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December 29, 2008

Iraq as Regional Power/ The Weakness of Dictatorships
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Marc Lynch writes about the rather ambitious foreign policy initiatives of the Iraqi government.

[Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh] made some news in his public remarks:  in addition to calling for U.S. dialogue with Iran and pleading for American consultation with Iraqis over the pace and scope of troop withdrawals (see Spencer Ackerman for more), he announced (as far as I know, for the first time) an Iraqi proposal for an EU-style regional economic partnership building off of the existing Iraq and its Neighbors Group (grouping Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and -- possibly -- the other GCC states).  He said that he had already spoken informally to Kuwait, Syria and Turkey about the idea, and -- as several audience members pointed out -- it's hard to imagine that the Iraqi government would propose something that hadn't already circulated through Tehran. 

Wow, that's pretty impressive, considering that Iraq was in the midst of a near-civil war and crippling sectarian violence only two years ago. It's impressive that the Iraqi government can devote significant attention and resources to such initiatives even as it it continues to be plagued by overwhelming domestic instability.

What we are seeing is the emergence of Iraq as regional power, similar to how Turkey (to a larger degree, of course) has risen in regional influence. How did this come to be? Compare Iraq to Egypt which is relatively "stable" and a staunch U.S. ally. It is the most populous country in the Arab world with a proud civilizational history. Yet, when was the last time you heard the Egyptian regime making bold regional moves? This hits at a point I made in a recent post about how democracies have stronger, more effective, and more predictable foreign policies than dictatorships. (It is also not an accident that both Iraq and Turkey are led by democratically-elected Islamist parties).

The Egyptian government is illegitimate, in the sense that it does not have the consent or support of its own people. Iraq, for all its faults, is not a dictatorship. Well, then, you might say: what about China or Russia? They are certainly dictatorships but are not nearly as illegitimate as their Arab counterparts. After all, Egypt is not only a dictatorship, but it is one that is, or is at least perceived to be, externally-imposed. Russia and China, on the other hand, are what one might call indigenous dictatorships - they are products of the collective choices and decisions of Russians and Chinese. Not surprisingly, both countries' governments are relatively popular. When Russia and China make foreign policy decisions, they make them with strength and confidence.

All other things equal, dictatorships have less effective, consistent foreign policies than democracies. All other things equal, dictatorships supported by strong external powers have less effective, consistent foreign policies than dictatorships that are in some sense indigenous. Sadly, what this means is that our Arab allies present the worst of both possible worlds.


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