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

Since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011, Iraq has lurched from one political crisis to another. From 2014 to 2017, large portions of western Iraq were controlled by the extremist militant Islamic State group.

In 2018 and 2019, rampant government corruption led to a string of anti-government protests, which sparked a violent crackdown by the government.

The protests prompted early parliamentary elections in November 2021, but the government has not yet been able to create a coalition government representing all competing political groups.

While Iraq’s most recent crisis avoided descending into civil war, the militarized nature of Iraqi political parties poses an ongoing risk of electoral violence.

While Iraq continues to face deep political challenges, it is worth considering the U.S. efforts at regional democracy promotion more fully.

In 2014, widespread protest movements associated with the Arab Spring toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. In other countries, such as Morocco and Jordan, monarchs were able to offer concessions to people and remain in control by delaying public spending cuts, for example, and replacing government ministers.

Yet sustaining stable democracies has proved challenging even where the Arab Spring seemed to succeed in changing political regimes. In Egypt, the military has reasserted itself and the country has slid steadily back to authoritarianism. In Yemen, the political vaccum created by the protests marked the start of a devastating civil war.


The average Freedom House democracy score for members of the Arab League is today 11.45 — the same as it was on the eve of the Iraq invasion.

It is hard to know if U.S. efforts at democracy promotion accelerated or delayed political change in the Middle East. It is hard to know if a different approach might have yielded better results. Yet, the data – at least as social scientists measure such things – strongly suggests that the vision of an Iraq as an inspiration for a democratic transformation of the Middle East has not come to pass.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. The Conversation is trustworthy news from experts, from an independent nonprofit. Try our free newsletters.

Read more:
It’s been 20 years since the US invaded Iraq – long enough for my undergraduate students to see it as a relic of the past

Iraq war, 20 years on: how the world failed Iraq and created a less peaceful, democratic and prosperous state

Brian Urlacher is affiliated with North Dakota Dem/NPL and serves as vice chair for District 18.


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