The Iraqi Revolution We’ll Never Know

The Iraqi Revolution We’ll Never Know

In a tumultuous year that witnessed the fall of Arab tyrants and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, proponents of the 2003 invasion, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative academic Fouad Ajami, have sought to portray the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime as the hidden driver of the Arab Spring. But rather than revisit history, why not — on this one-year anniversary of Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s downfall — try our hand at alternate history: If the United States had never invaded Iraq, would Saddam’s Baathist regime still be standing in today’s Middle East?

This question, of course, is a bedeviling one. It is difficult to imagine the region absent U.S. military intervention in Iraq. The war itself fueled regional dysfunction — particularly in reaffirming and expanding pernicious notions of sectarian identity. Clearly, the specter of enhanced Iranian influence and the spillover effects of Iraq’s brutal 2006-2007 sectarian civil war loom large over the region, most obviously with respect to Syria and Bahrain.

Still, the admittedly speculative answers to this hypothetical exercise expose the many ways the Middle East has evolved since the days when Saddam brutally crushed the Shiite and Kurdish uprising of 1991 — with the Arab world looking on in silence. At the same time, Iraq’s strategic position and sectarian makeup highlight the geopolitical realities that continue to limit the trajectory of regional transformation.

Absent U.S. intervention, it is almost certain that Saddam would have maintained his repressive grip on the country. While his regional ambitions and threatening posture had been contained by devastating sanctions, the opposition to Saddam’s rule remained fragmented and ineffective until the U.S.-led intervention. The ambitious efforts to foment internal unrest by the Iraqi National Congress, a purported umbrella organization for the Iraqi opposition in exile, had been an unmitigated disaster. And the internal opposition had not been able to seriously threaten the regime. When Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a venerated and politicized Shiite cleric, was murdered by the regime in February 1999, the short-lived riots that ensued were subdued quickly. The aftermath also exposed long-standing divisions between the external and internal Shiite opposition that would stand in the way of any effort to overthrow the regime.

That doesn’t mean it never would have happened. With festering grievances, a repressed populace, and growing destitution, it is highly likely that Iraq would have been part of this past year’s regional wave of uprisings. The wave of revolt has illuminated the manner in which transnational solidarity, buoyed by a shared media space and political links, still plays an important role in the collective imagination of Arabs — even though the grandiose promises of pan-Arab nationalism have long ago been discredited. This phenomenon would not have bypassed Iraq. Furthermore, while the pre-invasion efforts of both the external and internal Iraqi opposition ultimately failed, they did represent genuine opposition politics. And the existence of a Kurdish safe haven would have provided physical space to plan and coordinate anti-government activities. Much more so than even in Tunisia, the building blocks for an uprising would have been in place in Iraq.

Had such an uprising broken out, the surest path for Iraqi regime change would have been a U.S.-led military action in support of local actors. Without the bruising legacy of the Iraq debacle, outside intervention, even absent legal authorization, would have been, for better or worse, a serious option for the United States and its allies. As with Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, the United States and its partners would have seen an opportunity to remove a longtime nemesis.

The propitious circumstances that created the moral and legal basis for the NATO-led intervention in Libya, however, would probably not have materialized in Iraq. Russia and China would have expressed serious reservations about meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs and would likely have blocked legal sanction for any military action against the regime. Russian and Chinese aversion to more aggressive multilateral steps against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, after all, is not simply a fit of pique regarding the expansive nature of the Libya campaign but rather part of a long-standing assertion of strategic priorities and state sovereignty.

Regional intervention in Iraq would have been even less likely. While the Iraq war inflamed popular notions of sectarian identity, regional politics had long been shaped by sectarianism and regional rivalry. Saudi Arabia, for example, backed Saddam in his war with Iran in the 1980s because it deemed a revolutionary Iran seeking to export Shiite theocracy as more of a threat than an Iraq bent on regional hegemony. Such balance-of-power considerations would undoubtedly have counseled caution among America’s Gulf allies in the face of a Shiite- and Kurdish-led uprising against Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime. The mere prospect of Iran expanding its influence after Saddam’s downfall would have foreclosed the possibility of regional consensus on the side of an Iraqi protest movement. Similarly, fears of an independent Kurdistan and the potential revitalization of Kurdish nationalist aspirations within Turkey would certainly have pushed Turkish leaders to oppose foreign intervention.

To be sure, the Arab world is now witnessing the first stirrings of an effort to establish regional norms for combating dictatorial repression and violence. On a popular level, strident stances against Israel and the United States are no longer sufficient cover for the slaughter of one’s people, as is clear from regional reaction to Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters. But, in the event of an uprising in Iraq, such considerations would have lost out to strategic concerns.

Even in Syria, where the Arab League has unexpectedly sought to intercede by suspending Damascus and sending an observer mission to the country, caution has prevailed despite the benefits that the country’s Sunni majority would reap from regime change. Similarly, Iraq, Syria’s long-standing nemesis, has suddenly mended previously damaged relations with its neighbor and opposed more coercive regional efforts in Syria due to the Shiite-led government’s concerns about Sunni Islamist rule on its border. 

The current struggle between Bahrain’s beleaguered Shiite majority and the Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy is a further case in point. Sectarianism has undercut popular notions of solidarity, and many who are otherwise proponents of regional transformation have deemed Bahrain separate and apart from the other Arab uprisings. The prominent Sunni scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, has expressed support for attempts to overthrow dictators throughout the region but balked at the prospect of a predominantly Shiite-led movement in Bahrain, claiming that "there is no people’s revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one." Sectarian animus would have similarly undercut sympathy and support for an Iraqi uprising that would have empowered the country’s Shiite majority.

Barring a foreign military intervention, the question of regime change would have been settled by Iraq’s internal balance of power and the ability of rebels to topple the government. As is clear from the case of the uprising against Assad’s regime, a positive outcome in such circumstances would have been far from assured absent high-level defections. While silent defections aided the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, a popular revolt in 2011 would have likely resulted in greater regime consolidation. What is certainly clear is that the regime would have used overwhelming and disproportionate force to quell any signs of broad-based dissent. In the face of such indiscriminate violence, Iraq’s rebels would have likely failed.

In the final analysis, absent the bruising legacy of the Iraq war and the dubious grounds upon which it was launched, the United States and its allies would have most likely taken military action to assist the rebels and topple Saddam Hussein, with or without explicit U.N. sanction. It is, of course, the ultimate irony that the proponents of unchecked American unilateralism and militarism, through their profligacy and poor decisions, have themselves created conditions that now bind and limit the exercise of U.S. power.

While the Middle East has begun to change in fundamental ways, it has done so despite the geopolitical constraints and sectarian biases that still guide decision-making in the region. For all the transformation that the Arab Spring has wrought, sadly, an Iraqi uprising in 2011, absent outside intervention, might not have played out much differently than the one that Saddam snuffed out in 1991.