Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Friday, July 08, 2005

Iraq: Past, Present and Future - Part II (US, World)

Iraq: Past, Present and Future - Part I

This second part of my Iraq series will examine the question of whether or not the war was justified by examining the current situation and the factors which led to it. Again I disclaim, I'm no expert, I'm channelling the facts I can find through opinions of others to present my own opinion. And apologies for the length of this post, the issues are rather complicated and my opinion deeply conflicted.

The question whether or not a war is justified is an exceptionally difficult one to answer, especially when it is asked about the current Iraq war. Both sides of the cost/benefit equation are rapidly shifting and will probably not settle for decades. In addition there's always the problem of perfect hindsight - just because something didn't go according to plan doesn't mean putting the plan into action wasn't justified. Still, I'll take a look at the benefits and costs of the Iraq war and attempt to some sort of conclusion.

First, the benefits. Overthrowing Sadaam was unquestionably a good thing. Opponents of the war often sneer at predictions of Iraqis 'throwing flowers at the liberators' but it should never be forgotten that it actually happened:

It is commonly said by, umm, political philosophers like Maureen Dowd say that the - where were the sweets and where were the flowers? Well, I saw it happen with my own eyes and no one's going to tell me that I didn't. I saw it with - months after the invasion, people still lining the roads, especially in the south.
For miles, it was like going - it was like, this is the nearest I'll get to taking part in the liberation of the country, to ride in with the liberating army. I'll never forget, and I will not allow it not to be said that that did not happen. And in the marshes too - the marsh Arab area of the country which was drained and burned out and poisoned by Saddam Hussein. Again, almost hysterical welcome, and in Kurdistan in the north. So, extraordinary. But remember you said the population hated Saddam Hussein, that's true, really true. But more than anything, they feared him. They were terrified of him.

As the editors of TNR put it, "Iraqis today - no matter how scared and how bitter - are, in some meaningful sense, free." This cannot be denied and it cannot be ignored in any analysis of the war. A front page Dailykos post a while ago discussed the deception leading up to the war and claimed that "[e]ven assuming that Iraq comes out of this better than they would have been otherwise, which is a tough assumption, it doesn't justify the war. A good thing done for bad reasons is, at best, a wash" - a statement I wholeheartedly disagree with. The difference between liberal hawks and neo-cons is that the latter group, ultimately, judge outcomes through the rubric of America's strategic interests, narrowly defined, while the former judge them by the benefits which accrue to the people more directly affected by the policy (seeing this as in our enlightened self-interest). Of course, other factors must be taken into account, but to my mind the case for and against the war rests most directly on the effect it has had on the Iraqi people.

While the humanitarian case for war is fundamentally sound, in that Saddam was a Bad Guy (TM) and had 'gassed his people' - atrocities America and various European countries were partially responsible for due to engagement with the regime throughout the 80s - it should be remembered that his genocidal tendancies had largely played themselves out and massacres were no longer happening on a wide scale. This is not to downplay the insidious and destructive effect his regime of fear was having on his people, nor to deny that his regime was still taking and executing many political prisoners. However, from a humanitarian perspective, the urgency upon which the case for war was put was mostly non-existent. As I will explain, I think many of the problems with the war have arisen due to the fact that planning for it was rushed as it was being executed in the context of an over-hyped security threat rather than as a nation and democracy-building exercise.

I think an overview of the current situation in Iraq is in order. Perhaps the best source of information on the current status of Iraq is the Brookings Institute fact sheet on Iraq. The pdf at that link is updated monthly and all the information in it is from reputable independent sources. The story the current statistics tell is fairly grim.

(Estimates based on official statements from senior military figures in Iraq such as General John Abizaid, Major General Raymond Odierno, and General Richard Myers. Graph covers period Nov 2003 - May 2005)
(Target: 120,0000. Graph covers period Sep 2003 - June 2005)

I think the clearest conclusion which can be drawn from these figures is that the insurgency is clearly not in its last throes, as per Cheney's recent assertion. There has been a shift towards the Iraqi military/police shouldering a heavier burden of the fighting and casualties (a positive development which, I think, is reflected in the improving confidence Iraqis have in the future of their country) but the insurgency, while less effective than during two previous spikes of activity, is still extremely strong. I think the best explanation of why the number of attacks has gone up without a corresponding increase in military casualties is simply that the insurgency is switching to softer targets. But in its last throes it is not.

So what has caused this bad and, in some respects, worsening situation to arise? Clearly a large part of the problem is that Baathist and Sunni extremist have taken a dim view of being deprived of power after a few decades of minority rule and that the Iraq/Syria border is so large and porous that shutting down the flow of foreign jihadists and extremists has proved impossible. But the insurgents aren't only foreign jihadists and extreme Sadaam loyalists, a significant proportion of the insurgency is home grown. They feed off popular discontent at a lack of Sunni involvement in the political process and the fact that their country is under occupation by a foreign nation which has been unable to provide the basics of a civil society - security, stability, jobs, electricity, water and a prison system which doesn't brutalise its inmates (as both Abu Gharib and an increasing number of Iraqi-run prisons show).

Both these sources of opposition to the coalition should have been predicted, and indeed they were by many non-governmental sources and intelligence agencies. Whether or not the administration truly believed the unconditionally rosy "we'll be greeted as liberators and then we'll be able to leave" situation they were selling to the public, the conduct of the occupation displays a refusal to take the very real threats seriously. The post-occupation phase of the war frankly wasn't planned in a way that was likely to produce a stable, democratic, Iraq. Perhaps this was because the administration wasn't selling the war as a democracy spreading exercise and they weren't prepared to put a long, difficult, nation-building task on the table before the war began. Regardless, the mistakes which were made were real and dramatic.

Things started to go wrong before the war had even started, when the size of the invading force wasn't nearly big enough to establish security in a country the size of Iraq. Things got worse after the fall of Baghdad. The wholesale dissolving of Saddam's police force and army, without providing an adequate substitute, has the hallmarks of an ideological decision implemented without thought for its effects. These effects were twofold. First, this act immediately resulted widespread looting and the collapse of law and order. Second, in the long run it provided an extensive, disaffected, unemployed and armed population base for insurgent recruitment. A recent TNR article alerted me to another early planning decision which was to have long term destructive effects, the tolerance of armed, sectarian militias (Such as Al-Sadr's) so long as they weren't shooting at US soldiers. Such militias have gone on to pose direct armed threats to coalition forces and even ‘friendly’ ones are having destructive effects on the security and stability of the country by stirring up ethnic tensions and carrying out vigilante attacks.

Before the war started well respected Middle East researcher and vocal war supporter Kenneth Pollack wrote a book, The Threatening Storm, outlining the security and humanitarian case for war. He described a number of necessary pre-conditions for a successful post-war scenario such as finishing the campaign against Al-Quaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere to minimise the threat posed by foreign jihadists, building a strong multinational coalition to enhance the legitimacy of the occupation force in the eyes of Iraqis and to help raise the 250,000 odd troops necessary to keep the peace. He later acknowledged that none of these things were done and that the war he had so vocally supported was on the brink of becoming an unmitigated disaster:

Why did they try to fight the war (and do the reconstruction) on the cheap? Why attack with only four divisions of ground troops when roughly another four were available--and were all deployed to Iraq within the following year (albeit only to relieve the invasion force)? Why did the administration seem to go out of its way to alienate so many of our allies and devote so little time to the U.N. process? Rumsfeld's quips about "old Europe" and not needing the British to fight the war seemed deliberately calculated to frighten off potential allies. Why, too, did they dismiss all of the preparations for postwar reconstruction performed by the Department of State, said, the intelligence community, the uniformed services, and a host of other agencies, and instead follow Ahmed Chalabi's siren song? It would have been one thing if none of that work had ever been carried out. But, as someone who participated in many of those exercises, I know that much good planning was available and was discarded by those in the Pentagon charged with reconstruction.

These questions are among the great mysteries of the war. At present, I suspect that the answers lie in a combination of factors: The "transformationists" in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (probably including the secretary himself) wanted to prove that a big Army was unnecessary; the president's political minders probably wanted to keep the war small and inexpensive to make it more palatable to the American public; and the administration's "regime changers" wanted to demonstrate that toppling rogue regimes could be accomplished cheaply and easily to make it possible to go after others.
Today, even knowing what I do about our mistaken assessment of Iraq's WMD and our mistaken decisions about postwar reconstruction, I remain deeply torn about the decision to invade Iraq. At this moment, there are still positives to be weighed against the growing negatives. But, as I warned beforehand, I suspect history will judge that decision based principally upon whether reconstruction succeeds or fails. If it fails--and Iraq and the region are plunged into chaos--as current trends threaten, then it will be hard for anyone to justify the war.

I think I agree with his general position. The Iraq war could have been justified. It could have been conducted in a less rushed manner. It could have been conducted with much broader global support. It could have been conducted with a coherent post-invasion plan. It could have been started with the explicitly stated aim of creating a 'free and democratic' Iraq in order to build public support for an extended and bloody occupation. Democracy, properly and broadly defined, is not a Western concept and could have taken root in the country. But I fear that it will now never take root – and even if it does the cost which has been paid has been too high. This cost isn’t merely in the form of lives lost, on both sides, or the hundreds of billions spent. It is in the fact that the willingness of western citizens to support a humanitarian war is now destroyed for the foreseeable future. It is in the fact that democracy has become associated with instability, carnage and an aggressive war based on a false premise across the Middle Eastern world. And, disturbingly, it looks like Iraq is becoming Afghanistan for the next generation of Islamic Jihadists:
Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan was in al-Qaeda's early days, a new, classified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency has warned.

The CIA says this is because it is serving as a real-world laboratory for militants to improve their skills in urban combat.

The intelligence assessment, completed last month and circulated among government agencies, made clear it the view that the conflict was likely to disperse to other countries and Iraqi and foreign combatants were more adept and better organised than they were before the conflict.

Congressional and intelligence officials said the assessment had argued that since the US invasion of 2003, Iraq had in many ways assumed the role played by Afghanistan during the rise of al-Qaeda during the 1980s and 1990s, as a magnet and a proving ground for extremists.

The officials said the report spelled out how the urban nature of the conflict in Iraq was helping combatants learn how to carry out assassinations, kidnappings, car bombings and other kinds of attacks that were never a staple of the fighting in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet campaigns of the 1980s.

As it stands now, for all the good it has done, I cannot support the Iraq war. I take the position advocated by Paul Berman:
We could have applied the lessons of Kosovo, which would have meant dispatching a suitable number of soldiers. We could have protected the government buildings and the National Museum, and we could have co-opted Saddam's army--further lessons from Kosovo. We could have believed Saddam when he threatened to wage a guerrilla war in Baghdad. We could have prepared in advance to broadcast TV shows that Iraqis wanted to watch. We could have observed the Geneva Conventions. (What humiliation in having to write such a sentence!) We could have--but I will stop, in order to ask: What if, in mulling these thoughts, you find that angry emotions toward George W. Bush are seeping upward from your own patriotic gut?

Here is the challenge: to rage at Saddam and other enemies, and, at the same time, to rage in a somewhat different register at Bush, and to keep those two responses in proper proportion to one another.

Perspective is important, but support for Bush's War should never be seen as a necessary condition for hating Saddam. I do one of those.


  • Excellent analysis. I think 'liberation' was clearly an ad hoc justification for a war that was already decided on. If Saddam could be pressured to disarm, is it so hard to imagine he could have been pressured to democratize? And not knowing the character of Saddam's eventual successor, how can we say Iraq has been truly liberated? Finally, I must ask whether Iraqis under Saddam were more in need of liberation than people in other countries with strongman rulers, including Saudi Arabia? And Cuba, the communist dictatorship just off our shores? Why not start the war for liberty there and save some miles?

    By Blogger Charles Watkins, at 2:39 PM  

  • A very respectable position. Possibly one of two or three explanations for opposition to the war that I've heard over the last three years which I would classify as such. And in highlighting the incompetence of the post-war reconstruction you have hit my major qualm on the head as well.

    The thing that gets me is that they had the corporate knowledge within their own military and the militaries of their allies to get it right. There would have been people telling them to send in extra battalions of MPs, wage the propaganda war better and establish order, its just that they chose to ignore the advice.

    I think if you'd transposed Australian thinking onto the American immediate post-war situation, you would have seen a much better result. Just look at how the Australians managed East Timor and their area of Somalia (especially the latter as it corresponded so drastically to the American areas of control, lasting years after the Blackhawk Down bugout).

    Just on the issue of providing resources like electricity etc to Iraqis, and seeing no improvement in the situation. I think what's actually happening is that the situation is being markedly improved with better water-supply and electricity than during Saddam's time, which is steadily on the increase. It just isn't correllating to the justifiably large expectations of the Iraqi population, who have had to wait 30 years for this opportunity.

    I think there is also cause for hope on the Sunni front, as I'm sure you'll be aware that they are now actively taking part in negotiations to assist in the drafting of the constitution. I think that especially if the local Sunni leaders give their stamp of approval to the final document, the insurgency will rapidly diminish as the local impetus and support will be downgraded.

    Although it looks like we follow the same lines of analysis and are equally torn, I must say that I come down just on the other side of the coin to you. I still support the war and believe that the early incompetence is being rectified slowly but surely.

    I think the coalition (and especially our government) could be doing a lot more to assist with the development of government instututions and other structures that will guarantee the survival of the state. In the next week or so I might post some of the stuff I've been writing on that topic up on my blog.

    Once again, an intriguing post.

    By Blogger Freeworldnik, at 11:30 PM  

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