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20 years on, George W. Bush's promise of democracy in Iraq and Middle East falls short

Brian Urlacher, Department Chair and Professor, Political Science & Public Administration, University of North Dakota, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

President George W. Bush and his administration put forward a variety of reasons to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In the months before the U.S. invasion, Bush said the looming conflict was about eradicating terrorism and seizing weapons of mass destruction – but also because of a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East, a reference to the perceived lag in participatory government in the region.

Many of these arguments would emerge as poorly grounded, given later events.

In 2004, then Secretary of State Colin Powell reflected on the weak rationale behind the main arguments for the invasion: that there were weapons of mass destruction. He acknowledged that “it turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases deliberately misleading.”

In fact Iraq did not have a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, as Powell and others had alleged at the time.

But the Bush administration’s rhetoric of building a more free, open and democratic Middle East persisted after the weapons of mass destruction claim had proven false, and has been harder to evaluate – at least in the short term. Bush assured the American public in 2003 that, “A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.”


He focused on this theme during the ground invasion, in which a coalition force of nearly 100,000 American and other allied troops rapidly toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution,” Bush said in November 2003. He also said that the U.S. would be pursuing a “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.”

Twenty years on, it is worth considering how this “forward strategy” has played out both in Iraq and across the Middle East. In 2003, there was indeed, as Bush noted, a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East, where repressive authoritarian regimes dominated the region. Yet, in spite of tremendous upheaval in the Middle East over the past two decades, many authoritarian regimes remain deeply entrenched.

Political science scholars like myself try to measure the democratic or authoritarian character of governments in a variety of ways.


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