By the time I post this ten years will have passed since the governments of both the USA and my government here in the UK together conspired to drag the middle-eastern nation of Iraq kicking and screaming into the loving embrace of western”democracy”. Studying the historical record I believe that it will back up my assertion that on almost all counts the armies of the west utterly failed in their quest to bring Iraq towards their vision of a safer Middle East. In this post I will discuss the reasons that war was waged against the nation of Iraq, moving on to looking at the ways in which the invasion spectacularly backfired and then concluding by observing the situation in both Iraq and the wider Middle East as it currently stands.
Before I begin examining in any great depth the specific reasons for war that were offered by the Bush and Blair administrations I would like to contextualise the wider political situation the USA found itself in when the prophets of war started banging their drums in 2002-2003. On September the 11th 2001 a group of terrorists, primarily from the Gulf Arab states lead by Egyptian Mohamed Atta crashed passenger aeroplanes into the World Trade Centre buildings, the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania with intended target being the US Capitol in Washington DC (the nationalities of the high-jackers is important for points made later in the conclusion of this post). In doing so the 19 terrorists were directly responsible for the deaths of 2996 people and for the injury of over 6000 individuals.
The attack was the greatest lost of civilian life in American history and to do this day holds the record for the greatest number of people ever killed in a single terrorist attack. The hijackers involved were financed by and affiliated with a terrorist group Al-Qaeda which, unlike most other groups which subscribe to similarly extremist interpretations of Islam who focus on fighting the “near enemies” such as Israel, India and Russia, focussed its attacks on the far enemy in the form of the United States. Prior to the attacks on that day the nominal figure head of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden had made public his list of grievances with the USA, chief among them was the posting of American soldiers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Desert Storm campaign against Iraq and also continuing American support for Israel (these grievances also are important to remember when reading the conclusion of this post). Alongside publishing fatwa’s against the wonderfully titled Crusader and Jewish alliance throughout the 1990s Al-Qaeda also engaged in several terrorist bombing attacks against US interests and property in the wider world. Despite this rather public campaign of violence and hate speech against the afore mentioned alliance, on the whole both the FBI and CIA as the main protectors of the American people failed to identify the coming storm even though voices within each organisation warned of a coming attack for many months leading towards that fateful day.
In the political climate that followed the attacks against America a great deal of soul searching took place within branches of the American government and it is my contention that it is in this context that in response to the worst terrorist attacks ever to take place that some of the USA’s worst ever foreign policy decisions were made leading ultimately the events of the 20th of March 2003. In the weeks after September 11th the whole world was recast in light of the events as being either supportive of America or antagonistic to it and ultimately it is this dichotomy that lead to the invasion of Iraq being as there was no middle ground for Middle Eastern dictators any more.
In the hyper-emotional environment that emerged post 9/11 , The US government perhaps abandoned the cold logic of previous crises and allowed itself to be lead by fears of terrorist collusions with regimes that were antagonistic to Washington rather than being guided by concrete facts. This leading of the blind by the one eyed man was partly the fault of the intelligence communities who started the fatally flawed process of feeding the government data and opinions that supported the dominant political currents of the time rather than clashing with them. It was this process that ultimately lead the US administration to focus its sights on the regime of Saddam Hussein as a major potential supporter of terrorism and the drawing up of a list of reasons that were then widely discussed in both political forums and the media. Below I list the main reasons that were offered for an attack against Saddam:
- The first and most critical of the reasons offered for military intervention in Iraq was the Saddam Hussein was in possession of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction that he would have been able to mobilise at a moments notice and threatened “the national security of the United States and international peace and security in the Persian Gulf region” according to the 2002 Iraq War Resolution. The reasoning behind this objection to Iraq is ultimately grounded in reality even if the threat itself turned out to be no more than smoke and mirrors which Hussein himself allegedly admitted was simply a ruse to warn off his regional enemies in the form of Tel Aviv and Tehran. In his 8 year war with Iran and during the regional uprisings of Kurds in the north of Iraq, Saddam’s forces used these weapons to devastating effect and so there was room for genuine concern that he was still in possession of such equipment. However of course in the lead up to the 2003 war not a great deal of discussion was heard on how Saddam had acquired such weapons in the first place, for example by buddying up with former conservative US administrations.
- The next critical rationale that was used to justify the invasion was that Iraq harboured and actively aided terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. In the dark days after September the 11th during the period of soul searching that many of the arms of the American government inevitably went through, such a climate perhaps lead to the acceptance of frankly schizoid paranoia that all of the USA’s enemies were in league with each other in spite of facts that disproved such notions. That such fears were expressed suggests a fatal disregard for the hard work of some American intelligence officials who had highlighted the existence and growth of autonomous networks of terrorists throughout the nineties that were not tied to states, and instead perhaps a willingness in a time of crisis, for senior government officials who belonged in a different era, to rely on older models of political thought where it was often the case that enemies of the USA were in some way being supported by the regimes in Moscow or Beijing. Such assurances that Hussein was supportive of international terrorists were made even though Bin Laden had repeatedly denounced him as an infidel and even offered during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to use Al-Qaeda fighters as a foot army to defend Saudi Arabia. As well as this rather specific evidence of the antipathy between both men, there was also Saddam’s long record, similar to that of many Western backed dictators in the region, of cracking down violently against any religious groups that threatened their power and the stability of their respective states.
- Less critical but also equally used as justification for the 2003 war was Saddam Hussein’s history of repressing human rights within Iraq. Again this, much like the concerns over weapons of mass destruction, was based on historical facts that all sides agreed on. However the use of this rationale to justify war against Iraq is troubling as taken to its logical conclusion it would also justify war against every nation in the Middle East, friend or foe of America and so its selective use speaks more about western double standards rather than the incredibly repressive nature of Saddam’s Baathist regime. Another similarity that this rationale shares with the concerns over weapons of mass destruction is that when reported both by the government and the media, not a great deal was done to really assess the ways in which American support had allowed Saddam to so vigorously repress human rights or created the need for such acts. The prime example in my mind is the uprisings in both the south and the north of Iraq in the weeks following Desert Storm which were to a large degree motivated by US calls to rise against Saddam that were broadcast over radio frequencies. When the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north heeded the call to rise up against Saddam the uprisings received no material support from the US despite suggestions that this would have been the reward for helping to oust Saddam. Of course though such a narrative in the media or government dialogue would have been far too complicated and would ultimately have served to de-legitimize the calls for war.
Now that I have assessed the intentions for the war as being A) to rid Saddam of his WMDs, B) to prevent support by Iraq for Al-Qaeda and C) to stop violations of human rights in Iraq I will now discuss the end results of the invasion and occupation of Iraq to see firstly if the coalition achieved its main aims and secondly to observe what the wider effects of the war were on the country.
The first rationale, to rid Saddam of his WMDs found itself confronted by one particularly unfortunate problem. Ten years on, not a single weapon of mass destruction has ever been found on Iraqi soil, and further to this, Saddam’s factories for producing this type of equipment were also nowhere to be found, putting the lie to the most feverish imaginings of the CIA, MI6 and other intelligence agencies. With the whole weapons of mass destruction line of reasoning turning out to be based on absolutely no concrete facts, the danger of faulty intelligence is being proved on a daily basis as Iraq sits (relatively) peacefully meanwhile in neighbouring Syria we are watching the state fall apart knowing that either A) a regime with a fondness for brutal repression or B) a variety of Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups could at any moment get their hands on some actual real life functioning weapons of mass destruction. I’m a cautious soul and in options A and B are two hands that I would not like to see armed with WMDs, ever.
The next stated aim of the invasion that was discussed above was the aim to destroy the terrorist connections between the Iraqi state and Al-Qaeda type groups and prevent the further development of such ties between Iraqi nationals and groups that the United States was at war with. As mentioned above also, the existence of such links was tenuous at best, non-existent at worst. Saddam had a long and some would say proud history of repressing ANY religious movement that he felt threatened him, and ultimately when you idolise and model your behaviour on dictator numero uno Joseph Stalin there’s a tendency to see threats everywhere.
Despite the proven factual record of repression against the Badr organization and the Sadrist movement during his reign, it is likely that the post 9/11 climate of suspicion lead worriers within intelligence agencies to connect these two dots. Anyway, in the event of the invasion of Iraq no concrete links were ever discovered to prove any form of alliance, formal or informal between Saddam and the scions of militant Islam. The closest that coalition troops ever came to fighting anything that minutely resembled the foot soldiers of Al-Qaeda was in fighting with Saddam’s Fedayeen brigades which were far closer to irregular personal militias than they were to terrorists. However all this being said, the coalition presence in Iraq didn’t take long to fulfil the prophecies of Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists and within weeks amongst the insurgency who fought specifically to free Iraq from occupation were more sinister elements who have gone on to wage a brutal campaign of bombings and intimidation against their sectarian enemies and brought the country to the brink of a civil war. Eventually the already low levels of support that such movements garnered from the Iraqi people dried up as they could see that such indiscriminate methods were harming their own communities as well as those of different faiths, creeds and ethnicities.
The third and most slapdash of reasons that was offered to justify the 2oo3 invasion was to protect the human rights of the Iraqi people from the iron fists of Saddam’s regime. Despite the cognitive problems caused by the notion of preventing suffering by creating massive human suffering that this ideal caused this was arguably the most successful of the coalition forces missions as strictly speaking they did through military intervention (questionable legality of such acts aside) free the people of Iraq from the 24 year long reign of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand though the invasion opened up the Iraqi people to a whole variety of new ways in which their rights could be abused by the powers that be and so the question genuinely must be pondered as to whether the rule of Saddam or the coalition authority was worse as both in their respective time spans ruled over an orgy of suffering.
Take for example the number of people who were displaced by the conflict, are they likely to thank the USA lead coalition for the war effort which destroyed both worldly possessions and family ? Probably not and by the very same token neither are the stillborn or deformed victims of depleted uranium who were not even guilty, having not been born before the war, of the crime of being Iraq in Iraq during the war against Iraq. Much the same as these two groups are unlikely to thank the armed forces for freeing them from bondage under Saddam due to the methods used, also equally unlikely to believe that the western armies were deserving of thanks are the countless victims of sectarian warfare that were killed simply by accident of believing in the wrong interpretation of scripture. Another group that I imagine feel little but contempt was the former soldiers of the Iraqi army who were imprisoned and tortured, again purely for the crime of having served in an army which as a result of the politics of international diplomacy was cast as an enemy of the USA.
In assessing the war to see if it achieved these three key aims it is plain to see for anyone who leans towards pessimism that the war was very little short of a complete disaster for the USA as more and more of the justifications that were offered for its waging fell to nothing, discrediting the USA greatly in the process. Alongside these three key failings a host of other developments in Iraq took place as a direct result of the war which I will discuss now to demonstrate how despite, if the record is to be taken literally, the best of intentions the war has had massive lasting impacts on the country which only serve to undo any good work that was intended.
- The first major upshot of the 2003 invasion is the rebalancing of power within Iraq that on paper would lend the impression that Iraq has become a more democratic society. The main indicator of such a rebalancing of power is the significant increase in the inclusion of Iraq’s majority Shia population in the political process. On the surface this is one of the few positive results of the invasion from the point of view of Iraq’s once repressed majority who suffered tremendously as a result of repression under Saddam and disproportionately as a result of sanctions against Iraq. While the increased inclusion of Iraq’s Shia in the political structure is a sign of progression this is not to say that such an increase in inclusion has not had effects which many people would argue are negative on the wider country. For example, with the increase in the number of Shia in elected government, there was a concomitant increase in the number of Shia civil servants which lead to charges of nepotism being levelled against Shia politicians responsible for hiring them which served to disrupt the transition of power and further polarise Iraqi society. As well as the increase in government positions held by Shia Iraqis, another side effect of their increased involvement in politics was a rise in militia type groups that supported certain politicians which threaten stability in an already unstable country. The prime example of a political movement that gained tremendous ground in post Saddam Iraq would be the Sadrist movement lead by Muqtada al-Sadr which did a great deal towards ending the occupation, but since has had a destabilizing effect on the wider political environment and could continue to do so many years into the future.
- Another result of the war that many had not predicted or planned for was that Iraq would develop much closer ties with Iran. The western hopes for Iraq in a post Saddam world were very much of a peaceful country with a strong quasi-dictatorial ruler that would align themselves much more than Saddam had with the Gulf Arab petro-kingdoms, and therefore would stay very much a friend of the USA and within the American sphere of influence regionally. With Saddam gone, Iraq’s relationship with its neighbour Iran has significantly thawed to the point where many argue that Iran now has a dangerous amount of influence over Iraq. For example, many Shia politicians who during Saddam’s reign languished in exile in Iran have been able since the end of the war to return to Iraq and perhaps as a thank you towards their beneficent neighbour have increased ties with Iran, politically, culturally and economically and generally speaking many view the partner wearing the trousers in this relationship as being Iran. The Iranian influence over Iraqi politics has by many sources even been argued to affect the higher levels of government with al-Maliki viewed as dangerously under Iran’s spell, with Iran having exerted a great deal of its influence in the country to support al-Maliki’s government and help in the reconstruction process. Many commentators are also worried that in the current political climate that Iraq will aid Iran in subverting sanctions by transporting banned goods across their respective borders, in the process propping up the regime in Tehran which American would dearly like to see collapse as a result of its economic blockade.
- Another result of the war that is an unusually positive one that few predicted is the continued growth and success of the Kurdish regions of Iraq. Perhaps it is a side effect of the autonomy that these regions already enjoyed but whatever the reason, the northern regions of Iraq where Kurds are the majority have managed to steer their regions towards economic prosperity and away from the sectarian chaos that has blighted the rest of the country. Like many success stories throughout the Middle East the boom in the Kurdish regions of Iraq is built on oil money so may not be sustainable in the long term but for the time being it offers a welcome alternative to the comparative stagnation that affects the other regions of Iraq. The continuing success of Iraqi Kurdistan also is dangerously tied to the success of peace deals between Kurds and the Turkish government in neighbouring Turkey which have in the past proved to be shaky and volatile agreements. If peace breaks down between the Mr Erdogan’s government and the Turkish Kurds and the porous border with Iraqi Kurdistan is used as a safe haven then the Iraqi Kurds may suffer at the hands of Turkish armed forces who often violate Iraqi territorial sovereignty in pursuit of their Turkish enemies.
At this juncture the reader can see that the many implications of the 2003 invasion are still visible throughout Iraq today and worst of all, it is not entirely clear whether or not the invasion can be seen as having changed things for the better overall in the country. Iraq today stands on a precipice with the chance to succeed greatly in coming years if its current luck holds, but also equally likely is that one event could tip the balance and Iraq would find itself in a more chaotic state than it ever did before, during or after the war. The wider Middle East is currently in flux and no-one can be sure what the end results of such change will be. In neighbouring Syria, civil war is raging and it is difficult to tell whether Bashar Al-Assad will survive the conflict or if the loose coalition of Syrian rebels and foreign Jihadist groups will succeed in toppling him. Whatever happens in Syria though, it is already having a knock on effect in Iraq with Sunni groups emboldened by the example being set next door. If Syria were to fall then I imagine there is a significant chance of Iraq suffering as a result of a safe haven for Islamic extremist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda being set up on its door step. Alongside this potential nightmare which holds the most concern for Iraq’s Shia population another concern that would affect the whole country equally is the Israeli and American intentions regarding Iran. I would guess that if the American government was stupid enough to be dragged into conflict once more purely to protect Israel that this too would have a massively destabilizing effect on Iraq with the conflict easily capable of spilling across the border into Iraq.
When we look at the how America has exercised its influence in the Middle East, the overall picture is troubling, not because of the massive violations of international law and customs although these might be equally applicable. The reason that American foreign policy in the Middle East is so troubling is the arbitrary and ever changing ways in which it is enforced. Take for example America’s view on dictators, Dictators in the last ten years have not been acceptable in Iran and Iraq, yet maintaining close and even amicable ties with the dictatorial rulers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates is perfectly palatable. Another prime example of the double standard is the issue of nuclear weapons where the USA has repeatedly threatened Iran in no uncertain terms over its supposed hopes to gain nuclear weapons yet Israel has never once received condemnation over its own nuclear programme. Want another example just to convince you that US foreign policy really is so arbitrary in its enforcement ? Terrorism is another great example, perhaps the best example with the USA actively engaged in extra judicial assassinations of Yemeni nationals guilty of association with Al-Qaeda yet in Syria the current US administration wants to arm rebels who have openly committed war crimes and are affiliated with Al-Qaeda. My observation of the problem is thus – while the US continues to so arbitrarily enforce its foreign policy against bit part players in the region such as Saddam’s Iraq, Bashar’s Syria and Saleh’s Yemen and ignore the real grievances of the Arab people who suffer so much as a result of much US foreign policy then there will always be terrorist groups willing to wage war against the USA. While America invaded Iraq to protect the human rights of its people it failed to end its uncritical support of Israel which breeds resentment as the rights of Palestinians are daily violated. While members of the US administration advocate for intervention in Syria to prevent WMDs falling into the “wrong” hands they chose to ignore the very real problems of what some might argue is endemic support for movements such as Al-Qaeda in the Gulf Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and UAE as we can see in the nationality of the 9/11 bombers. Ultimately then my argument is this, that Iraq has taught us a lesson that military intervention is a useless means to change things for the better and that if the USA and its allies are serious about making the world a safer place then they would do far better to solve issues such as chronic unemployment and restlessness for youths in the Gulf Arab countries which drives so much support and money towards terrorist groups. Such issues can be solved peacefully and the reward reaped in terms of saved lives would be significant enough to justify such policies as opposed to firing many millions worth of dollars in missiles at problems hoping the end result will be different to last time.