The road to hell in Iraq was paved with ‘good’ intentions
Twenty years on, we are still failing to learn the lessons of this disastrous ‘humanitarian’ war.
Twenty years on, the US-led invasion of Iraq is widely recognised as a bloody mess. Every politician and his dog now thinks so. Even late Republican Senator John McCain, a hawkish promoter of the war throughout the 2000s, had decided by 2018 that it ‘can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one’.
This is not really because, as McCain claimed in his later years, the ostensible pretext for the war – that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction – turned out to be bunkum. The problem was not bad intel, or that the war wasn’t executed properly. The problem was the notions that drove the West to war in the first place. It was the West’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy that led to untold destruction, the destabilisation of an entire region and to immeasurable suffering.
The ‘shock and awe’ of that initial aerial bombardment on 19 March 2003 marked the beginning of Iraq’s descent into hell. The US-led coalition’s easy victory over Hussein’s wretched and broken regime – President George W Bush had declared ‘mission accomplished’ by 1 May 2003 – left virtually nothing in its stead. No state apparatus. No political institutions. No authority. The result was a collapse in order, a political power vacuum and a brutalising, years-long civil war.
Disaffected Sunni groups within Iraq, their once privileged position under Hussein long gone, took up arms. And amid their gruesome campaign of truck bombs and roadside ambushes, which peaked during the mid-2000s, the jihadist terrorism of al-Qaeda in Iraq took root. On the other side, assorted Shia militias, many backed by Iran, fought for control and influence. And right in the middle were the increasingly disoriented US-led coalition forces.
The costs to coalition forces were high. From the start of the war in 2003 until the departure of coalition forces in 2011, over 4,000 American soldiers and nearly 200 British soldiers lost their lives. But the cost to Iraq was far higher. Researchers estimate that between 100,000 and 400,000 Iraqis were killed during the same period. Many millions more Iraqis were displaced, basic infrastructure was ruined – even today, some parts of Iraq only receive 12 hours worth of electricity a day – and socio-economic life was destroyed.
The disastrous effects of the invasion don’t stop there. Islamic State, which cut a murderous dash through Iraq and Syria in the mid-2010s, emerged out of Iraq’s grisly sectarian civil war. Iraq’s collapse also destabilised the Middle East more broadly, as regional powers jostled for position. Turkey re-commenced its historic war against the Kurds in northern Iraq. Iran secured a central military and political role in Iraq’s postwar infrastructure. And Saudi Arabia felt duly antagonised.
Civil war. Regional volatility and jihadist insurgencies. And hundreds of thousands of deaths. These are the barbaric consequences of the invasion of Iraq.
The real reason for the war
Few politicians today want to be associated with this disaster. Recent American presidents, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, have explicitly presented themselves as opponents of the war. ‘Don’t do stupid shit’, as Obama remarked to the press in 2014. The UK Labour Party has spent the best part of the past two decades trying to distance itself from prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to go to war. Even vaguely sympathetic accounts of the war in Iraq admit it was a ‘debacle’.
Yet the question that still needs to be asked today is the same one that loomed over it at the start. Why? The descent into civil war. The destabilisation of the Middle East. The flourishing of sectarian terrorism. None of this was unforeseen. Those with knowledge of the region – from Iraq experts in Britain, such as Rosemary Hollis and Toby Dodge, to innumerable US Middle East specialists, including current CIA chief Bill Burns – reportedly warned our leaders of just such a chain of events in the run-up to the invasion. So why did Bush’s America, aided and abetted by Blair’s Britain, seem determined to press ahead with what was always likely to become one of the most damaging military adventures of modern times?
Indeed, the determination of Blair and Bush to press ahead, come what may, is one of the most striking aspects of the run-up to the invasion. ‘I will be with you, whatever’, ran Blair’s infamous memo to Bush from July 2002. This was why the invasion of Iraq had an air of inevitability about it from the moment Bush announced that Iraq was part of an ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union address in January 2002. Bush, with Blair at his back, seemed dead set on this course of action. Indeed, it was precisely this wilful determination to intervene in Iraq that led Blair and his advisers, led by spinner-in-chief Alastair Campbell, to try to manufacture a case for the invasion based on Hussein’s alleged possession of WMDs. This was politically driven evidence-making. An after-the-fact justification for a decision already taken. And it culminated, of course, in the creation of the ‘dodgy dossier’ (a term originally coined by spiked’s Brendan O’Neill), which claimed that Hussein could activate weapons against Britain within 45 minutes.
But what was the driving force behind this determination to invade? Why did American and British political elites feel almost compelled to carry out this intervention, despite the warnings of so many experts?
Too many of the usual explanations have a slightly conspiratorial bent. They tend to try to look behind the scenes, ‘to see what was really going on’. They often focus, for instance, on the influence of the so-called neoconservative foreign-policy ‘blob’ on the Bush administration. They argue that the neocons effectively pushed the incurious Bush into war, with Blair holding his hand.
It’s certainly true that the likes of then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz had been advocating for a more assertive approach to Iraq and the Middle East before they took up their positions at the Pentagon. Indeed, as part of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) think-tank, they had signed open letters to President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, calling for ‘the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power’. The ‘current American policy toward Iraq is not succeeding’, declared one 1998 letter, which warned that the US ‘may soon face a threat in the Middle East more serious than any’ it had faced ‘since the end of the Cold War’.
Yet while there’s no doubt that this political clique helped shape American foreign-policy discussion in the 1990s and 2000s, they were hardly swimming, conspiratorially, against the tide. In fact, liberals were just as obsessed with the supposed threat Hussein posed during the 1990s and 2000s as their neoconservative adversaries were. After the first Gulf War in 1990-91, in which the US pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, the US subjected Iraq to a punitive sanctions regime and the UN carried out regular weapons inspections before Iraq refused to participate in 1998. That same year, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which made it US policy ‘to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein’. The long-standing animus towards Hussein’s Iraq was not confined to the neoconservative fringes of American political life. It was right there at its centre.
Others continue to claim that the war in Iraq was all about oil – an argument that has proved especially popular among sections of the anti-war left. In true ‘follow the money’ fashion, they claim as their smoking gun the fact that Dick Cheney was CEO of oil giant Halliburton immediately before he became Bush’s vice-president in 2000. The problem with the ‘war for oil’ explanation is that a war was simply not in US Big Oil’s interests. Oil companies, including Halliburton, had spent much of the 1990s either lobbying for an easing of the Western sanctions on Iraq or simply dodging them. These companies didn’t want to remove Hussein – the accompanying chaos would hardly be good for business. They wanted better relations with him. As Big Oil’s relationship with other Middle Eastern and Gulf states shows, the likes of Halliburton or Exxon have no problem at all working with despots.
A search for moral purpose
To understand the driving forces behind the Iraq War, we need to look not at neoconservative cliques and greedy oil barons, but at two broader trends instead – the development of an ‘ethical’, ‘humanitarian’ or ‘values-based’ foreign policy, and the culture of fear. Because it’s these two trends combined that provided Blair and Bush with the sincere conviction that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.
During the 1990s, Western powers were struggling ideologically with the impact of the end of the Cold War. Yes, America was triumphant. It was now the sole superpower, hegemonic and so on. But without its old Communist adversary, the Soviet Union, it also lacked the old ideological means to legitimate its own liberal, democratic, capitalist system. It needed something to affirm itself against. It could hardly continue to call itself the ‘leader of the free world’ when the ‘unfree’ world had to all intents and purposes ceased to exist. It was this internal, domestic crisis of legitimacy that manifested itself in an external search for moral purpose, a need for new ‘monsters to slay’, new evils to be fought. This is why an internal crisis of meaning played out at the level of foreign policy, which was often mediated through globalist institutions from the UN to NATO. Because it was through a demonstration of moral authority abroad that the US and its allies could justify their rule at home.
And so, during the 1990s, foreign policy acquired an unprecedented domestic prominence – as the projection and pursuit of a moral, often ‘humanitarian’ purpose. As Tony Blair put it in his famous speech to the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999, the new ‘doctrine of the international community’ should have recourse to the idea of a ‘just war’. This would entail violating the sovereignty of other nations in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing. The ethical imperative was to trump national sovereignty. Blair was not going out on a limb here. He was basking in the perceived glory of his and Bill Clinton’s NATO-led intervention in the Kosovo conflict that was underway at the time. NATO’s brutal bombing of Serbia, which was then battling the Kosovo Liberation Army, was seen by Clinton and Blair as an example of a just war.
The most significant consequence of the rise of ‘ethical foreign policy’ during the 1990s was that it downgraded and eroded the value accorded to national sovereignty. The moral mission of the US and its allies now reigned supreme. No borders or nation states could stand in its way. In the name of protecting human rights, of preventing ‘evil’ state actors from harming their own populations, Western nations were empowering themselves to intervene in the affairs of other nations. As Perry Anderson put it, ‘human rights became the global trampoline for vaulting over the barriers of national sovereignty’.
The belief that national sovereignty could be overridden in the name of a higher ethical principle is what made an invasion of Iraq so likely. As stated above, Hussein’s Ba’athist regime had been singled out by the US as a serial violator of human rights throughout the 1990s. It was clearly seen as a legitimate target for any future ‘values-based’ intervention. But it was the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001, and the subsequent ‘war on terror’, that made the invasion seem necessary to Bush and Blair. This was not because either Hussein or Iraq had anything to do with al-Qaeda’s destruction of the Twin Towers. There was no connection between the two. It was because after 9/11 Hussein appeared not just as ‘evil’, the potential subject of an ethical intervention, but also as a threat, and therefore the subject of an urgent intervention. Indeed, as spiked put it at the time, if there was any overriding concern behind the invasion it was pre-emption – an expression of ‘the contemporary Western obsession with precaution and risk aversion’. Or as one Senator Joe Biden put it in 2002, ‘we have no choice but to eliminate the threat’, before adding, ‘this is a guy who is an extreme danger to the world’.
In sum, a need to demonstrate moral authority domestically through foreign-policy interventions made the invasion of Iraq all too possible. And the political elites’ desire to mitigate risk, to be better safe than sorry, made it all but inevitable. There was no conspiracy needed. Nor did it need a neocon power behind the throne, or an Alastair Campbell spinning the way to war with endless lies. The invasion of Iraq was a product of the mainstream political culture of Western elites.
It is worth remembering that the war wasn’t just cheered on by warmongering American right-wingers. It was also championed by certain sections of Britain’s liberal-left commentariat, too. Having supported the intervention in Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, and having bemoaned the lack of intervention in the civil wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the mid 2000s, they treated the invasion of Iraq as a righteous cause. It was a chance to do some more good in the world, to demonstrate their virtue in the act of deposing a tyrant thousands of miles away, and to make their lives feel more secure in the process.
‘I want him out’, said then Observer columnist David Aaronovitch in February 2003, ‘for the sake of the region (and therefore, eventually, for our sakes), but most particularly for the sake of the Iraqi people who cannot lift this yoke on their own’. As millions marched in protest against the war in February 2003, Nick Cohen wrote in the Guardian that the anti-war movement posed the greatest threat to the emergence of a democratic Iraq. And, also in February 2003, the Independent’s Johann Hari stated, ‘If Britain were governed by [Saddam Hussein], I would welcome friendly bombs’.
The shallowness of these metropolitan militarists was matched only by their unshakeable sense of moral righteousness. They believed (and there’s nothing to suggest they’ve changed their minds) that simple moral intention excuses everything. That the invasion of a sovereign nation is always justified in the name of doing the right thing. That’s all that matters – their sense of moral superiority demonstrated in faraway lands. And in a way, the personal outlook of these smug hacks reflects the enduring outlook of the American and British elites who undertook this terrible invasion – that it was launched for the right reasons. Apparently, it was just the execution that was wrong. There wasn’t enough forward planning. Not enough local knowledge. Too few troops at the wrong moments. It was a hell born of good intentions.
This is why the invasion of Iraq can be deemed a ‘debacle’, even by many of those who nevertheless support similar interventions. Despite Iraq, they called for the occupation of Afghanistan to continue. Despite Iraq, they celebrated the UN’s adoption of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in 2005, which enshrined the right to intervene in sovereign nations’ affairs in the name of human rights. Despite Iraq, they demanded the intervention in Libya in 2011, which led to the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi. Despite Iraq, they called for more intervention in Syria from 2011 onwards. And no doubt they would happily support ‘regime change’ in Russia, too.
It doesn’t matter that Afghanistan is now in ruins. That Libya is now a lawless, dystopian territory governed by militias. That Syria is still in the throes of a never-ending civil war. They will acknowledge the horror of the Iraq War, but they refuse to learn any of its lessons. They can’t see that it was precisely because it was a war in search of moral purpose that it was so dangerous. It led to a conflict that was driven by abstract moral imperatives, rather than old-fashioned national interests, or the needs and desires of the Iraqi people themselves.
And here we come to the biggest problem with these sovereignty-violating interventions. They ignore the only possible source of freedom from tyranny or despotism – and that comes through the people themselves. It comes from their struggle for self-determination, from their desire to make freedom a lived reality, from their willingness to forge new political institutions that better express their interests. Freedom is not something that can be gifted to a people by benign, superior outsiders, and it’s not something to be delivered out of the barrel of a gun. But that is what happened in Iraq. And as a result, ‘the Iraqi people have found themselves washed up in a postwar landscape that they played no part in creating’, as spiked put it in 2003.
Too many on what’s left of the anti-war left have also proved incapable of learning the lesson of the Iraq War. In their loathing for Western interventionism, they’ve lost sight of the importance of defending national sovereignty and a people’s right to determine their own future. And so they have tended to treat the war in Ukraine almost entirely as another case of Western interventionism, as if there is a straight line of continuity from Iraq to the supposedly NATO-driven war in Ukraine. As if the US and its allies are once again the chief aggressor. Which would be true if the US had led a military coalition of the willing into Ukraine last February to overthrow its government. But obviously, it didn’t. Rather, it was Russia that invaded Ukraine. It was Russia that unleashed a campaign of ‘shock and awe’ on Ukrainian towns and cities. It was Russia that set out a programme of regime change, or ‘de-Nazification’, as Putin had it.
This response to the war in Ukraine is itself a minor tragedy. Many of those who protested against the Iraq War two decades ago, who rightly condemned it as a vain, neocolonial venture, are now wilfully repressing the reality of Moscow’s own neocolonial venture. As left-wing theorist Slavoj Žižek correctly points out, ‘[George W] Bush did the same thing [to Iraq] as Putin is now doing to Ukraine, so they should be both judged by the same standard’.
In Iraq, it was a US-led coalition undertaking an act of aggression. In Ukraine, it is Russia. These are two very different protagonists. But in both cases, the same principles are under assault: national sovereignty and a people’s freedom to determine their own future. Standing up for these values today has never been more important.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
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