What Chance for Democracy in the Middle East?

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a café in Damascus at the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq, March 2003
Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a café in Damascus at the time of the US-led invasion of Iraq, March 2003

Our recent attempt to run an Arab state did not end well. During just over a year in which the US- and UK-staffed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administered Iraq, that country began its descent into the abyss of violence and political and economic dysfunction in which it has languished ever since. In Britain on July 6 an exhaustive public inquiry led by the former civil servant Sir John Chilcot concluded seven years of work in which it tried to understand what went wrong. Its conclusion, in essence: Don’t do it again.

I did not serve in the CPA myself, but I did subsequently go out to assist Iraq’s first elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in 2005. I hoped that a government of Iraqis, elected by Iraqis, would solve the problems that foreigners had been unable to address. I was disappointed to find that this did not happen. Violence worsened; many sectors of government barely functioned; Jaafari himself, a kindly man, behaved as a scholar rather than a statesman. Western visitors were baffled to be engaged in discussions of the minutiae of American history, while not far away Baghdad was literally burning. People began to long for a stronger leader. In due course autocratic Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was brought in to replace Jaafari.

There are many lessons to take from the Iraq debacle. The postwar missteps were legion. If the CPA had enfranchised Iraqis faster, instead of trying to install a blatantly American occupation government; if it had not rushed ahead with de-Baathification and the disbanding of the army; if it had paid more attention to the religious divide that was tearing the country apart—if, if, if. I myself doubt that it could ever have been a success. For one thing, such missteps were inevitable when the CPA’s principal loyalty was not to the Iraqi people but to the American government. Few Iraqis, furthermore, were willing to invest in an occupation that was self-declared to be a short-term one.

Second, based on my own experience, I do not think that the Iraqi politicians themselves had particularly good answers to their country’s problems. Perhaps there were no quick solutions to be had, but only the slow rebuilding of an abused and shattered state. If so, the most important lesson for us is that we should be doubly and triply cautious about breaking something that is so hard to reassemble.

That leaves the possibility that such regimes can be overthrown by their own people. In From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, Jean-Pierre Filiu, a…

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