With over one million Iraqis dead and millions displaced since the 2003 invasion, it’s a fascinating question asked in Foreign Policy… (though the idea of US military intervention is hardly an answer to anything, as history always shows):
In a tumultuous year that witnessed the fall of Arab tyrants and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, proponents of the 2003 invasion, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative academic Fouad Ajami, have sought to portray the decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime as the hidden driver of the Arab Spring. But rather than revisit history, why not — on this one-year anniversary of Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s downfall — try our hand at alternate history: If the United States had never invaded Iraq, would Saddam’s Baathist regime still be standing in today’s Middle East?
This question, of course, is a bedeviling one. It is difficult to imagine the region absent U.S. military intervention in Iraq. The war itself fueled regional dysfunction — particularly in reaffirming and expanding pernicious notions of sectarian identity. Clearly, the specter of enhanced Iranian influence and the spillover effects of Iraq’s brutal 2006-2007 sectarian civil war loom large over the region, most obviously with respect to Syria and Bahrain.
With festering grievances, a repressed populace, and growing destitution, it is highly likely that Iraq would have been part of this past year’s regional wave of uprisings. The wave of revolt has illuminated the manner in which transnational solidarity, buoyed by a shared media space and political links, still plays an important role in the collective imagination of Arabs — even though the grandiose promises of pan-Arab nationalism have long ago been discredited. This phenomenon would not have bypassed Iraq. Furthermore, while the pre-invasion efforts of both the external and internal Iraqi opposition ultimately failed, they did represent genuine opposition politics. And the existence of a Kurdish safe haven would have provided physical space to plan and coordinate anti-government activities. Much more so than even in Tunisia, the building blocks for an uprising would have been in place in Iraq.
Had such an uprising broken out, the surest path for Iraqi regime change would have been a U.S.-led military action in support of local actors. Without the bruising legacy of the Iraq debacle, outside intervention, even absent legal authorization, would have been, for better or worse, a serious option for the United States and its allies. As with Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, the United States and its partners would have seen an opportunity to remove a longtime nemesis.