America Is Drifting Toward an Iraqi Future

Once a country loses its sense of national identity, a national unraveling is often not far behind.

Pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators argue at the Michigan state capitol on Nov. 08, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan.
Pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators argue at the Michigan state capitol on Nov. 08, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. John Moore/Getty Images

During a trip to Iraq a few years ago, I spent some time in Sulaymaniyah, where, among a variety of interesting people, I met with a group of Kurdish university students. At one point in our conversation, I asked the students, “What set of ideas, principles, history, and national narrative do you share with university students in Baghdad or Basra?” Their collective answer was, “Nothing.” It struck me that this was the heart of Iraq’s problem. If Iraqis could not agree on a shared set of ideas about what it meant to be Iraqi, the country seemed fated to exist in an extended condition of terminal collapse.

This is not a piece about how the United States is just like Iraq. But Americans have never been as different from the rest of the world as they reflexively believe. And just like many other countries, in the Middle East and elsewhere, the United States must confront the pathological state of its identity.

Specifically, I’m referring to national identity—the ways in which Americans define themselves, their relationship to the state, and their relationships to each other. Of course, we all have what social scientists call “identity repertoires,” parts of which we emphasize at different times based on circumstance. Instructive here is an old friend’s Twitter display name, “abu el gamecock,” which reflects that he is an American of Egyptian heritage who grew up in South Carolina and is a die-hard fan of the University of South Carolina’s Gamecocks. As he explained to me many years ago, he is an American when he is among Egyptians, an Arab among Americans, and an Egyptian among Arabs.

Political leaders often use identity to advance their own interests or those of their country. After coming to power in Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sought to recast Egyptian nationalism in a way that exiled his archenemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, from national belonging. Saudi and Iranian leaders have at times framed their regional competition in terms of religious identity. The problem, of course, is that it’s much harder to negotiate and resolve conflicts when they are expressed as a struggle between Sunni and Shiite.

What does this all have to do with the United States? Quite a lot. When I was in Sulaymaniyah chatting with the Kurdish university students, I remember thinking about how different the outlook among Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Arabs was from Americans. It was an article of faith for me that even though I came from a distinct region of the United States and had my own distinct family history, I still shared basic ideas about what it meant to be an American with people around the country. Of course, I’ve come to realize that this was a little naive and itself a product of my unique experiences and education, given how people of color, women, immigrants, and others continue to confront injustice. Still, I don’t think I was being too credulous to believe (or maybe it was hope) that large numbers of Americans could agree on the founding ethos of the country and the sense that, even if we had not lived up to them, we wanted nevertheless to strive to achieve them.

That was proved by the friendships I had with people with whom I otherwise had little in common and with whom I disagree on almost all political issues. Take, for example, a colleague of mine from the Upper Midwest. At first our only means of communication were the cultural touchstones of being teenagers in the 1980s—part of our identity repertoire. In time, however, we have discovered that we believe in many of the same core principles and ideas that undergird our identity as Americans—freedom, the rule of law, and equal opportunity, to name a few—even though we vote in very different ways.

Yet recently, I have come to question whether this is true in a general sense. Do enough Americans share a sense of national belonging that we can even still refer to a common national identity? Did we ever? Over the last four years President Donald Trump has revealed—and deepened—aspects of American society that sow doubt in my mind.

I have recently been reading a book about the United States up to and through the Civil War. The parallels between our current situation and the antebellum period are stark and disturbing. But I’d long believed that the country’s subsequent trials and triumphs—Reconstruction, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, the Cold War, globalization, and the technology revolution—knit the country together by forging a common identity. That history produced myths about America’s national project that everyone could share in.

Of course, America’s national story was not always the sun-drenched stuff of President Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.” Reconstruction failed, and we are still living with the legacies of Jim Crow. America’s present immigration policies are a stain on the country. And despite the inspiring success of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, women remain underpaid, underappreciated, and often abused in too many spheres of American life. But the myth-imbued narrative that became central to American identity served an important unifying purpose. Among the best physical manifestations of that identity is—as its builders intended it to be—the Arlington Memorial Bridge linking Washington, D.C., to Virginia with the Lincoln Memorial at one end and the Arlington National Cemetery and Robert E. Lee’s home at the other.

Again, while many Americans are left out by the bridge’s intended symbolism, it is the form of this gesture toward unity and common identity that is important to preserve. The bridge has been undergoing construction work for the last few years, but what it means symbolically seems to have been lost. Given our inability to have a dialogue, it is an open question whether Americans even want to forge a common identity.

This has worrying similarities with how those I spoke to in Sulaymaniyah thought about their country. They and their fellow citizens elsewhere in the country have suffered dire consequences as a result of their inability to agree on what it means to be Iraqi, to the point of rejecting the idea itself in the case of many Kurds. Contested identity in the Middle East has manifested itself in political instability, violence, and civil conflict. Americans—despite what we tell ourselves about our exceptionalism—are not immune to a similar fate.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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