The Other Way to Have Deposed Saddam Hussein

Probably Mohamed Bouazizi would have taken down Saddam Hussein if the U.S. hadn't.


The official end of America's costly and misguided war on Iraq wasn't the only thing to commemorate in the past week. It also marked the first anniversary of the sacrificial self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose suicidal protest triggered the "Arab Spring," a trip-hammer chain reaction of revolution in countries long regarded as revolution-proof.

So, who is to say that the Iraqi people, left to their own devices, would not have followed the lead of their brethren in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in deposing intolerable leaders with seemingly unshakable control of their countries? Absent our American-imposed regime change, might we not have witnessed Saddam Hussein joining Muammar Gaddafi and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak as a startled loser in the never-ending struggle between despotic repression and democratic eruption?

The few Iraq war apologists like Dick Cheney who have dared to appear on TV during the official exit sourly conceded that, okay, Saddam Hussein didn't have WMD and, okay, he didn't have anything whatsoever to do with 9/11. But, but, really, he was a "bad guy" whose people really, really needed the U.S. to rescue them from his despotic rule.

And so it's all right, the argument goes, that we inflicted on ourselves the deaths of 4,000 countrymen and countrywomen, the injury and maiming of 30,000 more, and a trillion dollars of debt no one knows how to pay. And, apparently, it's all right that untold scores (probably hundreds of thousands) of Iraqis died in the process of our saving them. That was our duty, apparently.

Paradoxically, America's rush to judgment in warring on Iraq was not only misinformed but potentially redundant, given the Iraqis' abundant motivation to match the revolutions now erupting elsewhere in the neighborhood. In fact, our own reaction to 9/11 may also have actually delayed the entire phenomenon of Arab Spring by five years or more. Places like Tunisia and Egypt and Libya were showing unmistakable signs of revolutionary foment well before 9/11/01.

Just weeks before the twin towers fell, on July 23, 2001, the leading French newspaper Le Monde published yet another report by Florence Beauge, their veteran correspondent covering North Africa, describing the seething unrest in Tunisia. She detailed lethal tensions flaring among officials at the highest levels and simmering ominously at all levels of the populace. With remarkable prescience, she also noted in that 2001 article that the internet and satellite communications represented weapons for potential revolutionaries that would prove far more powerful than money and munitions. (Beauge's continuing documentation of the impending revolution resulted in now-deposed President Ben Ali's banishing her and the Le Monde organization from Tunisia in 2009. She is now welcome there again, embarrassed by talk of naming a street in Tunis after her, while he cowers in Saudi Arabia.)

But the unrest Beauge sensed was approaching a flash point in 2001 was blunted by America's massive invasion of Iraq, which was accompanied by both American and European efforts to tighten bonds with neighboring Arab despots. Suddenly these strongmen were showered with fresh waves of cash and military tools, in hopes of buying their help -- or at least their neutrality -- in the frantic effort to stamp out al Qaida. Thus, the neophyte insurgents were temporarily upstaged and did not regain their momentum for nearly a decade, until just a year ago when Mohamed Buazizi turned himself into a flaming fuse that ignited those revolutionary powder-kegs long since primed to explode.

Few would argue for a new Fortress America or champion isolationism in our world of extraordinary and permanent interdependence. But that does not mean we must perpetuate our longstanding inclination to manage other people's regimes. Those who take pride in regarding the U.S. as the world's foremost democracy might just show a little more confidence in the fertility of the seeds of democracy that are germinating and sprouting all around the world without (and in some cases in spite of) American intervention. Even while cheering on the appearance of democratic impulses when they emerge and yearning to turbocharge their fulfillment, it is helpful to recall the natural gestation cycle of democracy's natural blossoming. After all, it took almost 150 years for our forefathers and foremothers to upend their rulers and discover that democracy could spring forth on our soil. Certainly that homegrown gestation has something to do with the durability of our own beloved democracy.