Mustafa al-Kadhimi
Former Iraqi Prime Minister

Between Political Ethics and State-Building: Separation is Misguided, We Should Bring Them Together

The question of the relationship between ethics and politics, or political action is among the deepest controversies about governance and the most difficult dilemmas rulers must confront. The debate and search for an answer began as soon as humanity engaged in politics, as this question about the governance of nations and empires, and today, states remain unresolved.

The question is made more pertinent by what we see in the region today: genocidal wars that seek to exterminate people, ethics, laws, and rights in the name of politics and the necessities of governance and alliance.

No resolution of this dialectic has yet been found, and no resolution will be found in the future, or maybe ever. I have this conviction because political thinkers and political actors insist that we must separate political behavior from ethical behavior and deal with each of these two concepts independently. However, simple definitions of these concepts create common ground that can be built upon and demonstrate that they can be complementary.

Yes, I believe that politics is part of the ethical system. Politics is a set of means for leading communities and managing their affairs for the common good. As for ethics, it is a set of values and ideals that govern human behavior to ensure the common good and general well-being.

According to these definitions, we notice - looking into them deeply - that ethics is more broad, while politics is a part of it. We cannot imagine a politician committed to ethical ideals being oppressive in his practice of politics. Nor can we imagine a politician who shuns ethical values and is an upright politician.

From my experience and practice, in the complex environment of Iraq and its changes, I can say that a politician is not a wise man who applies his virtuous ethics in governance, as the Greek philosopher Plato says. At the same time, I do not endorse the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, one of the most prominent Western political theorists of the 17th century, who denies that ethics are within the realm of political action.

What I am trying to underline is that politics and political action are part of ethics and the value system of the individual and society; a politician who believes in and works to build and develop his state truly adheres to his ethical values, and he is ready to leave of power if remaining means abandoning his moral convictions.

I believed in these ideas theoretically, and I still do. When I took over as prime minister of Iraq in May 2020, this conviction was fortified. Through my practical experience, I found that Iraq's fundamental problems are ethical and cultural, not just political. A significant segment of the political class has largely abandoned ethics in practicing politics. Indeed, these have taken this disregard for ethics, the public’s commitment to them, to the extreme. Sadly, this has become commonplace in Iraqi society, and it can be seen in all groups and communities. This is our biggest dilemma in Mesopotamia.

This assessment demands laying out and pursuing a course for solving the country's problems. Without addressing this severe dysfunction, the schisms will deepen on every level. The problem will not be confined to the actions of particular actors. Rather, it will broaden to become part of the social and individual behavior, and it will eventually become normalized.

We should note that our problem is not in the nature of the political system, its mechanisms, or the constitution, although many of our people and the educated among them may see it that way. We have the capabilities, resources, and competencies needed to develop the state and its institutions, and to establish its stability, if the country were to be governed by a figure or a political class committed to its ethical values and unwilling to compromise them. At the same time, political actors must understand the democratic game, and people must retain hope and their conviction that development and progress are possible despite previous bitter experiences.

Some may disagree with all of this. They could say that these objectives are aspirations, hopes, or even dreams because the local, regional, and international conditions make this impossible. However, this objection is not based on a clear, comprehensive vision and comprehension of the history of state-building. Many countries had to clean up rubble and repair everything that had been destroyed on their path towards their renaissance. This is possible when strong individuals, armed with their ethics, are given the opportunity to rule and lead them. Similarly, strong nations decline when their rulers make light of ethics, and the Baath regime’s rule in Iraq is a prime example.

In Iraq, ethics and politics must converge, providing a sincere desire to find the common ground between these two concepts. That is how we can move forward, reforming our political system, elevating our state and its institutions, armed with our genuine will and ethical political action that prioritizes human and national interests, not personal interest and gains.