The historic anti-authoritarian, pro-democratic uprisings that have swept across North Africa raise an intriguing and troubling question: Absent American intervention, could a similar movement have unseated Iraq's Saddam Hussein?
Communism came to Eastern Europe in the kit bag of the Red Army, according to the old glib-but-accurate gibe. This is essentially how the U.S. military installed democracy in Iraq.
It didn't have to be that way. In the wake of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, U.S. policy-makers urged Iraq's Shia and Kurds to rise up against the reeling regime. Then, when they did, American forces left them to be crushed by the dictator's untender mercies (just as the Dulles brothers did with Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956). Under George W. Bush, neo-cons insisted that the oppressed and demoralized Iraqi people would never again summon the wherewithal to overthrow Hussein on their own, so the U.S. had to invade.
However, events in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia challenge that assumption. True, Iraq's Sunni-dominated army was in no way a potentially neutral (and decisive) third force, as it was in Tunisia and Egypt. At the time, political observers saw just one alternative to invasion for deposing Hussein: a bloody, U.S.-instigated military coup. Without the invasion, Bush administration strategists might now argue, the regime could have lasted another decade, and made untold mischief in the region. But what if they were wrong?
What has been sacrificed in the intervening years? For us, thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. On the Iraqi side, hundreds of thousands of lives -- many, if not most, civilians -- and untold damage to infrastructure. But in the process, something more enduring was also taken from the Iraqi people: their history, and not just the antiquities looted from the National Museum in the wake of the invasion.
Unlike other nations in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia that cherish their revolutionary and anti-colonial origins, Iraqis will always know that their freedom was handed to them by a foreign power. Even the war's greatest photo op -- pulling down Saddam's statue in a Baghdad square -- was accomplished with a U.S. military vehicle.
In Libya, Western military intervention may yet prove crucial -- it's no coincidence the U.S. Marine anthem includes the phrase, "to the shores of Tripoli," recalling another action. But if it does there will be little question that the bulk of the credit should go to the Libyan people who mounted the insurrection, doing their own fighting and dying in the face of daunting odds.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday, "We are also very conscious of the desire by the Libyan opposition forces that they be seen as doing this by themselves on behalf of the Libyan people, that there not be outside intervention by any external force. Because they want this to have been their accomplishment. We respect that."
Even Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, acknowledged the lesson in his opening remarks to the Arab League in Cairo on Wednesday, saying all of the region's governments "desire for no foreign intervention" in Libya.
"We hope the Libyan people can overcome these difficult conditions, and that the Libyan leaders take brave stands to stop bloodshed and respect the legitimate desires and rights of its people to live in a free, democratic nation," Zebari said, according to a Reuters report.
Even if, in the end, Western military intervention does prove critical to victory, it will fall into the category of support, much like the French, Polish and Irish assistance provided to the 18th
century American revolutionaries. American conservatives don't like to admit it, but the French fleet ensured the colonists' final triumph at Yorktown.
In Afghanistan, the national narrative was already established long before U.S. troops arrived. The country has defeated foreign invaders and occupiers for centuries, up to and including the Red Army of the Soviet Union. In all likelihood, they will simply wait out the Americans and the client regime in Kabul, and go back to telling their country's glorious story in classrooms and around campfires.
All that has been taken from the Iraqis -- forever.