The noble cause, 21 years on

Dateline 21 April, 2006

Looking back from 2024, it seems surprising that the Iraqi liberation was ever controversial. But records show that half the Democrats in Congress voted against it. Among the general population the war became increasingly controversial until mid-2006, when the “insurgency” finally collapsed.

It was also in 2006 that the genuine insurgencies in Syria and Iran began to be noticed in the west. They were strongest in Kurdish areas to begin with, and there is no doubt that the flow of arms from Kurds in Iraq was significant – though symbols, such as the election of Iraq’S Kurdish President, and the burgeoning autonomy of Kurdistan were more so.

The Iraqi government’s decision in 2006 to send troops into Syria, in hot pursuit of terrorists, was a turning point for the whole Middle East. Bashar Assad hesitated for two days before overriding his generals and ordering Syrian troops into battle. The Iraqi Army was new, but battle-hardened. With Coalition planes and Special Forces in support, it crushed the Syrians and destroyed the terrorist camps. The Iraqis withdrew, but the self-confidence of the Syrian military was shattered.

Soon demonstrators all over Syria were calling for Assad’s resignation. The mayors of several towns joined in, and before long the military intervened and arrested him. In 2007, Syria had its first democratic elections. The Iranian military, in Syria to provide support to Hizbollah, were sent home. In Kuwait, 2007 was the year that saw women voting in parliamentary elections for the first time. Several women were elected to parliament, and one was appointed to the cabinet.

In 2008, the Lebanese government organized a major crackdown on Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad. Deprived of Iranian and Syrian sponsorship, both groups suffered serious defeats. A second set of elections in Syria led to the creation of a parliamentary democracy and considerable devolution to the provinces, including the Kurdish areas in the north.

By this time the Iranian government had lost control of its Kurdish areas completely. Despite efforts by the government to control the media, the young Iranian population was becoming internet savvy and well-read. Sharia law was meeting increasing resistance.

The political reverberations of 2009 were unmatched. The elections in Iran defined how the year would run. The Council of Guardians published its list of approved candidates for President. As usual, anyone remotely reformist was excluded. This time there were riots, and nothing the government did could quell them, until they finally agreed to allow a free and fair vote. In the first round, a reformist candidate came tantalizingly close to securing 50% of the vote. Far behind came the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and behind him almost 30 other candidates of various persuasions. In the second round Ahmadinejad was crushed by more than two to one.

The new President immediately announced there would be a referendum on a new constitution, which would abolish the Council of Guardians, the Assembly of Experts, and the position of Supreme Leader. This was carried by a large majority.

In the autumn there were elections in Iraq. A new, secular government came to power, and began privatization. Every citizen of Iraq was issued with shares in three oil production businesses. Within hours the shares were changing hands on E-bay, with major western businesses bidding the prices ever higher.

December saw elections in Egypt. Reluctant to follow the Iranians in humiliating climbdown, Hosni Mubarak agreed to allow reformist candidates to contest them. He told advisors that he expected to be narrowly re-elected, though thought his party might lose its majority in parliament. The advisors did not dare contradict him, but the electors did. Mubarak came third. In the parliamentary elections his party was wiped out. A coalition of reformists took power and the Muslim Brotherhood became the official opposition.

In 2010 Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan adopted new, constitutions, and held free elections. Qatar and Oman followed in 2011, and Yemen and Sudan in 2012.

On the tenth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s fall, March 2013, a meeting of the Arab League was held in Baghdad. A resolution sponsored by Iraq, Syria and Lebanon describing democracy as “the only legitimate basis for governance” was passed. Several governments resigned from the League in protest.

The slow transition of Saudi Arabia from absolute to constitutional monarchy took several more years. It took the death of Muammar al-Qadafi to bring Libya into the democratic fold. But five years on from the momentous Baghdad meeting the Arab League reconvened, this time in Beirut. All the former members had rejoined, and this time the resolution supporting democracy was carried unanimously.

That is not to say that the last three years have been perfect. Not all members of the League live up to the ideals in the declaration, though the most populous of them generally do. Arab governments do not necessarily respect human rights in the same way as the west, though the situation is vastly better than before Saddam’s fall. Torture is extremely rare, and technically illegal, throughout the region. Police officers are even, occasionally, prosecuted for it. Not all countries have followed the economic reforms pioneered in Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, but the region is immeasurably wealthier and commerce generally thrives.

Palestine has been fairly stable for several years. Relations with Israel are best described as strained, but violence is now much rarer, and universally condemned when it happens.

Veteran Democrat Senator, John Kerry, yesterday dismissed claims that the changes in the Middle East were due to the policies of successive Republican administrations. They would have happened more quickly under the Democrats, he claimed. The policy of regime change in Iraq had been adopted by President Clinton, and Kerry himself had voted for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

When asked if he now regretted calling for American troops to withdraw in 2006 he responded “how dare you impugn my patriotism?” and reminded the audience that he won three purple hearts in Vietnam. Democrats had always supported the liberation of Arab peoples, he insisted.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 21 April, 2006

Quentin Langley is editor of www.quentinlangley.net, an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections.

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