The United States under President George W. Bush drew on a deep well of nonsense, lies and fantasy when it entered Iraq in 2003. President Barack Obama continued this bipartisan American tradition when he said Monday that the departure of American forces from Iraq left behind a country that can be a model for other aspiring democracies. On the other side of the Arab world on the same day, the Tunisian people elected a new president, providing a more credible example of how Arabs can aspire to become democratic without foreign armies destroying their national fabric.
Rarely have we had such a sharp contrast between the destructive legacy of militarized American foreign policy in the Arab world and the more constructive behavior of ordinary Arab citizens who are reshaping their own societies in a more legitimate manner. After human rights activist and former opposition leader Moncef Marzouki became Tunisia’s first elected president since the January revolution, he noted simply, “I have the great honor of becoming the first president of the first free republic of the Arab world.”
The operative words in that statement are the “first free republic” of the Arab world, in contrast with the situation in Iraq where that country is deeply divided and polarized internally, dependent on continued American military support, and deeply influenced by various Arab, Iranian and Turkish regional players.
Iraq since 2003 represents everything that we want to avoid in the Arab world – foreign invasions, simplistic American political engineering, sharp internal polarization, ethnic cleansing and warfare, a new arena for Al-Qaeda-like terrorists, millions of internally displaced Iraqis and refugees who fled the country, massive gaps in basic services like electricity, hundreds of thousands of injured and traumatized people, and trillions of dollars that should have been spent on serious development rather than the destruction and continuing tensions that persist.
Throughout the Arab world, for the past nine years a very common sentiment has guarded against repeating the America-in-Iraq experience, which is widely seen mainly as a model of destruction, waste and criminality. So Obama’s suggestion that Iraq can be a model for other aspiring Arab democrats is impossible to take seriously. It probably is explained by the irrational forces that kick in when otherwise mature men and women compete for the office of the American presidency, where self-congratulatory illusion and jingoism tend to dominate foreign policy discussions.
The contrast of Iraq with the Tunisian revolution that overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali provides a better model – and in fact the Tunisian revolution was quickly emulated around the region. The Tunisian way represents a more legitimate, effective and enduring way to move from authoritarianism to democracy in the Arab world, because it is based on indigenous popular sentiments, actors and political change. Millions of Arab men and women who were inspired by Tunisians rose up peacefully against their oppressive rulers. All across the Middle East and North Africa Arabs aspiring to freedom and democracy called for and achieved, or are achieving, the removal of old dictators and the reconfiguration of their domestic governance systems – a process that will take years to stabilize and mature. Nobody in the Arab world – nobody – asked the American and British armies to come in again and repeat the Iraqi experience.
Somebody who has Obama’s ear should take him aside one day soon and let him know that in the Arab world, Iraq since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion has never been a model for anything other than perpetual chaos, fear, death and destruction. It is everything we want to avoid, and nothing we seek to emulate. Most Arabs – if not most human beings around the world – see the last nine years in Iraq as the epitome of neo-colonial Western invasions that deal with Arab societies as if they were modeling clay to be molded into images that are pleasing to simpletons and predators in London and Washington. Iraq is not a democratic model, it is a nightmare.
The Iraqi people will overcome their ordeals in due course, if they are left alone to sort out their domestic issues without excessive foreign interference. This may be asking for too much, as foreign meddling in Iraq is one of the lasting negative consequences of the Anglo-American invasion. In the years ahead when we assess indigenous democratic transitions across the Arab world, one of the important aspects of restoring sovereignty and dignity to Arab societies is for them to be sure to maintain a minimum level of intellectual honesty and accuracy in their historical narratives.
The idea that Anglo-American-ravaged Iraq is a model for Arab democratization is both a cruel lie and a deep insult, made more profound because of the alternatives that Arabs initiated on their own in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, with others to follow soon. This week, we are best advised to ignore Obama’s illusions and insults, and instead note the continuing transition from Mohammad Bouazizi to President Moncef Marzouki in Tunisia.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.