The world has changed a great deal since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003–thanks in part to that invasion and to the earlier invasion of Afghanistan. And yet, watching President Barack Obama welcome home the troops at Fort Bragg on December 14, and the media coverage of that event, it struck me that one thing has not changed. Despite the vast expenses incurred by news organizations following the occupation, and the considerable time that politicians in Washington spent debating its merits, many Americans continue to see in Iraq a reflection of their own country’s ideals and contradictions. They will remember Iraq as an American trauma. But it was, above all, an Iraqi trauma.
The country that George W. Bush and Tony Blair have left behind is free of Saddam Hussein, but it is needy and volatile and may tip back into sectarian war. In addition to 4,500 US soldiers, well over 100,000 civilians have lost their lives. Millions have fled into exile or have had to leave their homes in Iraq, ancient Christian communities have been obliterated, and only a shared pursuit of oil revenues keeps the country’s most important groups (the Shia Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds) precariously united. Even for a president seeking re-election, Obama’s description of Iraq as “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant” seems unduly optimistic.
The ramifications of the US-led coalition’s failure extend far beyond Iraq’s borders. Had the operation in Iraq succeeded, Iran could well have been next. Obama’s Iran policy is relatively cautious, relying on containment through sanctions and, possibly, acts of sabotage. But there can be no doubt that the power of Iran in Iraq and in the region has increased as a result of the US invasion. It is hard to imagine America and its allies again launching such a vast military enterprise, or presenting it as part of something so obscure and unexplained as a “war on terror.” America’s failure in Iraq marks the end of a century of ill-judged invasions, coups, and other attempts by western powers to manipulate events in the Middle East. It is an important moment.
The neocons regarded intervention in Iraq as a means of establishing a beachhead for liberal, democratic values in the region. From Baghdad, ran the theory, these values would spread across the Arab world and also into (non-Arab) Iran. The theory had two flaws. The first was that freedom and democracy can also be used by Islamists to take power–-which is what has happened in Iraq, where many of the plausible liberals favored by Washington early on have faded from view. Second, there was a contradiction between liberal slogans and the use of force to invade and control another country. The Bush administration trumpeted its commitment to human rights, but the freedom of a person to speak or associate is a charade if the government representing him or her makes policy on the basis of outside pressure, or spirits criminal suspects away to be tortured in foreign jurisdictions. This is why Bush’s promotion of democratic reform in the Arab world aroused such mistrust; it was accompanied by strong-arm tactics redolent of British or French colonial administrators.
Recent pro-democratic upheavals in the Middle East have had little connection with the policies of the Bush administration. The first of these happened not in Tunisia in December 2010, but more than a year earlier, on the streets of Tehran. In June 2009, millions of Iranians agitated for the removal of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad before their movement was crushed by the security forces. The US had no part in the events. A year and a half later, revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt sensed Obama’s distaste for old-fashioned intervention when they threw off their US-backed rulers. The US’s role in the civil war that overthrew the Qaddafi regime was limited by Obama’s multilateralist approach–as is now American participation in the campaign to dislodge Syria’s Bashar Assad. People in the Middle East are finding that they can act without asking the permission—or worrying about the reaction—of a superpower.
Some parts of the region have not known such freedom since before World War I. European influence rose as the Ottoman Empire declined in the nineteenth century, but in the three main centers of regional life, Istanbul, Tehran and Cairo, men inspired by the parliamentary democracies of the West became the most important force in politics. The power of the Ottoman and Persian monarchies was eroded; in Egypt, nationalists agitated for independence from British rule. Women were more visible and active in urban society than they had ever been.
Outsiders and their rivalries interrupted this hopeful advance. The Ottoman Empire was destroyed during World War I and most of its Arab possessions parceled out among the victorious allies. Britain and France then set up speculative new states which could only be stabilized through authoritarian regimes in thrall to foreigners. (Iraq was one). Escaping colonization, Iran and the new Republic of Turkey installed authoritarian regimes of their own as a way of warding off the powers.
World War II was relatively benign in these parts, if one discounts the battlefields of North Africa, the Allied invasion of Iran, and the establishment of Israel in Palestine. But the effects of an epic hangover, the Cold War, took half a century to clear. From 1945 to 1989 the region’s development was stymied by the rivalry of Moscow and Washington, with both sides favoring dictators that could be bought and, when expedient, promoting Islamic militancy. In 1953, Britan and the US toppled Mohammad Mossadegh, the region’s most convincing democrat, after he showed unwelcome independence from western interests. Following the demise of the Soviet Union the Americans discovered new wars to fight–against the enemies of Israel; against Saddam (now less biddable than he had been); against al-Qaeda. This policy expired in 2011, even if its main beneficiary, the religious dictatorship of Saudi Arabia, is still intact.
The drama of the Arab upheavals has not ended. Islamist parties will make electoral gains, as they already have in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco and are poised to do in Algeria. It is folly to expect, as the neocons did, that Middle Eastern countries will interpret the language of rights and the practice of democracy only in the light of foreign experiences. It will take years for Muslims in the Middle East to find the accommodation with democracy and modern institutions that the more progressive of their forebears were seeking on the eve of World War I. Even then we may not like the result. Our ability to influence the debate is limited. We should rejoice that it is happening at all.
The example of Iraq shows that government by mistrusted outsiders is likely to fail. Rory Stewart, a British civil servant who had a governing post in the provinces of Maysan and Nasiriyah following the invasion, has written of the “guilt” of administrators such as himself at the contradictions of their position:
We felt we needed to stay, but felt ashamed of occupation. We were controlling the lives of people who had not invited us in and who had not voted for us. We wanted to justify the invasion by doing some good; but we knew little about the people who surrounded us, or their culture…people were going to be killed almost whatever we chose to do.
They were killed, and they continue to be, albeit at a lower rate–some 230 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives since the beginning of December.
There are other dangers. The unraveling of Iraq’s national power-sharing agreement bodes ill for sectarian harmony in the future. With Iran as a powerful neighbor, and Syria as a conflicted one, the country is awkwardly placed. For all that, Obama’s decision was the only one he could have taken: America had to leave Iraq because it should never have been there in the first place. In the words of Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, “We in the United States need to recognize that, yes, some of [the Iraqi people] are grateful for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, but by and large they don’t want us there and don’t want us to stay.”