Dictators and Democrats in the Middle East

Joshua Espinosa

Since the end of World War II, the United States has sought to remake the international order in its image. This meant combatting the Soviet Union for close to half a century in order to prevent the spread of Moscow’s communist ideology that was accompanied by ever oppressive governments. With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, it appeared that the US’s tireless commitment to the promotion of democracy and free markets around the globe had ultimately been successful. However, this line of thinking has gone off the rails in the first two decades of the 21st century, most notably in the Middle East. American intervention in Iraq, Libya, and most recently Syria has irrevocably changed those countries. Yet, instead of bringing a newfound era of peace and prosperity to the region, American involvement has instead dramatically destabilized the aforementioned states. The disruption of the status quo allowed for the rise of radical Islamist groups such as ISIS and gave groups such as the Kurds an opportunity to redraw international borders that has further heightened tensions in the Middle East. Instead of seeking to continually promote democracy, the US should learn from its mistakes and seek the option that provides the most stability in Middle Eastern states even if that means supporting dictators such as Assad.

The first domino to fall was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003. Although his reputation as a brutal dictator is well deserved as he greatly persecuted his own people, Saddam was able to keep the peace between Iraq’s Sunni, Shia and Kurdish population, thus preventing sectarian conflicts from spilling into the open. Without such a forceful presence in place, rebuilding the Iraqi state has proved to be an exercise in keeping the country’s ethno-religious sects from each other’s throats. What is more, the insurgency that followed the American-led invasion became the first of many training grounds in the Middle East for al-Qaeda’s divisions. The terror group seized the invasion as an opportunity to not only practice battlefield tactics, but to grow their membership by luring in fellow, formerly moderate, Sunni Muslims who were now attracted to the group’s Islamist ideology as a way to oppose the West’s “imperialist ambitions.”1

Discounting the initial decision to invade Iraq, the military aspect of the invasion cannot be held entirely accountable for the turmoil that followed. By all conventional means that exist for measuring victory in the field, US forces unquestionably defeated Saddam’s army. It was the political mishaps that followed that sent Iraq down the path to instability. The gravest of these was the decision to disband, rather than attempt to reform, the Iraqi army in 2003.2 Doing so sent hundreds, if not thousands, of trained soldiers into the hands of al-Qaeda. Not having a successor government ready to take Saddam’s place allowed a security vacuum to develop that further propelled the insurgency facing American forces. Another result of the lack of a long term political solution in Baghdad was that it committed American forces to a drawn-out occupation without a set departure date. Going back to 2005, there is evidence to show al-Qaeda’s designs for what a post-American Iraq would look like. Once American forces had left the country, the goal was for al-Qaeda to establish “‘an Islamic authority or emirate’ covering as much Iraqi territory as possible.”3 In a 2003 that was not so far removed from 9/11, it is ironic that an invasion that began in the name of democratic growth and security ended up doing much to aid Islamic groups known for their hostility to the West. 

Although al-Qaeda was not able to gain control of Iraq in 2005, this was because the US remained committed to keeping boots on the ground. This approach ended in late 2011 when President Obama declared victory and announced the drawdown of troops in Iraq.4 Despite the internal tensions that plagued the country, it was deemed secure enough to function on its own. However, ISIS’s explosion onto the scene two short years later, revealed the hollowness of this assertion. The Iraqi army collapsed when confronted by the group and bin Laden’s dream of a caliphate in Iraq was realized.5 Once more American forces were thrust into action to prevent Baghdad from falling to the extremists. 

While it is impossible to say with total certainty that if Saddam had remained in power his army would have been able to beat back ISIS, his heavy-handed rule likely would have prevented most of the sectarian tensions that led to the radicalization of many Sunnis against the Shia domination of Baghdad.6 The 2003 invasion did not merely advance the rise of terror groups, it also gave Iraqi Kurds a chance to organize and petition the international community for greater recognition and autonomy. The status of the ethnically distinct group is quickly becoming a geopolitical third rail in the Middle East. Allied with the US in the fight against ISIS, but regarded as a revisionist actor by Turkey and Iraq, the Kurds have certainly benefited from the removal of Saddam while complicating matters for the US.7 The evolution of the Kurds from an overlooked group to a significant dimension of Middle Eastern politics is yet another complication that has emerged in Iraq. 

Another example of a Middle Eastern country whose dictator was deposed of only for instability to increase is Libya. Coming amid the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, resistance against Colonel Qaddafi was popularized and sold to the West under the guise of democracy. Once the call to spread democracy had been taken up, NATO, under the leadership of President Obama, was only too eager to enact a policy of regime change. In the years since the fall of Qaddafi however, Libya is no success story but instead is a failed state plagued by militia groups and terrorist groups hostile to the West.

While the course of action taken against Qaddafi that led to his overthrow is regrettable, that does not mean he was ever an ally of the West. Tensions with Tripoli historically have been rocky at best, with the low point occurring with the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 in which two Lybian nationals downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland, killing all on board. Although Qaddafi never personally took responsibility for the attack, evidence connecting Libya to the events left little doubt as to who was behind the bombing. It may seem puzzling that no action was taken against Qaddafi at the time. For while the incident was a direct attack against the West, the events of 2011 posed little to no threat to the United States and its allies; yet this time, regime change was the response. The answer to this conundrum is that the Clinton and Bush II administrations knew Qaddafi would be willing to follow the rules of the game provided that the correct economic pressures were applied. Eventually, American efforts were rewarded when Qaddafi turned over two intelligence officers to Scottish authorities to answer for their involvement in the Lockerbie affair in the late 90s. Further progress was made when his regime agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program a few years later and Libya was welcomed back into the international community as a result.8

By the time of the Arab Spring however, different ideologies were in place in the capitals of the West. Instead of supporting Qaddafi against domestic threats he was facing, the work of previous administrations was flippantly cast aside as a thoughtless policy of regime change was enacted based on the justification that NATO had a duty to protect the human rights of the Libyan people and advance their chances at founding their own democracy.9 There is little to substantiate the argument as to why the American-led coalition intervened in the first place. In what way is the life of your average American made more secure by the loss of Qaddafi? Bereft of his nuclear ambitions, the Colonel posed no immediate threat to the United States or its allies.

The runaway intervention in the name of democracy promotion and human rights has spectacularly backfired. Qaddafi’s removal did little to improve American security, indeed the opposite occurred. As the fallout of the intervention began to appear increasingly negative, the politicians who organized Libya’s descent into chaos have come under fire for their actions. Most revealing is a report out of the United Kingdom that Britain had no plans for what to do once Colonel Qaddafi was deposed of.10 Considering the fact that the UK was following the US’s lead, it is safe to assume there were no detailed plans coming from Washington either.

This lack of vision and foresight on the part of liberal hawks in both London and D.C. is astounding when considering where Libya is today. Failure abounds regardless of how one defines it. If the betterment of the Libyan people was desired, one would surely not have intended to create a state where, as said by a Middle East scholar, “Criminality is skyrocketing. Insecurity is pervasive. There are no jobs. It’s hard to get food and electricity. There’s fighting, there’s fear… I see very few bright spots.”11 Politically, the situation in Libya is also very unstable. Before 2011, Qaddafi was clearly the leader of the country and the US was able to work with the dictator to enact meaningful change and progress. Currently, the country is torn between multiple competing militia groups, resulting in a nation where there is no obvious group with a monopoly on force and anarchy is now the natural state of affairs.12 Perhaps more pertinent to the US is how ISIS has been able to take advantage of this instability and establish a foothold in the country.13 Were Qaddafi still in power, his presence could have been used to deter the spread of the group and he would have been a safeguard against the threat they now pose to the West.

This brings us to our third case study; Syria. Although the United States has yet to forcibly remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, as occurred in Iraq and Libya, it is no secret that Assad is on the US’s short list of enemies. As protests against the Syrian regime escalated into all out civil war, the US should have taken the opportunity to support Assad by whatever means necessary in order to put down the rebellion. Instead, in the West’s haste to yet again support any efforts to democratize the Middle East, opponents of the regime received statements of support from the West, including calls for Assad to resign.14

As fighting escalated throughout Syria and battlefields became more chaotic, radical Islamist groups were able to turn the conflict to their advantage. The first of these was al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda which used the opportunity the civil war provided to rebrand itself as something more moderate and with broader appeal. With much of the anti-Assad forces being little more than ragtag militia bands of former regime soldiers, al-Nusra was able to distinguish itself as a formidable fighting force which in turn increased its attractiveness to fighters looking to defeat Assad. The desire of al-Nusra’s leaders to increase their soft power was so strong that they were not revealed to be officially connected to al-Qaeda until al-Baghdadi announced their relationship in the spring of 2013 in a speech that detailed the difference in visions between al-Nusra and his own force that was soon to become ISIS. By hijacking the gains al-Nusra had already made, ISIS was able to launch an offensive that, at its height, established a caliphate that reached from the outskirts of Baghdad to Raqqa and beyond.15

Threats from Islamist groups are not the only source of concern to arise from troubled Syria; geopolitical issues must too be addressed. Just as Iraq’s Kurdish population was able to take advantage of instability in Baghdad, so have their Syrian counterparts used the civil war to carve out greater autonomy for themselves. Although Kurdish militias have proven themselves to be one of the more effective fighting forces when it comes to confronting the Islamic State, US involvement with the group has raised tensions with NATO ally Turkey who fears that Kurdish ambitions present a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. Fractures between members of the collective security alliance can only benefit Russia who has used the Syrian civil war to enlarge its sphere of influence in the Middle East by establishing itself as the strongest patron of Assad.16

By refusing to support Assad and the status quo that was a stable pre-war Syria, the US has opened a can of, not worms, but vipers from which radical jihadists and Russian influence has benefited the most. Both forces are anathema to the security and interests of the US. Despite a change in administration, President Trump seems determined to make the same mistakes President Obama did by continuing to support an aggressive and mindless agenda intent on exporting human rights by force rather than furthering American interests. The strikes against Syria in 2018 over Assad’s continuing chemical weapons program were fortunately limited in scope.17 Any “successful” military operation that would remove Assad would succeed only in raising tensions with Russia to a dangerously unacceptable level and create a power vacuum certain to attract the watchful eye of jihadists. The hour may be late, but late is better than never. For if the US is to become more involved in Syria, it should do so in a manner that will restore stability to Syria as quickly as possible, even if that means supporting Assad and his regime.

Whether it is in the context of Iraq, Libya or Syria, the Wilsonian militant fervor dedicated to uprooting dictators in the Middle East that has been the hallmark of American foreign policy in the region for the past few administrations must come to an end. Waging crusades in the name of democracy and human rights has done little to better the region over the last two decades. Instead of ushering in a new era of prosperity and peace, these interventions have left a legacy of inadvertently aiding jihadists like al-Qaeda and ISIS, failed states and a general decline in geopolitical stability. Ejecting rulers who were willing to go along with, and thus be malleable to, the rules of the game has proven not to be a sound plan. The successor governments created by the US have been shaky at best (Iraq) and non-existent at worst (Libya). Even as the war in Syria is winding down, the US should remember the lessons of Iraq and Libya and prioritize stability in the Middle East over democratic expansion by supporting states most able to crush terrorist organizations regardless of their form of government.


Joshua Espinosa is a recent graduate of SUNY Geneseo and a student of political science and international relations. Currently taking a gap year, Mr. Espinosa plans to continue his study of international relations in graduate school, potentially with a focus on the Middle East.



  1. Ishaan Tharoor, “Iraq’s Crisis: Don’t Forget The 2003 U.S. Invasion”, Washington Post, 2014
  2. Ishaan Tharoor, “Why The Iraqi Army Keeps Failing”, Washington Post, 2015
  3. Brian Whitaker, “Revealed: Al-Qaida Plan to Seize Control of Iraq”, The Guardian, 2005
  4. Matt Compton, “President Obama Has Ended the War in Iraq”, Obama White House Archives, 2011
  5. Ishaan Tharoor, “Why The Iraqi Army Keeps Failing”, Washington Post, 2015
  6. Martin Smith and Linda Hirsch, “The Rise of ISIS”, Frontline, 2014
  7. Michael Hernandez, “US Willing to Mediate Between Erbil, Baghdad”, Anadolu Agency, 2017
  8. Flynt Leverett, “Why Libya Gave Up On the Bomb”, Brookings, 2004
  9. Micah Zenko, “The Big Lie About the Libyan War”, Foreign Policy, 2016
  10. Ben Farmer, “David Cameron’s ‘Ill-Conceived’ Libya War Led to Rise of Islamic State, Say MPs in Damning Attack On Former PM”, The Telegraph, 2016
  11. Priyanka Boghani, “Regrets of A Revolution? Libya After Qaddafi”, Frontline, 2015
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ben Farmer, “David Cameron’s ‘Ill-Conceived’ Libya War Led to Rise of Islamic State, Say MPs in Damning Attack On Former PM”, The Telegraph, 2016
  14. Madeline Conway, “Timeline: U.S. Approach to The Syrian Civil War”, Politico, 2017
  15. Rania Abouzeid, “The Jihad Next Door”, Politico, 2014
  16. Christopher Phillips, “Assad and Putin Are the Real Winners in Turkey’S Afrin Operation”, Middle East Eye, 2018
  17. Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Ben Hubbard, “U.S., Britain and France Strike Syria Over Suspected Chemical Weapons Attack”, NY Times, 2018



Abouzeid, Rania. “The Jihad Next Door”. Politico, 2014. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/al-qaeda-iraq-syria-108214_full.html.

Boghani, Priyanka. “Regrets of A Revolution? Libya After Qaddafi”. Frontline, 2015. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/regrets-of-a-revolution-libya-after-qaddafi/.

Compton, Matt. “President Obama Has Ended the War in Iraq”. Obama White House Archives, 2011. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2011/10/21/president-obama-has-ended-war-iraq.

Conway, Madeline. “Timeline: U.S. Approach To The Syrian Civil War”. Politico, 2017. https://www.politico.com/story/2017/04/timeline-united-states-response-syria-civil-war-237011.

Cooper, Helene, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, and Ben Hubbard. “U.S., Britain and France Strike Syria

Over Suspected Chemical Weapons Attack”. NY Times, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/13/world/middleeast/trump-strikes-syria-attack.html.  

Farmer, Ben. “David Cameron’s ‘Ill-Conceived’ Libya War Led to Rise of Islamic State, Say MPs in Damning Attack On Former PM”. The Telegraph, 2016. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/09/13/david-camerons-ill-conceived-libya-war-led-to-rise-of-islamic-st/.

Hernandez, Michael. “US Willing to Mediate Between Erbil, Baghdad”. Anadolu Agency,

2017. https://aa.com.tr/en/americas/us-willing-to-mediate-between-erbil-baghdad/922401.

Leverett, Flynt. “Why Libya Gave Up On the Bomb”. Brookings, 2004. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/why-libya-gave-up-on-the-bomb/.

Phillips, Christopher. “Assad And Putin Are The Real Winners In Turkey’S Afrin Operation”. 

Middle East Eye, 2018. http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/assad-real-winner-turkey-s-afrin-operation-1351267440.

Smith, Martin, and Linda Hirsch. “The Rise of ISIS”. Frontline, 2014. 


Tharoor, Ishaan. “Iraq’S Crisis: Don’T Forget The 2003 U.S. Invasion”. Washington Post, 2014. 


Tharoor, Ishaan. “Why The Iraqi Army Keeps Failing”. Washington Post, 2015. 


Whitaker, Brian. “Revealed: Al-Qaida Plan to Seize Control Of Iraq”. The Guardian, 2005. 


Zenko, Micah. “The Big Lie About the Libyan War”. Foreign Policy, 2016. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/22/libya-and-the-myth-of-humanitarian-intervention/