It may be worth posing the question, days after the end of the Iraqi elections, whether anyone might be willing to admit that the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was, after all, a good idea. The question is loaded, the possible answers, for and against, manifold, and the caveats infinite. But I will dare an answer: Yes, Iraq is better off today than it was under Saddam, and you have George W. Bush to thank.
Not that Bush didn’t do everything in the first two years after the overthrow of the Baath regime to undermine his own enterprise, until he fortuitously hit upon the “surge” to reverse the situation. And even there, the US president greatly benefited from a change of mood in the Sunni community, when the Awakening Councils turned against Al-Qaeda. That only affirmed, as did this past Sunday’s voting, that too much attention is usually afforded the United States, when Iraq’s future is being largely defined by the Iraqis themselves, and has been since the 2005 elections.
So thank you Bush, but let’s move to the more interesting story: Iraq is emerging as a pluralistic country in its own right. Its democracy remains dysfunctional; its elections were marred by irregularities and more violence than was initially admitted; and there is no doubt that the specter of sectarian discord still hovers over Iraqi lives. Yet, those dynamics, for better or worse, are Iraqi dynamics, not American ones, with Washington discovering that it has limited latitude to shape outcomes in Baghdad.
But don’t expect anyone to reconsider the Iraq war just yet. Bush will not soon live down the public perception that he lied about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in order to justify a war, even though it is likely that he actually believed that Saddam possessed such weapons. The former British prime minister, Tony Blair, is in the same situation. A Spanish government lost all popularity over the Iraq decision, and only the other evening I spoke to Danish parliamentarians who were still bristling at how their government had misled voters in the run-up to the war.
Such reactions are understandable in the context of Western democratic practice. Voters and lawmakers have every right to expect that their representatives will not deceive them. But the reactions are also a trifle parochial when weighed against the awfulness of Iraq’s previous Baath regime. Here we have Westerners apoplectic with their onetime leaders for not telling the truth, but oddly incapable of mustering the same outrage when considering the misdeeds of a mass murderer like Saddam Hussein. In their haste to declare the Iraq war “illegal”, the critics rarely mention that Saddam violated countless United Nations resolutions and was exploiting the UN “oil for food” program to tighten his grip on power.
Worse, much Western and Arab consideration of Iraq passes almost exclusively through the prism of what it says about America. Even before their country was invaded, the Iraqis had become secondary players in their impending drama. The prewar debate in the US between antiwar activists, neoconservatives, liberal hawks and old-line realists was of some interest, but it was also light on the political and social realities of Iraq itself. In the Middle East, too, everything was about America, and not at all about how the imminent removal of an Arab dictator might help open up political orders in the region, led by carnivorous autocrats.
Now that we have an opportunity to see amend that interpretation, because there is no ambiguity that the Iraqis themselves are deciding their own fate, many Western and Arab observers of Iraq appear to have lost interest. Americans, when they can be roused, seem focused on “The Hurt Locker” and the military withdrawal scheduled for later this year, while the Arabs have pigeonholed Iraq into the Sunni-Shia regional rivalry, itself a facet of expanding Iranian influence in the region.
Here’s a prediction. As Barack Obama’s supposedly new approach to the Middle East continues to flounder, and as Iraq gradually emerges as a more stable order (don’t hold your breath, but it will happen in the coming years), Arabs but chiefly Westerners will view the country in a different light. They will continue to place American behavior past and present at the center of their reflections; but they will also begin to make the right queries, namely whether outside military force is sometimes necessary to depose destabilizing dictatorships, providing that political authority is handed over to the inhabitants of the country soon thereafter.
Over 130 attacks occurred on election day in Iraq, killing 37 people. Yet the national average for participation in elections was over 60 percent. Even in Baghdad, where most of the attacks were concentrated, the participation level exceeded 50 percent. Iraqis are eager to do their thing, and they would not have been able to do so had Saddam’s gruesome family still been around, like all those other gruesome families perpetuating their rule in Arab capitals. Something is right in this.
Blame the Americans, but also Iraq’s neighbors and those who had benefited from the Baath regime, for having made the transition to a more pluralistic country far bloodier than it needed to be. Cross your fingers and hope that Iraq can stay the course. But most Iraqis do not long for the days when they were ruled by a tyrant who caused the death, directly or indirectly, of hundreds of thousands of people. A reassessment is in order.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.