Eight-and-a-half years ago George W Bush took to an aircraft carrier and stood in front of a banner saying “Mission Accomplished”, announcing that the Iraq war was over. The banner had nothing to do with the Iraq War, White House officials would repeat tirelessly in the years following — it was a celebration of the carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, returning from duties in the Persian Gulf. When reporters pointed out that Dubya was happy to announce the winning of a war in front of it, officials would look pained and complain about the liberal media.
The Iraq War and occupation has been like that throughout, and so it was to the very end. Contrary to warnings from certain quarters, Iraq has not been turned into a permanent American base, with a pseudo-withdrawal leaving 80,000 US troops in perpetuity. Yet contrary to claims, implicit and explicit by US Democrats, the withdrawal was a response to the Iraqi government’s refusal to extend the life of US bases. And yet contrary to accusations by the Right, the US may not have been thrown out after all — the existing process is, after all, good for both parties.
Obama isn’t cutting and running — he can claim that the country is asserting the sovereignty that the war was for; and the Iraq government can pretend to a level of control it may or may not possess. Obama gets to celebrate the positive outcomes of the war, without rescinding his opposition to it, the stance that, more than anything else, won him the Democratic nomination.
That there have been positive aspects of the war in Iraq it would be impossible to deny — after all, there is no war that does not bring some good. Saddam Hussein and his apparatus — including the two sons he would have tried to hand over to — has gone. Would they have been got rid of by now anyway — given what we have seen in the Arab Spring? It is impossible to know. That the Syrian people have stood up to the murderous Assad family — part of the same gangsterish culture of a degraded Ba’ath movement as Saddam — suggests that people would have risen up. And there have been persistent stories that for some time before the invasion, Sunni tribal leaders had been negotiating with the French and others to try and arrange support for a coup.
Yet on the other hand, Saddam was more potentially murderous than either Assad jnr or Gaddafi at their worst. The latter two are brutal Third Worldists; Saddam had Stalin as a role model and a metric for body counts, and had been in a league of his own.
That murderousness — at the time of the Ba’ath consolidation of power in 1974, Saddam’s rise in 1979, and the repression of the Kurds in the ’80s and especially after their post-Gulf War uprising — made it possible for some to claim that almost any casualty rate from a war to depose him would be acceptable. “Saddam killed 167 people a day on average” was the refrain. This was a bizarre way to consider military action, since by the time it was being said, Saddam was constrained by a no-fly zone, and the greatest cause of death in the country was from the UN-applied sanctions to enforce weapons inspections whose principal purpose was to map the country’s defences entire. When one pointed out that he had become a dictator of middling lethality — his regime killing or disappearing about 2000 people a year, and that this was not sufficient for unilateral military action, one was accused of everything from heartlessness to racism, for thinking that Iraqis did not deserve democracy and human rights.
Two years after the invasion, 2000 dead would be a quiet week in Baghdad, and everything we had suggested — everything anticipated in any philosophy of “just war” — had come to pass. War, first of the four horsemen, had brought chaos, disorder as evil. The war generalised the violence — from US occupying troops, led by people with a profound contempt for those they were meant to be liberating, who brought a casual terror to everyday life in a way that Saddam never had, to ruthless sub-groups determined to advance an agenda, any vestige of restraint torn away by the process of invasion — until, as so often happens in such conditions, death became a medium of exchange, an act of communication.
By 2006, 20 bodies in a neighbourhood drain was a way of indicating displeasure. Any chance that a violent dictatorship gives of keeping your head down was gone in post-invasion Iraq, when death came from having the wrong surname, and children were sent to school without any certainty that they would return, in the time of the blockbuster car-bomb. At the height of this, the Right turned such chaos into a reason to write the Iraqis out of the narrative altogether. If they could not manage their own liberation, the argument went, then they only had themselves to blame.
The whole process had been an imaginary projection of US power in any case — removing the Iraqi people from the picture meant that all attention could be focused on American suffering and the meaning of the war in American life. It was about that time that the series of pseudo-critical US war films began — culminating in that Oscar-winning paean to self-pity, The Hurt Locker.
So now the hundreds of thousand dead, countless thousands more from lack of medical care, interrupted power supplies — all the things that, however inadequately, sanctions-era Iraq maintained to some degree — the 2 million to 4 million refugees, internal and external, the ghettoisation of Baghdad, the wanton damage to the national museum collection and the ancient cities, the continuing terror that can still claim 200 victims in a month — all this and more is now being stacked up against the eventual result, a formally independent country with a parliamentary system.
Was it worth it, the question is asked? Those on the pro-war Left that did not, as did Christopher Hitchens, abandon themselves to a delusional nihilism of means, trumpeting that not nearly enough had been killed, hit on a formula late in the day: “Do you still support the Iraq war?” they would be asked, to which they would reply “Well I’m glad that Saddam Hussein’s gone, if that’s what you mean”, a mantra learnt by the whole of Tony Blair’s benighted government. Insiders all, they showed no concern for the powerless, nameless victims of mass random death, nor even any sign that such chaos could be worse than a reign of terror.
On both sides of the Atlantic, as the occupation deepened and worsened, the reach-back to World War II, the century’s moral licence to unlimited violence became obsessive, and then pathetically narcissistic.
But the question, if it is to be posed with any moral seriousness, cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. It can only be answered with the question, who proposes and how?
The short answer is that, yes, such violence might be worth the result that was ultimately achieved in Iraq — but only if it has been inaugurated by the people themselves, and the people must be rising up. The rising must be broad, and one must be satisfied that it has the support of people, many of whom, by circumstance, will not themselves be fighting. In the presence of a rising, the moral decision must be made, with all the grisly arithmetic of death brought to bear — in the full awareness that non-involvement is itself a decision about death, not the absence of one.But in any other circumstance — and Iraq fits this circumstance — the calculus of costs and benefits, means and ends, is a category error, non-soluble. Pro-war parties made much of the fact that many opposition parties were calling for an invasion. But these were elite groups, often run from exile, and far, in every sense, for where the chaos would land. Only the taking up of arms can count as an appeal for the arms of others in support, and to ask what people would want if they weren’t under threat of lethal reprisal. It is to ask the question — would people revolt if they didn’t need to, its misleading nature self-evident?
People stood in front of a lot of banners during the past nine years. It’s a measure of how long we’ve lived with this war, that one could easily neglect to mention that lie that ostensibly started the whole thing. It was a bizarre moment — a lie that evaporated even as it was told, supported only by the desire of a fanatically propagandistic Right-wing commentariat to sell it, and some renegade pro-war Leftists who became more pathetic as the campaign, and then the war, went on. The US invasion of Cuba was famously started by the stories planted in Hearst’s newspapers; Orwell noted that the Spanish Civil War featured “battles where none had taken place”; if these wars were magic acts, the Iraq war was the Penn and Teller version — the tricks done explicitly, in full view, and effective nevertheless. The war remains as the high point of spin, a process in tune with the irrational exuberance of neoliberalism.
“We’re the empire, we make our own reality” was the phrase of an unnamed Bush official — but it was adapted for politics from economics, the idea that everything could be ceaselessly remade. Iraq killed that in geopolitics, and then it collapsed in economics too. The era of Iraq, spin, the new economy were all part of a Western imaginary, a narcissistic bubble blown and burst. For two decades, all normal economic rules had been suspended — consumption without production, borrowing without investing, finance without industry, and nothing bad had happened. Why could thought not become act? And in what era would this occur other than an era in which the West had been consumed by information and image, where thought was act? It is doubly hard to find the exit in a hall of mirrors.
The Right couldn’t see that. They would ultimately claim a victory of sorts by reference to the Arab Spring, and some notion that a bombing and invasion was an invitation to people to rise up. If anything, the Arab Spring was delayed for years by Iraq, as Arab solidarity overtook any internal politics of contestation against sclerotic regimes.
But if the Right were deluded by phantasms, sections of the Left hadn’t understood what was happening either, eager to ascribe the war to the clear and self-knowing pursuit of interests, oil and contracts. That was unquestionably part of the deal, but to see it as the whole story was to ascribe talents to the Bush administration that not even their most supine News Ltd boosters would venture to support.
The intersecting circles of their obsessions — from the extension of American power beyond its conclusion in the “Asian century”, to the re-invigoration of American purpose in a culture that had amused itself half to death, to the messianic military humanitarianism of a Tony Blair, and the post-9/11 Western triumphalism — were more than enough to start and continue a war. No doubt Saddam’s decision to euro-ise oil deals, thus dealing a blow to the dollar as global reserve currency, was a factor; so too was the work for Haliburton et al, and the prospect of sweetheart oil deals. The oil deals may or may not survive the US departure, but if secure access was their aim, the war was one of the greatest foreign policy disasters of all time.
Iraq is now a Shi’ite-dominated republic, about to embark on the process it was always going to embark on post-invasion — the definitive sorting out of what it will be. In that process, the prospect that US oil companies will be able to maintain their hold with bribes, and without troops is slim indeed.
The new Iraq, whatever form it takes, will enter a world very changed from the time when the invasion began — and changed by the very process that brought it into being. The process that Paul Wolfowitz and others would usher in the “new American century” has instead hurried on its decline by one decade, perhaps more. But if one really wanted to ask why that was, then the cost of the war would not be uppermost. After all, in the Bush years, the US ran up a deficit of $6 trillion, only one-sixth of which was for its wars. “The smallest war costs more than the biggest castle,” Louis XVI’s adviser noted, but in the 21st century the wars were the palaces — it was the hollowing out of the economy, and the tax cuts that made the crucial shift. Only in combination with the 2008 crash — and hurricane Katrina for the trifecta — did the US appear to have decisively shifted in the world. What remains to it are comparitively limited engagements such as Libya — and of course its ghost war, Afghanistan, a shadow of a shadow.
If Iraq was a war that at some point became a political problem, then Afghanistan is a politics masquerading as a war. Whatever the Afghani people are going through — as much at the hands of people sometimes known as the Taliban, when they’re the enemy, other ways at other times — it is some ghastly projection of petty political needs. That makes the cynical political calculus by which this futile engagement has become Labor’s “good war”, all the more desperately cynical. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that have died, will die, the 5000 American dead, with another 20,000-30,000 to come from suicide, injury and despair, vastly outnumber the Australians who have died in Afghanistan, and will die.
And so we have a Labor government, and its Left ministers, lost not merely in the graveyard of empire, but of progressive nationalist politics also — and complicit in the most wanton and wicked deaths of all, of the lives of young men and women who believe in certain myths — of nation, of duty, of loyalty — thrown away by slick politicians who believe in nothing but the numbers, and know well what they do and put out more banners to stand afront. Mission accomplished indeed.