Michael Wahid Hanna: The Iraqi Revolution We’ll Never Know

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at The Century Foundation.

In a tumultuous year that witnessed the fall of Arab tyrants and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, proponents of the 2003 invasion, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative academic Fouad Ajami, have sought to portray the decision to topple Saddam Hussein's regime as the hidden driver of the Arab Spring. But rather than revisit history, why not-- on this one-year anniversary of Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's downfall -- try our hand at alternate history: If the U.S. had never invaded Iraq, would Saddam's Baathist regime still be standing in today's Middle East?

This question, of course, is a bedeviling one. It is difficult to imagine the region absent U.S. military intervention in Iraq. The war itself fueled regional dysfunction -- particularly in reaffirming and expanding pernicious notions of sectarian identity. Clearly, the specter of enhanced Iranian influence and the spillover effects of Iraq's brutal sectarian civil war in 2006-2007 loom large over the region, most obviously with respect to Syria and Bahrain.

Still, the admittedly speculative answers to this hypothetical exercise expose the many ways the Middle East has evolved since the days when Saddam brutally crushed the Shiite and Kurdish uprising of 1991 -- with the Arab world looking on in silence. At the same time, Iraq's strategic position and sectarian makeup highlight the geopolitical realities that continue to limit the trajectory of regional transformation.

Absent U.S. intervention, it is almost certain that Saddam would have maintained his repressive grip on the country. While his regional ambitions and threatening posture had been contained by devastating sanctions, the opposition to Saddam's rule remained fragmented and ineffective until the U.S.-led intervention. The ambitious efforts to foment internal unrest by the Iraqi National Congress, a purported umbrella organization for the Iraqi opposition in exile, had been an unmitigated disaster. And the internal opposition had not been able to seriously threaten the regime. When Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a venerated and politicized Shiite cleric, was murdered by the regime in February 1999, the short-lived riots that ensued were subdued quickly. The aftermath also exposed longstanding divisions between the external and internal Shiite opposition that would stand in the way of any effort to overthrow the regime.

That doesn't mean it never would have happened...

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