The impact of the war in Iraq on politics throughout the Islamic world is crucial for the United States. Will regime change in Iraq increase the chances for positive political change in other Islamic countries? Or will it harden existing political lines and foment greater anti-democratic extremism? What other effects might it have on political life in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, including on upcoming elections in a number of countries? The Democracy and Rule of Law Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is sponsoring a major symposium to explore this critical subject.

Brumberg opened by noting the wide attention that has been given the potential consequences of the Iraq war on the Arab world. The Carnegie panel was convened to consider the same questions in Islamic nations primarily outside of the Middle East. He invited the panelists to speak on prospects for political reform before and after the Iraq war in their respective countries of expertise, considering both short and middle term impacts.

Saudi Arabia

Seznec argued that the stirrings of liberalization over the last two years have resulted in more changes in Saudi Arabia than at any time over the past 30 years. These changes are coming not as a result of pressure from the public or organized opposition, but due to initiatives of top political leaders, especially Crown Prince Abdullah, who believe reform is necessary if the royal family is to maintain power in the face of rising economic and population crisis. At the same time, the primary opposition to further liberalization is among rival top members of the royal family.

Seznec gave a number of examples of reformist signals coming from Saudi Arabia within the first few months of 2003, including royal acceptance of a liberal petition calling for legislative elections and an independent judiciary; a Saudi charter on society in the Arab world, presented to the Arab League and calling for economic privatization and political participation; establishment of a professional journalists association; and two recent instances in which the consultative legislature rejected government economic initiatives. There has also been more public discussion tolerated of the role of women in government and the issue of corruption in the royal family. Seznec predicted that local elections would soon occur in Saudi Arabia. The major brake on further political reforms is the succession rivalry among those aiming to be the next Crown Prince.

Seznec stated that it was not yet clear what the impact of the Iraq war would be on this ongoing process. Since September 11, 2001 there has been tremendous tension in the Saudi-U.S. relationship, and an enormous feeling among all sectors of Saudi society that they are being vilified and victimized by the United States and a neoconservative charge against the Kingdom. If democracy is seen as a concession to the United States, therefore, conservatives (anti-reform royals and the clerics) will gain the upper hand. Seznec speculated that part of the motivation for the Crown Prince's charter on society before the Arab League was to gain a stamp of indigenous legitimacy for his reform project.

In response to a question from Brumberg, Seznec confirmed that the Prince's reforms were probably intended to prevent full democratization or the ultimate capitulation of the royal family. However, he argued that these first steps have at least the virtue of beginning the process of forming a civil and political society in Saudi Arabia. Although further reform will be no means guaranteed by these first steps, they are first steps. Seznec pointed out that the timetable for any smooth democratic transformation of Saudi Arabia would probably be many decades, in line with the experiences of monarchies such as Great Britain.


Haqqani began by noting that Pakistan is in the unique position of a country that has vacillated between democratic and military rule throughout its history. At this point, the military has an institutionalized role, which depends not on the survival of one strongman but is imbedded through the existence of the ISI, Pakistan's security services.

Before September 11, General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan was under internal and external pressure (especially sanctions) because of his military coup, Pakistan's nuclear tests, and its support of the Taliban. After Musharraf decided to support the U.S. war in Afghanistan, there was a reversal of the traditional alliances within Pakistani politics: the ISI became opposed to the Islamists rather than working in partnership with them to oppose Pakistan's two major political parties. Musharraf has sought to bolster his international legitimacy by casting himself in a role familiar to Middle Eastern leaders, appearing as simultaneously a tentative reformer and a bulwark against Islamists.

Over the course of 2002, Musharraf held a farce referendum on his continued power and made extensive changes to the Pakistani constitution. Parliamentary elections were also held, in which Musharraf's PML triumphed but the Islamist coalition (the MMA) made very significant electoral gains. Islamists, emboldened by this vote and by subsequent events relating to arrests by the ISI and violence in Kashmir, have made anti-Americanism their primary issue and their support has continued to climb. The war in Iraq has notched that support higher still, as evidenced by the extraordinarily large demonstrations Islamists were able to mobilize. Now, Islamists present a very real challenge to Musharraf and are using their parliamentary clout to demand that he either resign from his military role or allow debate on his earlier amendments to the constitution. At the same time, Pakistan's two primary secular parties continue to be prevented from effectively organizing by government restrictions.


Barkey began by reminding the audience that in November of 2002 a pro-Islamic party, the JDP, won control of two-thirds of Turkey's parliament. So far, this government's program has been not Islamist but reformist, concentrating on democracy and joining the EU, with economic growth as a third primary goal. Barkey argued that this agenda signals the fact that the JDP understands that bolstering democracy and weakening the military is the best way to ensure its own survival.

The war in Iraq has significantly disrupted the political scene in Turkey. The government badly mismanaged the vote on March 1, 2003, which was to approve U.S. military operations out of Turkey into northern Iraq. The process of negotiation and the surprise defeat in parliament have badly shaken the footing of the government.

Barkey pointed out that one of the keys to understanding the situation of the JDP is that the party is both the government and the opposition, due to the fact that it outside of both the established political class and military. Negotiations over Iraq were ultimately strained less by issues of economics than by security concerns related to Northern Iraq and the Kurds. This, in turn, has shifted the national agenda away from economic and political reform, and toward security issues, which tends to move the balance of power away from the JDP and towards the military.

For now, political reform is on hold in Turkey because of another security issue that has jumped to the fore: Cyprus. The JDP pushed vigorously on the Turkish Cypriot political leader, Denktash, for acceptance of a peace place proposed by Kofi Annan which would have paved the way for all of Cyprus (rather than only Greek Cyprus) to enter the EU. The Turkish military and hard-line civilians, however, stepped in to block such a move. Now, the JDP is in a period of very low political clout stemming from both developments in foreign affairs and its own internal divisions and political miscalculations.

In the coming months, the war will impact Turkey primarily through developments in Northern Iraq. A federal Iraq or an independent Kurdistan gives the military political power by playing on Turkish security fears. On the other hand, the JDP is not obliged to take an extremely hard-line stance on the Kurdish issue, because it has a geographically diverse political base. Barkey also felt that it was not certain the JDP coalition would fracture, given that it still maintains significant control of state resources, and defectors could, therefore, easily be punished.


Fealy noted that Indonesia is entering its fifth year since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998. The country has undertaken a patchy process of democratization since then, holding elections in 1999, restoring significant civil rights, checks and balances, and strengthening the legislature. However, the political culture remains one of extreme corruption and Fealy predicted that for the next decade or so Indonesia would be, at best, a semi-democracy.

Islamist politicians were a key factor in both bringing down Suharto and promoting this process of democratic reform. Before the Iraq war, President Megawati was under significant internal pressure over several economic policies that seemed to bolster corruption and insider dealings. Popular political pressure has focused on her economic management, and not on issues of terrorism or the investigation of the bombing in Bali. Islamists have been leading this charge over economic issues, focusing their political program on reform, justice, and economic nationalism.

Before the Iraq war there were fears that the invasion would undermine Megawati, and radicalize Indonesia's moderate Islamists. However, there has been far less impact in Indonesia from the war than was expected. Fealy argued that this was due to the fact that the war was relatively short, there were a relatively small number of civilian casualties, and to clever political moves by Megawati. Megawati was forced to conduct a balancing act between overwhelmingly negative popular sentiments and the country's needs for good ties with and aid from the United States. She did so by satisfying the popular demand that Indonesia's opposition to the war be clearly stated. Megawati labeled the war an "act of aggression" (apparently saying this even to President Bush by phone), called for a UN emergency session in the wake of invasion, and was able to shift the focus of popular criticism from herself onto the United States. Her vice president made more vitriolic statements on the U.S. invasion and Bush. Fealy noted that U.S.-Indonesian relations were probably not harmed by her tactics, because she kept her statements measured and they came in the context of the surprising vigor of Indonesian investigations of the Bali bombing and Jemaah Islamiyah. On the whole, Megawati probably emerged from the war slightly stronger politically because of her articulation of Indonesian opposition on the world stage.

Another factor limiting the impact of the Iraq war has been the restraint of both the Islamists and the public in face of this war. There was virtually no violence. Islamists organized large protests, but took care to make them explicitly multi-religious and attacked the invasion as imperialist but not as a clash between world religions. Fealy speculated that the Bali bombing has caused some introspection among Indonesian Islamists and that many are voluntarily backing away from some of the most militant Islamist rhetoric.

On the whole, Fealy felt Iraq has left Indonesian political dynamics relatively constant, giving little advantage to Islamist parties. The war will probably not be a pivotal issue in the next elections. Still, Fealy pointed out that a genuine distaste for the war has taken hold at all levels in Indonesian society, where it is seen as an unjustified triumph of power over international law. There has been a real loss of admiration for the United States and, consequently, the U.S. will have somewhat less soft power in its relationship with Indonesia in the future. And another potential outcome of the war could be to galvanize forces committed to anti-Western terrorism, which is based more on rejection of the United States than any definite Islamic principals.


Olcott characterized the war as having little or no short-term impact on Uzbekistan, with possible long-term impacts coming if the reconstruction goes very badly. Neither democracy in Iraq nor shows of U.S. force will exert much pressure for political change in the country, where Olcott said she saw the absence of a future for reform.

The war in Afghanistan has been more important for Uzbekistan than the invasion of Iraq. As a result of the war, the IMU (Uzbekistan's militant Islamist opposition) was destroyed and the regional security balance was fundamentally altered as new U.S. bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan create implicit security guarantees for the region. In addition, a pro-reform environment was created by a major jump in U.S. aid to the region, and IMF and World Bank promises of further aid in exchange for political and economic reforms. For a few initial months, President Karimov of Uzbekistan was promising to start a reform process.

Optimism has now faded. Promises of currency convertibility never materialized, state purchases have not been freed, and there have been a number of backward steps on economic reform, including heavy trade restrictions. Olcott argued that the reasons for this backtracking are Uzbekistan's political culture of corruption, and a succession struggle that may be emerging to replace the aging Karimov. During Q&A, Olcott argued that Karimov is willing to go forward with reform and knows that he must produce more reforms to obtain significant international aid; so far, he has delivered only a military base to Uzbekistan. He is stymied, however, by the perception that he is weakening physically and will soon be forced to cede control.

Positive changes do survive in the area of religious freedom and political opposition, where treatment remains very uneven but slightly improved. The main Islamist body in Uzbekistan is now the Hizb-ut-Tahrir which calls for an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia but does not endorse violence; Olcott believes it is waning in Uzbekistan but may be gaining support in other nations of the region. Islamist violence in Uzbekistan is unlikely in the short term because capacity has been so badly weakened by the American military campaign. If the economic crisis of the region continues to deepen, however, violent Islam could become a significant factor in mobilizing the population and recruiting terrorists in the longer term.

Iraq has been largely a non-event for Uzbekistan thus far. In fact, alone among the Central Asian nations, Uzbekistan was actually a part of the invasion coalition, although it sent no troops. Olcott stated that the population has grown used to living with unpopular wars, such as the Chechnya war, and is not surprised to find its opinion has no role in formulating foreign policy.

In the long run, Iraq and the Arab world only have points of contact with Uzbekistan through the Islamic clergy; there is little relationship between Arab secular life and Uzbekistan. Secular democracy would have almost no impact in Uzbekistan, but Uzbekistan would be influenced by any radicalization of Islamic clergy as a result of the Iraq war, and by the return of religion to Iraqi political life, in support of either a secular or Islamist state.

Question and Answer

During Q&A, the panelists addressed anti-American sentiment and whether the Iraq war was likely to bolster Islamists. Barkey argued that anti-Americanism has become pervasive across all of Turkish society, and has been so since events subsequent to September 11 convinced many Turks that the world was now engaged in a fundamentally bipolar clash of civilizations. At the same time, the JDP was in power when the Iraq war unfolded. Combined with the universality of anti-American sentiments among all groups, this means that Islamists will probably not benefit from any surge in these views. Seznec echoed this statement in regards to Saudi Arabia. Anti-Americanism has become so universal, even among liberals, that clerics can easily whip up popular fervor with these issues.

The role of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in anti-American sentiment and support for Islamists was also raised. Brumberg asked the panelists to speak on how a two state solution might change political dynamics in the various countries, and whether the war has changed this in any way.

Seznec pointed out that Prince Abdullah's scuttled peace plan was a two state solution and that it had gained even the clerics' support. Seznec argued that there is significant fatigue with the Palestinian issue in Saudi Arabia and that the issue would probably fade if a viable Palestinian state were forthcoming.

In regards to Uzbekistan, Olcott noted that only Islamists are deeply interested in the issue of Palestinian statehood and that a significant number of Central Asians, especially the elite, are pro-Israeli. This is due to the large numbers of Central Asian Jews who have migrated to Israel, with whom Uzbeks feel language and cultural ties and who are now potential investors in the Uzbek economy. Olcott noted that this reflects the fact that Islam in Uzbekistan is more frequently cultural than pan-Islamic.

Haqqani felt that Pakistanis, by contrast, feel extremely strong pan-Islamic sentiment. A two state solution would tend to weaken Islamists, as was seen after the Oslo Accords, but there will be significant suspicion of anything that seems to grant the Palestinians only a quasi-state. And pan-Islamic sentiment will continue to provoke significant anti-American or anti-Western sentiment over the issues of Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir.