The Arab Spring Started in Iraq
ON April 9, 2003, Baghdad fell to an American-led coalition. The removal of Saddam Hussein and the toppling of a whole succession of other Arab dictators in 2011 were closely connected — a fact that has been overlooked largely because of the hostility that the Iraq war engendered.
Few of the brave young men and women behind the Arab Spring have been willing to publicly admit the possibility of a link between their revolutions and the end of Mr. Hussein’s bloody reign 10 years ago. These activists have for the most part vigorously denied that their own demands for freedom and democracy, which were organic and homegrown, had anything to do with a war they saw as illegitimate and imperialistic.
To see the connection between the overthrow of Mr. Hussein in 2003 and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, one must go back to 1990, when Iraq’s army marched into Kuwait. The first gulf war — in which an American-led coalition ousted Iraq’s occupying army — enjoyed the support of most Arab governments, but not of their populations. Mr. Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait threatened the order that had kept authoritarian regimes in power for decades and Arab leaders were willing to fight to restore it.
Citizens tend to rally around their leaders when faced with external attacks. But Iraqis didn’t. Millions of Iraqis rose up against Mr. Hussein following the 1991 war, and did what was then unthinkable: they called upon the foreign forces that had been bombing them to help rid them of their own dictator.
Mr. Hussein’s brutal response to the 1991 uprising killed tens of thousands of Iraqis. For the first time, the rhetoric used by Mr. Hussein’s so-called secular nationalist regime turned explicitly sectarian, a forerunner of what we see in Syria today. “No more Shias after today,” was the slogan painted on the tanks that rolled over Najaf and fired at Shiite protesters. The Western and Arab armies that had come to liberate Kuwait simply stood by and watched as Shiites and Kurds who rose up were massacred. The overthrow of Mr. Hussein was deemed to be beyond the war’s mandate.
And so ordinary Iraqis had to die in droves as the Arab state system was restored by force of Western arms. Those Iraqi deaths were a dress rehearsal for what is going on in other parts of the Middle East today.
The first gulf war achieved America’s goals, but the people of Iraq paid the price for that success. They were left with international sanctions for another 12 years under a brutal and bitter dictator itching for vengeance against those who had dared to rise up against him, including Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. By the time of the American invasion in 2003, the Iraqi middle class had been decimated, state institutions had been gutted and mistrust and hostility toward America abounded.
Both the George W. Bush administration and the Iraqi expatriate opposition to Mr. Hussein — myself included — grossly underestimated those costs in the run-up to the 2003 war. The Iraqi state, we failed to realize, had become a house of cards.
None of these errors of judgment were necessarily an argument against going to war if you believed, as I do, that overthrowing Mr. Hussein was in the best interests of the Iraqi people. The calculus looks different today if one’s starting point is American national interest. I could not in good conscience tell an American family grieving for a son killed in Iraq that the war “was worth it.”
We didn’t know then what we know today. Some, including many of my friends, warned of the dangers of American hubris. I did not heed them in 2003.
But the greater hubris is to think that what America does or doesn’t do is all that matters. The blame for the catastrophe of post-2003 Iraq must be placed on the new Iraqi political elite. The Shiite political class, put in power by the United States, preached a politics of victimhood and leveraged the state to enrich itself. These leaders falsely identified all Sunni Iraqis with Baathists, forgetting how heavily all Iraqis, including some Shiites, were implicated in the criminality of Mr. Hussein’s regime.
Although I always feared, and warned in 1993, that the emergence of sectarian strife was a risk after Mr. Hussein’s fall, my greatest misjudgment was in hoping that Iraq’s new leaders would act for the collective Iraqi good.
For all its bungling, the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq exposed a fundamental truth of modern Arab politics. Washington’s longstanding support for autocracy and dictatorship in the Middle East, a core principle of American foreign policy for decades, had helped stoke a deep-seated political malaise in the region that produced both Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. By 2003, American support for Arab autocrats was no longer politically sustainable.
The system of beliefs Mr. Hussein represented had ossified and lost the ability to inspire anyone long before 2003. And yet he was still there, in power, the great survivor of so many terrible wars and revolutions. Before the American invasion, it was impossible for Iraqis to see beyond him.
There was hardly any war to speak of in 2003. Mr. Hussein’s whole terrible edifice just came crashing down under its own weight. The army dismantled itself, before L. Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, even issued his infamous and unnecessary order to purge Baath Party members from the military.
Toppling Mr. Hussein put the system of which he was such an integral part under newfound scrutiny. If the 1991 war was about the restoration of the Arab state system, the 2003 war called into question that system’s very legitimacy. That’s why support from Arab monarchies was not forthcoming in 2003, when a new, more equitable order was on the agenda in Iraq.
After 2003, the edifice of the Arab state system began to crack elsewhere. In 2005, thousands of Lebanese marched in the streets to boot out the occupying Syrian Army; Palestinians tasted their first real elections; American officials twisted the arm of Hosni Mubarak to allow Egyptians a slightly less rigged election in 2006; and a new kind of critical writing began to spread online and in fiction.
The Arab political psyche began to change as well. The legitimating ideas of post-1967 Arab politics — pan-Arabism, armed struggle, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism — ideas that undergirded the regimes in both Iraq and Syria, were rubbing up against the realities of life under Mr. Hussein.
No Arab Spring protester, however much he or she might identify with the plight of the Palestinians or decry the cruel policies of Israeli occupation in the West Bank (as I do), would think today to attribute all the ills of Arab polities to empty abstractions like “imperialism” and “Zionism.” They understand in their bones that those phrases were tools of a language designed to prop up nasty regimes and distract people like them from the struggle for a better life.
Generations of Arabs have paid with their lives and their futures because of a set of illusions that had nothing to do with Israel; these illusions come from deep within the world that we Arabs have constructed for ourselves, a world built upon denial, bombast and imagined past glories, ideas that have since been exposed as bankrupt and dangerous to the future of the young Arab men and women who set out in 2011, against all odds, to build a new order.
In the place of these illusions, the young revolutionaries made the struggle against their own dictatorships their political priority, just as their Iraqi counterparts had done in vain 20 years earlier after the first gulf war.
Ideas are not constrained by frontiers or borders. Young people in the Arab world are not constrained by the prejudices of old men, by my generation’s acquiescence to and compromises with dictatorships. And so in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, a new movement that is still in the making has demanded a political order that derives its legitimacy from genuine citizenship.
It envisions new forms of community not based on a suffocating nationalist embrace supposedly designed to hold in check the avaricious intentions of America and Israel. All the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was asking for in December 2010 was dignity and respect. That is how the Arab Spring began, and the toppling of the first Arab dictator, Saddam Hussein, paved the way for young Arabs to imagine it.
THE Arab Spring is now turning into an Arab winter. The old rules that governed Arab politics have been turned completely upside down. Here, too, Iraq offers lessons.
Mr. Hussein used sectarianism and nationalism as tools against his internal enemies when he was weak. Today’s Iraqi Shiite parties are doing worse: they are legitimizing their rule on a sectarian basis. The idea of Iraq as a multiethnic country is being abandoned, and the same dynamic is at work in Syria.
The support that several key Arab monarchies are providing to Syrian resistance forces fighting against President Bashar al-Assad is further undermining the legitimacy of the whole Arab state system. The war will go on until Mr. Assad is gone and perhaps the state we know as Syria is, too. The only success story seems to be the Kurds — the great losers of the post-World War I order — who have built a thriving semiautonomous region in northern Iraq that might eventually require independence to sustain its success.
Our species, at least in its modern garb, needs states, even imperfect ones. States are still the cornerstones of our security as individuals, and provide at least the possibility of a civilized way of life.
Traditionally conservative Arab monarchies are now doing the unthinkable and risking total state collapse in Syria. They are opposing Mr. Assad’s Arab nationalist regime in an attempt to dictate the kind of country that will emerge from the chaos and to ensure some form of influence over the new Syria. That is the only way to salvage something of the old Arab order that they feel shifting under their feet.
And against these kinds of forces, unfortunately, the young revolutionaries of the Arab Spring are helpless.