Specifically, asks Robert Kaplan, would he have been blamed if the Arab Spring had erupted on schedule and a nervous Saddam (or the even nuttier Uday Hussein) brought down the hammer on Iraq’s Shiites? I asked a variation of that question myself recently.
The proper response, I guess, is “Blamed by whom?”
The Arab Spring was, as its name suggests, an exclusively Sunni Arab affair, whatever its pretensions to universalism. But Sunni or not, it spread its magic by way not only of social media and electronic communications, but by way of the Arabic language. For example, demonstrators in Yemen were inspired by demonstrators in Tunisia. And because Iraq’s Shiites are also Arabic speaking, it is likely that they, too, would have been inspired to revolt against a totalitarian and Sunni system that Bush, in this scenario, would have left in place.
A Shiite revolt against Saddam would have had one of two results: either Saddam would have crushed it with his trademark level of brutality that would have left tens of thousands dead; or, the revolt would have succeeded, with a sectarian war and the break-up of Iraq as a consequence. That, too, would have led to a scale of bloodshed comparable with the Syrian conflict. The idea that a soft landing was possible in Iraq following Saddam is probably naive. Fiercely secularizing Baathist regimes that use utter brutality to contain explosive ethnic and sectarian rivalries do not result in a soft landing.
Here is a paradox to consider: if George W. Bush had not invaded Iraq and the country violently blew apart in the course of the Arab Spring, Bush would have been blamed for not ridding Iraq of Saddam when he had had the chance. As someone who supported the Iraq War, this is a convenient paradox for me to entertain, even if I have to live with the facts as they exist, which declare the Iraq War a mistake.
Question one: Would the Arab Spring have happened at all if Saddam’s regime had been left intact? Hard to say, of course; who knows what sort of history-diverting regional shifts he might have caused between 2003 and 2010? Maybe he would have ended up brawling with Iran again, which would have drawn Iraqi Shiites back into Baghdad’s fold and maybe even drawn Syria in on Iran’s side. But yeah, quite possibly popular uprisings would have happened at some point. Political repression and economic stagnation have been constants for ages there, and when the pot did finally boil over, it happened in Tunisia and then Egypt, two African countries further removed from Saddam’s influence than his immediate neighbors. It’s possible that the Arab Spring would have developed without the war — which, ironically, a lot of Iraq war critics were quick to argue after the first dictator, Ben Ali, fell in Tunisia three years ago. “You can’t credit Bush for that!” they insisted. Fine by me. Let’s take the Arab Spring as a historical given, then.
Which brings us to question two: If Bush had left Baghdad alone, Ben Ali fell, and then Iraq exploded when the Shiites caught democracy fever, would Bush have been blamed for not having overthrown Saddam circa 2003? Principled hawks would have blamed him for sure. Principled doves and isolationists wouldn’t have. But what about the huge swath of middle-grounders, the partisans who may lean toward or against interventionism but not so far that they won’t instantly reverse positions to criticize a president from the other party? Specifically, what would the 2016 Democratic nominee-in-waiting — who does lean hawkish and who voted for invading Iraq when public support stood at over 60 percent — be saying these days about Bush’s culpability in not acting? Her own husband, as president, sure did seem to think Saddam was a threat. If Hussein had ended up killing thousands of restive Shiites and Kurds (which he’d done before, of course) in the name of suppressing an uprising, Hillary, Kerry, and the rest of the fickle Iraq hawks would have hammered him for shirking the world’s “responsibility to protect” and for dooming the region to a sectarian apocalypse. “Of course they would,” you might say. “That’s just politics.” But that’s my point. For many of Bush’s big-name critics, this is just politics.
In fact, even if Iraq had managed to avoid the maelstrom, with terrified Shiites too frightened to challenge Saddam despite being quietly egged on by Iran, Bush would have been blamed for that too. Look at the beating Obama took from hawks for not being bolder in supporting Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009. If Dubya had stood pat while Tunisia and then Egypt caught fire while Iraq’s Shiites wavered on whether to make a move on Saddam, he would have been pounded for not seizing a golden opportunity to aid domestic opponents in ridding the world of the Hussein boys once and for all. This is what baffles me about the people trying to blame the U.S. invasion for Iraq’s current clusterfark, which now involves the Shiite government rooting out Sunni “sleeper cells” inside Baghdad itself: Of all the arguments against the Iraq war that are available, the idea that it’s somehow irretrievably responsible for bringing thousand-year-old sectarian tensions to a head is one of the toughest. If you want to dump on Bush, stick with your best argument, that whatever might or mightn’t have happened to Iraqis over the past 10 years if we had stayed out, at least this counterfactual begins with 40,000 American soldiers spared from certain wounds or death.
Exit question: I asked this the last time I wrote about Saddam amid the Arab Spring but let me ask it again. How would he have reacted to Iran getting into the uranium-enrichment business? Even if he had refused to counter (or couldn’t counter because of effective sanctions and inspections), how would Iran’s nuclear edge on its archenemy in Baghdad have affected the odds of a Shiite uprising in Iraq? If the Shiites had squared off with Saddam and Saddam had gone into massacre mode, would Iran’s nuclear program still be, ahem, “peaceful” and “energy-related” or would it have already taken a military turn? One bomb would have meant a lot to the balance of Sunni and Shiite power next door.