Civic fantasy

Civic fantasy

The United States is trying to build the South Vietnamese Army in Iraq (and Syria).

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By David B. Kanin

The failed myth of a liberal institutional world is leading Washington once again to waste time, treasure, and prestige on bolstering an Iraqi state (and a Syrian state supposedly in waiting) that is not going to work.  The Southeast Asian collapse of the model chastened the US for a while, but victory in the Cold War re-stoked egos and the odd view of chauvinism favored by American elites (“American Exceptionalism”).  US and European failure to anticipate and manage the implosion of Yugoslavia could have served as a warning, but those responsible for mucking about in that region instead called themselves successful and even offered their work as an exemplar for how to approach growing tensions in the Middle East and South Asia.

The shock of 9/11 led to an intervention that at first avoided (or at least played down) civic institutional teleology.  American troops invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qa’ida, routing Bin Laden’s Taliban hosts and chasing the lot of them to Tora Bora and into Waziristan.  However, before long Washington once again embraced the fictional narrative of “nation-building” we had heard (and still hear) in the Balkans.  In Afghanistan—and then in Iraq, which the US invaded in 2003—savvy local notables and big men on the make learned American palaver and took American money, creating or repairing patronage networks Washington and its representatives misunderstood as “governments” or ”political parties.”  The change in US administrations did not change that American mindset, even if it did bring a hesitant drawdown (and mini-reversal of that drawdown).  There remains no coherent American approach to managing the detritus of the Iraq destroyed in the US invasion [1].

The upheavals that began in 2011 and mis-labeled “Arab Spring” have destroyed what once was Syria as well as Iraq, but—while admitting it does not yet have a strategy—the US remains anchored to the old civic script.  The creeping American return to Iraq is centered around building another “Iraqi Army” under the misapprehension that a supposedly national military can provide the means for civic socialization of recruits as well as an effective fighting force.  The problem is that this Army will have the same basic problem as the one that fell apart after the Americans left at first contact with a truly socialized armed force—that of the Islamic State (Daesh).  As before, members of the next Iraqi Army will retain loyalties to family, community, and interpretations of faith that will continue to trump any bonds they might have to an abstract “state.”

This will be compounded by the lack of material influence the state has on peoples’ lives except as a passive site for looting by whatever patronage group (from which some but not most officers and soldiers will benefit) can capture it.  It is much too soon to tell when some sort of stable constellation of forces in territories once organized as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, will emerge.  Meanwhile, planners and conventional academics in the West are likely to continue to be surprised by developments and events they will continue to mis-define via liberal institutionalist lexicons.

By sticking to the civic fantasy the United States is missing an opportunity to back fully a burgeoning Kurdish universe that does have a chance to form a viable state, the existence of which would serve American interests.  The Kurds have proven to be the most effective fighting force against Daesh because they have been forming and deepening their political structures since the US invasion gave them the opportunity to use their oil resources to get out of an Iraq they never had any interest in.  As with the Albanians, the question of how the Kurds will organize their politics and how large of a space their community will dominate is a question that has a major impact on the security of their region.

The Kurds are doing a much better job than are the Albanians in dealing with their major historic adversary.  They have used their resources and Turkish President Erdogan’s interest in solving Turkey’s domestic Kurdish problem to make a deal with Ankara.  Erdogan originally was much less interested in enabling the nation-building efforts by Kurdish forces in the former Syria—who have serious differences with Kurdish elites in the former Iraq—because Ankara wanted to put limits on the extent of the nascent Kurdish entity.  However, the unanticipated ferocity and success of Daesh’s onslaught in the region appear to have made the Turks more willing to permit outside interests and Kurdish locals to squeeze Daesh supply lines along the Turkish border.  Supporting the Kurds more strongly (including by arming them better) would increase US and Kurdish leverage over a Turkey that recently has become more unpredictable in its approach toward the Middle East, the EU, and Russia.

Bolstering an emerging Kurdish polity would still leave serious questions about how best to approach the systemic changes going on in the rest of former Iraq and Syria  (and former Libya and fragmenting Yemen).  There is no chance the US can develop a coherent approach toward the security problems cascading from North Africa to the Indian Ocean as long as it holds to the civic fantasy that the problem is how to help the famous “moderates” (whoever they are and whatever that means) form western-style democracies with rule-of-law sovereignty.  Similarly, the EU and the traditional European powers will find themselves irrelevant in these areas, along with the rhetorical pieties they expound regarding human, women’s, and gay rights.

China and, to a lesser extent, Russia likely will be more successful in dealing with the various organized warlords, militias, state and regional autocrats, and patronage bosses because they do not buy into Western norms and can show their strength simply by thwarting trans-Atlantic efforts to prop up the notional  “International Community.”  Still, they will remain outsiders to the struggle over the future organizations and politics of a Muslim World where people are competing and expanding attempting more aggressively than at any time in over 300 years.

In 1975, the United States was surprised when the large, well-equipped, and hugely expensive South Vietnamese Army melted away in the face of Hanoi’s march to national reunification.  However the details work out in former Iraq, there will be no excuse for anyone to be surprised when the next iteration of a fictional civic army proves as dysfunctional as its predecessors.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).


1) Some of those responsible for the invasion argue that initial mistakes were made right by a military “surge” that saw to it the war was won by the end of the Bush Administration.  This is nonsense.  The “surge” stabilized the immediate security situation but did nothing to reverse the vacuum that has existed in the former Iraq since 2003.  Iran and Daesh are filling that vacuum—they are the two actors competing for control in the southern 2/3 of that former country.

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