Reidar Visser, A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010 (Just World Books, 2010).

There are few keener students of contemporary Iraqi affairs than Reidar Visser. Since the spring of 2006, when he released a lengthy paper on the politics of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Visser has enjoyed growing respect in Western academic and journalistic circles as a close observer of post-invasion Iraq with a talent for debunking the mainstream narrative.

The paper on Sistani was a case in point, stressing the contingency of the Najaf cleric’s clout at a time when he was still portrayed as the arbiter of Iraq’s political future. In the postings at his website Histories of Political Imagining (, launched in 2005, Visser has continued to question the conventional wisdom: scoffing at the notion of widespread popular backing for an autonomous Shi‘i entity in the south; warning of devils in the details of the federalist system adopted in the 2005 constitution; and espying the recrudescence of sectarianism in the 2010 voting patterns, at a moment when most onlookers had pronounced it in remission. Visser is exceptionally well qualified for his chosen vocation, having conducted archival research on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Iraqi history.

Just World Books, the new publishing venture of veteran Middle East hand Helena Cobban, has done the great service of compiling dozens of Visser’s posts, categorizing them by theme and putting them in print. Together with the author’s thematic introductions, the compilation is a solid first draft of Iraqi political history over the last five years. Like all such first drafts, it is sure to excite controversy, both historical and political.

Visser is author, as well, of an interesting monograph on a failed separatist effort in 1920s Basra. But his signal contribution to historical knowledge is his discovery in Ottoman archives of numerous nineteenth-century state documents and press sources that refer to “Iraq” when discussing the region between Mosul and Basra. The appellation was hardly new in the nineteenth century: In her State and Provincial Society in the Ottoman Empire (1997), Dina Khoury reproduces a map of sixteenth-century Mosul. The gates to the old city are named after the place to which a traveler exiting Mosul would be headed. The southern gate, and indeed the whole southern quarter of the city, is called Bab al-‘Iraq. Despite the lineage of this geographic designation, nearly all of the modern histories lay the emphasis elsewhere, on the fact that the Iraqi nation-state was composed of three Ottoman provinces (to which Kurdistan was tacked on). From the Ottoman administrative boundaries, which themselves were fluid, one is meant to conclude that Iraq is uniquely artificial, even as a concept, and even among the several Middle Eastern nation-states whose borders were drawn by Britain and France. Visser argues compellingly that, artificial as Iraq is, it is not uniquely so, and that Iraqi nationalism is therefore no less authentic than any other. Alas, the countervailing ideas have long since crept into popular histories, not to mention media coverage, and they will die hard, if at all.

More contentious are Visser’s opinions on Iraqi politics today. It follows from his historical findings that he would oppose visions for the country predicated upon its devolution into regions exercising considerable self-rule. And so he has done, with remarkable persistence. Sometimes this task, as with the crude plan for “soft partition” proposed by presidential candidate Joe Biden (and forgotten upon his vice presidential nomination), is like shooting fish in a barrel. Were this particular barrel located anywhere but Washington, where Biden boasts an odd reputation for foreign policy acumen, the fish would have been cut by the Dutch scholar’s relentless fire into chum for the sharks. But, zombie-like, the fish resurfaces from time to time. Visser can be relied upon to point out instances when the Obama administration’s Iraq policy is still refracted through the ethno-sectarian prism wielded by Biden. That critique is a major strength of the present collection.

Visser’s skepticism of the federalist projects in post-invasion Iraq is sometimes taken as evidence that he is an advocate, and not just a student, of Iraqi nationalism. He parries this thrust with recourse to post-2005 electoral results, which seem to show that a wide middle stratum of the Iraqi public favors politicians who appeal to “national unity” and, by extension, want to rebuild a powerful central government. In this analysis, he is probably correct, but he is too ready than a historian should be to assign an unambiguous positive valence to these views, going so far as to label them “signs of political maturity.” A key lesson of Iraqi history, surely, is that political tumult has often corresponded to competing ideas of what the Iraqi nation is or should be. In this quality, Iraq is also not different from any number of other nation-states in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Future historians, indeed, may challenge a trope in Visser’s writings that has passed into mainstream circulation: There is a struggle for the soul of post-invasion Iraq between centripetal forces, which are indigenous, and centrifugal forces egged on, if not embodied, by the United States and Iran. To be sure, the bungling of the US (and, to a lesser degree, the meddling of Iran) has delineated a political field in which subnational loyalties — ethnicity, sect, tribe — not only have assumed pride of place, but also can crowd out all others. The importance of this external influence should not be understated, though plenty of indigenous actors (Sadrist and Sunni Arab militias, to name two) have fed the communalist dynamic even as they loudly declaim their Iraqiness. But progress in state building need not coincide with agreement on what Iraqiness means. If Nouri al-Maliki or a successor is able to extend a firm writ from Baghdad, Iraq could once more be ruled by a strong central state that claims to have won the battle over the meaning of the Iraqi nation, but in fact has suppressed the contesting views. Alternatively, and more plausibly, Iraq could settle into Lebanese-style condominium, where the disputes over national identity are almost academic, as long as they are kept tightly under wraps.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Visser, A Responsible End?," Middle East Report 257 (Winter 2010).

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