It’s easy to look at recent events in Iraq and conclude that the withrdawal of U.S. combat troops caused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to act like an autocrat, because it’s exactly the kind of proximate cause-effect story our brains are wired to concoct. It’s easy, but it’s wrong. Al-Maliki already was an autocrat, and the same U.S. troop presence that led to the establishment of the current Iraqi republic had already proven incapable of preventing the prime minister from consolidating his power.
It’s hard to say with confidence whether or not the Iraqi regime constructed after the invasion of 2003 ever was a full-blown democracy, but it certainly came close enough to warrant consideration. In spite of the violence and intimidation, the elections of 2005 were competitive and inclusive, the votes seem to have been tallied properly, and civil liberties were broad enough to let citizens listen, read, meet, and talk about their choices and expectations.
The parliamentary elections of 2010 were a different story. In the run-up to those contests, a panel appointed by al-Maliki’s government disqualified more than 500 candidates, including prominent politicians allied with Maliki rival Ayad Allawi, for their alleged ties to the Ba’ath party that ruled under Saddam Hussein. Human Rights Watch at the time called the disqualifications “unfair and arbitrary,” and they were widely viewed as a partisan act intended to hobble Sunni challenges to the prime minister’s ruling Shi’ite coalition. After the elections had apparently still produced a narrow two-seat advantage for Allawi’s bloc over al-Maliki’s, a special elections court, working in secret and under continued pressure from the commission that disqualified alleged Ba’athists ahead of the balloting, issued rulings that erased Allawi’s advantage and opened the door for al-Maliki to retain the post of prime minister. Meanwhile, even before the 2010 elections were being contorted to ensure that al-Maliki retained power, the prime minister’s government was reportedly using secret prisons and elements of the state security forces to harrass and intimidate political rivals.
In short, even if Iraq’s national government was more or less democratic after elections in 2005, that democracy had already been twisted back into authoritarian rule by the time al-Maliki returned to his post as prime minister after the elections of 2010.
It’s tempting to look at the distortion of Iraq’s first democratic experiment and conclude that the country’s sectarian divisions doom it to dictatorship and violence. In fact, the path Iraq has followed under al-Maliki’s leadership is utterly conventional. As I’ve noted before on this blog, most attempts at democracy are ended by a reassertion of authoritarian rule; in the past half-century, very few countries have managed to make democracy stick on their first try. Since the end of the Cold War, the most common path back to autocracy has been the creeping executive coup, whereby the incumbent party uses the levers of state authority to ensure its continuation in office. The winners of the elections that mark the start of a democratic episode usually don’t try to consolidate their advantage right away, however. Instead, these authoritarian tendencies usually creep in as new elections approach and threaten the incumbents with a loss of power. Comparatively speaking, then, Iraq’s first democratic experiment may have been a bit shorter than most, but the path it followed and end it met were utterly predictable from the start, and that predictability has nothing to do with Iraq’s long history of sectarian rivalry.
Given these facts, it’s impossible to blame the failure of Iraq’s attempt at democracy on the Obama administration’s decision to complete the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. For one thing, there’s the simple problem of the order of those events in time. If Iraq’s democratic experiment ended nearly two years before U.S. troops finished withdrawing, that end can’t really be a consequence of that withdrawal, can it?
Proponents of a longer mission might argue that the expectation of American withdrawal was the real problem, and democracy could have taken firmer root in Iraq had it just been given more time to mature under the indefinite protection of American forces. The trouble with this argument is that it ignores what the Iraqi government was saying about its own desire for a U.S. exit. Once the Iraqi government had decided not to invite American combat troops to stay on, any failure to remove those troops would have amounted to a renewed occupation, and any direct interference in Iraqi politics by American soldiers or diplomats would have abrogated the democratic principles it might have been meant to defend.
In sum, the renewal of authoritarian rule in Iraq is another sad but predictable turn for a country that’s suffered an awful lot of them. At the end of a year that’s been especially hard on entrenched dictators, it’s tempting to imagine what other pathways Iraq might have followed if the American-led invasion of 2003 had never happened. We can’t know, of course, but history suggests that the outcome of Iraq’s first attempt at democracy would likely have been the same, no matter what the timing and catalyst.