This book is a study of Arab nationalism and the many unity schemes attempted by Iraq and Syria from the rise of the Iraqi state in 1921 until the Gulf crisis of 1990. According to the author, these projects fall into three different time periods. The first covers most of the Hashimite era in Iraq (1921-1954), dominated by the strong Arab nationalist feelings for which the Hashimites were known. Mufti details the constant Hashimite efforts to enter into one form of unity or another with Syria, especially after Syria's independence in 1946, when successive Hashimite rulers in Iraq took advantage of successive coups in Syria to further their own unity designs. For them, "pan Arabism," a term Mufti equates with Arab nationalism, was "their best avenue for escaping the constraints of parochial interests as well as the designs of foreign powers and so, for achieving the sovereignty that [lay) at the heart of their dynastic ambitions." (21)
The "pan-Arabism" of the second period, from the rise of Nasser in 1954 to the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, is one the author characterizes as "radical unionism." It was an era of continuous turbulence, regionally and in domestic Syrian and Iraqi politics. This era saw the emergence of Arab socialism and of Gama! Abdel Nasser as the preeminent leader of Arab nationalism; the overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq, and the accession to power there of Abdul Karim Kassen. In Iraq, Kassem encouraged those elements in the population opposed to Arab unity. In Syria, the United Arab Republic (UAR) formed between Egypt and Syria (1958-1961) was demolished in a 1961 plot by secessionist officers and civilians. Two years later, in 1963, Kassem himself was killed in a Baath coup in Iraq. However, even though Baathist military officers were able to establish Baath regimes in both Iraq and Syria in 1963, union between the two countries proved elusive.
The third period covers the span between 1967 and 1990, during which Baathist regimes strengthened their grip on Syria and Iraq. As these regimes, rooted in growing domestic constituencies, gained strength at home, pan-Arab projects and ideology faded.
To put these periods and events in perspective, Mufti has devised a theory and a framework of his own. In his view, Arab nationalism is inversely related to weak state structures and regimes. When Arab leaders and their institutions have been tenuous, they have sought popular support in pan-Arab projects; as rulers and their institutions have gained greater control over their respective societies, such projects have virtually disappeared from the horizon.
With respect to the Hashimites, he claims that they not only wanted a union with Syria, but also to expand their rule to the whole of the Arabian peninsula. This project needed a strong central authority in Baghdad that could command the obedience and allegiance of the entire Iraqi population. To this end, the Hashimites promoted the idea of an Iraqi identity to replace local, tribal and sectarian allegiances. The Hashimites also used their Arab unity policies as a means to escape British influence over them. Not surprisingly, their unity efforts were met by British resistance, and they all came to naught by the fall of their monarchy in 1958.
However, the real challenge to Hashimite unity schemes came with the rise of Nasser, who quickly captured the hearts and minds of the Arabs, including those in Iraq. The Hashimite foreign policy of adherence to the Baghdad Pact, which antagonized Egypt, played a major role in bringing down their regime.
The 1958 revolution in Iraq, and the 1961 secessionist movement in Syria, brought with them what the author describes as a "praetorian nightmare," in which rival officers engaged in a brutal competition for leadership that went on continuously for a decade (1958-1968). "This praetorian elite resorted to defensive unionism because they lacked state institutions that could control the military or create an authority capable of imposing order and winning people's allegiances." (257) In both Syria and Iraq, the new rulers sought to affirm their legitimacy by adopting "pan-Arabism" as a foreign-policy goal and a means of gaining popular support. The praetorian era came to an end with the rise to power of Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. These two dictators were able to take firm control of their countries. They strengthened state institutions and used social and economic development programs to gain support. By doing so, the two leaders also distanced themselves from "defensive unionism." They likewise engaged in foreign policies that put the national interests of their states ahead of the interests of individual segments of their societies, such as elites and clan groups.
The most interesting parts of the book are those dealing with the Baathist feuds between Syria and Iraq and within each country. Such feuds lasted from the early Baath coups of 1963 until the rupture of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1982. The pages detailing these events give the reader a clear sense of how the factious Baath parties in both countries were willing to change policies whenever it suited them in order to survive, regardless of any previous commitments to union.
In the book, the author puts great emphasis on the role of the communists in Iraq. However, in reality, the communists were a very small, although active, political minority. The only time they played a major role was in 1958-1959, when Abdul Karim Kassem encouraged them as a counter to Arab nationalists projects. Their role in the subsequent massacres in Mosul and Kirkuk alienated them from much of the Iraqi population as a whole.
This is a well-researched book that contains an interesting effort at a new interpretation of the many Arab union projects involving Syria and Iraq over the years. However, Mufti's theory that Arab nationalism is related to weak state structures and Arab rulers' attempts to compensate for flawed legitimacy by espousing pan-Arab schemes, while valid, does not do justice to the genuine feelings and beliefs of many Arabs, including these leaders, that Arabs form one nation, divided into many countries. It is these feelings that largely account for the persistence of unity projects. At the same time, judging by the ups and downs of relations between Iraq and Syria depicted in this book, as well as the opportunism of the Baath parties in both countries, one cannot rule out a rapprochement between the two countries in the future. Nor can one dismiss a revival of “pan Arabism" as a backlash against radical Islamism or as compensation for the record of failed governments and repression depicted in these pages.