Nationalism vs. Pan-Arabism: A continuing tug of war

The history of Iraqi politics was and still is a history of struggle between advocates of Arab nationalism and advocates of Iraqi nationalism. The former believe in the close connection between Iraq and the rest of the Arab nation, while the latter believe in concentrating on Iraq and leaving any attachment to other Arabs in a secondary place. This is a struggle that goes back to the founding of the state.

Following the British occupation of Iraq in 1914-17, those supporting Iraqi nationalism held the upper hand. All attempts to change the course of Iraqi politics under the monarchy, 1921-1958, were foiled by the royal regime supported by the British government. The most serious attempt was in 1941 and led to Iraqi-British military confrontations and the re-occupation of Iraq by the British army.

The success of the Egyptian revolution in 1952 and the emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser gave a great boost to Arab nationalist feelings all over the Arab world; Iraq was no exception. To confront the growing tendency, which culminated in Egyptian-Syrian unity (the United Arab Republic), the Iraqi royal regime created the Hashemite Union with Jordan. There were also attempts by the regime, headed by Nouri al-Said, to include Syria and Kuwait in this union. Before such attempts could succeed, however, the Iraqi monarchy was toppled. Although Arab nationalist officers played a leading role in the change (in fact the Iraqi monarchy’s support of the Suez war against Egypt ultimately undermined any popular support it might have had), Arab unionists were soon removed and replaced by Iraqi communists who were against joining the UAR.

They lasted until 1963, but although Arab nationalists dominated Iraqi politics from that second coup d’etat and until 2003 and the American occupation, nothing serious was done by any of the subsequent Iraqi regimes to conclude real unity between Iraq and any of the Arab countries. The most prominent attempts were in 1963 between Iraq, Egypt and Syria, in 1964 with Egypt, in 1979 with Syria and in 1990 with Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. All these attempts were quickly doomed.

The removal of the Baathist regime in Iraq by the American forces and the occupation that ensued ushered in the end of Arab nationalist feeling and elements in Iraq. All those who came with the American forces and were allowed to govern Iraq were anti-Arab nationalists and promoted instead Iraqi national tendencies. In fact, Iraq is witnessing a very serious effort to separate it from its Arab environment. All previous political mistakes have been blamed on the Arab world and Arabs in general. The ability of the Baathist regime to remain in power 35 years has been blamed on the support of Arab countries. Of course this is not true. On the contrary, Iraq’s debt to Arab countries, which constitute the largest chunk of national debt, was illegally enlarged exactly to further weaken Iraq. Most of the debts were the result of an agreement to export oil on behalf of Iraq, to be settled at the end of the Iraq-Iran war. After 1990 and the invasion of Kuwait, however, these debts were treated as debts with interest.

Nevertheless, one can fairly conclude that despite the strong boost and prominence the US occupation gave to Iraqi nationalists, the regional reality and the failure of the American (mis)adventure and those Iraqis who supported it in creating a new democratic, stable and flourishing Iraq will play into the hand of the Arab nationalists yet again. In fact, this failure is being successfully exploited by Arab nationalists to prove that the US has no interest whatsoever in creating a new Iraq or solving any of its problems, and the only way to get out of the enormous problems created by the occupation is with the brotherly help of other Arab countries. The American resort to the Arab League to help them get out of the Iraq impasse will only strengthen this feeling.