There are few examples of a modern nation-state so rapidly deteriorating into the abject condition of today's Iraq. Many may argue that it was inevitable that this Mesopotamian Eden would collapse once it was free of Baathist authoritarianism. Others may counter that the collapse was more the result of an unfamiliar political system imposed by ignorant invaders and practiced by a kleptocratic leadership. Whatever the reasons for Iraq's situation, the country is a failed state possibly on its way to partition and decay.
The story of Iraq's deterioration is told in painstaking detail in Zaid al-Ali's The Struggle for Iraq's Future, spanning the country's history from the 1950s to about a decade past the American-British-led invasion of 2003. It is not an academic book, but an account of the status quo and how it came to pass, relying on a respectable bibliography, research of current affairs, anecdotes, observations and expert opinion. Like so many (now disillusioned) expatriate Iraqis who returned to Iraq and saw an opportunity to help rebuild the nation of their fathers, Al-Ali goes to pains explaining developments, exposing failures, enumerating missed opportunities, and lamenting what might have been.
The book is composed of an introduction and nine chapters, each addressing a separate topic, such as the legacy of authoritarianism, the origins of the exile leaders in control of Iraq today, and the everyday problems of corruption, nepotism, mismanagement and environmental degradation. Al-Ali weaves from one topic to the next, using just enough information to relay the message of gradual collapse. In many areas, his style is that of a layman, but this serves his purpose of reaching a wider audience while exposing the realities of Iraq. A constitutional lawyer by profession, his best writing is on the development and outcome of the constitutional process that produced Iraq's unworkable national charter and weak legal institutions.
Al-Ali does not deviate far from the now-accepted wisdom among Iraq watchers that the country's problems after the 2003 invasion were the direct result of the ignorance and hubris of the Bush administration and the inexperience, greed and machinations of the Iraqi exile leaders who returned atop American tanks. Reading the sections about the Bush administration's lack of planning, missteps in implementation of misguided projects and utter cluelessness about Iraq, one is yet again driven to ask why the invasion took place at all. The only answer, readily deduced after reading the litany of problems and disasters enumerated in the book, is that the Bush entourage simply wanted to demonstrate that it could topple a leader and his regime. What the Americans did, after accomplishing their short-term goal, was to dismantle any meaningful institutional arrangement that could have prevented the collapse of the centralized state and to preside over the writing of a deeply flawed new constitution that might very well lead to civil war. With the benefit of hindsight, and after the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and great political, economic and social losses, no one can seriously speak of any positive gains from a seriously flawed foreign-policy decision.
But Al-Ali's wrath is more evident in his treatment of the Iraqi exiles who returned after decades in the diaspora to take over and pillage in the name of democracy and the redress of grievances. They were unrepresentative of Iraq's varied communities, ignorant of local conditions and demands, inexperienced in matters of state and administration, and bent on destroying each other in a long battle for spoils. Al-Ali spares only the clerical Sadr family and its scion, Muqtada al-Sadr, who decided to remain in Iraq and endure the horrific conditions under Saddam Hussein. Only the Sadrists enjoy genuine public support and have not been contaminated by the ideology of exile.
While Al-Ali spares no exile leaders — Ayad Allawi, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Ahmad al-Chalabi or the late Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, to name a few — he reserves his most pointed criticism for current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In his position since 2006, al-Maliki executes a clearly sectarian agenda, has created parallel state institutions in his office and has anointed himself arbiter of executive-legislative relations. Worse, he has seized control of military institutions, which he uses in a perpetual game of political chicken with other former exiles and the Iraqi people. All these moves were made with one purpose in mind: to remain prime minister for as long as possible and to assure Shiite dominance of government and state. In essence, Al-Maliki may have already succeeded in making himself what Saddam Hussein succeeded in becoming after eliminating all opposition to his rule — only this time the dictator is a Shiite.
Whatever Iraqi political arrangement might have been possible after 2003, Iraq's current problems are a testament to the utter cynicism of Iraq's current leaders. Al-Ali's list of these problems is almost endless: a constitution so flawed it is useless; a bureaucratic system so corrupt it will suffocate all economic and social development; a parliament so pliant it is a conduit for sectarian interests; a political class leeching whatever remains of the popular hope for a better life; and an environment rapidly approaching catastrophe. Indeed, these factors finally drove Al-Ali in 2010 to conclude it was a waste of time "trying to assist a state that was led by the worst elements in society" (p. 9).
Rich as this book is with tales of failure at every corner, it leaves some important questions unanswered. What was the role played by Iran in assisting exiles to parachute themselves into positions of power after 2003? Why did the Shiite source of emulation, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, fail to counter Iran's influence? What happened to the bourgeoisie that the Baath party created and that its rentier state sustained as a base? The answer would help explain other bourgeoisies in the Arab world, where states have created their own pliant social classes as political bases — what Yahya Sadowski has called "political vegetables" in the Egyptian case. Finally, while Al-Ali's "plan of action" (p. 251) lays down important principles for a new Iraq, the author fails to make a case for anyone who could implement them.
Nevertheless, the book is a good read for experts and generalists alike. It is advisable that the book be translated into Arabic, so that Iraqis can discover that their problems are shared by everyone else and that a collective response is necessary to end the rule of the exiles who destroyed their country.