Ten years after the invasion, Iraq’s soundtrack is still one of explosions and misery. In the West, leaders that ordered it reach for excuses to justify the unjustifiable. Crikey’s man-at-large looks back.
The man had been a leader, but he was a leader no more, and his TV appearance might well be one of his last. So it was wild, and unruly, and he stared at the interview and the camera with wild eyes. Yes, hundreds of thousands had been killed. Yes, he regretted that. But think of the consequences had they not done it. A steeliness came over him. His enemies had not been defeated yet. There might have to be war afresh.
Yes it was Tony Blair of course, in an interview on BBC’s Newsnight, a rare appearance for the former PM who, as interviewer Kirsty Wark noted, was once a British hero of sorts and now could not walk down a UK street without being roundly abused. It was an extraordinary performance, punchy from the start, and, just as he was in the Chilcot inquiry, escalating very quickly to the hysterical, as he spoke of the need to now confront Iran, in the same way we had confronted Iraq. Wark was no match for Blair; to be fair, the flight of logic was so bizarre that it was hard to get ahead of. One gaped, not only because we were unlikely to see the likes of it again, but because it was so rare, now.
Ten years after the invasion of Iraq began, on March 19, 2003, those who had advocated the war — accepted obvious lies in its service, rejoiced in its early triumphs, turned on its critics when the occupation went sour, and eventually blamed the Iraqis themselves — have gone all but silent. Even a decade after, they are buffeted by fresh revelations of what a big lie it was (most recently with news that Latin American dirty war specialists were drafted into Abu Ghraib, making a direct connection between the torture carried out at the prison and General Petraues’ high command).
There is nothing in the Australian press, entirely caught up with the Prime Minister’s stay in a western Sydney hotel that they’ve already dismissed, and precious little in the US press.
In the UK, where the gap between public support and government enthusiasm was at its greatest, it has been only Blair himself, and a rare effort by Nick Cohen in The Observer. Cohen manages to spend 1000 words on Iraq without mentioning weapons of mass destruction once; he speaks of the “tens of thousands killed” afterwards, when the figure was hundreds of thousands, with millions displaced internally. But all these lies are in service to the biggest lie of them all, kicked off with a response to a straw man argument:
“For all that, I say, I would not restore the Ba’ath if I had the power to rewind history. To do so would be to betray people who wanted something better after 35 years of tyranny …”
That is the essence of the quadruple lie that sustained those who advocated and then defended the Iraq war, beyond the WMD farago: first, there was reasonable suspicion of WMDs in Iraq; second, the Iraqi people gave an implicit consent to the invasion in their own humanitarian interests; third, the casualties and destruction have nothing to do with the invasion decision per se; and fourth, they are, in any case, not of sufficient magnitude to degelegitimise what occurred. In thinking about not merely the Iraq war, but about intervention and involvement in other conflicts, it’s important to understand how those four distinct arguments interconnect, and were used in an interchangeable manner.
By now, the WMDs argument has been simply disregarded, as if a regrettable error. It wasn’t of course. It was a lie, its deceitful character expressed via the wilful blindness to obvious want of evidence. We now know the Bush administration was actively planning for the invasion of Iraq days after taking office in 2000, that most of the case for WMDs was based on a single source (the Iraqi defector codenamed “Curveball”), that it was all fabricated in pursuit of US asylum, a green card, and cash, and that British and German intelligence warned the US of its unreliable nature at the time. Leading officials knew all this. We now know they knew this. But crucially, we knew at the time the evidence for WMDs was so flimsy that no reasonable case for urgent action could be made.
“They not only took these transparent lies at face value, they specifically switched off the critical faculties inherent to journalism …”
Thus we knew immediately the UK government’s “September Dossier” (dubbed the “dodgy dossier”), presented as based on raw intelligence, was in fact compiled from publicly available sources, including mundane country reports, and a master’s thesis harvested from the internet — “s-xed up” with a claim Saddam Hussein had weapons “45 minutes from use”.
We were told Saddam had acquired aluminium tubes, required for weaponisation of uranium, and immediately told the tubes in question were not suitable for that process. In the ultimate insult to our intelligence, Colin Powell presented a satellite photo of two fire trucks in Iraq, saying these were “decontamination vehicles” for a WMD program. The case was never remotely made for WMDs; it relied instead on a phalanx of right-wing journalists, overwhelmingly concentrated in News Corporation publications, and a number of “Left”-liberal ones, who had come, post-9/11, to see the conflict as an epic battle between good and evil. They not only took these transparent lies at face value, they specifically switched off the critical faculties inherent to journalism.
However in the months after the invasion, the pro-war party enjoyed a moment in the sun. The war had gone rapidly, there had been no Baathist counter-attack, and an undoubtably violent dictator had been got rid of. Many felt no problem in simply switching to an alternative rationale for the war — it had always been for human rights, and the best interests of the Iraqis. By the time sectarian fighting began in earnest in 2004, riots had already occurred (“stuff happens”: Donald Rumsfeld), the army had been disbanded and nothing put in its place. Waves of lethal and widespread violence followed, and did not stop, and so it soon became necessary to change the humanitarian defence of the war.
It was not what Saddam had been doing when his regime was interrupted, we were told, it was all that he had done in his 30-year reign of terror, including the entire Iran-Iraq war, the reprisals against the Kurds following their post-Gulf War uprising, the gassing of them — and even, a new note, the brutality of his police force towards women. Numbers were crunched, and a figure of several hundred thousands come up with. The process appeared to happen in stages: the Kurds were added first, then Saddam’s political killings in the 1970s (when he had enjoyed enthusiastic Western support). Each new addition occurred as the death rate went up in Iraq. By the time 3000 people a week were being murdered in Baghdad, the Iran-Iraq war had to be added to the total to make the current suffering commensurate with that in the past.Counting every single death at the hands of Saddam and his forces as a rationale for humanitarian intervention made it possible to ignore the fact that, for a decade, he had been a low-level thug, responsible, according to independent estimates by both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, for between 1000-1500 political murders a year. That seemed relatively unchanging, and he was limited in any greater action by the “no-fly” zone. Was 1500 political killings a year — and the state of fear it engendered — worth the mayhem caused? Emphatically not.
By the height of Iraqi civil conflict, 1500 murders were happening in the country every three days. By no measure of just war or “responsibility to protect” could the huge violence of an armed invasion be justified. So, past killings were reached for. What was the rationale for their inclusion? It was never made clear. Any outbreak of large-scale violence by Saddam could have been dealt with by fresh bombing. So they existed in a twilight zone, where the rationale for invasion, de facto, became a sort of retrospective justice for the Iraqis. We created mass death on a vast scale, as an avenging for past death — without any guarantee it prevented future death (quite the reverse) and no explicit request from the Iraqi populace to do so.
By the time the killings reached their lethal height, there was the final absurdity of adding the Iran-Iraq war in. So the leaders of sovereign states were invading another sovereign state, because that latter sovereign state had invaded a third sovereign state — which state had not requested any assistance, and was itself lined up as a possible future target of attack and invasion.
By 2006-7, even this rationale was failing. By then we had had several waves of killings, the Abu Ghraib scandal, an entrenched sectarian slaughter, an ongoing war against occupying forces, and a basic failure to re-establish the most basic social and economic services, resulting in thousands of excess deaths. The climate of fear under Saddam had been focused around political opposition, real or imagined. Fear in post-occupation Iraq was universalised, liable to occur any time, any place. So millions moved, becoming internal and external refugees. Nor was there much joy in civil society. For some, their rights went backwards. The “imperial feminists” who had supported the war in the name of women found the new Iraq imposed Sharia law, with US support, reintroducing head-covering, the veil, driving women from professions and re-establishing patriarchal powers of local imams. Sunni and Shia neigbourhoods desegregated. Christians left en masse, under lethal and concerted attack.
And so, before the “surge” — that is, the mass bribery of Iraqi warlords — began, the final justification was deployed. We didn’t know it would happen this way, the war’s supporters said. Had we known we would not have supported it. This was put with the greatest mixture of honesty and prevarication by Norm Geras, co-author of The Euston Manifesto, in an October 15, 2006 posting on his blog titled, simply, “Failure in Iraq”, and coming on the heels of a Lancet report suggesting 600,000-plus excess deaths since the invasion:
“… had I been able to foresee, in January and February 2003, that the war would have the results it has actually had in the numbers of Iraqis killed and the numbers now daily dying, with the country (more than three years down the line) on the very threshold of civil war if not already across that threshold, I would not have felt able to support the war and I would not have supported it. Measured, in other words, against the hopes of what it might lead to and the likelihoods as I assessed them, the war has failed. Had I foreseen a failure of this magnitude, I would have withheld my support. Even then, I would not have been able to bring myself to oppose the war. As I have said two or three times before, nothing on earth could have induced me to march or otherwise campaign for a course of action that would have saved the Baathist regime. But I would have stood aside.”
Geras, in the ’70s, had been a leader of the International Marxist Group, the far-left brigade most willing to give political support to the Provisional IRA. Doubtless, he views that as a mistake too. He appears to have made a few of them, far from the combat zone.
“He has got it about as wrong as it’s possible to get, and his punishment is a weird exile in plain sight …”
This was the final position of the pro-war party, and it was, in what it proposed, the most stunningly amoral of all — for it ignored one of the key tenets of any “just war” approach, that a war is only just if its worst outcome is better than the status quo. Put simply: you broke it, you own it. You are morally obligated to recognise war is a fundamentally anarchic, uncontrollable process from the get-go. The pro-war faction was so utterly arrogant in their assessment of how the invasion would be greeted (according to Mark Steyn, within 18 months, Iraq would look like Connecticut), so desperate for a clarifying moral-political force, they paid no heed to its possible impact on the people it was conducted in the name of.
After Geras got off at Euston, the only people left arguing for the justice of the invasion were the late Christopher Hitchens — who argued that not enough people had been killed at Fallujah, where hundreds of Iraqi civilians had been killed by US forces tracking Fedayeen — and scattered groups of Maoists, who saw George W. Bush as representing the unfolding force of history (they were led in Australia by Albert Langer, who has now changed his name to Arthur Dent, as “a response to the absurdity of the world”). Nick Cohen and others were reduced to falsifying the casualty figures by orders of magnitude, and bleating that “liberals had lost their courage”.
What they had lost — and barely ever had — was shared ground with the fantasists in the media who attached themselves to Bush-Blair, ignored the most obvious evidence, and basic common sense, and pushed through for a mixture of blinkered ideology, and political and psychological need. People didn’t give up on foreign involvement, as was demonstrated by the mission in Libya. The mass of people simply turned out to be more sceptical, judicious and reasoning than Cohen and his ilk, which is a pretty piss-poor thing to say about a journalist.
Meanwhile, at the Chilcot inquiry, Blair was reduced to pleading that people credit that even if they disagreed with him they should accept he believed it was right — a tautologous and egotistical justification for a process that quite possibly delayed the Arab Spring proper by years, imposed a Shia stitch-up on a people that might have fashioned in a more genuinely liberating fashion — rather than the ongoing basket case that Patrick Cornwall has recentlydetailed.
That is what the pro-war Right and Left imposed on Iraq, why Blair goes all swivel-eyed whenever he is asked about it. Having backed a war people hadn’t asked for, and visiting misery on them, he then backed a dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, people were willing to give their lives to get rid of. He has got it about as wrong as it’s possible to get, and his punishment is a weird exile in plain sight, occupying useless jobs and shuttling between pointless pseudo-urgent negotiations.
He’s attended by a phalanx of earthbound enthusiasts, who joined his mission in search of their own meaning, a struggle that would give form to the slippery and bland politics of the West, a project for which the car bombs that yet go off in Baghdad a decade later serve as a reminder, shock without awe, failure’s cannonade.