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Iraq and the Arab Spring: a thought experiment

Very few things about the political state of Iraq can accurately be described as clear. But now that the flag has been cased and the last 4,000 US troops are on the way home, some sort of preliminary balance sheet is finally possible.

As president Obama told the troops at the military base in Fort Bragg this week, the country the US military leaves behind almost nine years after the invasion is ‘not a perfect place’. If reports of continuing sectarian violence are anything to go by, that is a considerable understatement.

Obama’s principal argument was that intervention brought about a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government elected by its people. For those who supported the war, this will be seen as its ultimate justification.

The price tag has been immense, of course. Estimates of the civilian death toll vary, but seem to start at somewhere like 100,000 and rise comfortably above ten times that horrific figure, depending on the definition of a casualty. That fact does not seem to have merited a mention in Obama’s speech.

Even those of us who opposed the conflict at the time will agree that a democratic Iraq is the best outcome among the range of possibilities on offer from where we are now. We would not have started from here, of course.

But the obvious question is just how far Obama’s ‘stabilisation thesis’ is true. The power to destroy is not the same as the power to create, and to the outside observer, Iraq still seems to be beset with centrifugal forces that leave a question mark over its sustainability. The three-way split between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds alone is enough to guarantee volatility for years to come.

It’s not that there was ever any doubt about the brutality of Saddam Hussein, and no reason to think that he would have mended his ways had he remained in office.

That is why those shaping US foreign policy under George W Bush earnestly believed that Iraqis would strew flowers in the path of Chalabi or some other Washington-endorsed ersatz de Gaulle. That did not happen.

Yet as the events of the Arab Spring have since demonstrated, the people of the Middle East are perfectly capable of taking on their own dictators, perhaps sometimes requiring external support to achieve that end.

An interesting thought experiment is to compare the recent history of Iraq with what happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and what is happening in Syria, in 2011. We have yet to see what the long term consequences of those latter revolutions will prove to be, so any judgements cannot be definitive.

But there is no reason to think that the Iraqis would have been any less reticent to settle accounts with their dictator then the people of other countries in the region. Waiting for regime change from below might have proved rather less costly then imposing regime change from above.

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