A tale of two policies: US in Iraq and South Sudan

The US is becoming very skilled on conjuring up failed states, and helping them fail even more.

Regional actors have played a significant role in South Sudan peace negotiations [AFP/Getty Images]

During the past couple of years, an almost identical scenario unfolded in two recently “liberated” countries whose regimes are proud US creations. In both cases, the leader, who also happens to be the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, accused the vice-president of treason and crimes against the state and ordered his arrest. As the accused were forced to flee, the country descended into chaos and civil war.

The United States moved swiftly to tackle the crisis and safeguard its investment. But the policies it adopted in each country were diametrically opposed. In the first instance, it hastened to enhance peace-keeping operations and put pressure on both sides into reaching a ceasefire and urged peace negotiations. The overall emphasis was on reconciliation and the reconstruction of the political space on a more equitable basis.

In the second, the US quickly voiced support for the leader, and even offered military assistance to crush the dissent. No offers of peace negotiations or ceasefire were made, and the leader was not advised to practice democratic virtues. In both countries, the situation continues to deteriorate. Ironically, the tyrant the US promised to help militarily is faring much worse than the one being supported politically.

The first country is South Sudan, and the second Iraq. Both were pet projects of US politicians and policy-makers, not to mention powerful lobbies. Both were initially trumpeted as glorious “missions accomplished“.

A ‘pre-failed’ state

In the case of South Sudan, the investment included decades of support for the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and the constituency involved was much broader. Iraq was a more recent – and much more controversial – venture. But the investment was direct and massive: thousands of lives sacrificed and tens of billions of dollars squandered, not to mention reputations and careers staked. In both cases, the warning signs were clear from the beginning, but few wanted to take heed.

For decades, successive US administrations offered enthusiastic support for the South Sudan rebels, often in defiance of Cold War logic (SPLA rebels were supported by pro-Moscow Ethiopia and Cuba, while Sudan was a US ally when the rebellion broke out in 1983).

In 1985, a “Sudanese Spring” that was uniquely ahead of its time ushered in a democratic (and pro-Western) government.

Yet Washington support, even for peace, was conspicuous by its absence. By the end of its shaky tenure in 1989, the only democratic country in the region was paying the US more in debt service dues than it was receiving in “aid”.

Ironically, the US moved to encourage peace negotiations when a military regime came to power in 1989, indicating that the habit of trusting of military dictators to break.

The Clinton administration presided over its own mini-Cold War in the region, only to reverse its “regime-change” policy in 2000 and initiate intelligence cooperation with Khartoum. The Bush administration did more of the same, and also pursued aggressive peace-making policies, culmination in the signing of Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 2005, which offered the South the option of secession.

Maintaining a united Sudan was the preferred US option, but the Darfur crisis intervened, making it difficult to provide the necessary support for the CPA. The US and its allies consequently presided over a shambolic process that ended in a chaotic separation, bringing into existence what many dubbed in advance a “pre-failed state“.

Yet for the true believers, the warning signs (including serial atrocities by SPLA factions, a flawed 2010 elections, endemic corruption and gross human rights violations) were repeatedly brushed away. But as Mahmood Mamdani would later say about Darfur, this was seen as a “moral crusade” where politics was not allowed to intervene.

However, only the gullible and true believers would have been surprised when President Salva Kiir began sacking his generals en masse in early 2013, having earlier precipitated a senseless war with Khartoum. By mid-2013, he sacked his entire cabinet and practically dissolved the party hierarchy. In December 2013, a botched attempt to selectively disarm non-Dinka soldiers in the Presidential Guard led to a mutiny that was then dubbed a failed coup. Mass arrests of dissidents followed, sparking a civil war that is still raging.

‘A suicide pact’

In Iraq, the warning signs were even clearer, as the much trumpeted re-invention of a democratic Iraq turned into a debacle. US troops responded to the failure of the invasion to receive the universal welcome anticipated with tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s brutal ways. Eventually, as the US gave up and decided to cut and run, the wily prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, saw an opportunity to carve a new his own power monopoly. He took full control of the army and security sector, and began to extend his dominance over the judiciary.

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The parliament was paralysed by factionalism, and the presidency’s limited influence was compromised by President Jalal Talabani’s ill health. But Maliki still tried to neutralise the presidency by charging Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, the most senior Sunni politician in the administration, with terrorism offenses in December 2011.

Al-Hashimi was forced to flee the country, but interestingly no effort was made to appoint an acting president or a new vice-president, which clearly meant that the objective was to paralyse the presidency, above all else.

Even before last week’s calamity and the total collapse of the Iraqi army, it was clear to all rational observers that Maliki’s power grab was going to send Iraq into a tail spin. But the US did nothing to restrain its ally, who chose the day after the completion of US troops to pull out to indict the vice-president.

He was warmly welcomed in the White House, and military support kept pouring in. Maliki, it is to be recalled, has been installed in 2006 with full CIA support in a naive attempt to “curtail Iranian influence”. Keeping him sweet, the delusion still persists, will prevent him from falling into the arms of the Ayatollahs. This borders on the farcical, since the man is a true believer as far as Tehran was concerned, while Washington is for him merely an ally of convenience.

It is clear that while the US has adopted the correct policy in South Sudan, albeit after trying everything else, its embrace of Maliki looks like a suicide pact. In both cases, the US has moved too late and done too little. In South Sudan, the credit goes to local regional actors (the African Union – AU), and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development – IGAD), who took lead in responding quickly and constructively to the situation.

IGAD provided mediation and sent monitors to police the ceasefire, while the AU set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate claims of war crimes. The US had only to follow their lead. No such credible and competent actors existed in Iraq’s vicinity. In both cases, the problem was not adopting a “tough love” policy towards its spoilt proteges, who were indulged too much for their own good.

The divergence in policies also reflects two sides of an “Orientalist” paradigm of condescension and demonisation that continues to inform US foreign policy towards the region. In South Sudan, “Africans” were treated as children who are not responsible for their actions. So perpetrators of vile atrocities were not condemned and ostracised, but merely admonished to be “good boys”.

In Iraq, people with genuine grievances were treated as “terrorists” who can only be annihilated, not as human beings who could be bargained with. In both cases, it was an attitude demeaning of those involved, and a policy that leads nowhere.

Abelwahab El-Affendi is Coordinator, Democracy and Islam Programme, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His new book Genocidal Nightmares: Narratives of Insecurity and the Logic of Mass Atrocities will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.