TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The End of the State of Exception in Iraq

Though it is still premature to speak of a victory in Iraq, there seems to be no question that the tide of the war has turned against al-Qaeda and Muqtada al-Sadr’s militias and toward the Iraqi government. As Kimberly Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan remark, “where the U.S. was unequivocally losing in Iraq at the end of 2006, we are just as unequivocally winning today.” This turn of events in the last 18 months, and particularly since March, confirms the wisdom of the U.S. military’s turn to a classic counterinsurgency approach to the war, involving a focus on protecting the civilian population and building close relationships with local groups. Their ability to effect this turnaround so quickly is a tribute to their flexibility and resourcefulness in shifting their basic stance. But it is also an indication about some of the ideological realities in Iraq.

First, the relative speed with which al-Qaeda and the Sadrists have been pushed out of the main cities indicates the lack of deep support for radical Islamist ideologies within Iraq. Their previous gains were apparently based on a mixture of terror and the U.S. military’s unwillingness in the first years of the war to engage with Iraqis on a local level. At the same time, Iraqi nationalist sentiment seems to be stronger than previously thought, when the country seemed to be at risk of descending into a prolonged sectarian civil war. This combination of a nationalist ideology and practical accommodations with local, tribal leaders could lead to a new stability in Iraq if (1) sectarian conflicts can be subordinated to an overarching national consensus and (2) this consensus can be based on an Iraqi nationalism rather than a Ba’athist pan-Arab nationalism. A federal model, possibly incorporating the idea of an upper House of Tribes and reminiscent of the notion of federalist populism advanced by Paul Piccone, seems to be the best way to establish both the authority of a central government and accommodations with local concerns and structures.

But the biggest change has been signaled by the Maliki government’s suggestion that they would consider the possibility of saying “Goodbye, U.S. troops. We don’t need you here anymore.” More than just an expression of independence from U.S. power, it is an affirmation of a fundamental confidence in the stability of the emerging political structure in Iraq. This is a critical achievement, as it indicates the beginning of a new consensus in Iraq that legitimate political activity will in the future be limited to official politics and that extra-parliamentary maneuvering through militias and terrorism will become more and more marginalized. As Telos‘s recent discussions of Carl Schmitt and the situation in Iraq have indicated, such a shift away from the state of exception in the civil war conditions of last year has come about through the ability of the Maliki government to assert its sovereignty. As Schmitt’s analysis of such situations implies, sovereignty has involved the ability to decide on the state of exception, which is to say, to decide on who the enemy of the current order is and then to take action against this enemy. In this case, Maliki risked a humiliating defeat and perhaps the end of his government when he chose to confront Sadr’s militias in Basra and Sadr City as well as al-Qaeda supporters in Mosul.

His success, though, was not just a product of his use of force, but of two cultural preconditions: (1) the will of the Iraqi army, which, in spite of 1300 desertions, managed to stand up to the outlaw militias in the name of a unified Iraqi government; and (2) the consent, if not always the active support, of the local population to the Iraqi army’s establishment of government sovereignty. This success was due in no small part to the Iraqi army’s ability to negotiate surrenders with militias who would not have surrendered to U.S. forces. This shifting of authority from U.S. forces to Iraqi ones will be crucial for continuing stability and confirms Schmitt’s dictum that the key question in issues of sovereignty is not the content of an overarching norm but rather “who decides.” If liberal democracy succeeds in Iraq, it will be due to its ability to establish itself based on an Iraqi nationalism that can assert itself against the myriad of tribal and sectarian affiliations that have created so much conflict in the last five years.

Yet, the success of the sovereign decision is not simply an act of brute force, but rather a certain matching of the sovereign who emerges with the coalescence of a popular will. While U.S. military force had been unable over several years to establish sovereignty and some commentators in March were questioning the wisdom of Maliki’s moves against Sadr, the success of his gamble indicates that his actions were enabled by an underlying sentiment in Iraq that supports such a subordination of sectarian conflicts to an overarching Iraqi unity. Residents of Basra and to a certain extent of Sadr City seemed to agree in the aftermath of the fighting that there is a palpable change in atmosphere since the Iraqi army has succeeded in forcing the Sadr militias to give up on maintaining a competing, alternative political order within Iraq. A new political consensus is emerging in Iraq that can form the basis of a “normal” situation of politics after the painful, prolonged, and unresolved state of exception that has reigned since the U.S.-led invasion. The testing of political wills and the consequent establishment of the Iraqi government’s sovereignty in the fight against the Sadr army and al-Qaeda in Iraq should go a long way toward buttressing the stability of this new order. Both supporters and detractors of the war in Iraq should be pleased with this result.

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