I’m currently in Jordan, where I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a variety of Iraqi Sunnis who have come from al-Anbar to discuss the situation there. It’s rare nowadays to find any consensus on Iraq, but one observation they make coincides with observations I heard over the past year while talking to Iraqi Sunnis in Mosul and Tikrit; Iraqi Shi‘ites in Basra and Baghdad; and Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani. That is that one of the major problems Iraq faces is the end of shame.
Politicians and generals in Iraq (and elsewhere in the Middle East) always face great temptation. They could steal millions and, indeed, some now steal billions. But before the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent 13 years of sanctions, Iraq was among the least corrupt Arab countries. What changed over the last 35 years has not only been the economy, but more fundamentally the culture of shame. Sure, some politicians and officers during the Republic and early Baath years were corrupt, but many resisted the temptation out of fear of how their children would inherit the shame if their parents gained a reputation for corruption or other misdeeds. Simply put, family reputation trumped a desire for immediate gratification.
No longer: I’ve written here about the problem of Middle Eastern rulers’ first sons. Iraqis nickname Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s son Ahmed “Uday” because they allege he acts like Saddam Hussein’s son. Masrour Barzani, the eldest son of Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, acquired a $10 million mansion in suburban Virginia despite his relatively small official salary. While Barzani’s spokesman denied any connection to the property, Masrour had grown so arrogant and shameless that he held his birthday party there for close KDP associates, many of whom subsequently bragged about the event and its location.
The problem goes deeper and cuts across the political class, however. The children of many ministers think nothing of buying fancy sports cars—top-end Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and Porsches—to drive around London from their new posh flats, no matter that both Iraqis and European or American neighbors once knew them as poor and impoverished. They do not hesitate to flaunt ill-gotten wealth and care little if everyone knows they or their parents are corrupt. Other former ministers and their aides travel to Jordan, Lebanon, or even suburban Chicago and build palatial mansions after serving little more than a year or two in Iraq. Iraqis often have nothing to show for their tenure, but they do with little concern if their family names have become synonymous with corruption. Whereas a generation or two past would have felt shame for such a reputation, the new Iraqis no longer do.
Those training Arab militaries are familiar with shame going back generations. It became an impediment since it hampered and made dangerous even constructive criticism. But shame was not all bad, because it kept order in society and helped buttress basic integrity. Things have changed. It is easy for diplomats to talk about reconstructing society but when personal integrity lacks, religion or ethnicity becomes a patina and money becomes the real subject of worship, and shame disappears it is almost impossible to rebuild society. The problem is no longer Maliki, Barzani, or Nujaifi—it goes far, far deeper.