Opposition groups are poised to take power amidst the ongoing tumult in the greater Middle East. Yet the United States has embracing these revolutionaries tepidly, inspired by the possibility of change while haunted by the legacy of revolution in the region. Saddam’s Iraq, Khomeini’s Iran, and Assad’s Syria, after all, were born in opposition to the repressive regimes of their day.
So Hamid al-Bayati’s From Dictatorship to Democracy is timely. For the history of Saddam’s regime, the mobilization of an opposition to his rule, and American diplomacy through it all captures the nuances of the region and the paucity of tidy options for the United States.
Bayati is well-positioned to tell the story. An intellectual who spent his formative years at a private Christian school in southern Iraq, Bayati settled in London after Saddam’s regime tortured and then banished him for his political activities. Much of the book is a first-person account of Bayati’s time as the Western spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI) – a predominantly Shiite opposition party – and as a senior official in the Iraqi National Congress – the umbrella organization of the Iraqi opposition. Bayati draws extensively from his personal archives — notes, minutes, correspondence, and recollections of meetings — that he collected in these capacities. For someone who lived in close proximity to the saga, Bayati writes with admirable detachment.
The book chronicles the experience of the Iraqi opposition as it coalesced into a serious force and sought support from the United States. The first strains of the Iraqi opposition emerged soon after Saddam took power in 1979. But for the United States, Iraq was a secular Sunni bulwark against the Shiite Islamist regime in Iran. The fledgling Iraqi opposition became a victim of American realpolitik.
The Gulf War opened an opportunity for the Iraqi opposition. As American officials began to look for alternatives to Saddam, they noticed the Iraqi opposition – exiles of various ethnic, sectarian, and political backgrounds uniting behind a message of democracy and human rights.
The seeming confluence of interest between the United States and the Iraqi opposition however was not enough to spur a close alliance between the two sides. As Bayati shows, the Iraqi opposition and the American government were on different wavelengths.
The Iraqi opposition wanted Saddam’s immediate ouster. Its leaders advocated that the United States shake the foundations of Saddam’s regime through: the creation of a safe-haven in southern Iraq; more arms and funding for the Iraqi opposition; the prosecution of Saddam and his henchmen in an international tribunal; and a more robust effort to promote human rights and democracy in Iraq.
The United States by contrast was focused on the more modest goal of containing Saddam’s regime. Though American officials tried to orchestrate coups against Saddam, the United States mostly sought to check Iraq through sanctions, weapons inspections, periodic air strikes, and UN Security Council resolutions. The Iraqi opposition was an important factor in the US Congress’s decision to pass the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, making regime change official American policy. Yet Bayati demonstrates convincingly that neither the Clinton Administration nor the Bush Administration in its early months worked seriously with the Iraqi opposition to topple Saddam.
What would have been the consequence of greater American support for the Iraqi opposition? Bayati is convinced that the “Iraqi opposition’s plans to liberate the country from the dictatorship and oppression of Saddam Hussein before the U.S.-led invasion of 2003…could have removed Saddam’s regime decades earlier…”
After 9/11, the Bush Administration cooperated with the Iraqi opposition as part of its postwar planning efforts. Bayati and other exiles worked with the United States to unite the Iraqi opposition and coordinate plans for the country’s post-Saddam future. Yet the United States decided against empowering Iraqi opposition leaders after Saddam’s overthrow. Bayati saves his strongest criticism for the American refusal to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people right away. The occupation government headed by American diplomat Paul Bremer, he claims, was the “gravest mistake committed after the war of 2003,” and the principle cause of the violence, instability, and insurgency that followed.
Bayati’s assessment is convincing in the sense that key assumptions behind the decision to occupy Iraq proved mistaken. Officials at the State Department and CIA long argued that Iraqi exiles were out of touch with realities within Iraq, and accordingly, were ill-equipped to govern the country. Bayati’s firsthand account of how the Iraqi people celebrated the return of opposition figures offers evidence to the contrary. Almost a decade after the start of the Iraq War, Iraqis continue to elect erstwhile opposition leaders to senior positions in their democratic government.
Yet From Dictatorship to Democracy is disappointing in that it does not grapple sufficiently with the shortcomings of the Iraqi opposition and its leaders. Notwithstanding American blunders, the reality is that Iraqi opposition figures secured top positions in the post-Saddam government. Bayati for one is now the Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations. To what extent do Iraqi opposition leaders share the blame for all that went wrong? Bayati skirts the question. He is quick to celebrate the Iraqi opposition’s commitment to democratic values and nationalist ideals. Bayati characterizes his own SCIRI party as “a moderate Islamic organization that believes in the unity of Iraq as a land and as a people; in the unity of the Iraqi opposition; and in a constitutional democratic, pluralistic future for Iraq.” He is less candid about the deep ties between SCIRI and the Iranian regime, nor does he address the unsavory relationships between the Iraqi opposition and patrons in Damascus. Bayati largely glosses over the sectarian agendas of the Iraqi opposition that continue to bedevil the country.
Read in the context of the current Middle East shake-up, From Dictatorship to Democracy provides mixed lessons. On the one hand, the book suggests that the United States could benefit from linking up with opposition groups across the region. At critical points, the Iraqi opposition grasped the pernicious nature of Saddam’s regime, brought urgency and commitment in seeking its ouster, and ultimately lead Iraq in a democratic direction. It is true that the case for overthrowing the current illiberal regimes in the region is not as clear-cut as it was with Saddam. And the prospect of regime change in many of these countries could bode even worse for the interests of the US and its allies. But as Bayati shows, breaking events and domestic political realities can lead to dramatic changes in US policy. If Bayati is correct, earlier and more sustained support for the opposition may have precluded the American invasion and occupation that followed. The policy would have produced a more palatable situation in Iraq without a destabilizing war.
Yet even Bayati’s moving accounts of Saddam’s tyranny and the courage of the resisters to his regime cannot change a basic reality of the Iraq experience. American support for the opposition had bloody consequences of its own. Hopes for a swift military mission were dashed as erstwhile opposition leaders failed to solve many problems of their own creation. Shortcomings of the Iraqi opposition ultimately necessitated a sustained American presence in Iraq.
Pratik Chougule served at the State Department in the George W. Bush Administration.