Did the Iraq War Bring the Arab Spring?

The New Yorker Online
April 9, 2013
Guess what? The war in Iraq had a bright side. It created the Arab Spring.

That is the theory that proponents of the invasion are peddling on the tenth anniversary of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, on April 9, 2003. They are trying to persuade whoever will listen that the war was not such a bad idea after all, despite the bloodletting and wreckage. The latest push comes from Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis University professor who was one of the most prominent intellectuals behind the invasion. In an anniversary piece in the Times, “The Arab Spring Started in Iraq,” Makiya wrote that “the removal of Saddam Hussein and the toppling of a whole succession of other Arab dictators in 2011 were closely connected.” The invasion, he added, “paved the way for young Arabs to imagine” the removal of dictators elsewhere in the region.

While events in one country can impact other countries, this is a wish-based myth. It demonstrates a sad consequence of the Iraq war: its discredited backers are committing the same error they did in 2003, making dubious assertions without solid evidence. Back then, the myth was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Today, it is a link between the American-led invasion of Iraq and popular uprisings in other countries. Makiya joins former Vice-President Cheney, who said, while promoting his memoir, “I think that what happened in Iraq, the fact that we brought democracy, if you will, and freedom to Iraq, has had a ripple effect on some of those other countries.” Condoleezza Rice, who was President Bush’s National Security Advisor, offered a similar idea while promoting her memoir: “The change in the conversation about the Middle East, where people now routinely talk about democratization, is something that I’m very grateful for and I think we had a role in that.”

Where’s the proof? The best Makiya can do is note that a number of years after the invasion, uprisings occurred elsewhere. The logical imperfection is audacious. He does not quote any leader of those uprisings as making a connection with Iraq—perhaps because they don’t. Wael Ghonim, one of the online leaders of the Egyptian uprising, has noted, “The war in Iraq killed so many innocent people, and it’s not something that any civilized nation should be proud of.” Makiya cannot drum up support from even Fouad Ajami, another backer of the invasion. “Having supported the Iraq war, I would love to make this connection,” he wrote last year. “But Iraq, contrary to the hopes and assertions of conservative proponents of the war, is not relevant to the Arab Spring.”

Iraq is a poster child for how you don’t want change to come to your homeland. Saddam was removed from power, but by a foreign army, not Iraqis. The country was consumed by an insurgency and civil war that continues to this day, though at lower levels of violence than in the worst years. The country’s leader, Nouri al-Maliki, is authoritarian, and presides over a nation divided along sectarian lines between the now dominant Shia and the no longer dominant Sunni. As Paul Pillar, a former C.I.A. officer and a Middle East expert has observed, “Rather than being inspired by what happened in Iraq after the invasion, Middle Easterners were repelled by it. If the violence, disorder, and breakdown of public services in Iraq were the birth pangs of a new Middle Eastern order, most people in the region wanted nothing of it.” If Iraq offered an example, in other words, it was as a model you don’t want to emulate.

The key problem in 2013, as in 2003, is not so much outright lying as the replacement of reality with fantasy. Makiya shifts the entire blame for Iraq’s descent into chaos onto the shoulders of the country’s post-invasion leaders. “There was hardly any war to speak of in 2003,” he writes in the Times. “Mr. Hussein’s whole terrible edifice just came crashing down under its own weight.” I was surprised to read this; I followed a Marine battalion to Baghdad in 2003 and found myself surrounded by violence and death—of Americans as well as Iraqis. The edifice didn’t collapse on its own accord; it was crushed by sixty-eight-ton Abrams tanks. While there was greater bloodshed during the occupation and civil war, the notion that “there was no war to speak of” in 2003 suggests a mind purged of memory or honesty.

It is the right of Cheney, Rice, Makiya, Dan Senor, Fred Kagan, Joe Lieberman, and other backers of the war to argue as they wish and make whatever connections they wish, no matter how preposterous. But the rest of us are not obliged to keep a straight face; a skewering by Jon Stewart would be a better response than a respectful interview by, say, Wolf Blitzer. On the tenth anniversary of a war that killed more than a hundred thousand Iraqis and Americans, the authors of the catastrophe should do us the small favor of offering their chastened silence rather than their half-baked theories.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.