Iraq, however, looks a lot like what Syria, and much of the rest of the Arab Middle East, might hope to be. Its vicious dictator and his family are gone, as is the rule by a sectarian minority that required perpetual repression. The quasi-civil war that raged five years ago is dormant, and Iraq’s multiple sects manage their differences through democratic votes and sometimes excruciating but workable negotiations. Though spectacular attacks still win headlines, fewer people have died violently this year in Iraq than in Mexico — or Syria.
Just as significantly, Iraq remains an ally of the United States, an enemy of al-Qaeda and a force for relative good in the Middle East. It is buying $12 billion in U.S. weapons and has requested that an American training force remain in the country next year. It recently helped get two U.S. citizens out of prison in Iran.
All of this happened because the United States invaded the country. Saddam Hussein demonstrated how he could handle a homegrown, Arab Spring-style rebellion when he used helicopter gunships to slaughter masses of Shiites in 1991. Even had his regime somehow crumbled, without the presence of U.S. troops nothing would have stopped Iraq from spiralling into the bottomless sectarian conflict that now threatens Syria.
The Arab Spring, in short, is making the invasion of Iraq look more worthy — and necessary — than it did a year ago. Before another year has passed, Syrians may well find themselves wishing that it had happened to them.
It is often said that we need to be reasonable in our expectations. Afghanistan will not be a Switzerland, we are correctly told. Perhaps if we are lucky it will be a Chad. If the Arab Spring regresses into violence and chaos, our metrics will change. A new definition of reasonable may be this: Egypt will not become a Switzerland, but hopefully it can become democratic and stable, although significantly imperfect, like Iraq.
It’s a long shot, but crazier things have happened.