In March 2003, a force lead by the United States invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Many watched on television the continuous stream of images of air strikes over Baghdad’s night skies and the events that followed. Fast-forward to daytime Baghdad. If you were one of the people watching, perhaps you remember the symbolic moment the huge statue of Saddam Hussein on Firdos Square was brought to the ground by a mob. I still wonder if this was a spontaneous event or an impromptu choreography. Television networks then interlaced the images in Baghdad with celebrations in many parts of the world.
An image has remained stuck on my mind ever since. An overexcited young woman whilst being interviewed by an American news network chanted in jubilation, “Democracy is contagious” – I wish I could remember the time and the channel to request and archive this footage on my permanent video library. This was the mood. How wrong she and many more were! Democracy is neither a natural nor a universal attribute, let alone contagious. It is a political system that needs to be collectively learned and nurtured. The transition to a full democratic system takes generations to grow organically. Local and regional attributes also need to feed the process. In the case of Iraq, democracy needs to alleviate the historical tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims. We have not got there yet!
A decade later, democracy in Iraq remains an embryonic project. Yet, the United Sates and other key donors failed systematically to put enough pressure on the former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (May 2006-August 2014) to push forward the reform agenda and introduce pluralistic policies and inclusive governmental institutions. Needless to say, the pressure was never commensurable with the trillion or so spent on liberating and attempting to reconstruct Iraq. The United States and the United Kingdom primarily, but broadly speaking the Coalition of the Willing that supported the incursion into Iraq,* forced-engineered the foundations of twenty-first century Iraq and should have stayed the course. To some extent, it is this fractured project that paved the way for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to raise and threaten the stability of the greater Middle East at large and beyond.
(*) Coalition of the Willing as announced by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell in March 2013: Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom and Uzbekistan.
Do you remember the Rwandan genocide, when between April and June 1994 machete-clad mobs of Hutus massacred some 800,000 Tutsis? What is currently unfolding in Iraq is possibly worse, as on top of the carnage, it involves mass torture and a twisted political and terror agenda. Even to those not versed on Terrorism Studies or International Security, the fabled caliphate dreamed by al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist organizations as the ultimate goal or aim of their terror campaigns always read like fiction. In a matter of two months, however, ISIS fast turned fiction into reality and set an alarming precedent for Islamist terrorist organizations broadly. Hence, ISIS dared to change its name to simply the Islamic State. Who else will follow or join them now?
Don’t you feel that something bold needs to be done now when there is still time to reverse this dangerous and destabilising trend? What will be the next stage if from Southeast Asia to Africa al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist organizations switch allegiance to ISIS? Do you want to wait until ISIS takes control of the northern oilfields in Kurds territory? Do you want the ISIS crusade to spread further, reach Lebanon, and control a key route to the Mediterranean Sea? Are you aware that hundreds of jihadists fighting with ISIS hold European passports? Do you want another 9/11 or 7/7 under different sponsorship?
For different reasons, many find it easy to hate the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair–and George W. Bush off course. This is not an apology on their behalf, as they remain to answer for many of the decisions they took and lead to the invasion of Iraq. Nonetheless, Tony Blair at least had the guts to say what ideally any current world leader should have said back in June 2014, when in a matter of days ISIS took control of large trenches of Iraq: “It is vitally important that we realise what is at stake here and act. We are going to have to engage with it or the consequences will come back on us as we see in Syria today. “ Hate him for making the point, but intervention is inevitable and the longer we wait the greater will be the damage and costs. This is something that cannot wait until the next American or British election and a problem that will not solve itself.
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published “The End of History?,” a little overrated though influential essay. Roughly, he argued that the triumph of liberal values over Communism heralded the universal adoption of the Western democratic system as the ultimate form of government. Please keep in mind that this essay documented a historical turning point after the decades-long Cold War. What ISIS achieved in a few weeks in Iraq and Syria thus represents The End of History, but in reverse and amplified. If Western leaders cannot see this and act now and decisively, very dark times lie ahead.