US Failure in Bringing Democracy to Iraq

US Failure in Bringing Democracy to Iraq


The research question focuses on why the United States (US) has failed in bringing democracy to Iraq post-2003? Democracy is taken to mean standards beyond voting including civil and political rights (Freedom-House, 2018). The themes such as ideologies, geopolitical situation, and the principle-agent issue are described in the following sections. These themes include both internal and external factors. Ideologically, democracy, as imposed by the west, creates an Islamic and nationalistic response Robinson (2007); as often liberal-democracy does not match the internal factors of a given country.

Geo-politically, factors such as sectarian divisions as between the different Shia sects, Sunnis and Kurds and alternation between low-high levels civil- war. Lastly, a principle-agent theme which places the burden of the negligent, unrealistic and personally-motivated decisions on the US administration is argued by Borer and Twing (2011) among many. Democracy’s failure in Iraq has its foundations in ideological, geopolitical, and principle-agent issues. Firstly, this paper will review the relevant literature considering the three themes: ideologies, geopolitical situation, and principle-agent issues. Secondly, the methodology section will discuss the data collection method (phone-interview) and related issues. Lastly, the findings of the research will be presented and analyzed in relation to the identified gaps.

Literature review

Three main themes ideologies, geopolitical situation, and principle-agent issues are elaborated in this section. Different scholarly studies are analyzed in this regard.

Democracy/Political Attitudes

The democratic values in Iraq are challenged by violence, repression, and censorship, and for democracy to be successful, it needs a democratic culture (Tessler, Moaddel, & Inglehart, 2006; Diamond, 2007). Bridoux (2011) describes that the democratization processes have affected significantly by neo-liberalism in which transnational capitalist forces capture the decision-making power. The favor given to the Shia groups negated the essence of democracy and gave rise to Sunnistan and Jihadism (Beetham, 2009). Sectarian divide is playing a decisive role in today’s Iraq (Dawisha & Dawisha, 2003). El-Shibiny (2010) describes that the detention centers introduced by the U.S. also violated fundamental human rights, particularly the Haditha incident and Abu Ghraib prison.

Socio-Economic Factors

Socio-economic factors further aggravated the issues in the political attitudes. Enterline and Greig (2008) describe that democratic forces try to replicate the successful model without considering the social, economic, and cultural factors of the country.

The local context of Iraq becomes further complicated by the fact that the majority Muslim population is segregated among Shias, Arab-Sunnis, and Sunni-Kurds. The U.S. initiatives of de-Sunnization and de-Baathization of Iraq created more divisions and hindered the democratization of Iraq (Pranger, 2006). A liberal model is not the best option for Iraq due to high levels of corruption that should be dealt with strict and severe actions. The U.S. and the allied forces found de-Ba’thification critical because, in the other case, the Shia and Kurds would not have participated in the democratic process and might have declared independence (Gregg, Rothstein, & Arquilla, 2010). Rising sectarian divide forced the Sunnis to align with al Qaeda and put a strong defense against the Shia military forces (Beetham, 2009; Fearon, 2007; Dawisha & Dawisha, 2003). There is a growing influence of Salafi-Sunni, Shiite-groups, and other religious alliances, which protect they are own political and economic interests (Rahimi, 2007).


There is also a general hatred in Iraq regarding Western forces due to their interference in the internal affairs of Iraq. Robinson (2007) asserts that Western hegemony creates discontent in the Muslim world. Munson (2009) describes that the U.S. and the coalition forces used violence as their primary currency and were never successful in resolving historical grievances and power struggles. The post-conflict process of reconstruction also suffered because of a significant decrease in the U.S. troops after the war (Hughes, 2010; Whitehead, 2009).

Geo-Politics–Civil War

Gompert, Kelly, and Watkins (2010) recommend that a truly functioning democracy in Iraq can take its roots only when the main groups participate actively in the political process. While the U.S. forces succeeded in removing the authoritarian leadership from Iraq, the alternate plan was not well-thought resulting in the civil war. It also paved the way for promoting extremist ideologies that subsequently gave birth to ISIS (Fearon, 2007).

Principle-Agent Issue

A vital issue in the Iraq war is that decision making by the US was negligent and ignorant in objectives, and methods. Hughes (2010) also observes the US decision to neglect the post-war reconstruction. Borer and Twing (2011) describe that the issue of Kurdish independence was raised deliberately post-2003 to challenge the integrity and sovereignty of the state of Iraq; and that the issue of Iraq’s rebuilding would naturally take place. Pollack (2006) argues that after abolishing the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. did not have a strategy to fill the vacuum in Iraq. Since the U.S. was settling the issues on behalf of the Iraqi government, there was no ownership of the decisions by the native population. The survey of Cramer and Thrall (2013) also confirms the principle-agent discrepancy.

Research Gap

The following issues were not addressed, and indifference to these issues may have a significant negative impact on the efforts of the US. The literature has by large not considered internal views on this matter especially by the way of interviews which this research aims to fill. Other indigenous factors include Kurdish independence movement and the rise of the Salafi-Jihadi groups. The literature has largely failed to consider the internal implications of the sectarian divide and conflicts. Moreover, the over-handing power to the Shias has created more sectarian conflict. Iraq has a long history of religious intolerance. As identified by Pranger (2006), the scholarly field has not deeply investigated the multi-religious/ethnicity of Iraq and such implications. This lead to more divide after the invasion and extremism which further hindered the democratization of Iraq.  Iran also influences Shia powers in the region that the U.S. failed to recognize.

US Failure in Bringing Democracy to Iraq
US Failure in Bringing Democracy to Iraq


Sample Design

The data kept private for confidentiality-purposes, for this paper derives from five phone interviews with elites in Iraq (Table1). Iraq’s importance lies in the US’ failure to democratize it.  The elites are selected based on non-probability sampling based on the introduction by the researcher’s contacts who know the elites. This non-probability sampling is selected, though less reliable than probability-sampling because Iraq’s elites are difficult to get a hold of. Firstly, the elites are skeptical and often do not want to share their views. Secondly, of those elites who may want to share their view, they are not willing to sign a consent form. The elites selected to consist of one Sunni-Arab (Sunni), two Shi’ites (Shia1/Shia2), and two Kurds (K1/K2). Due to sectarianism and high factionalism in Iraq, the elites are selected based on ethnicity.

While two Shi’ites have been chosen as they are more in numbers and dominate more political powers than Sunnis. More interviews would have been conducted had it been possible in terms of finding the elites and less time-consuming to do so. Furthermore, because the literature on Kurdish elites is lacking, the initiative has been taken to include two rather than one Kurdish politician from two different Kurdish political parties (PDK and PUK) so as to maintain the reliability of their answers. The independent variables are principle-agent problems, sectarianism/factionalism, civil-war, and socio-economic factors, while the dependent variable is the failure of US in establishing democracy. Though the question and dependent variable suggest that the position that the US has failed is taken for granted, this is not the case and it is up for exploration and debate which this research paper aims to establish through expanding on the relevant literature and conducting interviews with elites from the three main groups in Iraq.

The research has taken a middle-ground epistemological position and is neither positioned too far from the source of knowledge such as a statistical analysis and nor too close like a face-to-face interview would demonstrate. This research has aimed at minimizing ethical concerns in a number of ways. Firstly, all the elites are asked to sign a consent form which protects them in terms of privacy and asserts their informed consent; the consent form also states their participation is voluntary and that they can opt out anytime they wish so as to minimize their discomfort. The elites are briefed prior to signing the consent form and the research process and goal is explained to them. In terms of privacy, elite’s names are conserved and are kept anonymous for both political and safety reasons so as to prevent any risk of unforeseen circumstances. The positionality of the author of this essay may have affected the interviews in several different ways. Having the Kurdish elites know from which political party I align with may have distorted the quality of their results and in expressing their true values and opinions. On the other hand, the Arab elites knowing I am Kurdish, will naturally both be at unease and be cautious in what they say for politically Kurdistan Regional Government is at conflict with Baghdad.

Data Collection

By collecting primary data, this paper has ensured the quality of the data by controlling for any factors that may affect the data’s quality. The elites interviewed all hold high positions and due to the political structure of Iraq, all five want to remain anonymous. To maintain a reliable sample, this paper is fully transparent with questions asked, methods used, and location. However, the reliability of the paper cannot be guaranteed as political events unfold rapidly and elites change. While as for the validity of the paper, the paper has taken a number of steps to ensure the internal and external validity of the paper. In terms of the external validity, US’ intervention in Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan especially in the latter two and among many more have time again shown concepts such as poor decision making, imposed-democracy, and civil-war to be prominent factors in the conflicts.

To ensure this, these factors which can be expanded upon will be assessed. In terms of internal validity, the chosen independent variables that explain the dependent variable (failure of democratization) are the main factors contributing to its failure in most cases. Though Iraq is a unique case due to its historic sectarian conflict, this is no exception. The questions for the interview are tailored around the specific concepts of sects, independence, governance, power, and conflict so as to explore the wide range of possible causes. Moreover, questions on corruption are employed as well so as to maintain construct validity and content validity. Shia1/Shia2/Sunni1 interviewees due to poor language and time did not provide in-depth answers like K1/K2.

The interviews will be semi-structured. With a shift between open and closed questions, the interviewer aims to put the interviewee at ease and comfort; moreover, such play between the two gives the interviewee a chance to cool off from the complex open questions(Rivera, Kozyreva and Sarovskii, 2002). This allowed the interviewee their space. The closed-ended questions allow the elite’s views to be given and more depth at the same time which balanced the use of open-ended questions; while also giving higher levels of validity as they are not constricted to a simple Yes or No (ibid). Furthermore, the employment of open-ended questions allowed for comparison between the literature and data collection (Halperin and Heath, 2017).

The choice of elites not only covers a gap in the literature, but they also confirm data in the literature as Halperin and Heath argue (2017); they continue to argue that these findings can be applied to other elites to make inferences. Phone interview eliminates interviewer/interviewee bias and geographically far away so the best option so far. Though personal questions can help calm and ease the interview, they have been excluded for purposes of interview length as phone interviews tend to get tiresome when lengthy. A web camera has been excluded to ensure the flow of the call (ibid); moreover, for privacy, and accessibility purposes, phone interviews have been opted for.


Shia1/K2 believes that despite the various group’s active participation, contrary to what Gompert, Kelly, and Watkins (2010) argues, the ethnic and religious fragmentations occur due to their loyalties to others outside the country. While surprisingly, Shia1 has the view that democracy could be established despite this fragmentation. It is evident from Enterline and Greig (2008) study that the interviewee’s response that corruption has resulted in the distortion and failure of the expected output of democracy in the country; this means the US failed to take domestic factors into account. All the interviewees believe corruption to be domination ill in the current and past governments which has been a contributor to the failure of democratization. An undisclosed source claimed, “an MP failed to get elected, so they paid more than 200,000$ and got elected afterward”. Thus, failure of the US to consider the domestic factors contributed to unsuccessful democracy as hypothesized; Shia1 agrees “By not grasping the extent of power and capability the religious and ethnic parties has on the street and people inside Iraq”.

The interviewees, in general, have the view that democracy in Iraq is both unstable and unset. The Shia1/Shia2 speaking from a position of power believes that Sunnis leaving caused their unequal economic status and decreased the overall wealth of Iraq leading to the reduced output of democracy. K1/K2 agrees with the inequality with an emphasis on parliamentary power and government. Though K1/K2/Sunni1 agreed on the political-power imbalance between Sunnis and Shia, Shia1/Shia2 held a different view, claiming instead there exists economic-power imbalance avoiding democratization’s burden (Q1/Q2).

The Jihadi ideologies, Shia1 affirmed, misdirect the Sunnis against democracy. Furthermore, as K1 argues as well, that Iranian influence has contributed to less democracy by ‘shaking their trust in democracy’; and that this sectarian division and conflict is a result of Iran’s hegemonic influence (K1/K2). The fundamentalist Sunni thought was sparked by unequal Shia power backed by US (K1/K2/Shia1/Shia2) which negatively impacted democratization. Sunni1 places the burden of the insurgency on religion rather than the ‘Sunni’ movement itself which suggests Sunni1 is more sympathetic towards the Sunni movement despite his thinking that Shia and Sunnis share equal political power.K2 affirms “the power the Shias have by controlling oil industry, interior ministry is incomparable”. This is related to the gap identified. Withdrawal of the US has left a power vacuum by “seizing the local power loyal to Iran” which he continues “shook all relations between Sunnis, Shias, and Arabs”. Similarly, Pollack (2006) claims that the US failed to fill the vacuum which inevitably caused more instability.

This occurred due to both the withdrawal and poor US decision-making which Shia1/K1 assert further distanced the goal of democratization.K2 disagreed with lack of US understanding of Iraqi politics and that the US has good information, but that troop withdrawal created massive instability as the Iraqi army was not ready (Robinson, 2007). Sunni1 considers that neither US withdrawal nor poor decision making is the reason behind this; which is explainable given the US support for the Shia majority against the ‘insurgent-Sunnis who could not be included in the government due to their violent nature (Diamond,2007).

‘Real-federalism’ K1/Shia1 agree is the solution to Iraq’s issue except for Shia1/Shia2 which believe a centralist state serves the interests of all sides better speaking from a position of power. K1/K2 established that by poor decisions making on part of the US administration vis-à-vis the Kurds, and Sunni and failure to understand political dynamics/balances in Iraq led to further distrust of the government and the democratization process which Shia1 described initially. Tessler, et al(2006) all believe for democracy to work in a region where authoritarianism has been the trend, requires a democratic culture to be promoted which is a culture of “cooperation, coexistence and mutual interest” in K1’s words which K2 believes is the solution as well “there will be no state without coexistence’.

K1 in line with literature believes sectarianism has undermined democracy by the way of the wrong policy of the Shia majority. The government’s exclusive approach led to the Sunni insurgency which is “not an action but a reaction”(K1).  Moreover, Borer and Twing’s (2011) argument that Kurdish autonomy challenged Iraqi democracy is negated by K1’s argument; K1 thinks it is a good model for democracy for Iraq to follow and their militarist response to the referendum further dampened democratic visions to be realized in Iraq. As argued by Robinson (2007)the withdrawal of US forces could cause establishment of radical groups in “response” as K1 emphasized to Shia pressures on Sunni’s territory by way of their majority/power which has a negative effect on democracy and provides more solid ground to the principle-agent issue.

Furthermore, the post-construction efforts on Bush administrations side failed to develop and grasp the importance of a post-war reconstruction (Hughes, 2010; Whitehead, 2009) as agreed by all the elites except K2/Shia2. K2 argued that Bush administration’s post-war construction was the best they could do; despite this, the rest of the interviewees agreed the US’s decision making was negligent and uninformed which demonstrates not only the US’ poor decision making but failure to understand/grasp domestic factors.

These Arab elites suggest, in line with Tessler, et al argument (2006) that a democratic-culture is needed as all interviewees affirmed. “We have a group identity issue” says K2. It was this culture the US paid no attention to result in failure when the masses were excluded from the process and the culture.


Despite minor disagreements between the elites and especially the Sunni, the interviewees seemed to agree on key issues regarding US decision making and the sectarian conflict. This paper has further sharpened the literature and given a new domestic elite perspective concerning Iraq and US foreign. The paper concludes that poor US decisions in both imposing a liberal-democratic model and making little effort at post-construction issues has distanced democratization’s success. Liberal democracy or restructuring cannot triumph without Islamism (Khashoggi, 2018); K2, in response to a question 1 and 14 believed it incompatible and opted for secular-politics. Furthermore, factionalism (Salafi-Jihadi) and power-imbalance particularly between the Sunni, Kurds, and Shia, and outside loyalties (Iran) have deepened sectarian conflict to a low-level civil-war with distrust in democracy as Shia1 stressed several times (Pollack, 2006). The solution is to develop a healthy democratic-culture (Q4) with no foreign intervener as all elites settled as domestic factors’ solution is the connection between Iraqi government and its people.


Table 1

////////// Nationality Religion Sect Position/Role
K1 – PDK Kurd Muslim Sunni central committee: key decision maker
K2 – PUK Kurd Muslim Sunni Head of ‘undisclosed’PUK political bureau – key decision maker
Shia1 Arab Muslim Shia MP – Baghdad
Shia2 Arab Muslim Shia MP – Baghdad
Sunni1 Arab Muslim Sunni MP – Baghdad


Interview questions

  1. Do think there is political and/or economic corruption in Iraq?
    1. If the answer is YES;
    2. How do you think corruption has affected the democratic establishment in Iraq?
  2. Do you think Sunni and Shiites share equal economic power in Iraq?
    1. If the answer is NO, then
      1. In what sense they don’t share equal economic power?
    2. How do you think this power sharing structure has affected the attempts to establish democracy in Iraq?
  3. Do you think Lack of democratic tradition (in Iraq) prevents/makes construction of democracy difficult? Y/N
  4. Do you think democracy could be established while there are strict ethnic and religious boundaries constructed between Iraqis? Y/N
  5. Do you think Iraq’s ethnic (Kurds and Arabs) and religious structure (Sunni and Shiites) influence democratic structure and/or establishment in Iraq?
    1. If the answer is, YES;
    2. How do you think ethnic and religious fragmentation has affected the attempts to establish democracy in Iraq?
  6. Do you think the Sunni insurgency affected de-functionalization and construction of democracy in Iraq?
    1. If the answer is, YES
    2. How do you think rise of religious (jihadist) and nationalist (centralist Iraq nationalism) movements/ideology has affected construction (failure) of democracy?
    3. How do you think rise of religious ideology has affected establishment of democratic values in Iraq?
  7. Do you think the Kurds’ independence demands (the independency referendum, September 2016) has affected the attempts to establish democracy in Iraq?
  8. Do you think Iran has an influence on Shiite powers and determination of Iraq’s politics?
    1. If the answer is YES,
    2. In what aspects it has influence?
    3. How do you think this influence has affected the attempts to establish democracy in Iraq?
  9. Do you think the United States and allied powers have grasped the political dynamics and the balances in Iraq?
    1. If the answer is NO;
    2. In what aspects have the United States and allied powers not understood political dynamics and balances in Iraq?
    3. How do you think this [failure] has affected the attempts to establish democracy in Iraq?
  10. Do you think United States’ withdrawal of military forces (in 2011) has left a political and/or military vacuum in Iraq?
    1. If the answer is YES,
    2. How do you think this has affected?
      1. Political stability,
      2. Shiite-Sunni and Kurds-Shiites relations,
  • Political balances,
  1. and raising of radical Islamic groups?
  1. How do you think withdrawal has affected the democratic establishment in Iraq?
  1. Do you think George W. Bush’s administrations made theright decision-making regarding post-war reconstruction of Iraq?
    1. How do you think this has affected the democratic establishment in Iraq?
    2. How and to what extent has the United States’ decision making differed after the Bush administration?
  2. Do you think liberal democratic models are compatible with Iraq? Y/N
  3. Do you think the prime ministry has more power on/over the other state institutions (in theory and practice)? Y/N
    1. do you think this has potential to lead exploitation/abuse of power and authoritarianism? Y/N
  4. Under what conditions, do you think, democracy in Iraq can be established the best?
    1. Do you think democracy could be established by foreign powers’ intervention’? Y/N
  5. Under what political/administrative model, do you think, democracy can be established the best?
    1. Centralist state
    2. Centralist State with semi-autonomous regions
    3. Federalism (Political Federalism)
      1. Do you think federalism is the best model for construction of democracy in Iraq? Y/N


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