Iraq: People, History, Politics (Hot Spots in Global Politics series) by Gareth Stansfield

Iraq: People, History, Politics (Hot Spots in Global Politics series)
ISBN 0745632262
  • Author:
    Gareth Stansfield
  • Title:
    Iraq: People, History, Politics (Hot Spots in Global Politics series)
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    Polity Press; 1 edition (April 2, 2007)
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The removal of the regime of Saddam Hussein and the reconstruction of the Iraqi state were critical components of US foreign policy towards the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11. It was hoped that Iraq, free from the oppression of Saddam's tyranny, would be transformed into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Iraq has indeed been transformed, but into a zone of instability. With Saddam's regime no more, Iraq has turned into a morass of competing ethno-sectarian political and social forces, in stark contrast to the views expressed by Western and Middle Eastern commentators alike before the US-led invasion, who commonly believed in the strength of Iraqi nationalism. Why did this fragmentation occur? Have Sunni-Shii tensions always been present? Are the Kurds seeking secession, or accommodation within the state? What has been the social and political impact of years of dictatorship, war and hardship? And why have US attempts to restructure the Iraqi state resulted in Iraq being on the verge of becoming a failed state, rather than the first democratic domino in the Middle East? In this timely new book, Gareth Stansfield explores these questions and frames them in an analysis which takes into account Iraq's diverse society, and the geopolitical interventions of regional states and great powers. He concludes with an assessment of Iraq since the removal of Saddam.

"Iraq" is written by Gareth Stansfield, professor of Arab Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter, for Polity's Global Hot Spots Series. The first edition was published in 2007; this second edition follows events in Iraq up to 2015. By this time, there were three distinct regions in Iraq "that exercise de facto if not de jure sovereignty": the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the Islamic State, and the government of Iraq over the Baghdad-Basra area. The author seeks to answer some key questions about Iraq. Though his approach is chronological, it revolves around four interrelated debates that are prominent in any discussion of Iraq's present or future. The questions are: How did Iraq get into this position? Why are communities that once lived in relative harmony fighting each other? What bonds can be appealed to that might stabilize the situation? The four prominent debates are the artificiality debate, the identity debate, the dictator debate, and the state-building and democratization debate.

Stansfield takes the reader through Iraq's history chronologically in nine chapters. The first chapter lays out the "legacies of civilizations and empires" in the area that is now Iraq through its rule by the Ottoman Empire. Then he discusses the British mandate in Iraq following World War I, the manner in which the state of Iraq was formed, and its impact today in "State Formation, Monarchy and Mandate 1918-1932". The imposition of a British-approved government on the new nation of Iraq in 1932 inspired Arab nationalism but left the nation with a "lack of any unifying consciousness and national identity." So this chapter address the artificiality debate. Another chapter outlines "three principal means of conceptualizing Iraqi political life," which are nationalist, religious, or ethnic. So here the identity debate is addressed with discussions of competition between Arab and Iraqi nationalism, the Sunni-Shi'I divide, and the Kurdish-Arab conflict as well as Turkmen and Assyrian Christians,

Stansfield rejects the idea that the authoritarian characteristics of modern Iraq are the result of Arab culture and Islam but asserts they are the result of disparate communities that thrived under the Ottomans and were incorporated into a state by the British in a manner that empowered urban Sunnis over all others. He examines the rise of the military in political life, the continued communalization of Iraqi political life, and the growth of Arab nationalism as factors that encouraged authoritarianism, though it does not seem that these things are bad in themselves. Stansfield takes us through three coups in 1958, 1963, and 1968, which brought Saddam Hussein to power, resulting in an authoritarian state becoming totalitarian, as rising oil prices facilitated a heavily-subsidized vertical patron-state and enormous security apparatus. There is a helpful account of détente between Iraq and Iran, followed by war in the period 1979-1989. This chapter addresses the dictator debate.

"The Pariah State" examines the reasons for and aftermath of Saddam Hussein's misadventure in Kuwait in 1990, when his government was already crippled by war debt. Stansfield explains the US policies of war and of post-war Iraq that solidified Saddam Hussein's power despite his low popularity in Iraq at that point. The chapter on forced regime change in 2003 by US military action addresses the state-building and democratization debate. The author takes us through a bumbling US occupation, two different types of insurgencies, and the eventual adoption of a constitution that was not approved by Sunnis or Turkmen. This is followed by consolidation of power by Prime Minister Maliki, the US "surge", "Sunni Awakening", the successful US strategy to suppress or eradicate the extremist Sunni insurgents associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, until the eventual US withdrawal in 2011. Stansfield's last chapter focuses on the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, its reasons and its means.

Gareth Stansfield thinks that the artificiality debate (Iraq is an artificial state, not a nation-state) and the identity debate (Iraqi versus communal identity) are irrelevant to questions of Iraq's future, as Iraq has been so radically transformed by events since 1991 that Iraqi society does not resemble what existed before. Old rules –and old theories- no longer apply. I'm not an expert on Iraq, so I'm unlikely to find fault with Stansfield's coverage of its history. Stansfield writes clearly about the issues and people involved, making this a very good primer on Iraq. I was puzzled by the omission of Iraqi Jews from the history of the mandate and monarchy, however. While I appreciate Stansfield's distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, most governments in the history of civilization are what we would today call authoritarian. It does not imply that they were bad at governing. It's also important to define the term "democracy". The Greek word of the Classical period only meant that the needs and concerns of the populace would be represented without saying how. It isn't clear what Westerners want from Iraq, but they might see it differently if they re-examined their definitions.
This is a revised edition of the original book published in 2007. Gareth Stansfield felt it necessary to rewrite his conclusion from his first book now that ISIS has become a prominent factor in the region.

For anyone interested in understanding modern Iraq, this is an excellent start. While heavily researched and scholarly, it is very readable for the layman. Stansfield starts out with a brief ancient history chapter and the birth of Islam before concentrating on the creation of Iraq after World War I. Like other countries in the Middle East, it was created without considering the tribal make-up, bordering both Sunni and Shi'a within the same country. Stansfield shows how Iraq transformed itself from a monarchy to an authoritarian, then a totalitarian stateat war with its neighbor, at war with the US, at war within itself and finally to where it is today with the presence of ISIS. To understand how and why ISIS came to prominence one must understand the background of the region, and this book delivers that in a compact matter A chronology of events are in the back of the book.

The analysis of the US troop involvement in Iraq, especially after 2006, is well explained in short, concise chapters. This is the added and revised part of the original book and goes into great detail of the US military strategy of the war. Stansfield is very critical of how the US handled Iraq by not giving back its sovereignty sooner and by not making Iraq finance more of its own infrastructure. He faults the US for supporting prime minister Malaki even after he lost the 2010 election. Malaki is seen by many analysts as a leader who allowed sectarianism to grow in Iraq. Also, the US government did not persue former captives once they were released. Fighters such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who became the founder of ISIS, had been help in a US-run prison for eight months and then released. In prison Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was able to get other prisoners roused up to fight and create an underground network of resistance by also noting our tactics and procedures that he used against us later. Another well-defended argument was the oversight of both Iraq and the US in countering the growing Salafist rebellions in Anbar Province in the west which was countered by the majority Sunnis living there. This lack of defense early on allowed the development of ISIS in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Another weakness was the handling of Kurdistan and how to appease the Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'as, especially once ISIS took on battle in the northern regions. ISIS was able to draw on its manpower and firepower rather quickly, taking Mosul by surprise as US troops were to prepare withdrawing from Iraq. The sudden surge of ISIS prevented the Kurds from demanding their independence and actually forced the Kurds to unite with Iraqi troops to counter ISIS.

The end of the book is heavily concentrated on Iraq's recent military actions to counter ISIS. For readers just wanting information on Post US-involvement, this is an excellent read. For those wanting to understand how Iraq has transformed itself in the last century, they can also gain much valuable information here.
While not a primary source, this will be a good resource for at least the next few years about the current Iraq situation.

If the book has a flaw it's that it will be outstripped by events in likely just the next couple years as the result of battles against ISIS lead to resolutions and/or ongoing conflict. So it's hard to call this any kind of definitive resource. For the past it's okay, but any conclusions about even the most recent couple years it's hard to say.

Gareth Stansfield has done a good job chronicling the last 30+ years and given historical context that any researcher would need. This would be a good starting point, and then deeper research would start from there.