On March 20th, 2003, President George W. Bush announced that United States forces would begin military exercises within Iraq. Among the coalition partners, it was clear the United States and NATO allies were going to remove the Hussein regime from power. No matter why we initially went into the Middle East or Iraq, President Bush said we were going to leave it as a vibrant democracy. That did not happen.
Today, Iraq is neither a free nor democratic state. The country regularly holds elections and generally has widespread access to the polls, however, governance is stymied by corruption, kickbacks, lawless militias, and weak institutions throughout, according to current Freedom House analyses. Internationally, how successful does democracy and democracy-building look if the United States failed to secure the democratic vibrancy in Iraq after decades of support and spending $2.2 trillion?
Pretty lackluster, but was democracy ever possible in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was toppled? Not without Iraqi agency, and we still lack it. And certainly, not without a heroic demagogue who is going to fight for all Iraqis. I think it’s quite clear: stealth authoritarianism and weaponized communication have driven Iraq into democratic backsliding—back toward autocracy.
Take it or leave it: Iraq is known for its democracy—the failure of it. Since the coalition invasion, Iraq has undergone a multitude of changes to its government. It ratified a new constitution and installed a vastly improved political system. In fact, read how motivating the guiding principle of the type of government is: “The Republic of Iraq is a single federal, independent and fully sovereign state in which the system of government is republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic, and this Constitution is a guarantor of the unity of Iraq.”
With all this going for a country being helped by arguably the longest democratic state in the world, how was Iraq ranked the eighth most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International in 2012? Well, their leaders were and are horrible. They don’t care about the exorbitant poverty levels. The economy lacks diversity and opportunity, plunging it into despair. And we already know they are stealing public money.
Although Iraqis live in a society with more freedoms, we must objectively ask if they actually experience the qualities of democracy. To do this, it’s relevant to question the standard of democracy. Is there rule of law, free and independent institutions, economic opportunity, and political accountability to the voters?
Simply put, no.
Nouri al-Maliki was elected Prime Minister in 2006 and became the new republic’s first well-established leader post-Hussein. Upon his reelection, he worked to consolidate more power into his position through the legal framework of the constitution. Prior to the initial withdrawal of coalition forces in 2011, high ranking Sunni officials were jailed, including Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi—who was later sentenced to death. Ali Khedery, the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq, acting as a special assistant to five U.S. ambassadors and as a senior adviser to three heads of U.S. Central Command implied this: we lost Iraq and its potential democratic success because of Nouri al-Maliki.
One hell of a statement.
Democratic backsliding is a term often used today by those studying the means of democratic erosion, and it is troubling for us as Americans to understand how we could have failed so badly in Iraq, especially our failure of the Iraqi people. However, backsliding refers to the breakdown of qualities that embody a democracy. As Founding Director of the Program on Governance and Local Development at Yale University and political scientist, Dr. Ellen Lust says, “it is a decline in the quality of democracy, when it occurs within democratic regimes, or in democratic qualities of governance in autocracies.”
With Iraq never achieving our breadth and understanding of democracy, I think it is fair to deem it democracy-lite or near autocratic. In democracies, we see assaults on the press and freedom of expression, much of what we experienced during the 2016 and 2020 elections in America. However, in Iraq, we have of course seen these stealth authoritarian tactics, including attempting to change the legal framework of power. Moreover, al-Maliki and his coalition invoked outright behavior of autocrats, jailing political dissenters and religious minorities, killing journalists, and creating political inequity between Sunnis and Shiites.
“Adding to the overt physical risks from a dangerous security situation and threats of kidnapping, Iraqi journalists have told Al Jazeera that they now face threats from the Iraqi government itself, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.” The two prime ministers—Haider al-Abadi and Adil Abdul-Mahdi—that followed al-Maliki resigned due to widespread political unrest and public protests. The current prime minister is almost two years into his term and recently survived an assassination attempt.
Dangerous demagogues often weaponize their rhetoric to express their desires. At political rallies and public speeches, al-Maliki would coerce through weaponized speech to stoke fears with the religious minorities in his country.
“The most dangerous part of [al-]Maliki’s tactical, perceivably Khomeinist, speech was when he said: ‘Nineveh, here we come,’ because it also means: Raqqah, here we come; Aleppo, here we come; Yemen, here we come. We will go into all the regions where Muslims are fighting. Nouri seems to have declared a Shiite war, led by Iranian Khomeinism!”
He, the then Vice President, delivered this speech in the presence of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s adviser and political terrorism envoy Ali Akbar Velayati—internationally accused of a terrorist crime, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and President of the Supreme Islamic Council Ammar al-Hakim were all present at the conference.
This shows to a real degree the outright authoritarian nature of al-Maliki and those around him. He wanted to consolidate power and strip the protections of citizens to benefit his party and suppress those in the political and religious minority. He did so through weaponized speech, and there appears no one of ability to challenge this kind of rule in Iraq with a legitimate opposing view and be willing to engage with it.
Those who weaponize communication do it for one reason: their own benefit; compliance. al-Maliki wasn’t going to persuade anyone beyond his base, and it denied all Sunnis the opportunity to engage. Whereas, politicians who use speech as rhetoric to persuade—what Mercieca (2019) deems “heroic demagogues”—do so because they believe in a competitive democracy where they can use persuasion to consensually attract voters through active engagement. Iraqis need heroic demagogues who wish to use rhetoric to advance Iraq and end this senseless mirage of a democracy.
Now, Iraq is faced with the ongoing threat of ISIL and COVID-19. These hemorrhages threaten the weak democratic qualities that it possesses and inhibit the current government from having democratic “wins.” ISIL killed more individuals outside of Iraq and Syria than any year prior to 2020, creating a real dilemma for the weak democracy to appease the ever growing political factions within the religiously diverse Arab state. Furthermore, it has witnessed the power of a populist, terrorist movement in another Arab state, Afghanistan, with the Taliban retaking the Emirate. These fears should burn fire into the pants of the Iraqi leaders to do the right thing: end corruption, create political equality, and uplift the lower economic classes through opportunity. However, it is going to take enduring pain and suffering for this to occur unfortunately, and it does not appear to be soon enough.