What will it take to wake Western leaders and observers to the bloody folly of their foreign interventionism? Even as Iraq turns more calamitous, with vast swathes of land being conquered by an Islamist group that makes al-Qaeda look like the Women’s Institute in comparison, many in the West continue to delude themselves about Western interference overseas. This goes beyond Tony Blair’s self-protecting insistence that the current barbarism in Iraq has nothing to do with him or his 2003 invasion. Among Blair’s legion critics, too, the instinct is to focus on the alleged mistakes made during this intervention rather than on the destructiveness of interventionism itself. Watching Iraq descend into mayhem, liberals blame Bush and Blair’s ‘hubris’ in 2003 and their refusal to wait for a UN mandate for toppling Saddam, while right-wingers blame President Barack Obama, claiming his early withdrawal of US troops was an act of ‘criminal negligence’ that allowed Islamist militants to return. Both of these responses suggest that the lethal instability in Iraq is a product of Western politicians’ mishaps and miscalculations rather than of Western interventionism per se.
It’s time to cut through all this simplistic heaping of blame at the feet of individual politicians or specific policy decisions, and assert a more important truth: it was the act of intervention itself, the ideology and practice of Western interventionism, which destroyed Iraq and cultivated the calamity now enveloping large parts of that benighted nation. The suggestion that things might have turned out differently if the 2003 toppling of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime had been executed with a greater international consensus, or if cautious Obama had thought twice before overturning the alleged strongman Bush’s Iraq policy, overlooks the fact that Western intervention is inherently destructive, by its very nature, always having the effect of making conflicts worse through internationalising them and intensifying local divisions. For spiked, this isn’t a case of using hindsight to say, ‘If only the West had done things differently, then maybe things wouldn’t have turned out so bad’, as everyone else is doing. Rather, we argued from the very start that Iraq would be colossally destabilised by Western interventionism. In February 2003, a month before the invasion started, we said Western meddling would create an Iraq where ‘Iraqis are more divided than ever and local conflicts are exacerbated’. This can now be seen, in gory Technicolor, the inexorable consequence of the ideology of interventionism.
As ISIS - the Sunni-led Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant - has taken Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and also Tikrit, Western political observers have been desperately deploying hindsight to try to discover the one person or decision that might be held responsible for this apparent case of interventionism gone bad. The UK liberal broadsheet the Independent pins the blame on ‘Bush and Blair’s hubris’ and their ‘mistakes made after 2003’, which has the effect of indicting the overseers of the intervention in Iraq rather than the intervention itself - so much so that the Independent, like many of the other ostensible critics of the Iraq War, can now call for more intervention, a better form of intervention, to tackle the threat posed by ISIS. There is a ‘compelling argument’ for military intervention in Iraq, it says, to stop ISIS’s ‘winning streak’. For the American right, it was Obama’s 2012 withdrawal of US troops that caused the current crisis. Having ‘let our military presence in Iraq lapse’, Obama created a space for the rise of Islamic militants, says the National Review (somewhat overlooking the growth of Islamic militancy in Iraq since at least 2005). This critique of the style of interventionism under Obama also leads to a demand for more, better Western intervention today, for a firmer, boots-on-the-ground occupation, in National Review‘s dream world.
The neverending discussions about the style, attitude and tactics of the intervention in Iraq, about the arrogance of Blair or the cowardice of Obama, distracts from a more profound appraisal of the destructiveness of the very act of Western intervention. No doubt numerous technical mistakes were made by British and US forces during and after their 2003 invasion, but it was the prior logic of interventionism, the presumption of a right to use force to topple a foreign regime, which devastated Iraq and directly caused the current crisis. For the main achievement of today’s PR imperialism, of a Western interventionism governed more by the narrow political needs of morally bereft Western politicians and observers than by any kind of serious geopolitical considerations, is to unravel existing orders in foreign countries and to unleash tensions and divisions that had previously been kept in check.
In Iraq, the sweeping aside of a regime that had dominated every aspect of Iraqi politics and society for decades had the inevitable consequence of setting in motion a deeply dangerous process of fragmentation. Divisions that had been subsumed by the rule of Saddam’s Ba’athist Party came gushing to the surface. Most notably, tensions between the Sunni minority (from which Saddam and his party hailed) and the Shia majority became both more public and more pronounced following the destruction of Saddam’s regime. An early sign of this came in 2005, with the first, much-celebrated post-invasion election in Iraq, in which turnout was as high as 95 per cent in Shia areas and as low as two per cent in Sunni areas, and where 80 per cent of Iraqis voted for parties that most closely resembled and spoke to their own ethnic or religious background. As spiked argued at the time, this fragmenting of Iraq into opposing ethnic and religious camps, this politicisation of religious difference, was the inexorable consequence of the West’s removal of ‘the dominant political force in Iraq’. ‘Today, with no unifying or political force, whether of the ruthless Saddam variety or any other, Iraqis have fallen back on ethnic associations, one of the few things left by a war that removed the ruling regime and replaced it with nothing’, we said in 2005.