Ten Years After the Fall of Saddam, How Do Iraqis Look Back on the War?

A decidedly non-negative view from the Kurdish North, via Barham Salih

An Iraqi soldier stands near a billboard, depicting the fall of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, in April 2013. (Mohammed Ameen / Reuters)

It's become tough for Americans to reflect on the U.S. overthrow of Iraq's Ba'ath regime without coming back to the conclusion that the failure to build a new, democratic state in the heart of the Middle East was inevitable to the project of a U.S.-led "regime change." Some, however, even among those who've long embraced the verdict that the Iraq War was a disaster, still hesitate on the inevitability question—if only slightly: At the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday, for example, The Washington Post's David Ignatius remarked that he's haunted, when he now looks at Libya or Syria, by "the consequences of toppling an authoritarian regime without having in place the pillars that are going to support civilized life" [emphasis added].

So was the "regime-change" theory of the war wrong from the start, or is it still possible that the theory was right and the execution incompetent?

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg put the question to Barham Salih, the former prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan's regional government and a former deputy prime minister of Iraq's federal government.

"Iraq, today, 10 years on from the war, from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, is not what the Iraqi people hoped for and expected. We hoped for an inclusive democracy, an Iraq that is at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbors," Salih said. "To be blunt, we are far from that."

"But," he added, "it's important to understand where we started from. ... Literally hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were sent to mass graves. Ten years on from the demise of Saddam Hussein, we're still discovering mass graves across Iraq. And Iraqis are better off without Saddam Hussein—the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are better off without Saddam Hussein."

Salih acknowledged that the contemporary reality is grim: "This is a new experiment in the Middle East. I don't want to whitewash the many missteps and the terrible things that happened in the country to date. ... I'm not telling you that it is a utopia and all is fine and wonderful." And yet:

... for those of us who lived under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and understand what tyranny means, ... the difficulties of today, the pains of today, and the disappointments of today—and they are very profound, because Iraqis deserve better—these pale in comparison to what we had to endure. ... Then, people had the certainty of the knock on the door late at night, and could possibly end up in a mass grave. Two weeks ago, in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, a new mass grave in which there were some five-six people who were shot. Their families never heard from them since 1988. They were found and they could only be identified by the pajamas they were wearing as they were taken from home. These are the type of stories that my people, my community, had to endure.

It's important not to be cynical or dismissive when someone speaks about the impact genocide has had on his view of the world.

Still, it's important to recognize that, in this case, his answer doesn't vindicate the Iraq War in the terms in which its critics have come to impugn it—which are, really, the same terms in which the Bush Administration justified the war in the first place: It was the right course of action not just because it would succeed in removing a murderous dictator from power, or even because it would lead to circumstances that would be in some significant respects better than the status quo, but because it would clear the way for democracy, peace, and prosperity in Iraq.

You might even find the implications of Salih's thinking kind of scary—which are arguably these: If the United States chooses to destroy a political regime, the U.S. is both in the right and absolved from responsibility for what comes next—as long as it puts an end to atrocities on the scale of those Saddam perpetrated.

Salih doesn't seem to accept that logic, though. He acknowledges that the U.S. coalition made serious mistakes. But: "In my view—and I say this without equivocation; I say this in Kurdish; I say this in Arabic when I'm in Baghdad—this has been fundamentally a failure of leadership by the Iraqi elite that assumed power after the demise of Saddam Hussein."

So the Iraq war was, despite all that went wrong, a good thing; the "overwhelming majority" of Iraqis are (and presumably feel) better off because of it; and the fault for all that has gone wrong is ultimately with Iraqis themselves: It's a remarkable point of view to encounter in June 2013.

And of course, there's no shortage of strong objections you could raise to it—e.g.:

  • It might well be that the war has ultimately given Iraqis a shot at democracy. But it also eliminated the region's most important check on the Islamic Republic of Iran. As Ignatius pointed out, Iraq is now a transit point for materials and pro-Assad fighters going into Syria: "It's a perverse consequence of history that we spent a trillion dollars and countless American lives to give Iran strategic advantage in the region."
  • It might well be that the "majority" of Iraqis feel better off thanks to the war. But even if so, that majority would certainly be dominated by Kurds and Shias, and comprise very few Sunis. And one of the major ongoing challenges that post-war Iraq faces is precisely: horrible sectarian violence.
  • It might well be, too, that ultimate responsibility for the to-date acute failures in building a democratic Iraq lay with Iraq's post-war leadership. But ultimate responsibility surely still lies with the United States for, at the very least not knowing who will fail to build a successful new state after the U.S. dismantles the old one.

But Salih is inclined to take a long view of history: "On the way here," he said, "on the flight from London to Denver, I was reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, and when I was reading that, politics in the United States at that time was not so civil. Obviously it did not have car bombs, thank God ..."

"That's not a minor point," Goldberg interjected, "the lack of car bombs during the Adams administration."

"It is not a minor point," Salih said. "But I am talking about the nature of politics. [A transition to democracy] is happening. It is tough; it is messy; it is disappointing much of the time, painful. ... But this is forces of history trying to define the future in the region."

Salih's theory of how this democratic transition will overcome Iraq's violent sectarian divisions, car bombings with them, is essentially a theory of religious progress, which he offers by way of analogy with the history of Christianity. "One issue that is complicating very profoundly the transition to democracy—not just in Iraq: in Syria, in Egypt, even in Tunisia and Libya—is the role of religion in public life," he said. "Christianity has had that debate long ago, in the Reformation and so on. Islam is now going through that debate, unfortunately in a violent way, and that is really distorting the process and making it difficult."

When Goldberg changed the question and asked Salih whether he thinks that democracy can be taught in a way that would allow countries that have no experience with it to adopt its forms, Salih answered emphatically that, no, it cannot: "Democracy is a set of institutions, a set of processes; and it's also about economic infrastructure, developing a middle class. ... Democracy is a process; it's going to take time." Neither, he emphasized, does democracy simply mean elections: "Without civil society, without a free press, without strong institutions, ... democracy is unrealized."

Iraq can't be taught democracy, Salih believes, but it can learn, ultimately just like the West did, by realizing its inherent potential for democratic progress through trial and error—and with the United States embracing the necessary complexity of the result:

Arab societies, Kurdish societies, Middle Eastern societies, can they be democratic? Absolutely, yes. Do they have to be ruled by tyranny in order to be neat dictatorships that would lend themselves to easy decision making by policy makers at the State Department? Absolutely not. Middle Easterners, like the rest of the world, want to live in peace, and have a decent quality of life, and also to express their opinions. But that makes for a messy politics, a difficult politics. This is what we're going through.

So should the U.S. have any role in Iraq's future at all? Golberg asked Salih: "You watched up-close America operate in Iraq. You saw some good things, you saw many, many incompetent things. Do you think that America can be part of the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, or did we kind of blow that one, and we had our chance, and that was it?"

"America is an indispensable nation to the world," Salih answered, stressing that disengagement from Iraq is "not an option" for a major power like the United States, particularly given how deeply implicated it is in what Iraq has become today. "To think that America can impose [democracy]? Absolutely not. This is a lesson from Iraq. ... It needs guidance, assistance, nurturing, because at the end of the day, we live in this interconnected world, and we need each other."

It was a very fine note to land on, and, appropriately, the room received it warmly—however uncertain its policy implications. But an observation Salih made earlier in passing may have been just as much to the point: Remember what happened in Afghanistan. You did a lot to enable the Mujahideen. But then, when you turned away? "You created a monster."