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Lessons of the Iraqi De-Ba'athification Program for Iraq's Future and the Arab Revolutions

Lessons of the Iraqi De-Ba'athification Program for Iraq's Future and the Arab Revolutions - Cover

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill.

May 2012

124 Pages

Brief Synopsis

This monograph considers both the future of Iraq and the differences and similarities between events in Iraq and the Arab Spring states. The author analyzes the nature of Iraqi de-Ba’athification and carefully evaluates the rationales and results of actions taken by both Americans and Iraqis involved in the process. While there are many differences between the formation of Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein government and the current efforts of some Arab Spring governing bodies to restructure their political institutions, it is possible to identify parallels between Iraq and Arab Spring countries. As in Iraq, new Arab Spring governments will have to apportion power, build or reform key institutions, establish political legitimacy for those institutions, and accommodate the enhanced expectations of their publics in a post-revolutionary environment. A great deal can go wrong in these circumstances, and any lessons that can be gleaned from earlier conflicts will be of considerable value to those nations facing these problems, as well as their regional and extra-regional allies seeking to help them. Moreover, officers and senior noncommissioned officers of the U.S. Army must realize that they may often have unique opportunities and unique credibility to offer advice on the lessons of Iraq to their counterparts in some of the Arab Spring nations.


The presence of U.S. combat troops in Iraq has now come to an end, and the lessons of that conflict for the United States and other nations will be debated for some time to come. It is now widely understood that the post-invasion policy of de-Ba’athification, as practiced, had numerous unintended consequences that made building Iraqi civil society especially difficult following the U.S.-led invasion. The U.S. approach to this policy is often assessed as having underestimated both the dangers of increased sectarianism in Iraq and the need for strong efforts to manage ethnic-sectarian divisions. The Iraqi government’s approach to de-Ba’athification was, nevertheless, much more problematic due to its openly biased and sectarian nature. However well-intentioned, de-Ba’athification originally was as a concept, in practice it had a number of serious problems. These problems intensified and became more alarming as the de-Ba’athification process became increasingly dominated by the Iraqis and American oversight over that program gradually evaporated. At that time, it came to be viewed as an instrument of revenge and collective punishment by both the Iraqis that administered de-Ba’athification and those that were targeted by these policies.

A comprehensive review of Iraqi de-Ba’athification is necessary before making any assertions about the lessons of these policies for either Iraq or the larger Arab World. Understanding de-Ba’athification begins with a consideration of U.S. policies and goals for Iraq. After the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, the U.S. leadership had a choice of implementing limited de-Ba’athification or seeking a much more sweeping program. They initially chose the latter course because it was deemed especially important to eliminate the last vestiges of Saddam Hussein’s regime to prevent a similar type of government from reestablishing itself. In making this choice, advocates of deep de-Ba’athification pointed to the history of Ba’athist conspirators rising to power through infiltrating government institutions and seizing power in undemocratic ways. This comprehensive approach nevertheless made it extremely difficult for Iraq’s Sunni Arab leaders to accept the post-war political system. Many U.S. leaders became concerned about this problem over time, but they had increasing difficulties moderating Iraqi administration of de-Ba’athification efforts.

Despite the time that has elapsed since the initial decisions on de-Ba’athification, these issues remain vital for the future of Iraq. The Sunni Arab insurgency that developed after the U.S.-led invasion reinforced the popularity of de-Ba’athification among many of Iraq’s Shi’ite Arabs, thereby keeping the policy alive. Many Shi’ites also agreed with U.S. concerns about the potential emergence of a new Sunni-dominated regime that would once again seize and retain power. A quasi-legal de-Ba’athification Commission (now known as the Justice and Accountability Commission) continues to exist in Iraq and recently played a dramatic role in disqualifying some leading Sunni candidates in the 2010 parliamentary elections. This commission could not have remained relevant without the support of a variety of important Iraqi politicians, including the current prime minister. Likewise, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki arrested large numbers of so-called “Ba’athists” in 2011, shortly before the final withdrawal of U.S. troops. Under these circumstances, the legacy of de-Ba’athification and the future of this concept within the Iraqi political system may yet have serious consequences for Iraq’s ability to build a unified and successful state.

Many Americans and Iraqis of diverse political orientations have argued that de-Ba’athification and the nature of sectarianism in Iraq involved a large number of lessons that other countries may wish to consider in the context of future political transitions. This argument has found considerable resonance among some citizens in the “Arab Spring” states where popular uprisings have ousted some long-serving dictators. Many of the new revolutionaries consider Iraq’s problems as a cautionary tale that must be understood as they move forward in establishing new political systems. In particular, it is now understood that loyalty commissions led by politicians and set up to identify internal enemies can take on a life of their own and become part of a nation’s power structure. Once this occurs, such organizations are exceedingly difficult to disestablish. Likewise, the basic unfairness of collective punishment has again been underscored as an engine of anger, resentment, and backlash. Conversely, the importance of honest and objective judicial institutions has also been underscored, as has the importance of maintaining a distinction between revenge and justice. Moreover, officers and senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) of the U.S. Army must realize that they may often have unique opportunities and unique credibility to offer advice on the lessons of Iraq to their counterparts in some of the Arab Spring nations. The U.S. Army has a long history of cooperating with some of the Arab Spring militaries and has a particularly strong relationship with the Egyptian military. These bonds of trust, cooperation, and teamwork can be used to convey a variety of messages beyond exclusively military issues.

All of the Arab Spring states may usefully consider the potential insights offered by events in Iraq, but the two Arab countries where the lessons of de-Ba’athification may be most relevant are Libya and Syria. Libya is currently organizing a post-Qadhafi government, while Syria is undergoing a process of revolution that seems increasingly difficult for the authorities to extinguish. In Libya, post-Qadhafi leaders are openly concerned about avoiding what they identify as the mistakes of Iraq. It remains to be seen if they are able to do so, or if they fall into new systems of internal warfare and perhaps new dictatorship. Syria maintains both a society and a style of rule that has notable similarities to the Saddam Hussein government. Its future is deeply problematic, as revolutionaries struggle against an entrenched, well-armed, and increasingly desperate dictatorial regime that is also deeply sectarian in nature.

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