Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme (on leave until June 2017)
Adding democratization into a mix of other stated motivations for the Iraq war has created a damaging association between Western democracy promotion and violent intervention.
US troops topple statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad on 9 April 2003. Photo via Getty Images.US troops topple statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad on 9 April 2003. Photo via Getty Images.

The invasion of Iraq has had a huge impact on the debate about democracy in the Middle East—and almost entirely a detrimental one. Analysts in both the Middle East and the West routinely suggest that the war was an ill-conceived attempt to impose democracy on the region overnight with the barrel of a gun. The assumption is that democracy promotion was a key driver of the decision to go to war. Many go on to argue that the West should be less focused on promoting democracy.
 
This argument is confused. Democracy in the Middle East has never been a primary interest of Western states. Sometimes they have actively opposed it. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists made the case that this orientation should change. They argued that authoritarianism fostered extremism, including in Saudi Arabia (where most of the hijackers came from), and that democracy in the region was in the long-term interest of the United States. Against this backdrop, democratizing Iraq was one of several goals adopted in the run-up to the war. But it was seen as at best a bonus or a by-product of a military intervention that was motivated by geopolitical interests—along with a host of other mooted benefits, such as unlocking the secret to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Had democratization been the fundamental driver of US and British policy, it is not clear why they would have picked Iraq as the single country to invade, or why they simultaneously reinforced military alliances with other authoritarian states in the region.
 
Instead, the Chilcot report’s 200-page executive summary does not mention the word ‘democracy’ once. (Weapons of mass destruction are mentioned on 24 pages; terrorism on 19. Oil is mentioned six times.) The full report indicates that in the run-up to the war, there were significant debates among decision makers over whether democratization would be feasible after a regime change in Iraq. In early 2002 the Foreign Office was committed to countering WMD proliferation but the foreign secretary expressed doubts about whether a new regime would be better than the existing one in terms of democracy, while a research paper said that the external opposition was not capable of forming a credible government. The report argues that ‘for the UK, regime change was a means to achieve disarmament, not an objective in its own right’.

Among those more convinced of the need of regime change, democracy was still not a certainty. In July 2002, Tony Blair wrote to President George W Bush that regime change ‘might involve another key military figure’ in the interests of stability—but that if it were feasible for this to lead ‘in time’ to a democratic Iraq, that would be ‘very powerful’. In August 2002, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the US wrote that the question of what to do on the ‘day after’ was the ‘most vexed’ issue, but that a senior State Department official had said that they were ‘increasingly thinking in terms of some form of democracy’.

Blair’s desire to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder with the US’ is also mentioned early on as a key motivator. Blair of course did speak about democracy as part of validation for liberal intervention—and after the WMD threat was proven to be untrue, and the intelligence to have been deliberately exaggerated, his retrospective justifications for the war increasingly focused on ridding the world of a brutal dictator. A vision of transformational change for the region may have helped to shape his conception of British interests in joining the war, just as it did for the neoconservatives in Washington, but this idea was not what brought the government and parliament on board.

Adding democratization into a mix of other stated motivations for the war—including WMD non-proliferation, removing a ruler who had been belligerent toward US-allied neighbours, supposedly fighting Al-Qaeda—confused the issue, and created a damaging association between Western democracy promotion and violent intervention. Iraq after 2003 has not been so much a failure of democracy as a failure to bring about the basic peace and security that are needed before a democracy can function.

This article was originally published by Middle East Report.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback