As the world watches Iraq’s seemingly endless cycle of violence with horror, it’s worth recalling that it wasn’t always like this. Iraqis weren’t always held hostage to megalomaniacal tyrants, strongmen or one-party rule. Nor were they led by the mostly venal and incompetent bunch that passes for our current political class.
Electoral democracy shorn of constructive leadership in an environment of degraded institutions and appalling ethical standards is a recipe for unaccountable government, unimaginable levels of corruption and the exacerbation of conflict and divisions.
Is it any wonder that the Iraqi army melted away when faced with the ISIS threat? Why would any soldier fight for a superior who pockets a portion of the soldier’s pay and diverts the unit’s rations for his private gain? It’s a disgrace that Iraq’s security forces, numbering nearly one million men, and upon which billions have been spent by both the American and Iraqi governments, cannot confront ISIS without recourse to foreign powers, including Iran, Russia and now the United States. What finally held the line against ISIS in Baghdad was the only institution with any credibility left: the Shiite clergy and its call for a defensive jihad. And even the thousands of volunteers heeding Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call are being sent to face ISIS with inadequate training, poor supplies and purloined pay.
Iraq, thanks to its oil, has been turned into a gigantic cash cow that is robbed and pillaged by an avaricious political class and huge bureaucracy. Iraq is now facing a threat to its very existence as a state by ethno-sectarian divisions made nearly irreconcilable by gross political miscalculations and overreach.
The Iraq that was born as a consequence of the 2003 American invasion has failed. To save it, we must draw lessons from the first Iraqi state, midwifed by the British in 1921 out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. That state was also born amid violence and discord, with a fraction of the resources available to today’s Iraq. But it had one precious quality that allowed it to survive and even thrive as a model for the region. It was led by one of the greatest Arab statesmen of the past century: King Faisal I.
If Iraq is ever to be reconstructed as a functioning unitary state that serves its people, then our leaders must look to Faisal’s model. Faisal’s moderate Arab patriotism was accommodating of various religions, sects, tribes and ethnicities and respectful to all of them. He practiced the politics of inclusiveness; his entourage included Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, tribesmen and effendis. He also recognized the relative disadvantage of the majority Shiite community after centuries of marginalization and sought to redress this imbalance. The king was a Sunni but he was a frequent visitor to Shiite shrines, and his public utterances were always deferential to Shiite leaders, symbols and rituals. He also reached out to Iraq’s myriad minorities, including Christians and Jews.
Faisal sought to build institutions that would provide good governance. By and large, all of Iraq’s groups had fair access to positions in these institutions and the king had no qualms about drawing on foreign talent to help develop them.
He respected the rule of law. The decisions of courts and judges reigned supreme. There were many instances where either Faisal or others in government lost court cases or appeals and willingly accepted the outcomes.
Faisal insisted on maintaining high standards of accountability and avoided nepotism and favoritism. He was not in the business of amassing personal wealth or real property at public expense. The royal privy purse was constantly scrutinized by Parliament. He was also available and accessible to the public, traveling frequently throughout Iraq and maintaining regular contact with his subjects. He never closeted himself in a palace nor separated himself by a coterie of flunkies and henchmen.
Faisal was concerned about education and the country’s economic development, especially its agriculture and water resources. The first generation of Iraq’s educators, administrators, doctors, engineers and architects were nurtured during his reign.
He strove for the best possible relations with Iraq’s neighbors and with major powers. During Faisal’s era, Iraq attempted to reduce or eliminate tensions with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. He saw the alliance with Britain, though to some extent imposed, as essential for Iraq’s security and development.
Finally, he built a cohesive and professional army that could quell rebellions and secure the frontiers. Faisal saw the military as an instrument of national unity and sought to introduce conscription as a means to instill patriotism.
There is still an opportunity to draw back from the brink. Iraq is now in the process of replacing its prime minister. What Iraq sorely needs is a transformational leader of Faisal’s caliber — one that can navigate the potentially devastating storms that are gathering and shift Iraqis away from the mind-set that views the redressing of wrongs as vengeance and equates the loss of absolute power with complete powerlessness.
Iraq simply cannot afford another patch-up job that brings to power a politician who forsakes the opportunity to bring decisive change by chasing after vainglory and illicit wealth.
Ali A. Allawi has served as Iraq’s minister of trade, defense and finance. He is the author of Faisal I of Iraq.