Paul Pillar

The Neocons' Undemocratic Domino

The chief reason the George W. Bush administration launched a war in Iraq more than eight years ago sprang from the core tenets of the neoconservatives who pushed for the war. That reason was to use regime change in Iraq as a catalyst for stimulating change throughout the Middle East, moving the region toward what the neocons hoped would be freer and more open politics and economics. In a speech to a friendly audience at the American Enterprise Institute three weeks before the invasion, President Bush described a democratic domino theory, in which Iraq would be the first domino to fall. “A new regime in Iraq,” the president said, “would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.” Iraq seemed like a promising lead domino because of its size, oil wealth, and centrality to the Arab world. Also—given that selling a major offensive war to the American public solely on the basis of democratization of the Middle East would have been impossible—the fact that Iraq was ruled by a loathsome regime made it possible to sell the war instead with scary stories about dictators giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

The hoped-for democratic domino effect from toppling the regime did not materialize. Rather than being inspired by what happened in Iraq after the invasion, Middle Easterners were repelled by it. If the violence, disorder, and breakdown of public services in Iraq were the birth pangs of a new Middle Eastern order, most people in the region wanted nothing of it. A fatal flaw in the neocon dream was the almost oxymoronic idea that something imposed from the outside by the United States could motivate people in the Middle East to act on behalf of popular sovereignty. As for the country that was supposed to play the role of lead democratic domino, one of the principal trends in recent years in Iraq—besides the continued violence, which has lately had an upsurge—has been the increasing authoritarianism of the regime of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Now we're in a different decade from Bush and his war, and there is a genuine burst of yearning for popular sovereignty in the form of the Arab Spring. And what is the posture of the Iraqi regime toward the Arab Spring, specifically next door in Syria, which is currently the hottest front line in the confrontation between freedom and authoritarianism? Maliki is maintaining a distinctively friendly posture toward the Assad regime, while that regime is gunning down protestors in Syrian cities. He has urged the protestors not to “sabotage” the regime and has recently hosted an official Syrian delegation. The would-be lead domino, far from inspiring freedom in a neighboring country, is on the side opposing freedom.

The cordial relationship between the Syrian and Iraqi regimes involves multiple ironies. During the early years of the Iraq War the Bush administration, which at the time was immediately concerned with Syria's failure to interdict the movement of insurgents across the border into Iraq's Anbar Province, would have welcomed such a rapprochement. The current relationship certainly is a far cry from what it was in Saddam Hussein's day, when the Syrian and Iraqi wings of the Baathist movement were bitter rivals of each other. It is hard to say what Saddam's exact posture toward Syria would be if he were still around today, but it probably would not be one of friendliness toward Bashar al-Assad.

The Arab Spring demonstrates that the idea of democratic dominoes is not just a fantasy, even though events yet to unfold in individual Middle Eastern states will depend primarily on conditions and forces within each state. Clearly a contagion effect has been involved since unrest broke out in Tunisia near the turn of the year. But the effect works only because the people in each country can rightfully say they are making a revolution themselves. Political change is not being imposed by an outside power, much less injected through the barrel of a gun.

Among the many costly ways in which the neocons' attempt to do exactly that has failed has been that the Iraq War has backfired with regard to their own objectives. Their progeny in Baghdad is resisting rather than inspiring the spread of democracy. And as for Iran—about which the neocons have been in the forefront in beating the drums—the Iraq War was one of the single biggest boosts to its regional influence. The inroads that the war allowed Iran to make in Iraq are part of the background to Maliki's friendly posture toward the Iran-allied regime in Damascus.

It is hard enough to comprehend fully how the neocons, even with the scary stories about terrorists and unconventional weapons, were able to persuade enough people nearly a decade ago to go along with their ill-conceived experiment, although the cognition-impairing effect of the national trauma over 9/11 certainly explains a lot of it. It is astounding—given how horrendously wrong the neocons have proven to be, even if one accepts their objectives—that anyone pays any attention to what they are saying today about Iraq, Iran, the use of military force, or for that matter anything about the Middle East.