What is most fascinating is the narrative of shifting alliances, duplicity, and complicity. That relationship picked up after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Qaddafi came clean to the West about his own covert program to acquire W.M.D.s—which he then abandoned. It then appears to have evolved into a pattern of closely coordinated operations against suspected terrorists, some of them targets of the CIA’s controversial “rendition” program. One C.I.A. document offered the Libyan authorities a list questions to pose a rendered Libyan suspect it had turned over to Libyans for questioning.
It’s always dangerous to ask this question when it comes to history (especially recent history) but it’s one worth asking when it comes to the revolution in the Middle East.
What if the US had never invaded Iraq? Would Iraq be going through its own revolution right now and would that revolution have taken down Saddam Hussein without a single American boot setting foot in Iraq?
It’s not a crazy hypothetical. Although the usual talking heads were initially skeptical of a fruit seller’s self-immolation catalyzing a real movement, the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year old regime in Egypt, a country that was the standard of culture and stability in the Middle East, proved that no dictator, no matter how entrenched, was safe. Now, with Moammar Gadhafi (another dictator celebrating a stint in power spanning decades) resorting to gunships to quell protests in Libya along with major protests in Yemen, the relatively weaker dominos in the region are starting to tumble as well.
To keep with the hackneyed metaphor, Saddam actually would have been more likely to be the second dictatorial domino to topple after Tunisia than either Mubarak or Gadhafi. He was a long sitting ruler (would be over 21 years in power were it not for the invasion), ruled a country plagued by strong unemployment (somewhere in the astronomically high 50% range before the war), suffered from a weak economy and terrorized a society with a highly repressed majority. To put it in perspective, Mubarak’s regime still managed to fall apart despite having an unemployment rate of only 9.7% in 2010 and benefitting from a culture that provides a strong degree of societal cohesion across ethnic and religious divides. On top of all this, Saddam’s primary tool of deterrence, the military, would only have inflamed protests were it deployed as evidenced by events in Libya. In all likelihood Saddam would have been a victim of the Jasmine Revolution.
But beyond asking whether Saddam could have been overthrown by his own people instead of through American intervention, you also have to ask whether a revolution would have left Iraq better off than it is today. It is certainly fair to say that a grassroots movement which removed Saddam would have left behind, inadvertently, the same damaging power vacuum created by the United States’ dismantling of the Iraqi army and political class. Yes, there would have been sectarian strife and looting and likely widespread chaos, but one has to wonder if a bottom up revolution might have been the crucible such a divided society needed to see each other not as Sunnis or Shias or Kurds, but as Iraqis.
Of course, we can only ever guess at what might have happened had things gone differently. Nevertheless, from an American perspective, I can give you 4,408 reasons why a revolution in Iraq is one “what if” I wish was reality.
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