Iraqis are better off today. Live with it!

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.

  • Sami

    The initial conflict to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait began with an aerial bombardment on 17 January 1991.But all people under occupation should be happy and are in fact "better off".This should have been passed on to few peoples who were under occupation and fought to get out and reach for freedom.Some of those peoples are the American people,the Algerians,the Libyans,the Vietnamese,the Sudanese,The Lebanese also.If I was to name all the peoples who fought occupation I would run out of space allocated to this comments.

    March 25, 2010

  • Mounira

    I am sorry to the guy ''Lebanese'' below I am against the Iraq war too but get your information right, the invasion happened in 2003 not 2001 and 4 million iraqis have not been killed. The highest estimate is 1.36 million. eitherway too much life lost and people suffered for something few gained. The only people who have ''benefited'' are the Kurds where as the Christians community who are defenceless are being indemitated by Kuridish nationalists and killed by Radical islamists. Lets not forget the Shiite who hated Saddam so much are also now in power but this has made things worse for other Iraqis since they were the most religious sect in the country, with close ties to Iran. it's very sad what happened to Iraq. I only hope it has a better future.

    March 17, 2010

  • stand up for LEBAN

    4 mIllion dead Iraqis, ohh yeah they are better off dead according to this ....Michael Young. This article is pure .... Iraq has been getting destroyed for 9 years now, bombs killing and terrorizing everyday, how is this better?

    March 17, 2010

  • Mounira

    Seriously is this article an early April Fools day joke?

    March 16, 2010

  • Georges Butros Estaphan

    Well, the Christian communities that survived 1700 years are effectively destroyed, the Iranian Government has massively increased its relative strength in the region - and then there is the small matter of the death and injuries - lost count of that. Oh, at the writer, is happy. Hmm. What an odd article.

    March 16, 2010

  • Ben

    Iraq oil hasn't really been an issue for America; the U.S. Energy Information Administration states that between December 2008 and December 2009 Iraq's contribution to American oil nearly halved, from 627 thousand barrels a day to 325. Iraq contributes 4% of American oil; if America really wanted that 4% of oil that they were already getting from Iraq before the war they could just force their way into ANWR, coastal drilling etc. And Michael brings up a good point; Hussein was attempting to create nuclear weapon technology so why would you not assume that he didn't have the ability after 20 years of research? If a man had a gun to your head would you question if it was loaded? The CIA director at the time released a report in 2006 stating that his agency had believed there was enough conclusive information to assume that there were WMD's and Saddam did have biological and chemical WMD's.

    March 15, 2010

  • yara

    Has Michael Young ever lived in Iraq? How can he so confidently tell the world the Iraqi people are better off when he has never lived as an Iraqi? I'm tired of his right-wing articles,

    March 14, 2010

  • How confused

    How are the Iraqi's better off today? Theyre starving. Their oil wealth is ruthlessly sucked by Texas oil gangs. That entire country has been re-established as a US colony for economic warfare & strategic power grounds in the face of oil thirsty china & russia giants. Capitalism sure is better off, if anyone wants some lines of reality! ....

    March 13, 2010

  • Mohamed Saadaah

    Interesting piece, yet some thorny questions remain. Saddam killed 100.000s, yet so did the invasion, directly or indirectly. Are some deaths worth it and others aren't? And who decides? How can one suppirt an invasion that had no legal grounds to stand on? If one supports the invasion of Iraq, as the writer obviously does, why not call for an immediate invasion of Burma and Equitarial Guinea, both countries dictated by criminals. And, finally, there's the nasty little detailthat Saddam was for years a loyal alley, even when he committed his atrocities. How to read that? A simple matter of Real Politik? As was the invasion?

    March 13, 2010