Iraq as Regional Power

Comparing Iraq’s ambitions to play a regional role — similar to that of Turkey — with Egypt’s relative irrelevance, Shadi Hamid at Democracy Arsenal concludes that democracies are capable of more stable foreign policies than dictatorships, especially those propped up by foreign support. Without disputing the nature of the Mubarak regime, I’m not so sure that Egypt is as irrelevant as Hamid suggests. After all, the Israel-Hamas ceasefire was negotiated via Egyptian mediation.

The distinction Hamid makes regarding externally imposed dictatorships (e.g. Egypt) and indigenous ones (e.g. China) might also apply to democracies, given the nature of Baghdad’s dependence on American troops to maintain the cohesiveness of the Iraqi state.

I’d also agree that Iraq’s intentions are indeed ambitious, but I’m skeptical of its ability to live up to them in the near term, especially in the era of “cheap oil.” (Funny how we’ve heard a lot about the impact of falling crude prices on Russia, Iran and Venezuela, but not on Iraq.)

I wonder if the foreign policy stability Hamid mentions isn’t due to the legitimacy of the democracy in question, so much as its age. Turkey’s newfound regional centrality, for instance, is a radical departure from its previous foreign policy posture, reflecting the changes its healthy but still-threatened democracy has experienced in recent years. Hugo Chavez is a democratically elected leader, as is Evo Morales, and neither practice what would be considered foreign policies emphasizing stability. Russia, which Hamid puts on the list of indigenous dictatorships, hasn’t exactly been a paragon of stability the past few years, either.

Stable foreign policies are an expression of stable interests, which are a function of the kind of broadly accepted domestic powersharing arrangements commonly found in mature democracies, but also of the circumstances in which a country finds itself abroad. The regional architecture proposed by Iraq is about its only hope of achieving stability without becoming totally dependent on either Iran or the U.S., by weaving itself into a fabric broader — and thus more cohesive — than its own. It’s a smart move, but I’m not sure how well it supports Hamid’s argument.