The grim realities of the Iraq war, from its multi-trillion-dollar expense to its awful cost in American and Iraqi lives, were supposed to be mitigated by progress toward democracy in the Mideast – or so the neoconservative politicians and pundits who promoted the invasion have long told us. Now the credibility of that argument, which was never compelling, has been decisively undermined by the latest developments in Baghdad, where President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is lending support to the Assad regime’s bloody repression of non-violent democracy protesters in neighboring Syria.
Troubling questions about the nature of the Shia parties that came to power following the fall of Saddam Hussein – and especially their relationship with the Iranian government — have long been voiced by critics of the war. Yet today, as Maliki and members of his ruling party openly attack the Syrian protesters while promoting economic deals with both Iran and Syria, those questions seem to have been answered. The Iraqi regime has delivered a verdict on the neoconservative justification for the war – and that verdict could scarcely be more negative.
When the Bush administration (and its enablers in academia and the media) began to promote an invasion of Iraq in 2002, neither they nor their opponents imagined the wave of democratic revolution that has crossed from the Maghreb to the Gulf nine years later – a movement utterly distinct from the failed neocon notion that bringing elections to Iraq by force would eventually reform the entire region. As former CIA analyst Paul Pillar noted in an excellent post on The National Interest blog, the movement that spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain and Syria drew no inspiration from Iraq – where the carnage and destruction of the American occupation did no service to the cause of liberty in the rest of the Arab world.
For neoconservatives, who continue to influence Republican legislators (and presidential candidates) today, the scalding irony is that rather than promoting the extension of freedom in neighhoring states, Iraq’s president and governing party have spoken out in oppositon to the democratic movement in Syria. Even as the Syrian military murders that country’s protesting citizens every day, Maliki maintains the warmest relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a distinctly cold attitude toward the Syrian people, whom he has warned not to “sabotage” the regime. Since the protests began several months ago, the Maliki government has hosted official Syrian visits and encouraged construction of a natural gas pipeline across Iraqi territory from Iran to Syria. He has behaved, in short, more like an ally of Iran and Syria than of the United States – and certainly more like an ally of dictatorship than an advocate of democracy.
A report in the New York Times quoted a television interview in which Maliki blamed the demonstrators in Syria for the violence there, and urging them to use the democratic process rather than riots to express their concerns about the government. (Of course he knows that the “democratic process” is even more a sham in Damascus than in Tehran. ) Meanwhile politicians in Maliki’s party have gone still further, publicly smearing the protesters as instruments of Al Qaeda, which is Assad’s own false excuse for his massive killing spree. Such cynical mockery of the Arab Spring and its courageous Syrian upwelling is shameful, but the shame doesn’t belong to Maliki alone. It is a disgrace shared by the people who helped to bring him to power, not only in Iran but in Washington as well.