I was almost late for my morning history class. I ran as fast as I could while trying to keep my balance on ice and snow. By the time I entered the classroom, I was gasping for air. For the not very athletic me, it was not easy to breathe hard during a cruel Michigan winter. As I settled in my seat thinking my heart was about to explode and my lungs collapsing, the instructor said, “Today will be about what ifs. What if you were early?”

The class burst into laughter at my expense.

After several minutes of friendly pokes, the instructor began to share his plan for the day. “But seriously, today will be about what ifs.” What if Venice and other cities had not monopolized the spice trade? What if old European powers were unsuccessful at colonizing Asia? What if Dien Bien Phu did not happen? What if the United States had not entered the Second World War? There were many more what ifs.

We were discussing colonialism in Asia and we were exploring the importance of certain events by trying to imagine an alternative history where those events did not occur. It required a broad understanding of history.

It also required all of us in the class to do our voluminous readings. A lot of us, being freshmen and still patting ourselves on our backs for getting into a storied school, did not finish our reading. We gave it a stab anyway. We had enough imagination to run wild.

That old memory reran in my mind as President Barack Obama finally, for better or for worse, fulfilled one of his election promises. The US is officially withdrawing from Iraq after more than eight years since the invasion that toppled the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The withdrawal ceremony was being telecast “live” on CNN. As I sat in my chair listening to Leon Panetta making his speech, my mind wandered to Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world. Remembering my freshman lesson, I asked myself, “What if the US had not invaded Iraq back in 2003?” Would Saddam Hussein’s regime have become a victim of the Arab Spring?

We will never know but nobody can say that would have been impossible. Whether a person is supportive of the war or vehemently rejects the invasion, he or she cannot deny that Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator.

That makes his removal desirable to some extent. If the 2003 invasion was legitimate in some ways, many in the anti-war camp would support or at least not reject the invasion. If Saddam Hussein was toppled organically by Iraqis just like how Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali were toppled, many more would support the regime change.

An Arab Spring for Iraq would have been ideal. It would have removed a dictator without causing bad blood among various sides. Yes, it would be eight years later but in a time of terrorism and religious extremism, a world without the 2003 invasion of Iraq could have spurred deeper co-operation between the US and those that mattered.

A world without the war would have the US possibly swamped with goodwill of the kind it received in the aftermath of the September 11 attack but soon after squandered in the run-up to the 2003 war.

It could be the case, or it could not. Just as Japan in the Second World War made the colonized natives realize that colonial European powers were not invincible, the US invasion also reminded the Arabs that their dictators were not gods.

Sure, the United States of the 2000s was not Japan of the 1900s that was seriously underestimated first by the Russians and then later all the colonial powers in South-east Asia. Still, what is possible is not always evident until somebody makes it a reality. The US with its unmatched military might removed Saddam Hussein. The US made possible a regime change.

Or — this might sound repulsive, especially for those in the anti-war camp but consider this — the Arab Spring might not have happened without the 2003 invasion.

An alternative reality without the war would have taken away the realization of the possibility, and possibly affected the psyche of the Arabs. What was possible would have remained only one of the possibilities deep in the minds of ordinary men, never to surface to the real world.

A world without the war also would have taken away the anger against the US. The US in many parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa had close relationships with many Arab dictators. The relations were maintained in the name of stability and much to the detriment to the freedom agenda.

The ordinary man in the streets of the Arab world, already with a low opinion of the US, saw the relationship as a constant reminder of how much they disliked their own autocrats. This only added to local frustrations that had nothing to do with the US directly. All that anger and frustration, along with the cumulative effect of all those issues, created a momentum to push history to converge to a point that sparked the Arab Spring.

Without the war, part of the momentum would not have existed. The cumulative anger without the invasion might not have been enough to start the Arab Spring. That sans-Iraq anger might have been just a weak undercurrent, never to surface and threaten the dictators’ expensive boats, rocked gently by the pleasant waves.

There are a lot of other considerations as well. Maybe without the war, the US would have enough money to bail out Europe. Maybe, Obama would not have been elected as the president. Maybe, we would be still swimming in cheap oil. Maybe. Maybe. Who knows, really?

At least we know one part of history is ending. At least we know the next chapter is a whole new world, for whatever it is worth.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malaysian Insider on December 18 2011.

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