Q&A: Could Egypt-Style Revolution Have Happened in Iraq?

Posted by Patrick James


On the eighth anniversary
of the commencement of the War in Iraq, with many nations in the region in the midst of historic upheavals, we have found ourselves wondering what might have happened in Iraq if we had never invaded. Would its citizens have taken to the streets in the same manner as some of its neighbors? Would they have liberated themselves? Is there any way to answer these counterfactual questions?

To get some answers, we called Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Brian Katulis, one of the co-authors of 2010's "Iraq War Ledger," a report that explores the war's human, financial, and strategic costs. Backed up by extensive research, the Ledger ultimately concludes that in spite of the honor and sacrifice of our soldiers, and although the "end of Saddam Hussein's regime represents a considerable global good ...  there is simply no conceivable calculus by which Operation Iraqi Freedom can be judged to have been a successful or worthwhile policy." If the Iraq War has been an object lesson in modern military intervention, then Ledger is a quantitative study of what we can learn from that lesson. 

Here Katulis discusses problems of hypothetical analysis and what it would take to see Egypt- or Tunisia-style protests in Iraq.

GOOD: A writer of ours had posited that, given the state of things in Northern Africa and the Middle East, we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq; we should have just sat back and waited for Iraq to liberate itself. What do you think?

Brian Katulis: It seems a little hypothetical to me. As a policy analyst, I like to deal with things that actually exist and it seems like this is some kind of alternative reality. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but since it's a thought experiment, I don’t know how to keep it within the bounds of reason.

GOOD: What about the Iraq of 2003? Would mass protests like we’ve seen in recent months have been possible there?

Katulis: I think it's within the realm of possibility. In early 2003, Iraq was suffering some extreme economic difficulties by virtue of the crushing sanctions that were placed upon them for about 12 to 13 years, so there were repeated instances where people had written it up and had tried to oppose Saddam Hussein's regime. In the societies like Egypt and Tunisia, which experienced some degree of change over the last couple of months, there was openness to the outside world, a connection that activists had through technology. That simply did not exist in the Iraq of 2003, in large part because Saddam Hussein just shut those channels down—and of course I'm talking here of everything outside of the Kurdistan region, which was a totally different case study in that it was relatively freer and open.

So one of the key factors is that the amount of discontent at the center of the Arab uprisings did exist in Iraq of 2003 and would have endured. A second key factor, that did not exist, was the access to technology, which was used not only to inform but also to organize. So that all said I think those were a few key fundamentals, one that was the same, the second that was quite different in Iraq and who knows, had Saddam Hussein stayed in power, I don't know what his staying power would have been through the last decade.

GOOD: What about right now. How does the current Iraqi economic climate compare to those of the neighboring countries where we’ve seen this unrest?

Katulis: The situation in Iraq to this day is still quite miserable despite us patting ourselves on the back for the surge working. You wouldn't want to be an ordinary Iraqi living in most parts of Iraq today, given the high levels of unemployment, the deep insecurity, and the lack of services that still endure. We don't pay attention to that in a way that we did, say, two or three years ago, because in our view—I'm talking about the American mindset—we [believe] we finished our job and everything's okay. In Iraq right now I think there are still problems with malnutrition among key sectors of the economy, including children.

The population has been rising up in protests that aren't as large as we've seen in Egypt or Yemen or Bahrain. But there is discontent with the powers that be and with the Iraqi government for not providing basic security and basic services. Are these economic concerns as extreme as they would have been under a Saddam that was still isolated under sanctions? Probably not, but it's still a pretty bad situation.

GOOD: Is it fair to say that security issues take precedence over economic issues in Iraq right now?

Katulis: It's funny: In 2010, ordinary Iraqis pointed to the economy being their leading concern; security being second. The 2011 results—and I think this is conducted in the first two months of this year—had it flipped. Security concerns were bubbling back up and the economy was just a close second. I think it's hard to de-fabricate the two. They're pretty much interlinked. If you have terror attacks or bombings, this has an effect on ability to do commerce.

GOOD: Certainly, you need stability to have a business grow.

Katulis: Right, so whereas, clearly, the violence metrics went down in 2007, 2008, and 2009, I think a part of that was a consequence of the increased Iraqi forces. We talk about our surge, but it was only about a 10 to 12 percent increase in our troops. It was about a 100 percent increase in the Iraqi army and police that were on the streets of Iraq. More importantly, you had massive displacements of about a seventh of the country: one in seven Iraqis pushed out of their homes because of the violence, a lot of which was sectarian.

When you have less mixed neighborhoods, you have less opportunity for the gangs and militia and other things to be doing what they're doing—even when we were there in such large numbers. Security stabilized for a period and it now seems like it's still very questionable. I don't know how it compares to Mexico City or some of the other more violent places of the world. Have you been to Iraq?

GOOD: I have not.

Katulis: It's one of the places I wouldn't recommend going on your own, unless you spoke Arabic and could sort of blend in.

GOOD: I can’t speak Arabic. And I have blond hair.

Katulis: They have a lot of blond Arabs, believe it or not.

GOOD: Fair enough. I didn’t realize that. A moment ago, you spoke about the priorities of the Iraqi people. What does the average Iraqi think of his or her government? Is confidence growing?

Katulis: I think it's faltered quite a lot, especially because of the period where it took them a really long time to form the shell of a government—or the basic pieces of a government. The elections were more than a year ago, and to this day, the Iraqi cabinet remains incomplete. It took them not quite a year to form the basis of a government. The political squabbling and the fights over who gets which chairs—when there were extreme problems with security and basic governance and basic services—leave a lot of questions about whether the people in charge were seriously concerned about the interests of ordinary folks.

GOOD: Do you get the impression that average Iraqis feel solidarity with people in other countries who have been taking to the streets in recent months? What’s the reaction in Iraq to events in Libya or Egypt or Tunisia?

Katulis: I actually don't know. I know of somebody who's been doing qualitative focus groups on the Iraqi public and I don't know if they've done a brand of research into the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

I would guess that most Iraqis, like many people in the Arab world, are kind of interested in what's going on. I suspect that the cynicism about formal politics in Iraq has probably led them to see some similarities in what was going on in Egypt and other places. But the spark has not been as strong. Iraqis probably are still deeply concerned about the fact that the people that they voted for in elections a year ago don't seem to be delivering on their basic concerns.

 

Image adapted from a Wikimedia Commons photograph, originally sourced from the Department of Defense