The Iraq War: Catalyst or Hindrance to Democratic

Transformation in the Middle East?

This paper attempts to evaluate the impact of the third Iraq war (the war) on the transformation process in the Middle East and greater Middle east regions, to a democracy. In so doing a short overview of “Democratisation” in the region will be presented. Secondly the perspectives on the Iraq war as a manifestation of the expression of the drive to democracy in the Middle East will be discussed and finally brevitatus causa, a brief discussion of the democratic process within the Middle East region will be furnished. It will be concluded that evaluating the impact of the Iraq war as a catalyst or an obstacle to the democratic process in the region is rather difficult although what remains undeniable is that the war led to a clarification of the lacunae in the international system, of extant relations and regulations making possible “transition” to democratisation in the region. By Roshni N. Punchoo

“Democratisation” in the Middle East and Greater Middle East Region

While economic development and democratisation seem to compliment each other, this does not mean that economic development leads to democratisation.

“… the Arab world looks quite unchanged. Everywhere else in the world liberal parliamentary democracy has left its mark, but in the Middle East and the Maghreb, authoritarian regimes survive without major reform. This Arab anomaly should not be attributed to some quirk of culture. It has much to do with the policies pursued by Western governments eager to maintain cheap access to oil and alarmed at the growing power of Islamist opposition movements.” (1.)

Since the early 1990s there have been attempts within the Middle East and neighbouring North African countries to themselves effect political transformation within the Middle East and North African regions. These attempts emphasised the importance of economic development, of civil society structures and education. So for example in Syria measures were adopted for political liberalisation and in 1990 a new election was held. In the 1990s Jordan sought to implement internal and external democratic reforms. In Egypt steps were taken to implement intellectual and political debate concerning economic reform in the country. In 1994 Morocco within the North African region under the leadership of King Hassan II, reform measures within the framework of human rights and negotiations with the European Union were implemented. This and similar tentatives although not immediately viewed as overt has nevertheless existed as an ongoing commitment emanating from the region itself before the third Iraq war.

On an international level the process of democratic transformation in the region exists as a series of strategies and or initiatives undertaken to encourage the so called democratic reform and practice. This is evinced most clearly in the american (US) and european (EU) strategy relations through which democratisation claimed to be based on a “partnership” implemented in the region.

Democratisation in the Middle East and Greater Middle East regions (as manifested in these policies) reveals on the one hand the “desire” and alleged claim by European states to facilitate the democratic process in the Middle East and Mediterranean through its “participation in the process of democratic reform with” the Arab and Mediterranean region by facilitating strategic cooperation in economic and political relations with the regions. On the other hand there is the USA democracy strategy which aims to ensure American national security by creating and bringing democracy to the Middle East Region through political liberalisation and a different form government in the belief that apprehended threats in the region will thereby be overcome or out-weeded. With the increased commitment to the process of reform in the Arab world, the Middle East region greeted the Euro Mediterranean Partnership (EMP) in tolerable gaze resulting in an improvement of the continental european image in the Arab world after the war. The Arab viewed the conduct of Germany and France rejecting US military intervention and insisting on a United Nations (U.N.) resolution as credible, thus the war indirectly enhanced EU Partner - ship in the region.

The Third Iraq War

The central point of contention, against the Bush approach to the war was based on the “legitimacy” of the “American led” military action against Iraq, in the absence of a UN mandate or attack by sovereign Iraq, on the USA. In addition, the “doubtfulness” of the actual presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq also brought its credibility into question.

Notwithstanding these contentions, the war has been justified in many ways by the USA and Great Britain, each assuming various motives to ground the leadership change in Iraq. Most central to their defence, was the alleged threat to their national and international security, manifested in the presence of weapons of mass destruction allegedly possessed by the Iraqi regime and the threat of this being made available to terrorist regimes. Thus the need to create an open system of democracy in Iraq and the region emerged. By forcing the leadership change in Iraq and bringing it to a democratic order, this would affect what Roberto Aliboni refered to as the “domino effect” on democracy in other countries in the region, in terms of which the surge of new factors and forces would give rise to democratic and so called “good governance.” This flame of democracy then, it was envisaged, would ignite a context for short term peaceful solutions which will then lead to economic development and education in the region thereby consolidating in the long term peaceful relations. To this end, the war was seen as an instrument of short term “conflict resolution” that would promote long-term peace in the region.

On a global level, this apparent long term peace brokering initiative was to serve as a large scale, peace building instrument aimed at enabling stability in a region in conflict and thereby facilitate order and prosperity which in turn displaces the hostility and its effects in the region as against the west obviating thereby the alleged security threats and concerns. According to Daniel Neep, when viewed from a critical perspective the US military approach was used “as a tactic in a wider strategy to achieve a set of definite political goals rather than a set of principles" and therefore sits uncomfortably with the claim to foster a democracy. Yet still for others such as Ahmed Ibrahim, the war went beyond regional concerns and impacted on the development of post cold war international relations. There are numerous additional perspectives regarding the basis of this third Iraq war which endorse in the extreme the humanitarian need to replace the alleged tyranny of Saddam Hussein and “liberate” the people of Iraq. Others, however, remain antagonistic and or critical to the actions taken by the US in the region, and in Iraq cling tenaciously to the view that plainly, what has transpired is akin to the US and supporting states seeking to secure itself and the spoils for itself in the oil rich region of the Middle and greater Middle East.

The Effect of the Iraq war on the Democracy Initiatives in the Middle East and Neighbouring Middle East Region

The effect of the Iraq war may be interpreted in various ways. Although open to sceptical debate in the region, some commentators (2.) assert that the war affected an improvement on the Arab-Israeli security situation and has given a reassurance to nationalists and ultra nationalists in the government as well as the Israeli society. Further, this war has been viewed as catalysing the opposition of the Palestinian hardliners.

On the ground, the Iraq war brought with it the consequences of war in that it reversed the lives of many engaged directly and indirectly in the war leaving behind the responsibility of rebuilding and reparation. Indeed it brought the removal of the Saddam Hussein leadership in Iraq, the formation of a transitional government and fragile “democratic” elections to the country, however, it is tenuous to claim that the freedom of the Iraqi people has been “delivered” therewith. Pursuant to the war, violence and the presence of foreign and American troops in Iraq increased. The strengthening of US presence in the region whilst allegedly aiming at restoring peace and stability has been claimed as a cause for hostilities (insurgent and otherwise) in Iraq and for tensions in countries such as Syria. In short it has had the effect of creating an arena for violence in the region, thereby creating internal contradictions in the democratic process in an already discrepant environment.

On a less pragmatic level and perhaps somewhat more strategic, it led to what I. Schäfer and F. Ibrahim refer to as the upgrading of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP). So while the war was a “setback” for the European security policy, in that it gave the impression of the absence of a common European policy regarding the declaration of the Iraq war, on the other hand it was regarded as a central factor leading to the formulation of the EU strategic partnership with the Middle East and in particular with Iraq, with which the EU enjoyed little to no prior formal relations. In addition, pursuant to the war, it pledged, as one of its central goals in the Arab and Mediterranean regions, to become one of its largest donors and trading partners. From the Arab point of view, and based on the above the EU inclination and commitment to work together with, rather than impose obligations in the region, through the “three basket framework” of social, political and economic concerns, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership became more acceptable as a process of reform on a long term basis in the region. To this extent the EMP enjoyed a “privileged approach” in the Middle East region when compared with the US initiative which still invokes Arab discontent. The EU Strategic Partnership further symbolises a framework and agreement for cooperation in the Region as fortified by the Barcelona Process, thereby strengthening the commitment to EU cooperative relations with Iraq. This commitment has been enunciated in the Barcelona Conference embodying cooperative and democratic relations involving further the commitment and support for political, social and economic reforms within the southern and eastern Mediterranean countries:

“… peace, security and stability in the Mediterranean is the activity of all of the partners and these strategic objectives are assets ... all partners must pledge all means available to them to maintain …. The current political, economic and social situation in the middle East represents a common challenge whose responsibility must be assumed by all of the partners on the basis of international legality …”(3.)

This divergent acceptance in the Middle East of the EU approach compared to the uncertainties and hostilities associated with the US approach exacerbated the already “bruised EU-US relations” flowing from the lack of European support of the US decision to go to war. Thus the Iraq war influenced also the character of transatlantic and EU relations with the US in respect of its (EU's) relations with the Middle East.

Even so the US's GMEI may be seen to have subsumed some of the fundamental precepts of the EMP namely: the emphasis on education and civil society development as precursors to democratic development in the region which incidentally are endorsed in the Arab development Report. In this way then while altering how these western States respond in their relations to one another, it also forced them on a certain level to fortify their goals in the Middle East to the extent that it may be asserted that the EMP arising from the EU and USA initiative resemble each other, although the method of implementation and attitude thereto appear to diverge and kindle different reactions in the Middle East.

Another salient result of the war is that it revealed the lack of a durable Gulf Security System. In its alleged drive for democracy in the region, the arrival of US troops in Iraq led to the ironic sentiment amongst some Iraqis that in fact what is needed is a “strongman” ruler-ship (4.) in the region. To this end the criticisms levelled at this war as a great destabilising factor in the region may be deemed valid.

The Iraq war may be interpreted, indeed at a high price, as yielding some pivotal lessons: the eradication of the belief that the Arab region suffered from an “institutionalisation deficit”, that there are extant regulations, organisations and institutional characteristics akin to democracies. However, the establishment and development of the so called institutions and structures that promote or represent civil society, dominant in the American approach can not be seen as effectively transporting democracy to the region. If democracy is to root itself then the application of the prevalent elitism in the leadership in the region has to be addressed (5.). The idea of a non-elitist approach is strongly accented and facilitated in the Arab Development Report which emphasises a strategic vision of change in the region through authentic Arab involvement in the process. It sees overcoming the deficits in the Middle East through a transformation process that involves Arab-led dialogue and self reform, emerging through self criticism, debate, commitment and participation of the Arab peoples in the process, in the region. In a pivotal sense this promotes the possibility of overcoming what has been revealed by the Iraq war: that a change in leadership in the Middle East region does not forcibly lead to a non-elitist order in leadership.

This approach does not exclude the US and EU partnerships, but implies that the reforms have to be motivated from within the Middle East region along the classical lines of democracy and not implemented merely through external incentives, which undoubtedly hampers democratic process. Bearing this in mind, the initiatives in the region as pursued by the EU, US, international and national communities in the region, ought to be seen within the optic of the fundamental tenets of classical representative democracy and practice in the region involving inter alia a decentralisation of power (6.).


Undoubtedly advocating democracy in the region is a worthy objective in its own right, but weighed against the approach of packing it in, for reasons that may seem doubtful, shades the credibility of the initiative and sometimes has the effect of blurring the serious and hard hitting consequences that attach thereto, such as the current violence in Iraq and insurgent attacks that have emerged with increased vigour since after the war. This violence contradicts the establishment of a meaningful democracy for Iraq: thus US and EU premises. Nevertheless, what remains undeniable is that the Iraq war certainly exposes international actors to a realm of opportunities in the international system of relations and regulations making possible “transition” to an alternative form of rule in the region.


  1. G. Achcar, The Arab World “Absence of Democracy” in Le Monde Diplomatique, June 1997, Translated by Ed Emery
  2. R. Aliboni, “The Impact of the Iraq Crisis on Mediterranean dynamics implications for the EU and Turkey Relations“, 24 October 2003, Institutio Affari Internazionali, pp.1-10
  3. H. Habeeb, “The Euro Mediterranean Partnership: Pros and Cons”, An Arab View, USA, 2002, S.33-48
  4. S.A., Cook, “The Right Way to Promote Arab Reform”, Foreign Affairs Journal, Mar- April 2005, Vol. 84, No 2., pp. 91 102.
  5. M.D., Yaffe, “The Gulf and a New Middle East Security System,“ Middle East Policy, Vol. XI, No.3, Fall, 2004, pp. 119-130.
  6. Pierre- Marie Dupuy, Droit International Public, 6e. Dalloz, 2003.

Further sources:

  • United Nations Arab Development Report 2003 and 2004 in
  • D. Neep, “Dilemmas of Democratisation in the Region”, Middle East Policy Journal, Vol. XI, No. 3, Fall
  • I. Schäfer and F. Ibrahim, „Regional Crisis and Europe: How the Middle East Conflict and Iraq war effected the EMP”, Euromesco Paper, January 2005, pp.6-14.
  • C. Bluth, “The British Road to War: Blair, Bush and the decision to invade Iraq” , International Affairs, 80 5 (2004), 871- 892.
  • D.L,.Byman, „ The Implications of Leadership in the Arab World, International Affairs, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 120, No. 1, 2005
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Zuletzt aktualisiert: 2005-12-04 18:33