated important negative side effects: Not only did de-Baathification create a governance power vacuum, the U.S. also imposed a governing council in which members were selected based on their sectarian ethnic affiliation.
U.S. policymakers held a conventional wisdom about the high salience of identity divisions within Iraqi society, leading to ethno-sectarian apportionment being built into the council’s structure. This probably reflected a desire to represent Iraq’s diverse population insofar as U.S. policymakers understood that diversity. But the net effect of the council was to increase the salience of ethnic divides in Iraq. The desire to make the council's composition mirror Iraq's ethno-sectarian demographics actually deepened these societal rifts, as Khalil Osman describes. The International Crisis Group pointed out at the time that “the guiding assumption is that political representation must be apportioned according to [sectarian] quotas … reflects how the Council's creators, not the Iraqi people, view Iraqi society and politics … ethnic and religious conflict, for the most part absent from Iraq's modern history, is likely to be exacerbated as its people increasingly organize along these divisive lines.”
The situation worsened due to the relatively rapid move to competitive parliamentary elections in 2005, which encouraged political entrepreneurs to use shared ethnic and sectarian bonds for political mobilization given the relatively nascent state of Iraqi political parties. The result was a hardening of sectarian identities, according to international observers.
Western governments, academia, and the media frequently and falsely assume that Middle Eastern societies suffer a structural defect in their political culture, according to which citizens identify with their ethnic or sectarian group over their national identity. U.S. policymakers operating in Iraq after 2003 tended to believe that ethno-sectarian identification was “natural” to Iraq, the result of enduring ancient hatreds. Such an approach belies the multi-sectarian nature of political rule under the Baathists; the relatively high levels of intermarriage across ethno-sectarian groups before 2003; and the perpetuation of political oppression within, and not only across, ethno-sectarian groups.
Observers should be cautious before recommending federalism as a possible path forward for Iraq, particularly in the country’s current circumstances. Many viewed the Iraqi Army’s July 2017 victory over the Islamic State in Mosul as a key step in the reconsolidation of the Iraqi state. While the retaking of the city came at a high cost, Iraq’s central government is now has the opportunity to rebuild critical infrastructure and to reestablish essential public services. The government’s ability to fund state-building efforts of this sort will depend, to some degree, on maintaining control over oil resources—despite support for increasing autonomy among Iraq’s oil-producing governorates, like Basra. Despite some appealing features of federal institutional arrangements, there are no easy fixes for Iraq’s governance challenges.
If international actors do get involved, they may be most effective in facilitating societally-driven efforts at negotiation and conflict resolution. In examining conflict resolution in North Africa, Jennifer De Maio and I have found that community-based negotiations, while difficult to implement, seem to lead to more sustainable agreements over time: They decrease the incentive for the endogenous creation of opposition groups, a common byproduct of negotiations that fail to rely on public input and broad societal incorporation. So if a federal solution were to arise through a community-driven process, such an outcome would likely be seen as more legitimate and would have a greater probability of success over the long term.
Citizens of Middle Eastern societies are right to be suspicious of international actors peddling plans for federal solutions to problems of regional stability. Newly created, intra-state administrative boundaries may solve certain problems, but could create new ones. International attempts to partition existing polities will also trigger deeply-seated aversions to foreign meddling.