A Pseudostate Is Born

The new Iraq doesn’t measure up as a real country.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Some 15 years ago, while writing about apartheid-era South Africa, I visited one of its nominally independent black “homelands.” This crazy quilt of territories was a control mechanism the white regime had come up with in a country where whites were vastly outnumbered by South Africans of other colors. For the most part rural slums, the homelands, also known as Bantustans, made up about 13 percent of the nation’s land. I was driving across miles of veld where blacks were trying to scratch a living from eroded or unyielding patches of earth that white farmers didn’t want, interspersed with shantytowns of shacks constructed out of corrugated metal, discarded plasterboard, and old automobile doors. Suddenly, looming out of this desolate landscape like an ocean liner in a swamp, was a huge office building, perhaps four or five stories high and 150 yards long, with a large sign saying, in English and Afrikaans, “South African Embassy.”

I remembered that building the other day when reading about the new U.S. Embassy that opens in Baghdad this week. With a staff of more than 1,700 — and that may be only the beginning — it will be the largest diplomatic mission in the world. Just as our embassy will be considerably more than an embassy, so the Iraqi state that officially came into being in its shadow, after the speechmaking and flag-raising are over, will be considerably less than a state.

With nearly 140,000 American troops on Iraq’s soil, plus tens of thousands of additional foreign soldiers and civilian security guards armed with everything from submachine guns to helicopters, most military power will not be in Iraqi hands, nor will the power of the budget, largely set and paid for in Washington.

If the new Iraq-to-be is not a state, what is it? A half century ago one could talk about colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence, but in our supposedly postcolonial world, the vocabulary is poorer. We lack a word for a country where most real power is in the hands of someone else, whether that be shadowy local militias, other nations’ armies, or both. Pseudostate, perhaps. From Afghanistan to the Palestinian Authority, Bosnia to Congo, pseudostates have now spread around the globe. Some of them will even be exchanging ambassadors with Iraq.

Pseudostates, in fact, are nothing new. They have a long and fascinating history, and two notable groups of them had surprising fates near the twentieth century’s end.

One collection was those “homelands” of South Africa, four of which were formally granted independence. The so-called South African Embassies evolved seamlessly out of the white-controlled administrations that had run these territories when they were still called “Native Reserves,” just as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will begin life in the very same Republican Palace from which occupation administrator L. Paul Bremer III has run Iraq for the last year. The South African government invested large sums in equipping the homelands with everything from foreign ministries to luxurious, gated residential compounds for cabinet members and their families. Collaborating chiefs were made heads of state, and their territories were given flags, national anthems, and coats of arms. But when a coup temporarily deposed the hand-picked president of Bophuthatswana — seven separate islands of desperately poor land and poor people spread out across hundreds of miles — it was the South African army that promptly restored him to power.

As South Africa made its miraculous transition to majority rule in the early 1990s, the homelands as separate political entities swiftly vanished. The former foreign ministries and embassies were put to other uses, and the only people to whom the past trappings of homeland independence still matter today are collectors who do a lively trade in the former territories’ stamps.

Another group of pseudostates, however, had a very different fate. The Soviet Union was composed of 15 “Soviet Socialist Republics” — entities, like those in South Africa, set up on ethnic lines as mechanisms of control. These, too, were decked out with the external symbols of sovereignty, and in the case of two Soviet pseudostates, you didn’t even have to go there to see their flags. For Byelorussia and the Ukraine had something South Africa’s homelands never got: seats at the United Nations, a concession Stalin had wrung from the Allies at the end of World War II.

I traveled through a number of these pseudostates in the course of reporting from the old Soviet Union, and we hardheaded journalists always knew, despite Soviet propaganda, that these so-called republics were nothing of the sort and never would be. After all, they had no armies and no independence; Russians migrated to them in large numbers, knowing that ultimate power resided in Moscow. (They could even be dissolved at Moscow’s will: A short-lived 16th Soviet Socialist Republic along the Finnish border disappeared with little ado in 1956.) And yet, in that other great transformation of the early ’90s, unexpected by hardheaded realists and dogmatic Communists alike, it was the Soviet Union itself that evaporated. Almost overnight its 15 pseudostates turned into real ones. Their coming to life left millions of surprised and unhappy ethnic Russians stranded outside Russia.

The Iraq that came into being this Monday does not closely resemble either the South African homelands or the old Soviet republics. But their histories, however different, might suggest the same lesson to American planners: pseudostates often turn out quite differently than their inventors intend, for their very creation is an act of hubris. And the larger and more unstable the pseudostate, the greater the hubris and the more likely that imperial plans will go awry. Washington’s hopes for what Iraq will be in five or ten years, or even in five or ten months, may prove as unreliable as its predictions that U.S. invasion troops would be greeted with cheers and flowers and would be home in a year.

Clearly White House strategists have a set of hopes, already somewhat battered, for what the Iraqi pseudostate will evolve into: a willing home for the permanent military bases the Pentagon is building in the country, an oil reservoir safely under U.S. influence, and a strategic ally against militant Islam, all with the facade, at least, of democracy. On the other hand, with its vast oil wealth and restive population, at some point Iraq could take a very different path and embody the religious fervor of its Shiite majority, demand that U.S. forces leave, try to cancel reconstruction contracts with U.S. firms, and reverse the privatization of state assets now under way. Of course, it’s not necessarily a matter of going entirely down one path or the other. Iraq may well take on some characteristics from each — or might fracture into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish entities, or follow a path no “expert” can now guess.

Whatever happens — whether Iraq dissolves in pieces, is seen largely as a compliant U.S. satellite, or becomes a cheeky avatar of Arab defiance of the West, its territory seems likely to continue to be what it has rapidly become in recent months, a literal and figurative minefield for U.S. troops and a hotbed of Al Qaeda recruitment. The volatile, unpredictable nature of pseudostates, and their role as incubators of troubles that can come back to haunt their creators, has certainly been no great historical secret. Perhaps that was why one of the candidates in the 2000 presidential election said, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building.” The candidate was George W. Bush.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2022 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.