Sovereignty, Organized Hypocrisy, and the Iraqi Struggle to Legitimacy

By Ruşen Koç

The recent assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani on Iraqi soil by American intervention sparked discussions on the legality of the attack. An attack on a diplomat, within the borders of another sovereign, put great strain on diplomatic relations in the Middle East and beyond, sparking condemnation from the international community.

Similar to the occupation of Iraq in 2003, this attack will make a great subject of debate for international lawmakers, legislators, and in the future, historians. This article will endeavor to clarify what assassinations and interventions such as these mean for Iraqi sovereignty.

Power vacuum

Sovereignty has long been viewed as a necessary attribute of effective rule. The notion of sovereignty is multi-faceted and knows several traditions such as international legal-, state-, domestic-, and interdependence sovereignty. Mostly, these entail some sort of domination or right over assets within an identified territory. According to Thomas Hobbes, which gave a ruler the legitimacy to rule was the ruler’s ability to maintain order. He argued that it was this fear of chaos that made possible the fact that people agreed to give up the monopoly on violence to the state. In the case of Iraq, this state authority recently has often been undermined. The Hobbesian social contract has been undermined by the state of chaos which has plagued Iraq since the ousting of Saddam Hussein. The monopoly on violence has yet to be recovered by a popularly backed government. The domestic sovereignty has been contested by loss of popular legitimacy due to political restructuring by an external force, prohibited according to international law. Furthermore, the loss of monopoly on violence was exacerbated by the demilitarization of Iraq. The outlines for what came to be a continuous strain on sovereignty by international actors in Iraq were set. 

The underlying assumption that sovereignty remains with the occupied state, seems to have become quite meaningless when one considers a complete restructuring of Iraq’s government, military and civil society between 2003 and 2004, set in motion by an external power. The power vacuum that ensued, set the stage for Iran to fill the gap left by the absence of an Iraqi force. The absence of a strong military to enforce the legitimate hold on its sovereign territory was later exemplified by the swift seizure of land by Islamic State. 

Organized Hypocrisy

Attacks such as the one on Suleimani are a threat to Iraqi sovereignty, and more specifically, its state authority. The unilateral decision by the Trump administration to assassinate an Iranian general on Iraqi soil showcases the fact that the de facto sovereignty of Iraq within its own borders, is secondary to that of more powerful players in the region.

Moreover, after recent wars against dictators and terrorist organizations, the assassination of Suleimani seems to be contrary to the U.S.’ stated goals in the Middle East, which predominantly entail peace and self-government. Sovereignty is not only a matter of international legitimacy; it is a matter of human belief and popular legitimacy which are undermined by U.S. presence.

Admittedly, the loss of legitimacy is far more complex than U.S. led interventions alone. The Shia influenced government of Iraq is plagued by corruption scandals and popular protest. However, the United States has proven to be a burden to the Iraqi de facto sovereignty, by undermining the will of its government. 

After the assassination of Suleimani, a popular demand for the U.S. troops to leave Iraq was met with defiance by the U.S. Minister of foreign affairs, Mike Pompeo. To the Iraqi sovereignty, this is highly problematic. Until now, the U.S. military has emphasized it being a guest of the Iraqi government, in order to train the Iraqi fighting force. But once this invitation is withdrawn and the U.S. forces maintain their current positions of defiance, this could be classified as a clear breach of Westphalian principles of non-interference and full territorial sovereignty of the Iraqi state. This could make the U.S. military and mister Pompeo a threat to Iraqi sovereignty. Stephen D. Krasner, former director of policy planning at the department of state and professor at Stanford University, has dubbed sovereignty as ‘organized hypocrisy’, implying that sovereignty has been associated with clear legal criteria and rules, but that these have been ignored when it suited states to do so. It seems that there is much to say for this argument when one analyzes Mr. Pompeo’s defiance of the Iraqi request for the United States military to leave. 


Although the popular legitimacy of the Iraqi state is crippled by internal factors as well, the external factors lead by the United States military have undermined the territorial sovereignty of the Iraqi state, which has led to further loss of confidence in the Iraqi state. Interventions such as the assassination of Major General Suleimani on Iraqi soil have undermined the de facto sovereignty of the Iraqi state. It showcases the fact that the monopoly on violence is not yet recovered by the Iraqi government. This leaves the Iraqi state vulnerable to external and internal forces which seek control over the region. 

In the Hobbesian sense of the word, this leaves a state of chaos in which not one actor is able to claim full de facto sovereignty in order to ensure the safety of the population, and in this case diplomats alike, within its borders. Factors and actions such as these have made the claim on the de facto sovereignty all the more complicated for the Iraqi state. Its hold on being the dominant force within its borders is not only contested by the growing influence of men like Suleimani, but also by men like Pompeo.

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