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Graffy Contributes Column to the Sunday Times

Professor Colleen Graffy contributed an article to The Sunday Times in London.  The article appears below, reprinted with permission.

Saddam Hussein

The toppling of Saddam has led to the end of other dictators, says Colleen Graffy (AP)

Iraq was a good war – it sparked the Arab spring

Ten years to the day after the 9/11 attacks, a former US state official explains how ousting Saddam lit the democratic fuse

Colleen Graffy Published September 11, 2011. Reprinted with kind permission of the Sunday Times.

The strongest criticism of the war on terror continues to be the war in Iraq. It shouldn't be — because that conflict led directly to the Arab spring and the toppling of dictators from Tunisia to Libya. How so?

For 60 years America's desire for stability in the Middle East was more important than pushing for democratic reforms. But 9/11 changed all that. It led to the Bush administration's "freedom agenda", which stated that the United States should advance liberty and hope as an antidote to the enemy's ideology of repression and fear.

At the time many winced at this flag-waving, idealistic vision for the Middle East — including some within the US State Department. The more sophisticated view was that the people of the Middle East, being tribal and uneducated, were not capable of democracy and, in any case, Islam is incompatible with democracy.

Ronald Reagan had confronted similar "cultural condescension" — as he referred to it — when he called for the end of the "evil empire" and Soviet tyranny. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Japanese "experts" were on hand to explain solemnly why democracy in the former empire would never work. A former US diplomat in Poland recounts the "specialist" advice he was given to clarify why Poles would not be easily moved to democracy.

Now, of course, there are legions of experts to recount why both those countries, and others, were obviously ripe for the transition. What once seemed impossible, in hindsight becomes inevitable.

The same is true for the Middle East. Often overlooked in the race to condemn the Iraq war and the missing WMD is that the reasons for going into Iraq, at least for the United States, were multi-faceted. One reason was that even though Saddam Hussein was not responsible for 9/11, he was one of those state sponsors of terrorism who could no longer be tolerated in a post-9/11 world.

Another was that America and its partners would help the Iraqi people replace Saddam's dictatorship with democracy and this "transformation would have an impact beyond Iraq's borders". George W Bush's view was that the "Middle East was the centre of a global ideological struggle" and "once liberty took root in one society, it would spread to others". He was right.

Most reporting of Bush's State of the Union address in January 2002 focused on his "axis of evil" soundbite — missing his statement on the importance of democratisation in the Middle East. Later that year Bush put money and method behind his vision and created the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). This shifted America's focus on government to government aid in favour of US government-to-people aid. The emphasis was on developing civil society, rule of law, good governance, media reform and enfranchising women.

The jazz-and-jeans approach to public diplomacy that was used during the cold war was shifted to harness the 21st-century power of the internet and mobile phones. In 2008 the State Department joined forces with Google, Facebook and others to teach social activists around the world how to use social media to advance positive changes for civil society. This included learning how to switch over Sim cards from mobiles and protect online identities. One attendee was from Egypt: he said he and his fellow activists planned to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak through the use of social media.

Of course, Bush wanted to combat terrorism and to him its root cause was clear: the Middle Eastern dictators and tyrants who suck the air out of public discourse and prevent the development of civil society. This leaves only mosques as the place for people to vent their frustrations. Unfortunately, they are also the places where people are radicalised into a perverted version of Islam, which hopes to replace one form of tyranny with another — its own.

The loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan has been tragic. As we mourn the loss, we should also acknowledge what their sacrifice achieved, the catalyst for what we see today: the Arab spring and the crumbling of tyrants in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and hopefully more to come.

The effects were apparent even before this year. Walid Jumblatt, a Druze politician, played a leading role in Lebanon's 2005 Cedar revolution. He remarked at the time: "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8m of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

To western eyes, Afghanistan and Iraq alternate between depressing and discouraging with a few glimmers of hope. But to those in the Middle East who have lived only under tyrants and thought this was the way it was and always would be, seeing the end of Saddam was the first crack in the edifice.

With the end of the regime of a man who represented despotic rule in the region came the prospect that other Saddams may also fall. And they have.

Colleen Graffy is a law professor at Pepperdine University and was US deputy assistant secretary of state from 2005-9