Ten years ago, we invaded Iraq. And I’m glad we did. Despite the many justified and enumerated points about our ignorance of the country, our lack of a plan, and the severe mistakes made during our occupation, we rid the country of a brutal dictator and started the process of change in a region that sorely needed it. I just wish we had installed an American, rather than a sectarian model of government, when we had the chance.
During my time there from 2003 to 2005, I never met an Iraqi—Shia, Sunni, Kurd, or Christian—who wasn’t grateful Saddam was gone, and who didn’t agree that only America could have done the deed. Toppling Saddam was just one aspect of change. A former Iraqi parliamentarian told me recently he credits America for igniting the Arab Spring. “Your experiment worked. You brought the winds of change by overthrowing a dictatorship and planting the seeds of democracy in the heart of the Middle East. The image of seeing people wave their purple fingers having just cast their first vote was too powerful to ignore.” Perhaps this vindicates George Bush somewhat, as it echoes the speech he gave on February 26, 2003. “A liberated Iraq,” he said, “can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region” and serve “as a dramatic and inspiring example … for other nations in the region.”
Maybe there is a correlation between seeing Iraqis free to speak their mind, cast their votes, and start their businesses, and the later uprisings all over the region as the people protested against authoritarian regimes and demanded equality, liberty, and justice. They weren’t calling for more jihad nor the destruction of Israel, in any case.
But a demon that has been unleashed in the region is sectarianism, and America is partly responsible, say the Iraqi colleagues with whom I worked. Former Iraqi parliamentarian and Shia cleric, Ayad Jamal-al-din once described it to me this way: “Iraq is like a radiator, and Saddam was the radiator cap that kept pressure on the fractious contents and stabilized them. You [America] came and removed the radiator cap and the contents exploded. Now they’re sorting themselves out.”
Bashar al-Naher, a former advisor to Iraq’s first democratically elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, added, “You released the genie from the bottle in Iraq, and the genie is sectarianism.”
If anything, the biggest failing of America in Iraq is not that we came at all, according to these Iraqis. It’s that we set up a system that exacerbated the forces of sectarianism, rather than abating them. In Iraq, unlike in modern day Egypt, Syria, and other Arab countries where we are nail-biting in the stands wondering which direction their governments will head, we had a clean slate and ultimate power to put into place the model of government of our choosing. Mustafa al-Khadimy, an Iraqi commentator and NGO leader told me, “I still don’t understand why America started with a sectarian model after Saddam Hussein, instead of bringing in competent leaders who wanted to serve…all Iraqis.”
The first post-Saddam structure we helped implement, the Iraq Governing Council, was created along sectarian lines, and not based on qualifications or professionalism. Our key questions should have been, “Are you qualified to serve Iraq? Do you place allegiance to your country above sectarian and ethnic considerations?” But instead we asked, “Are you Sunni or Shia?” Before 2003, this was not a question people ever asked each other, lamented Mustafa al-Khadimy as thousands of Iraqis were intermarried and neighborhoods were integrated.
“Sectarianism is a kind of sickness, and this government is completely under the control of sectarianism,” Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, told me. And the disease is spreading. Just look at Syria.
If we’re going to conduct an experiment in another part of the world, spilling our blood and spending our treasure in the process, then we should at least “do it right.” We squandered an opportunity to see if it were possible to remake a country, to take a repressive regime and turn it into an ideal of equality before the law, with freedom of religious practice, tolerance, and justice. Instead, Iraq is fanning sectarian flames across the region. A young Iraqi friend, Haidar Hadi, who was forced to flee Iraq after he was threatened and now works at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, says he only understood the aforementioned concepts when he came to America and saw them in action. He wishes we had practiced what we preached, created systems of freedom and tolerance, and focused on educating young Iraqi minds about these ideals.
The time of a clean slate and unbridled U.S. power in the region is past. But we can learn the lessons from our steps and missteps in Iraq—however costly they may have been— primarily, that religion is a powerful force and we should try to mitigate its influence rather than emphasize it. If we do not, then I agree with Bashar al-Naher’s comment to me: “from a purely American interest, I wouldn’t blame you for seeing Iraq as a totally futile exercise.”