Paul Pillar

Lessons from the Day of Rage

Turmoil in Iraq has become something like a recurring bad dream you just can't get rid of. The violence-scarred protests there on Friday almost make it seem as if Iraqis did not want to be left out of the headlines amid the attention-getting unrest elsewhere in the Middle East. Most reports count more than twenty deaths from the day's clashes between demonstrators and government security forces. The happenings in Iraq hold some lessons that are relevant to the upheaval elsewhere in the region.

The first lesson concerns the limits of what the United States can do. Iraq is, after all, where the United States has made enormous sacrifices in blood and treasure beginning almost eight years ago. The situation highlighted by the clashes on Friday is what those eight years of effort have bought. Nearly 50,000 U.S. troops are still in Iraq. They would not have been able to do anything in response to violence in the streets, which pitted initially peaceful protests against the suppression efforts of a regime that is the current legatee of the process of political change that the United States began with its invasion in 2003.

Second, local political culture matters. Nouri al-Maliki's increasing authoritarianism is consistent with the culture in Iraq. That authoritarianism included efforts to prevent all protests, however peaceful, on Friday, through measures such as a curfew that prohibited even bicycles on the street. The authoritarianism is nowhere near as brutal, of course, as that of Saddam Hussein, or what the dictator in Libya is exhibiting today. (Maliki may be secretly thankful for the contrast and distraction that Muammar Qadhafi is providing right now.) But it is harsher than the course the al-Khalifas in Bahrain are following at the moment.

Third, and on the subject of political culture, note what the protestors in Iraq were and were not demanding. Despite Maliki's authoritarianism, it was not about democracy. Although protestors did push some local officials out of office, the demands were for better performance by the existing regime—for things such as more electricity and less corruption. This was a reminder of how much the more mundane aspects of governmental performance, and how they affect citizens' daily lives, are the most important concerns for most Middle Easterners. Even when a democracy banner is waved, it does not necessarily mean that democracy per se is what is motivating those who wave it. Nor does it mean that the wavers understand democracy to be much more than that one particular bunch of rulers ought to be replaced by another particular bunch.

Fourth, on the subject of how you can't tell the revolutionaries without a scorecard, notice whose forbearance and interest in preserving calm was probably most important in not seeing Friday's events spin further out of control. It was Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia militia leader-cum-cleric who is a bogeyman of the United States and who currently is part of a coalition that support's Maliki's continued rule. This is a reminder that any attempt to divide players in these situations neatly into good guys and bad guys, extremists and moderates, or forces for order and forces for disorder, is almost certainly a misleading oversimplification.

Fifth, and remembering that it has been eight years since Iraq's post-Saddam political change began, the unrest there provides an inkling of what much of the rest of region is in for, and how prolonged and stormy the process of political change in other countries is likely to be. This doesn't mean we should recoil from that change, which over the long term will be on balance beneficial for U.S. interests. But it means the difficult decisions, and the pressures on decision-makers, regarding how to react to the change are just beginning. Maybe some inside the Obama administration are hoping that once Qadhafi is sent packing, the Egyptian military comes through with fair elections, and King Hamad in Bahrain settles into a revised role as a constitutional monarch, the president can turn his attention back to budget deficits or whatever. If so, that would be a false hope (and probably most inside the administration are smart enough to realize it would be a false hope). Every U.S. administration confronts distracting, agenda-shredding foreign problems that may remain a preoccupation until the president leaves office. President Obama already had one such problem with the war in Afghanistan; now he has an additional one with accelerated political change in the Middle East.