They had come and gone. Like Bonaparte and General Kleber in 1798 in Egypt, and General de Bourmont whose fleet's landing in Algiers in 1830 began "civilisational dumping" in the Arab Middle East.
On March 20, 2003, the US invades Iraq and enters into Arab memory and historical chronicles as a colonial power. History would never be the same again. The narratives will always differ and the memories, moralities, results, missteps, pros and cons will always be subject to obfuscation, manipulation and it will be the un-written and the un-spoken that will always excite the perennial truth seeker.
However, what is certain is that in the great game of power spearheaded visibly by realists and neo-realists, the losers are always the advocates on pluralist moralities and the verities that underpin them.
For, the democracy that Bush and Blairdeployed to invade remains a chimera in today's Iraq. Indeed, lots of work has been done but more work remains undone, and, sadly, the "emblems" of democracy from elections to parliaments do not suggest good government is up and running.
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Prime Minister Al-Maliki's democratic credentials are in doubt, just as is Iraq's own autonomy which is not answerable to the local demos, part of which is less equal as sectarianism rears its ugly head in a nation threatened by dismemberment. Iraq's modicum of democracy is stained with human rights violations, absence of adherents of non-confessional ideologies and politics, and the second-class citizenship threatening minorities of all kind.
A "Spring" that never was: may be one way of describing one of the biggest political miscalculations in military history since Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798. Democracy, whatever that meant for Bush and Blair, is only procedural in Iraq. The linkage between Iraq and terrorism in 2003 was never found but today is a reality. And the Iranian side, amongst other ideological foes, which the US' neocons sought to weaken, is the biggest beneficiary of the war on which the Americans spend more than $800bn, had more than 4,000 US soldiers killed, more than 30,000 injured, and a whole world traumatised.
The only difference is that Saddam Hussein was eliminated. Yes, good riddance - but the prisons of Iraq, the torture, the record of human rights violations, and the "failed" state that replaced Saddam's "pariah" and "rogue" state is questionable on many fronts. And Kurdistan, in the north, is the only place where there is some normalcy, as a definite experiment in nation and would-be state-building are in the offing.
From 'Iraqium' to the 'Arab Spring'
In the age of the "Arab Spring", Iraq's own protests lend credence to much of the criticisms heaped on Al-Maliki and co. as citizenship is far from being universal or equal.
What is certain is that springs cannot bloom through socio-political labs forced onto nations of the region. All of the laboratories - from cololialism-cum-nationalism-cum-modernisation-cum-democratisation - Western powers have opened up in the region have rarely flourished or come to any kind of fruition.
The Arab Spring in one sense is a reminder that in the chain of transformation the link of indigeneity is vital. The indigenous never leave. They stay on to build, re-build and match locality to globality but voluntarily and according to need, time, space and existing resources, human and material.
This is why the biggest "workshops" or "laboratories" of socio-political and cultural transformation are those forged today in the Arab Spring geography and countries where this élan meets with sympathy and support - as opposite patronage and tutelage.
"What is certain is that springs cannot bloom through socio-political labs forced onto nations
of the region."
However, whatever is certain is that the "Arab Spring" is not creating an enclosed terrain hostile to dialogue or exchange. To the contrary, time is opportune for synergy but only on voluntary, equal, mutual and reciprocal grounds. Choice is vital here: the Arab Spring states set to benefit a great deal from close links within the Euro-Mediterranean framework so long as there is a two-way street of flow of ideas and learning.
The European side, for instance, must today take stock, by learning from past policies that endorsed dictators. The same goes for the Americans who are championing democratisation in Egypt, Libya and particularly Tunisia, which they are pinning great hopes on as a democratic bellwether.
However, as the Arab Spring geography, including Syria, slips into temporary and intermittent instability and violence, obsession with security must not blind Western policymakers to "soft power" and reliance on the indigenous to sow the seeds and harvest their own springs.
There is improvement. However, there are still on the ground disturbing happenings which make Western administrations Janus-faced. On the one hand, they declare endorsement of the "Arab Spring", and in many cases, with full integrity and show of good will. On the other, especially where the US is concerned the use of drones such as in Yemen poses serious legal and moral questions that contradict with the spirit of the age of the Arab Spring: less violence, sanctity of human life, protection of civilians, etc.
There are also all kinds of questionable stealth operations, including by private security firms, which originated in the US and with CIA support, such as Blackwater, that muddy the Arab Spring. Whilst in parts of the Arab world protest has become a liberating daily practice, in other parts of the Arab world, some regimes are building know-how with Blackwater input to control crowds.
From Iraq, there is one lesson: the progenitor of emancipation cannot come from outside. What the American-led coalition more or less failed to realise in Iraq through invasion is today unfurling in the Arab Spring geography through people's protest and bottom-up struggles. It confirms one notable lesson from Iraq - and this applies today to Syria - self-liberation must be home-grown.
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.