Ten years ago, on April 9, Baghdad fell to a coalition of Western armies.
There is a close connection between the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the toppling of a succession of other Arab dictators during 2011. This link has been overlooked, in part due to the understandable hostility that the 2003 Iraq war engendered in Western and Arab—especially non-Iraqi—eyes, a hostility that was for the most part absent at the time of the military action in 2003.
A consequence of this hostility is the fact that none of the young activists on the ground during the Arab Spring—in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria—see a connection, or have been willing to even admit the possibility that one may exist. Wael Ghonim, for instance, emphatically denied any connection between what he did and events in Iraq. Arab activists like him vigorously deny that their own demands for reform or revolution, which are organic and homegrown, had anything to do with an international war they saw as illegitimate, or even imperialistic, in nature. As the Arab Spring progressed, such denials became less vociferous, and even disappeared among Libyans and Syrians calling for the very intervention they had so fiercely opposed back in 1991 and 2003.
To see a connection between the overthrow of Saddam and the overthrow of Mubarak one must look backwards, to the fact that the 2003 war has a history that begins on August 2, 1990, the day that the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad marched into Kuwait.
What was this first Gulf war against Iraq in 1991 about? Remarkably, given where we are today, it was about a restoration of the Arab state system—a system we all know was created for the most part by the Western powers after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This system had been grossly violated from within for the first time in 80 years by Saddam Hussein, when he invaded, occupied, annexed and systematically raped the state of Kuwait for nine months, starting on August 2, 1990. Nothing like this had ever happened in Arab politics before. To be sure, Egypt had intervened in Yemen in the 1960s, and Hafez Al-Assad had constantly manipulated events and conducted assassinations and forays into Lebanon during its civil war (as had Israel), but nothing remotely like the total erasure from the map and brutal sacking of a fellow member of the Arab League had happened before.
The 1990–1991 Gulf war enjoyed the support of the Arab regimes in whose name it was waged, but not of its peoples. (Palestinians and the PLO were in fact jubilant at Saddam’s takeover of Kuwait, a sign of Arab strength as they saw it—Israel was next, they thought—a position that cost Palestinians in Kuwait dearly, and took years and the Oslo process to rectify.) Even Hafez Al-Assad’s Syria joined in the effort to oust its fellow Ba’athists from Kuwait.
Iraqis, and Kuwaitis under Iraqi occupation, were the exceptions back in 1990, but exceptions that became the Arab norm with the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. Millions of Iraqis south and north of the country rose up against their regime following the Iraq war of 1991, and did the unthinkable: they called upon the very states that had been bombing them for weeks to help rid them of their own dictator. However tyrannical a regime may be, people will tend to rally around its leadership at times of external attack (the Soviet Union under attack by Hitler is a case in point).
The people of Iraq broke that rule. They put the issue of their own dictatorship front and center of their actions. The 1991 uprising, or “intifada,” as Iraqis like to call it, cost around 200,000 lives by the end of 1991. The dead were overwhelmingly Shi’ites from the south of the country, who, unlike the Kurds to the north, were trapped by geography and the hostility of the region and cut to pieces.
For the first time, the rhetoric used by the ‘secular nationalist’ regime of Saddam Hussein to crush the rebellion turned explicitly sectarian, another forerunner to what we are looking at in Syria today. “No more Shi’ites after today,” went the slogan painted on the tanks that rolled over Najaf and fired into protestors in cities all across the south.
The numbers of Iraqi dead in 1991 are worth keeping in mind in light of the Syrian experience. (Syrian dead are thus far in the 70–90,000 range, according to UN estimates, and are expected to rise to Iraqi levels by the fall of this year.) In 1991, Western and Arab armies that had come to liberate Kuwait stood by and watched, even negotiating the use of helicopters with Saddam’s generals as the insurgents pleaded for weapons and support, as they were cut down in their tens of thousands. The overthrow of Saddam, one expert after another opined in the media, was simply not part of the UN mandate for the war. And so ordinary Iraqis died in droves as the Arab state system, led by its formidable array of dictators, was restored to its previous inglorious status by the force of Western arms. In retrospect, we can say those Iraqi deaths were a dress rehearsal for what is going on in other parts of the Middle East today.
The Gulf war in the early 1990s succeeded in its stated goals and, with the exception of the Kurdish safe-haven, did not exceed them. The people of Iraq paid the price for that success. Worse still, they were left under sanctions for another 13 years, with a vengeful and bitter dictator itching to wreak his vengeance on those who had dared to rise up against him. A sectarian counterattack to crush a rebellion became official Iraqi state policy, as it is in Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria today. By the time 2003 came rolling along, the final cost was the decimation of the Iraqi middle class, the gutting of state institutions that had worked efficiently for the most part all through the 1970s and 1980s when Iraq still was a “Republic of Fear,” and the inculcation by 2003 of a mood of deep mistrust and hostility in Iraqis towards the US, which had so let them down in 1991.
Both the Bush administration and the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein that was based outside of Iraq grossly underestimated those costs in the run-up to the 2003 war. The Iraqi state, we did not realize, had metamorphosed into a house of cards. I wrote of a “criminal state” replacing a totalitarian state in the revised edition of Republic of Fear that appeared in 1996. But I had no idea that the state had been, for all practical purposes, gutted from within.
There was no war to speak of in 2003; the word is a misnomer. After some skirmishes with Saddam’s Fedayeen and a battle or two, the whole terrible edifice came crashing down under its own weight. The army dismantled itself before Paul Bremer issued his infamous and unnecessary order. Ironically, the US could have engineered regime change in Iraq in 2003 simply by paying Iraqi soldiers their salaries in dollars from the north, instead of allowing them to collect their few measly dinars from Baghdad—dinars that had so devalued they did not suffice to pay for a bus ride home. It is worth recalling that the principal US objection to that idea, floated by the Iraqi opposition in the late 1990s, is that it would call into question the sovereignty and integrity of the Iraqi state and the UN would never approve. None of these underestimations and errors of judgment by Bush administration officials was an argument against going to war in 2003—not, at least, if your point of departure was concern for what was in the best interests of the Iraqi people.
We did not know in 2002 and 2003 what we now know today. I am not referring here to American hubris and ignorance of the Middle East. Some did warn of that. However, politics in the Middle East, and certainly democratic or liberal politics, is about the triumph of hope against experience; it is not a calculation. American mistakes in Iraq could, at least in part, have been rectified.
In any case, by the summer of 2004, American influence on the development of Iraqi politics declined significantly with the transfer of power to the Allawi government. The ignominious US rush to depart Iraq in 2010 has rendered American desires moot, of historical interest at best. The greater hubris is to think that what the US does or does not do is all that matters.
By far, the greater blame for the catastrophe that post-2003 Iraq has become has to be placed on the shoulders of the new Iraqi political elite, and principally the leaders of the various Shi’ite parties who dominate the political system in Iraq outside Kurdistan today.
I warned of this in my book Cruelty and Silence in 1993: “Only the Shi’a of Iraq are in a position to stop Saddam from snatching victory out of the jaws of his own death in the shape of escalating confessional and ethnic violence in the years to come. By virtue of their numbers, they carry a historic responsibility for that future, greater than that of any other ethnic or sectarian group in Iraq . . . The more Iraq’s Shi’a assert themselves as Shi’a, the greater will be the tendency of Iraq’s Sunni minority to fight to the bitter end . . . Competition over victimhood is a road that can only lead to disaster. Given that the nature of the regime in Baghdad was such as to leave everyone with accounts to be settled, maybe it is better to settle as few of them as human nature, and wise politicians, will permit.”
The Shi’ite political class, put in power by American force of arms in 2003, has failed to display political wisdom in any way, shape or form; it has preached a politics of victimhood, of competition among victims as to who has suffered the most and who can leverage the state to steal the most. They falsely identified Sunni Iraqis with Ba’athists, forgetting how heavily they themselves were implicated in the criminality of the regime. My failure was not to heed my own 1993 warnings, to push them aside in the hope that Shi’ite leaders would behave differently.
More importantly, the same failure is about to repeat itself in Syria—only this time it looks as if the Sunni Islamist leadership is about to inflict on the people of Syria the same pain the Iraqi Shi’ite leadership has already inflicted upon Iraq.
You can read the second part of this article here.