Did the invasion of Iraq lead to the Arab Spring? As a supporter of the operation to topple Saddam Hussein, I would like to think that it rippled outward to topple indirectly other noxious dictators from Gaddafi to, one hopes, Assad. But I remain unconvinced by the case made by the prominent former Iraqi dissident and author Kanan Makiya in this New York Times article.
Makiya makes many excellent and important points in the course of his analysis, but there is no direct evidence he can cite of the connection between the Arab Spring and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Indeed he has to concede: “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.”
Given the lack of statements from Arab Spring leaders crediting the U.S. invasion as their inspiration, what evidence is there of its wider impact? Makiya writes: “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 problem is that the timing does not line up. The U.S. invasion of Iraq occurred in 2003. The Arab Spring did not occur until 2011. In the meantime Iraq was devastated by deadly civil war, which was hardly an advertisement for what happens after you topple an Arab strongman. The clearest example of Iraq inspiring change elsewhere was probably in Lebanon where the short-lived Cedar Revolution took place, as Makiya notes, in 2005. But elsewhere it is hard to find much positive impact from the events in Iraq. It might have been different if the U.S. had done a better job of preparing for a post-Saddam status quo.
But while America made grievous mistakes in Iraq, the way the county has turned out is not all our fault. One of Makiya’s most powerful points is to warn against the “hubris” of thinking “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.” He is right. In fact the surge in 2007-2008 bought the Iraqi political elite another chance, but my concern is that they are now blowing this opportunity, with the country regressing into the soft authoritarianism of Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite sectarian supporters.