The Iraq War transformed America’s role in the Middle East and North Africa in three ways. The first two are well-known. The conflict exposed the limits of US hegemony by engaging its military in a winless occupation, and it unleashed an emboldened Iran to pursue an expansionist agenda that has destabilized parts of the region.
The third effect was equally consequential, but often overlooked. The Iraq conflict sullied the image of Western democracy promotion, because it tied the universal issue of freedom to the particular violence of an American conquest. Since then, advocates of democratization across the region—grassroots movements, civic activists, professional associations, youth groups, and others—have not trusted the United States and its Western allies to serve as credible sponsors for democracy. Even today, amidst an era of revolutionary challenges against authoritarian rule, the United States carries little moral weight as a beacon of democracy.
This ugly legacy demands closer scrutiny. Within the Middle East and North Africa, the Iraq War embodied what the Bush administration then called its “Freedom Agenda.” In the post-Cold War era, the United States enjoyed an extraordinary, if brief, period of geopolitical primacy. The Middle East had become a unipolar arena under American hegemony, with Russian interests and Chinese financing not even a glimmer upon the strategic horizon. After 9/11, the region morphed into the logical frontier by which Washington could enforce its vision of global order. In addition to the broader war against al Qaeda, the extermination of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship served as a test of this resolve. Yet for all the chimera of finding Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction, it was the clarion call of implanting freedom—of spreading Western liberalism and democracy into dark corners of a distant Muslim land—that punctuated public justifications of the war long after Baghdad fell.
At the time, the cause of democracy seemed worth it. The push for war masked a deeper bipartisan consensus that despotism in the Middle East represented an existential threat to US national interests. Dictatorships bred dissatisfied citizens that could be seduced by the propaganda of terrorist organizations; and friendly democracies, not rapacious autocracies, could be better entrusted with protecting Israel and safeguarding regional oil. Thus, a simplistic logic reigned. If the United States could engender a wave of Middle East democratization, then grateful peoples and the new governments they elected would gladly help satisfy its long-term goals. Such democracy promotion required new diplomatic and economic commitments, such as pressuring governments to curtail repression, ramping up assistance to civil society, and conditioning aid on democratic reforms.
But the keystone was always war. The invasion of Iraq enshrined not just America’s coercive firepower but also the credibility of its liberal commitment. If a post-Saddam Iraq became a shining exemplar of US-built democracy, then every future call for freedom would carry an interminable clause: Democratize, or else we will do it for you.
Of course, the Freedom Agenda ended with a whimper. By the end of the Bush administration, the previous appetite to remake regional order on a grandiose scale had been replaced with resigned acceptance that Iraq was mired in carnage and corruption. Elsewhere, not only allies like Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, but recalcitrant autocracies like Iran and Syria easily shrugged off American pressures for democratic reform. Yet even as the Obama administration began to scale down American interventionism—beginning a process of withdrawal from the Middle East that continues today—the damage was done. Across the Arab world, many people not only reviled the Iraq War but associated any democratic advocacy by the United States and its Western allies as inherently tainted. Some levers of American democracy promotion, such as civil society assistance and educational exchanges, persisted. But on the ground, few local visionaries saw the United States as a trustworthy partner for change, because its hands were stained by Iraqi blood.
Critically, the Iraq War did not make Arab societies turn away from democracy. Public surveys like the Arab Barometer have shown consistently high levels of support for democratization across the region. More proof burst forth during 2011–2012, when the Arab Spring raised a raucous wave of popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Those revolts highlighted the demands of many young citizens for democratic rights, whether they were ruled by dynastic kings in Bahrain and Jordan or presidents-for-life in Tunisia and Egypt. A second wave of unrest during 2018–2019 pitted more protesters against the military generals of Algeria and Sudan, as well as the feckless factionalism of Lebanon and a still-turbulent Iraq. The ongoing demonstrations in Iran stand as another reminder that the quest for political change remains unending.
However, none of these mass-mobilizing movements have desired any American help or sponsorship. The generation fighting for change in the region sees no role for US democracy promotion, much less benevolent interventionism. These young people do not see America or the West as paragons of democracy, because they came of age during the wrenching years when hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were dying, and Iraq was fracturing into a kaleidoscope of sectarian pieces under America’s watch.
Alongside the Afghanistan conflict, the Iraq War epitomized the post-Cold War conceit that the United States alone could single-handedly reshape the Middle East and North Africa. At that point, America was the guardian of global freedom, the majestic city on a hill endowed with vast armies and moral responsibility to spread democratic ideals across the world. The Iraq War wrecked that image for the very societies in the Middle East that were supposed to be transformed by it. It may take another generation for this mistrust to end, if at all.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.