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Experts in Missing Opportunities

Experts in Missing Opportunities

Monday, 7 June, 2021 - 11:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Sometimes words haunt the writer. They catch his attention and seize him. Sometimes it’s about words he heard or was touched by, or words he felt and could not forget.

As a wandering Arab journalist, I carried the recorder between many Arab capitals, from Khartoum to Baghdad and Sanaa. The word that has haunted me for years is “failure”.

“Failure” came to mind yesterday when I was asking for clarification about the downing of two booby-trapped drones that attempted to target the Iraqi base of Ain al-Asad, which includes American soldiers or experts. I was seeking for a clarification because Iraq is heading towards a major test represented in the early parliamentary elections scheduled for October 10.

The test is of great importance, because it will reveal whether the Iraqi voter has reached the necessary conclusions after the costly experiences that the country has endured since the US army uprooted Saddam Hussein’s regime.

It is no longer at all convincing to blame the US invasion for the current situation in Iraq, despite the series of horrific crimes and surprising mistakes it committed. The US policy did not succeed in understanding Iraq, which is caught between history and geography. It was not successful in identifying the actual forces that move the society.

Whoever listens to the stories of Iraqi politicians about that era will find it difficult to understand what some of them call American naivety in dealing with a victory the size of Saddam’s overthrow. It is the naïve illusion of being able to rebuild Iraq from scratch, similar to what happened in Japan and Germany after World War II.

There is no exaggeration in describing the upcoming elections as a great test for the Iraqis. They will reveal whether a majority of voters would support the establishment of a democratic state, which accommodates all components and makes its own decisions over internal and external files. Past experiences confirm that the emergence of such a majority would inevitably diminish the role of internal forces supporting the non-state approach and block foreign interventions, whether American or Iranian.

The truth is, the issue is nothing less than the Iraqi people’s exercise of their right to regain their voice and decision-making power. Their right to build a secure and prosperous Iraq that meets its children’s aspiration to live in a sovereign and prosperous country away that is not built on hostility towards this international or regional party or that.

Observers of the Iraqi arena agree that the efforts made by the current prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, are decisive in this regard. Since taking office and despite successive shocks, he is still raising - in complete harmony with President Barham Salih - the banner of building a state of law and institutions. Over the past months, Kadhimi assumed the image of a fighter who is combating on many fronts, groups of boxers who have taken the street, the parliament and the civil and military institutions as a basis to consolidate their continuity in the state.

It is not surprising that the state’s logic appears to be weaker, as the weight of the past years that followed the fall of Saddam casts a shadow over the current reality, especially after it was mixed with ruptures between and within sects, in addition to the attempts by some to reopen the Arab-Kurdish wound.

I asked my experienced Iraqi friend for his opinion, and he did not try to hide his pessimism. He said that Iraqi politicians are at this very moment ceaselessly still talking about the American failure in Iraq, without once reflecting on the Iraqi failure in Iraq.

It is not simple to go again and again to the elections only to witness the victory of the forces that do not believe in building a modern state according to the known international standards. The responsibility of US policy and the consequences of the mistakes it committed cannot be denied. The Iranian policy, which is trying to establish Iraq as an arena for tension between Tehran and Washington, cannot be disregarded. But the responsibility of the Iraqis themselves can never be evaded.

My friend added: “I sometimes have a sad feeling that we are groups that are forced to coexist in a certain geographical space. Groups obsessed with revenge and victory, rather than progress. After the fall of Saddam and the opening of ballot boxes, we had more than one opportunity to build a state of institutions in which Shiites and Sunnis can coexist without resorting to arms. We had an opportunity to build Arab-Kurdish relations without each side testing their military arsenal from time to time. Unfortunately, we went in the opposite direction. We have shown that we believe in power alone as a means of communication between various groups and among these groups themselves.”

“I hope I’m wrong, but that’s how I feel,” he said. “We paid a heavy price for Saddam’s tyranny and then missed the opportunity that his overthrow represented. Can anyone believe that Iraq - this country rich in resources - is now teeming with poverty and unable to provide services and job opportunities for its children? I sometimes wonder whether the problem was cultural before it was political. Democracy has no roots in our societies. The idea of the state has no foundations. We seize the elections to demonstrate our fanaticism, instead of grabbing them to push forward development and prosperity.”

He continued: “Unfortunately, the disease is not only Iraqi. The Yemenis, who have long complained of the long rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, did not use his ouster as an opportunity to sit around one table and build a stable Yemen looking for prosperity. The Houthis turned Yemen into a missile platform.

“Libyans did not seize the chance of Gaddafi’s departure. The Syrians also failed to spare their country the river of blood and the sea of rubble. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the Lebanese failure is blatant and painful. We used to believe that you have experience in democracy, tolerance and living under the institutions. For a while, we used to say: We wish Baghdad were like Beirut in its openness and prosperity. But Beirut has disappointed us like our capitals did. Like us, you are experts in wasting opportunities, and what we hear today about hunger and darkness indicates that we are accomplices in the failure that has made us lose the ability to join the train of progress.”

The words of my Iraqi friend hurt me. This cross-border failure hurt me. We are groups obsessed with victory, not progress. Groups that forge foreign alliances, only to follow their agendas and wars… Groups that see the natural state as an enemy that must be assassinated. We are experts in missing opportunities. Fortunate are the countries that have succeeded in hopping on the train of construction, development, investment and prosperity.

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