How did the 2003 Iraq War both contribute to spreading the idea of democracy in the Middle East, and discredit that idea at the same time?

by Kanan Makiya

Did the violent overthrow of the first Arab dictator to lose his hold on state power in more than thirty years, Saddam Hussein in 2003, have any kind of domino effect on the fall of other Arab dictators in the succession of events popularly known as the Arab Spring that started in Tunisia in late 2010 and continued through 2011? And if so, can it be said that in spite of all the blunders, misjudgments and hubris that accompanied the American-led Western coalition of armies that ended the regime of the Ba'th party in Iraq, its actions nonetheless contributed to the beginnings of a genuine democratization process in the Middle East, albeit one whose end is still not in sight? Finally does any of this have a bearing on what the US should or should not do in the horrific civil war that is today raging in Syria?

My contention in this essay is that there is a close connection between these two major cataclysmic events, one that has been overlooked due in part to the understandable hostility that the 2003 Iraq war has engendered in Western and Arab eyes, a hostility that was for the most part not there at the time of military action in 2003. A prime consequence of this hostility is the fact that none of the prime Arab actors on the ground during the Arab Spring be it in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria—and by actors I mean the brave young men and women doing all the protesting, and the dying—themselves saw a connection, or have been willing to even admit the possibility that there might be one.

The story of the 2003 war has its roots in an earlier war, and in an earlier uprising against tyranny directly linked to that war, that it behooves us to remember. The events in question began on August 2, 1990, the day that the Ba'th regime in Baghdad marched into Kuwait, an action that resulted in the first Gulf war of 1991 the uncompleted nature of which gave rise to repeated Western military intervention in 2003. On the heels of the ceasefire that followed the 1991 Gulf war, Iraqis south and north of the country rose up against the regime of Saddam, and were crushed within a period of 6-8 weeks.

What was this first Gulf war against Iraq in 1991 about? Remarkably, given where we are today, it was about a restoration of the Arab state system, a system we all know was set up for the most part artificially by the Western powers after WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This system had been grossly violated for the first time in 80 yearsfrom within, by Saddam Hussein, when he invaded, occupied, annexed and systematically raped the state of Kuwait for nine months starting on August 2, 1990. Nothing like this had ever happened in Arab politics before. The first Gulf war enjoyed the support of the Arab regimes in whose name it was waged, but not of its peoples. Even Hafez al-Assad's Ba'th regime in Syria joined in the 1991 effort to oust its sister Ba'th regime out of Kuwait.

Millions of Iraqis south and north of the country rose up against their regime following the First Gulf war of 1991, and they did what was for Arab politics in those days, the unthinkable: they called upon the very Allied Forces that had been bombing them for weeks, in an aerial campaign likened with justification to the devastation wrought on Dresden in 1945, to help rid them of their own dictator.

In 1991, the Western and Arab armies that had come to liberate Kuwait stood by, on Iraqi soil in the case of the US, and watched, even negotiating the use of helicopters with Saddam's Generals as the insurgents pleaded for weapons and support, and were then cut down in their tens of thousands by those very same helicopter gunships. The overthrow of Saddam, one expert after another opined in the media, was simply not part of the UN mandate for the war. And so ordinary Iraqis had to die in droves as the Arab state system, led by its, in those days, formidable array of dictators, was restored to its previous inglorious status by the force of Western arms.

The first Gulf war succeeded in its stated goals and, with the exception of the Kurdish safe-haven, did not exceed them. The people of Iraq paid the price for that success. Worse even, they were left under sanctions for another 13 years with a vengeful and bitter dictator itching to wreak his vengeance on those who had dared to rise up against him. A sectarian counterattack to crush a rebellion in 1991, turned into official state policy, as it is doing in Bashar al-Assad's Syria today. The final cost, by the time 2003 came rolling along, was the decimation of the Iraqi middle class, the gutting of state institutions that had worked efficiently for the most part all through the 1970s and 1980s when Iraq still was a “Republic of Fear,” and the inculcation by 2003 of a mood of deep mistrust and hostility in Iraqis towards the US which they felt had let them down in 1991.

Both the Bush administration and the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein outside of Iraq (the only opposition there was), including individuals like myself, grossly underestimated those costs in the run-up to the 2003 war. I wrote of a “criminal state” replacing a totalitarian state in the revised edition of Republic of Fear that appeared in 1996. But I did not understand that the state had been for all practical purposes gutted from within.

There was therefore no war to speak of in 2003; the word is a misnomer. Some skirmishes with Saddam's Fedayeen, a battle or two perhaps, and the whole terrible edifice just came crashing down under its own weight. The army dismantled itself, before Paul Bremer issued his infamous and unnecessary order. None of these underestimations and errors of judgment by Bush administration officials and people like myself was of course an argument against going to war in 2003, not at least if your point of departure was concern for the best interests of the Iraqi people (as mine was).

Politics in the Middle East, and certainly democratic or liberal politics, I thought then and still think today looking at events in Syria, is about the triumph of hope against experience; it is not a cost-benefit calculation. American mistakes in Iraq could, at least in part, be rectified, and to be fair, after the first disastrous year of the occupation, were gradually improved. Anyway, by the summer of 2004, American influence on the development of Iraqi politics had already begun to decline with the transfer of power to the Allawi government. The ignominious US rush to depart Iraq in 2010, has rendered them moot, of historical interest at best. The greater hubris by far is to think that what the US does or does not do is all that matters in the deterioration of events in post-2003 Iraq, and the inability of Americans and Iraqis to establish anything like the rule of law and functioning democratic institutions.

There is plenty to blame the American occupation for with regards to post 2003 Iraq. But the greater blame by far for the catastrophe that Iraq has become today has to be placed on the shoulders of the new post 2003 Iraqi political elite, and principally among them the leaders of the various Shiite parties who dominate the political system in Iraq outside Kurdistan today.

“Only the Shi'a of Iraq are in a position to stop Saddam from snatching victory out of the jaws of his own death in the shape of escalating confessional and ethnic violence in the years to come,” I wrote in Cruelty and Silence in 1993, reflecting upon the future of the country. “By virtue of their numbers, they carry a historic responsibility for that future, greater than that of any other group in Iraq…. The more Iraq's Shia assert themselves as Shi'a, the greater will be the tendency of Iraq's Sunni minority to fight to the bitter end…. Competition over victimhood is a road that can only lead to disaster.”

But the Shiite political class, put in power by American force of arms in 2003, did virtually nothing but preach a politics of victimhood, of competition among victims as to who has suffered the most and who can leverage the state to steal the most for itself. They falsely identified Sunni Iraqis with Ba'thi Iraqis, forgetting how heavily they themselves were implicated in the criminality of the regime. Their failure since 2003 is about to repeat itself in Syria, only this time it looks as if the Sunni Islamist leadership is about to inflict on the people of Syria the same pain the Iraqi Shiite leadership has already inflicted upon Iraq.

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With the toppling of the most egregious tyrant the modern Arab world had ever known, Saddam Hussein, one who had initiated and survived numerous wars and killed untold millions of people, the whole order of which he was such an integral part came under a new kind of scrutiny. His fall was a tectonic shift that would in time strike at the heart of the whole post 67 Arab order. The crucial signs that indicated the cracking of the edifice long before the Arab Spring of 2011 were: 2005, the people of Lebanon march in their hundreds of thousands to boot a Syrian army of occupation out of their country; they march again to protest the assassination of their Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri; Palestinians taste their first real elections in Gaza and the West Bank; the arms of Hosni Mubarak get twisted by American officials to allow Egyptians their first contested election in 2005; the eruption of the grassroots Iranian Green Movement protesting the rigging of the 2009 elections; the spread of a new kind of critical writing online and in fiction that had not been seen in Arab culture before. The list goes on and on.

As importantly, and working away in the subterranean ground of the Arab political psyche, the legitimating ideas of post 1967 Arab politics—pan-Arabism, armed struggle, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism–ideas that stood at the foundation of both the regimes in Iraq and Syria, were now rubbing up against the realities of what life under Saddam Hussein had been really like. Before 2003, one had been able to deny or ignore the genocide that had been inflicted on Iraq's Kurdish population, or the fact of the mass killings of Shiite protestors in 1991—admittedly, not very much was known or publicized–but ignorance was no longer an excuse following the fall of the Iraqi Ba'th, as up to three hundred mass grave sites began to be dug up and identified south and north of the country.

No “Arab Spring” protestor, however much he or she might identify with the plight of the Palestinians (as I do), or decry the cruel policies of Israeli occupation in the West Bank (as I do), would think today to attribute all the ills of Arab polities to empty abstractions like “imperialism” and “Zionism.” They understand today in their bones so to speak (not just intellectually), that those phrases were tools of a language designed to prop up nasty regimes and distract people like them from the struggle for a better life. Generations of Arabs have paid with their lives and with their futures because of a set of illusions that it is now clear had nothing to do with Israel's existence or the persistence of its immoral occupation; these illusions, which require deep study, come from within the world that we Arabs have, alas, constructed for ourselves, a world built upon certain legitimating ideas, that through exposure and greater scrutiny after 2003, are today exposed as bankrupt and even dangerous to the future of the young Arab men and women who set out in 2011, against all odds, to build a brave new world. In their place, and to build that world, the young revolutionaries (and they had to be young), put the struggle against their own dictatorships first and foremost in their political priorities, just as their Iraqi counterparts had done twenty years earlier. This too is in part a legacy of Saddam Hussein's overthrow in 2003.

To be sure the system of beliefs represented by the Arab Ba'th Socialist Party had ossified and lost their ability to inspire anyone long before Saddam's 2003 ouster. And yet he was still there, in power, the great survivor of so many terrible wars and revolutions. It was impossible for Iraqis at least to see beyond him. Might there have been an Arab Spring in Iraq if the 2003 war had not happened? We shall never know, but I doubt it. Iraqis were too exhausted, their spirit as a people broken. The price of 1991 had been very great, and the legacy of 30 years of dictatorship even greater. We all underestimated it. It is more interesting to ask whether the Arab Spring would have happened if Saddam had not been overthrown in 2003. Eventually, I expect. But, with Saddam in Baghdad, when?

Ideas are not constrained by frontiers and borders. All Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, was asking for on the 17th of December 2010 was his dignity and self-respect as a person, as an individual. That is how the Arab Spring began, at any rate, and the toppling of the first Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein, paved the way for many young Arabs to imagine it.

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The Arab Spring, however, as the metaphor goes, has turned into winter. Here too the story of Iraq after 2003 has some salutary lessons. The support the Arab monarchies gave in 1991 to the coalition that pushed Saddam out of Kuwait was entirely due to the threat that Saddam Hussein represented to them were he to get away with it; that support, it is important to remember, was not forthcoming in the wake of the Iraqi dictator's overthrow in 2003, when a new more equitable order–let us not even call it democratic–was at least on the agenda in Iraq. Active hostility by all and sundry was the order of the day. Jihadis poured in; the remnants of the Iraqi Ba'th wreaked havoc on Iraq from Syria; the Iranians funded all and sundry as long as their mission was to undermine and de-legitimize genuine governance in Iraq, and on and on the list goes.

The net effect of the first few years of this, ironically, was to undermine the 1991 restoration of the Arab state system, originally violated by Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi political elite responded by becoming more and more sectarian, far more so than Saddam Hussein ever was. Saddam had used sectarianism and national chauvinism as a tool against his internal enemies when he was weak. Today's Iraqi Shi'i parties legitimize themselves on sectarian grounds, and have for all practical purposes abandoned the idea of Iraq. So dependent have they become on the Islamic Republic next door, that all major political decisions in Iraq today are made in Tehran.

Since the Arab Spring, the old rules that governed the Arab order have been turned completely upside down. In one Arab country after the other, the continuing, if not accelerating, weaknesses of that original post World War I Arab order, are making themselves felt with countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon, teetering on the edge of falling apart or looking increasingly not viable or coherent inside there historic political boundaries. The support that several key Arab monarchies are providing to Syrian resistance forces fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad is ironically further undermining the legitimacy of the whole post 1967 Arab order, an order that is breaking down first in those republican national-socialist regimes that most rested on it (Syria, Iraq, Libya). The region is being reconfigured, wholesale. Against these kinds of forces, the young forward-looking revolutionaries of the Arab Spring are, alas, defenseless.

The Syrian civil war is no longer a war that can be fudged or left unfinished. It will go on, one painful step after the next, until there is no longer a Ba'thi regime in Syria and maybe even no longer a Syria to reconstitute. We are entering the unknown and the unknowable as far as politics in the Middle East is concerned.

Our species, at least in its modern garb, needs states. Nobody knows this better than the Palestinians, whose denial of one by Israel has brought misery and havoc to the region, including to the Israelis themselves (anyone who is in any doubt on that score should see the remarkable new Israeli film, The Gatekeepers). States still are the cornerstones of our security as individuals, and provide at least the possibility of a civilized way of life.

There is an exception to this dismal picture in the Middle Eastern context that we have been living through since 1991: the Kurdish experience in Iraqi Kurdistan and tomorrow, perhaps, in other parts of the Kurdish dominated region. The Kurds were the great losers of the post Ottoman Middle Eastern state order. No longer, if the case of Iraq is anything to go by. The only part of Iraq that is “working” today, as so many of us hoped the whole of Iraq would work after 2003, is Iraqi Kurdistan, which is a safe and relatively free place to live and work in, and is thriving both culturally and economically with hundreds of Turkish firms investing in virtually every sphere of life. That too is a legacy of America's 1991 and 2003 wars in Iraq.

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Kanan Makiya is the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University. He was a prominent member of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein and an influential proponent of the 2003 Iraq War. His books include Republic of Fear (1989), The Monument (1991), Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (1993), and The Rock: A Seventh Century Tale of Jerusalem (2001).

To leave a comment, please go to the introduction to the DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposia, of which this essay is a part, here.