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 Political News

The non-profit group Freedom House evaluates countries in terms of democratic institutions and whether they have free and fair elections, as well as people’s civil rights and liberties, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and a free press. Freedom House rates each country and its level of democracy on a scale from 2 to 14, from “mostly free” to “least free.”

One way to think about the level of democracy in the region is to focus on the 23 countries and governments that form the Arab League, a regional organization that spans North Africa, the Red Sea coast and the Middle East. In 2003, the average Freedom House score for an Arab League member was 11.45 – far more authoritarian than the global average of 6.75 at the time.

Put another way, the Freedom House report in 2003 classified a little over 46% of all countries as “free,” but no country in the Arab League met that threshold.

While some Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, were ruled by monarchies around this time, others, like Libya, were ruled by dictators.

The nearly 30-year-long regime of Hussein in Iraq fit this second pattern. Hussein was part of a 1968 coup led by the Ba'ath political party, a group that wanted all Arab countries to form one unified nation – but also became known for human rights violations. The Ba'ath Party relied upon Iraq’s oil wealth and repressive tactics against civilians to maintain power.

The fall of Hussein’s regime in April 2003 produced a nominally more democratic Iraq. But after fighting a series of sectarian insurgencies in Iraq over an eight-year period, the U.S. ultimately left behind a weak and deeply divided government.


The U.S. 2003 invasion succeeded in ousting a brutal regime – but establishing a healthy and thriving new democracy proved more challenging.

Rivalry between Iraq’s three main groups – the Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as the Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in the country – paralyzed early attempts at political reorganization.

While Iraq today has a constitution, a parliament and holds regular elections, the country struggles both with popular legitimacy and with practical aspects of governance, such as providing basic education for children.

Indeed, in 2023, Freedom House continues to score Iraq as “Not Free” in its measure of democracy.


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