Iraq? Whatever

Why the big issue of 2004 now leaves most people feeling bored

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

When 18 US soldiers were killed in the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, as American forces took on guerilla fighters loyal to the Somali ‘warlord’ Mohamed Farrah Aidid, it became a defining point in the decade. The US military rethought strategy and tactics; there was talk of ‘Mogadishu syndrome’, where in the future the emphasis would be on ensuring that ‘no US soldier return [from war] in a body bag’ (1). There was a book, Black Hawk Down, and later a film, starring Hollywood heartthrobs as American GIs hating every minute of their Somali venture and uncertain of their role in the world (2).

When 18 Americans – 13 soldiers and five civilians – were killed in a suicide attack in Mosul, Iraq, on Tuesday, it was greeted by what one commentator referred to as a ‘general shrug of the shoulders’ (3). The Mosul attack may well have a Mogadishu-like impact on the US military itself, but despite being the biggest loss of American life by a single attack in a war zone since Mogadishu, it has had little impact on public debate. In Britain it was edged into third or fourth place in the news, behind Blunkett’s fast-tracking antics, the £20 million bank heist in Belfast and, in the tabloids, claims that mobile phones are bad for kids.

Many have started to write of ‘Iraq fatigue’ (4). The big issue of 2004 now makes most people feel bored; there is a palpable ‘Middle East factor’, where scores of deaths in any given week become like background news, the norm, which most of us can’t be bothered to read about. Yet still the Iraq issue won’t go away. Despite a general sense of indifference, coalition leaders in London and Washington continue to be dogged by Iraq-related controversies – most recently over reportedly lax security at Mosul and revelations that US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld used a machine to stamp his signature on letters of condolences to the families of dead soldiers (5).

This seeming disparity – between a ‘general shrug of the shoulders’ on the part of much of the public and heated controversies in the White House and Whitehall – reveals something telling about the Iraq war at the end of 2004. It highlights the extent to which Iraq, from the shock’n’awe of March 2003 to the aftermath today, is a crisis of the coalition’s own making. It is not the anti-war movement or the disparate Iraqi resistance that have put the screws on Bush, Blair and the rest over Iraq, nor is it because events in Iraq are any nastier than in other war zones in recent history. Rather, the Iraq spats are internally generated, reflecting the coalition’s own lack of purpose and continuing failure to turn Gulf War II to any political advantage at home.

The anti-war movement likes to think that, in the words of Britain’s Stop the War Coalition, it ‘kept the issue of Iraq alive’ through 2004. In fact, the anti-war movement has all but fizzled out, certainly since its big march in February 2003, when an estimated million gathered in London’s Hyde Park to say no to war. The most notable thing the British anti-war movement has done this year is support anti-war MP George Galloway in his libel trial against the Daily Telegraph (6). And now they’re gearing up for the clash between Galloway and Labour’s pro-war MP Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow in next year’s general election (a squalid battle if ever there was one).

In the real world, the most heated controversies over Iraq have come from within the coalition itself, not from the anti-war movement without. Consider the WMD issue. Britain’s biggest fallout over WMD involved a law lord (Hutton) investigating the suicide of a Ministry of Defence scientist (David Kelly) who gave interviews to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that cast doubt on the government’s claims over Iraq. In America, the missing WMD became a sore point following the resignation of David Kay, a hardline Republican who supported Bush’s policy of regime change in Iraq, as head of the Iraq Survey Group. After failing to find any weapons, Kay declared that ‘We were all wrong’ about Iraq.

More recently, it is clashes between the military and politicians that have ‘kept the issue of Iraq alive’. Donald Rumsfeld has been taken to task over revelations that his signature is stamped on to letters of condolence to military families, rather than written by the man himself (this has seriously become a huge issue in the USA). And this fact was revealed by a former US colonel, forcing Rumsfeld to promise to hand-sign letters from now on. Rumsfeld also got into trouble following a question-and-answer session with US troops in Kuwait on 8 December. The soldiers grilled him, including one Thomas Wilson who asked when they would be getting adequate armour – to which Rumsfeld dumbly replied, ‘You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want’ (7).

Now even the future of the war’s architect, Rumsfeld, looks uncertain – less because he has been targeted by anti-war activists, than because influential men in the military and the Bush administration reportedly want shot of him, hoping that they can shift the blame for Iraq on to one man. In Britain, it has been military families who have kept the heat on the government over Iraq. Many have turned their grief at the death of loved ones into a weapon against the war, setting up a campaign called Military Families Against the War which advises soldiers in Iraq on their right to become ‘conscientious objectors’ and thus be sent home (8).

British military officials, meanwhile, have this year embarrassed the government by warning of ‘mission creep’ and of British forces being stuck in Iraq for years. As John Kampfner, political editor of the New Statesman, wrote in October, when 500 British Black Watch troops were moved from Basra to Baghdad: ‘For all the public show of agreement between officers and their political masters, rarely in the recent history of the British armed forces can the disdain of the top brass towards ministers have been so open as it is now…. What exercises them more than anything is the idea that they are seen as willing tools of a prime minister who uses the military as the vehicle for his “delusions of international grandeur”. These last words are not mine.’ (9)

The Iraq fallout is the result of a profound malaise within the coalition itself. With little sense of what they stand for and why, of what principles they are supposedly defending on the international stage, coalition leaders are easily torn by controversies involving signatures, armour or disgruntled families. A war designed to provide the American and British with some sense of unity, around what Bush called ‘the clearest of divides, between those who seek order and those who spread chaos’, has ended up bringing deep divisions to the fore. And if anything, the anti-war movement has done little more than feed off these spats – first by latching on to the intelligence community’s leaks about WMD, and now adopting grieving military families as the ‘parents who might yet bring down Bush’ (10). The anti-war lot are cheerleaders to the Iraq crisis, rather than having instigated it.

There was a chance to have a serious debate about international relations this year, about intervention, sovereignty and the state of Western politics in general. Instead we got a pro-war movement that can’t keep its story straight, and an anti-war movement that boos and cheers, panto-style, as the authorities bicker over the postwar fallout. No wonder so many are suffering from Iraq fatigue.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) See Where are we headed in the Balkans?, Washington Times, 23 June 2001

(2) See It’s about the man next to you, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) Recruiting for the army as casualties mount, NPR, 22 December 2004

(4) A simple cure for Iraq fatigue, Time, 29 May 2004

(5) Rumsfeld defends himself over criticism, Japan Today, 23 December 2004

(6) See Galloway 1, free speech 0, by Helene Guldberg

(7) There’s no defence of Rumsfeld’s gaffes, Indianapolis Star, 23 December 2004

(8) See Military Families Against the War

(9) Redeployment of our troops may be the final nail in coffin, Glasgow Herald, 22 October 2004

(10) The grieving parents who might yet bring Bush down, Guardian, 10 July 2004

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