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The Iraq War and the Arab Spring

Spring / Summer 2011 Nez À Nez

The Iraq War and the Arab Spring

Proposition: The Iraq war (launched in 2003) eventually provided oxygen for today’s Arab Spring

Shuvaloy Majumdar is Visiting Foreign Policy Scholar at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute (for): For the last 60 years, the wider Middle East has been paralyzed by the dichotomy of autocratic Nasserist socialism and hardline extremist Islamism. Human associations in the region are built on the fault-lines of tribes, mosques, sects and, indeed, strongmen demi-gods seeking to lay claim to Arabian stewardship. On the ashes of the Twin Towers 10 years ago, a new policy emerged from the US foreign policy firmament to precipitate long-term regional transformation. It articulated clearly that the establishment of democracy and democratic states should be line-item number one in the US national security strategy.

More than 1,000 years ago, the Abbasid caliphate had its capital in Baghdad – today, Arabia’s second largest city. As Hugh Kennedy has colourfully chronicled in When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty, on the streets of Baghdad walked leaders of literature, science, art and culture in the Muslim world. While various capitals throughout the Middle East have always competed for the mantle of regional leadership, Baghdad – even today – can lay among the largest claims: first, as the capital of a major Arab state, and second as the capital of the world’s second largest Shiite-majorite country. In the Middle Eastern identity, therefore, democracy’s turbulent rise in Baghdad has informed the so-called Arab Spring on the street. For the first time in the history of the region, notions of citizenship and constitutional liberalism have seeded democratic life, and have been permitted to thrive. A new generation frustrated with the old order – and disabused of the erstwhile worship of mythical leaders – has discovered its voices in the anonymity of cyberspace, and formed anonymous associations that are now taking to the streets.

Iraq has not been an easy experiment, and the emergence of Iraqi democracy cannot take away from the courage of ordinary people who today are in the midst of converting popular unrest into credible aspirations for popular sovereignty. Iraq in 2011 is home to a people who have established their own constitution, held successive elections, fashioned a government through complicated negotiations, and are slowly and surely building a society with the requisite political space to enfranchise a demanding citizenry. The fourth estate lives – and lives well – in Iraq: robust, independent media represent a multitude of world views. In Iraq, the unassailable has been assailed: despots are no longer demi-gods, and citizens are compelling political parties to move beyond tribe and sect toward practicable public policy solutions. There has never been a shortage of demand for freedom in the region; there has only been the brutal suppression of liberty’s flame. The cultural transformation in Iraq of a people who are discovering the self-confidence to self-govern has had a tremendous impact in not only the Arabian Middle East, but has also pulsed into Iran at every level of life.

The 2003 Iraq intervention cleaved open the dyad of strongmen and hegemonic actors, provided space for citizens to be sovereign, and generated the oxygen for liberty’s flame to spread throughout the region.

Peter Jones is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (against): The so-called Arab Spring is a truly momentous moment in Middle Eastern history. Though it is too soon to say whether the ultimate impact will be as positive as we all hope, the mere fact that despots have been overthrown by largely peaceful, popular action has taken the region in a new and welcome direction. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused these uprisings to happen now. There are broader issues, of course: decades-long rule by corrupt tyrants; economic mismanagement leading to widespread unemployment and hopelessness – especially among the young; and the rise of social media that make it possible for large numbers of urban people to spontaneously organize. One fact that is often missed by those looking at the region today is that these uprisings are playing out differently in different countries across the region – based on the particularities of each case. Arguably, those things that are unique to each country outweigh the broader, region-wide factors.

It is thus very dangerous to impute the cause of these events to any one factor – truly Earth-shattering events are seldom caused by just one thing. So it is with the invasion of Iraq in 2003: perhaps it had an impact in bringing about the Arab Spring, but I think not much of one. More importantly, very few people in the Middle East itself feel that the Iraq invasion is the foundation of their present quest for freedom. Though it is true that the invasion brought down a particularly horrible despot, it also left in its wake a widespread horror at its cost, as well as a strong sense on the part of the peoples of the region that America undertook this action for its own interests – and not theirs. The widespread mistrust of the US that characterizes popular politics in the region is, in part, due to this dynamic. Moreover, even as it brought down Saddam Hussein, the US continued to support other despots around the region for several years. Many across the Middle East take the view that, had the US been sincere in launching the Iraq invasion to bring freedom to the region, it would not have spent several more years propping up the Mubarak regime and others.

If popular uprisings depend on, and spring from, the perceptions of the people who stage them (is that not the very definition of a popular uprising?), then there is presently no perception in the Middle East that the invasion of Iraq has anything positive to do with today’s events. Indeed, those who filled Tahrir Square, and those who presently seek the end of other regimes across the region, would find it incredible – and not a little annoying – to be told that they owed their courage and their efforts to an invasion that is so unpopular across the Middle East.

SM: She paused in the midst of her conversation. A leader in the Tunisian rebellion, she looked directly into the eyes of a respected American colleague of mine, and replied: “We knew that we could do this when we saw him hang.”


“Saddam. He was the biggest of them all. Bigger than Ben Ali, and bigger than Mubarak. When he was hanging in a Baghdad jail – this brutal and mighty madman – we knew that we could get this done for our people in Tunisia.” My colleague had been part of a US assessment mission in the aftermath of Tunisia’s revolution, and had been interviewing leaders who had quietly organized for years. In fact, much of the infrastructure for the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt were gradually being built, with accelerated democratic assistance given to organized labour, modest political parties and marginalized civil society groups following 2003. Political reform had, to a great extent, been foisted on tyrants engaged with the West at the highest levels, while vital training and support were provided to activists and local leaders at the grassroots – wherever possible. At the margins of their societies, local activists accessed the practical tools that they required to lead their people toward democracy. Knowledge of democracy is something that can be transferred, but its practice requires the self-confidence of popular sovereignty, as well as the courage to be free of the currency of fear on which tyranny depends.

Of all in the region, the Iraqi Baath Party infrastructure was a gargantuan state apparatus, brutalized its people under chemical assault and political torture, and was headed by a madman flanked by his two revolting sons. Saddam was the ultimate symbol of despotic rule in the region. He had warred with America and the West (and, most famously, with Iran), and he had survived. With the end of his regime came the prospect that other regimes – other Saddams – may also fall. Undoubtedly, the 2003 Iraq intervention had brutal consequences. Regional interests in the form of Saudi sheikhs, Syrian instigators and Iranian operatives sowed seeds for sectarian discontent. Many regional players had much to lose with the emergence of a legitimate democracy across their borders, and acted accordingly to create the worst conditions possible for democracy’s narrative. Coalition forces were not the ones who exploited Iraqis; rather, it was a nexus of regional actors who understood the significance of the collapsing autocratic order with the fall of Saddam and his Ba’ath Party. In the years following 2003, regional autocrats made certain to arrest freedom at every cost: fomenting propaganda about American empire, feeding sectarian fears within Iraqi society, and upgrading nasty materiel available to insurgents.

We ought to assert some basic, observable facts about the Iraq war. Had the underlying intent been oil, then Iraq’s resource sector would have been privatized, and American companies would have had a major stake in it; they plainly do not. Had the intent been empire, then the Iraqi people would not have available to them the instruments of democratic enfranchisement; they do now. Indeed, US officials have recently stated that, had the experiment in Iraq progressed more rapidly in 2003, they would have pursued freedom more vigorously throughout the region.

I agree with you that a model of ‘variable geometry’ ought to inform foreign policy and engagement with each individual state in the region – in that each government’s legitimacy is conferred by the consent of their people. I also agree that local public opinion is driven by unique local issues and experiences. However, the larger themes of tyranny and repression are shared across borders throughout the Middle East – whether in autocratic clubs like the Arab League or among their theocratic brethren. Operation Iraqi Freedom broke the fear that the Saddams of Tunisia and Egypt, and now of Libya and Syria, would rule forever, and that nation-states would be transferred from one generation to the next like family heirlooms. The end of Saddam Hussein as a symbol of tyranny exposed cracks in the thin armour of all of the region’s tyrants. Of course, neither of us in this debate is crediting the courage of people engaged in rebellion today to the Iraq intervention. While unpopular in the region, there is also no doubt that Saddam’s ouster was a watershed moment for aspiring democrats. The notion that these uprisings are unrelated is untenable.

PJ: Doubtless there are a few people in the region who feel that the sight of Saddam being toppled was critical to the awakening of the revolutions that we now see sweeping the region. Still, they are a tiny minority. In the very largest sense, one can say, of course, that seeing one tyrant go is an inspiration for those who seek the demise of others. Beyond that, however, it is critical for this debate to consider whether the experience of toppling Saddam, coupled with other US and Western policy initiatives at the time, provided any practical impetus for what we are seeing today. My sense is not – or at least not very much.

I wonder whether the broad mass of people who have risen up in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere really see a direct linkage between the invasion of Iraq by the world’s most significant military power and the ‘people power’ uprisings that they launched against their own governments. The invasion of Iraq is generally believed to have been launched by the US for reasons that are widely perceived by common people across the region to have been narrowly self-interested. Poll after poll across the region – both at the time and since – have made this point. One can debate the issue of whether the 2003 invasion was motivated solely or largely by US self-interest. There are also many definitions of what that self-interest may be: oil; political domination of the region; a launching pad to destabilize other regimes with which the US disagrees; or the more benign reason of seeking to create a model more in keeping with US conceptions of justice and propriety. But the point is that the great majority of the people in the region see the invasion as having been self-interest dressed up in the guise of ‘democracy’ promotion. And that is what matters to the proposition of this debate – for it is difficult to argue that people draw inspiration from something if the majority of them feel that this very thing was illegitimate.

Furthermore, for the 2003 invasion to be widely seen across the region as a catalyst for what we see today, it would be necessary for it to be seen as having been part of a wider US strategy that had been consistently applied over time. In short, it would have to have been about the US seeking to topple all of the region’s tyrannies – regardless of whether they were friends of the US. This is not seen in the region as having been the case. Indeed, some tyrants enjoyed considerable US support right up to the moment when their people toppled them. The widespread mistrust of the US that permeates the region at both the levels of the elites and the ‘common man’ testifies to a deeply ingrained sense that US actions in the region have never been about democracy; that is, that Washington has supported despots when it has suited it to do so, and deposed them when it suited American interests.

Finally, there is a timeline problem with your argument. If the invasion of Iraq was indeed about promoting democracy across the region, then why has it taken so long for others in the region to follow the US lead of 2003 and spontaneously rise up? The amount of time that has passed seems to reinforce the point that the 2003 invasion has had only the most tangential influence – if any at all – over what we are seeing today. Unless, of course, one takes the view that only leadership by the US makes these uprisings possible – and this is patently contradicted by the fact that the US, and most of the rest of the world, was caught flat-footed by the Arab Spring.

To some extent, this debate seems to be resolving itself around the question of how one interprets the past. Those who supported the 2003 invasion are perfectly entitled to their view. As you stated in your last volley, there are good arguments to support the case that the invasion was not all about naked US self-interest. But what matters in terms of the question on offer in this debate is what the people of the region think.

To the extent that any previous event was a significant inspiration for the Arab Spring, my sense is that it was the Green Revolution that swept Iran in the wake of the 2009 election. The mass uprising of ordinary Iranian people in support of their liberties and democratic rights was the blueprint for what we have seen in other countries across the region – although the Iranian regime was able to brutally and cruelly repress it (for now, at least). Crucially, there was no foreign power behind the events of 2009 in Iran; and these events were certainly not inspired by the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Indeed, the Iranian regime tries to deflect its illegitimacy by making the case that there was foreign meddling in 2009 – this as a way of discrediting those who struggle for democracy. This is a sure sign that the Ayatollahs know all too well that the real danger to despotism in the region is the anger of the people that they repress, and not the actions of foreign powers.

In the end, is this latter point not the ultimate vindication of one of the most fundamental tenets of the American creed – that true freedom must be won by the people themselves (and for themselves)?

SM: It seems that you are confusing anti-American sentiment for anti-democracy sentiment. It is irrelevant to those who crave democracy in Iraq and elsewhere whether Saddam was deposed by the ‘Great Satan’ or by Satan himself. The fact is that Iraqis seized the opportunity, endured years of foreign-manufactured sectarian strife, and are arriving at the democracy that they demand through each successive election. There is an unmistakable sense of progress through each Iraqi election cycle. Given that this is a region repressed by fear, of course, it would take time for others to believe that their own forms of tyranny could be cast aside, and to learn the tools of ‘people power’ in order to organize popular rebellions. To be sure, polls in the region reflect vast anti-Americanism. The more important fact is that poll after poll throughout the region indicates great demand for freedom and democracy – consistently at epic levels averaging 80 to 90 percent. While people may at times express visceral views toward American leaders, they certainly admire the values and virtues of freedom, a democratic system of government, and a modern society.

The case that is being debated here is not whether the opinion on the street views the 2003 Iraq intervention as a catalyst for the Arab Spring, but rather whether the Iraq intervention in fact created the political space in the region for the accountability of dictators, and encouraged movement toward freedom. It did. One fallen dictator in a region that had never known freedom ended the myth that tyranny was permanent and inevitable, and that democracy could never be accessible to people in the Middle East. Revolutions are inherently unpredictable affairs, yet the demand for liberty is a foundation for humanity. If these rebellions prove one thing beyond any doubt, it is that this demand for freedom, justice and democracy is indeed accessible to all, and that the soft bigotry of low expectations is being firmly repudiated by the courageous actions of ordinary citizens.

President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address expressed this policy direction. President Ronald Reagan – 25 years earlier – established the mechanisms for democracy assistance as the Cold War began to come to a close, and as a new order was on the horizon for the world. This policy of supporting democracy has been extended through Republican and Democrat administrations alike, with general bipartisan support. However, no one today is accusing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki of being an American puppet. If anything, he is seen on the street to be an Iranian one. Perception is not always reality.

Democracy takes time. Indeed as you note, few saw the Arab Spring emerging – except for the organizers of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, much assistance had been provided over the years to organized labour. They had been searching for a catalyst. When the unemployed shopkeeper self-immolated and sparked a rebellion, anxious unions who felt distant from their regime-sponsored leadership in Tunis took to the streets, empowered by a symbol. In Egypt, Mubarak would permit little political reform, but, under American pressure, allowed for the development of the Egyptian economy. For all of these states throughout the region, US policy has led, through political, diplomatic, economic – and yes, military – means, to advance a political realignment. The 2003 Iraq intervention was one significant part of a broad strategy – not to build empire, but to encourage political reform, strengthen democracy, confront tyranny and – through liberal ideals – bring the region out from its static Cold War relationships into the 21st century. Hard Cold War realism needed to be updated with these ideals, forming a new, pragmatic idealism – particularly once the West’s security interests were directly threatened in Manhattan, Arlington and Pennsylvania.

There is evidence that these assistance initiatives – partnered with aspiring democrats in all of these countries – have had a potent impact. The Islamic Republic of Iran has publicly singled out democracy assistance organizations as threats to their power. Major news organizations have catalogued many testimonials of local democrats in Egypt and Tunisia benefitting from access to this knowledge about democracy’s technical practice. Some despots attempted to signal reform through a generational transfer of stewardship following 2003: the tyrant of Tripoli attempted to cast his son as the leader of reform – just as Mubarak had attempted in Egypt. All of these so-called inheritors of Nasser’s throne fiercely resisted the supply of democracy assistance, and failed. Assistance was provided – by whatever means necessary – to shape the conditions for the success of aspiring democrats. This included vocal support for Internet freedoms.

The new centre of gravity for political success rests not on any particular geography like the ports of Libya, the streets of Daraa, or the hills of the Iranian frontier with Afghanistan. Rather, it rests in the conscience and hearts of ordinary people who deserve better than the deals that had until recently enslaved them to their tyrants. In the construct of post-imperialism, and in the ensuing Cold War, global order was held hostage to the reality of nuclear destruction at the press of a button. Following 9/11, the US administration understood that the region was deeply afflicted with explosive, boiling-point politics, and that a long-range, generational shift from unreliable wholesale tyranny toward complex, popular sovereignty would need to occur if long-term stability was to be achieved. The 2003 Iraq intervention, and the gruelling years that followed, was the focal point in catalyzing that process.

It may be too soon for history to remember this past decade as the one in which freedom in the Middle East commenced. Nevertheless, on the hot embers of a tough war, a new order is finally emerging. Assuredly, these waves of freedom will confront tougher terrain in countries that display a particular talent for despotism. The kingdoms of the Gulf will one day need to make way for constitutional monarchies. Old republics will need to restore the constitutions that dictators have controlled and manipulated for more than a generation. Sectarian conspiracies fed by regional powers will need to be replaced with the development of a robust infrastructure for jobs and the economy – the primary objectives of these rebellions. A debate will need to be had – on the role of government, and on the viability of subsidiarity and federalism. All of these issues – in one way or another – have been on open display for the last eight years in Iraq. They have endured the tests of mosque and street, tribe and sect. Rebellions did not rise immediately after 2003, because regional democrats were watching, and waiting, to see whether despotic rule was truly coming to an end.

Ten years after 9/11, there is a remarkable elegance to the transformation of this region and its people. Undoubtedly, history will record that the Iraq intervention eventually provided the necessary political space in the region for modern rebellions. History is also likely to record that the primary champions of these modern rebellions were people who grew tired of perpetual tyranny, demanded more for their futures, and finally found the courage to stand – and in many cases fight – for their freedom. There could be no greater hope. They must succeed.

PJ: The issue is not anti-Americanism versus anti-democracy. The issue is: what do we mean by ‘political space’ and – most crucially – what do the peoples of the region understand it to mean? Fundamentally, I think that the political space for something like the Arab Spring consists of what happens when people in the region perceive that new possibilities for political change exist, and indeed when they no longer should fear their oppressors, as they did the past. By acting together, they can change things. The key, then, is: what motivates the protesters, and what has led them to believe that they can accomplish the heretofore unthinkable?

If the 2003 invasion of Iraq created the political space for pro-democracy uprisings to occur across the region, that would be because the peoples of the region see it that way; that is, they recognize that they owe their newly found freedom of movement to challenge and change regimes to what happened in Iraq. There is simply no evidence that they do. The point is that, when it comes to direct action to change things, perception does, in fact, matter: it is why people are prepared to take risks that they would not otherwise take. We may believe that the invasion of 2003 created the political space, and we may – as you have – be able to make a convincing case in terms of our own reality and our own philosophical view. But what matters is whether the people on the streets in Cairo, Saana, Tunis and Damascus believe that. And there is, again, no evidence that they do. There is plenty of evidence that they have believed since the very beginning that the 2003 invasion was illegitimate.

Much of your argument rests on the notion that simply seeing a dictator deposed was such a catalytic event in the region’s history that it set in motion the road to what we are seeing today. But the overthrow of a dictator is nothing new to the Middle East. It has happened before – and it happened often. What happened in the past, however, was that one dictator simply replaced another. That may be changing now. Once again, the key question for us is whether 2003 is perceived across the region to have changed that pattern, and whether that perception was a key motivator in the Arab Spring. It may be true that Iraq is now more democratic than had been the case previously, and more democratic than many critics of the invasion believed that it could be. Still, this has taken a very long time, and it has been very messy. Few would regard it as a model for anything – except perhaps for how not to do this.

If progress in Iraq has been slowed because of outside meddling, then those who opposed the invasion in the first place would say that they saw that coming from the beginning. Of course Iran meddled – what did you expect? It is only the ideologues who conceived and pushed the invasion – and knew nothing of the region’s realities – who were taken by surprise at how long it has all taken, and how hard it has been. The advice that may have made the transition more smooth was routinely ignored if it did not fit with preconceived ideas about how things should be. This perhaps speaks to one of the reasons for which the 2003 invasion is seen as so illegitimate in the eyes of the peoples of the region: the perceived arrogance and hubris of those who carried it out. The small clique of ideologues who launched the invasion on specious premises (remember the ‘slam dunk’ of Saddam’s WMD?) elevated democracy to pride-of-place only as an afterthought; at least, that is certainly the way it is seen in the region.

Finally, the argument is advanced that the quiet work of democracy promotion has had an impact by preparing peoples across the region for their moment. That is probably true. But what is not true is the inference that this work – which was undertaken by many; not just Republican administrations – would not have happened but for the 2003 invasion. There is no inextricable link between the two. Programmes to quietly empower civil society have been running for years across the region – sponsored by NGOs, by the EU and its governments, by Canada and by others. They were running before 2003, and they continued thereafter. Many of them were funded and run by peoples and governments who opposed the 2003 invasion. There is simply no link between democracy promotion across the region and the invasion of 2003 – except perhaps in the minds of those who believe that nothing is real until a Republican president says so.

At the end of the day, we may never fully understand what happened this year so as to suddenly cause large numbers of peoples in the Middle East to rise up and demand better of their governments. As with other such great moments in history, a range of complex and interrelated factors were in play – some region-wide, and some peculiar to each national situation. Did the 2003 invasion of Iraq play a significant role in all this? Maybe. But I am inclined to doubt it. I travel widely and frequently in the region, and talk to its peoples often. I have seen no evidence from 2003 to this day that they were inspired by the invasion of Iraq, and yet much evidence to suggest that they were embittered by it.


Shuvaloy Majumdar is Visiting Foreign Policy Scholar at the University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute, and director of the Hurriya Initiative: Ending Tyranny Through Freedom in 21st Century Statecraft.

Peter Jones is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He was a senior analyst for the Security and Intelligence Secretariat of the Privy Council in Ottawa, and led the Middle East Security and Arms Control Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden in the 1990s.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / Jerome Delay)

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