By Mahir Ali
March 06, 2013
TEN years after “Shock and Awe”, it is hardly surprising that among the dwindling ranks of those who are still willing to defend the decision to invade Iraq, the overwhelming tendency is to frame the question in terms of whether Saddam Hussein’s removal from power was a positive outcome.
It is all too easy to forget that in the build-up to the war the arguments in favour of invasion were framed in somewhat different terms. Saddam’s obvious demerits as a ruthless autocrat barely figured. The excuse was his purported possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Iraq had by then faced more than a decade of debilitating sanctions. The stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons had been destroyed and the regime had at the very least cold-storaged its nuclear ambitions.
It was, admittedly, hard to be certain. Saddam is believed to subsequently have confessed that he did not wish foes such as Iran to realise that Iraq was WMD-free. Hence the ambiguity and the games Baghdad played with United Nations weapons inspectors.
None of that ought to have convinced Western intelligence agencies that Iraq did indeed possess WMD. And for the most part it did not. They were well aware that evidence to the contrary came only from highly dubious sources. Yet George W. Bush and Tony Blair both claimed to have incontrovertible proof of Iraq’s mass-destructive capabilities.
They both lied. Each of them also appears to have believed he had a direct line to the Almighty — which puts them in much the same category as Al Qaeda types.
“If we hadn’t removed Saddam from power,” Blair said on BBC television recently, “just think, for example, what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now and Saddam, who’s probably 20 times as bad as Assad in Syria, was trying to suppress an uprising in Iraq.”
Bashar al-Assad may derive some consolation from being decreed 20 times less worse than Saddam, but among the things Blair chose not to mention is the fact that whereas Iraq’s post-Saddam administration is relatively sympathetic towards the Baathist regime in Damascus, the Sunni extremists in Iraq who were the bane of the US-British occupation have been mightily encouraged by the Syrian revolt.
In a brief comment in the American periodical The Nation last September, Tom Hayden perceptively noted: “The irony is that the US is protecting a pro-Iran Shiite regime in Baghdad against a Sunni-based insurgency while at the same time supporting a Sunni-led movement against the Iran-backed dictatorship in Syria … The US is caught in the contradictions of proxy wars, favouring Iran’s ally in Iraq while trying to displace Iran’s proxy in Syria.”
In the context of Blair’s apologia it is pertinent to ask how what he calls the Arab revolutions — which have delivered Islamist or semi-Islamist regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — would have shaped up in the absence of the Western intervention in Iraq. There can be no definitive answers, perhaps, but there can also be little question that the forces of political Islam across and beyond the Arab world were emboldened by the Iraqi resistance to foreign occupation. This resistance often took grotesque forms, but in that it largely mirrored the brutality of the occupiers. Evidence has lately been emerging, for instance, of “systemic” torture by British troops that echoed the depredations of Abu Ghraib.
It is at least equally important to consider the parallels between the build-up to the assault on Iraq and the constant reminders, from the US as well as Israel, that “all options are on the table” vis-à-vis Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Once again, the adversary is an unpalatable regime, but it would be perverse to conclude from that, even if the negotiations in Kazakhstan come to naught, that war is the answer.
In this context, it is significant to note that even the verified possession by Iraq of WMD would hardly have sufficed as a casus belli. Nuclear weapons are undoubtedly an abomination. Let us not forget, however, who invented them, deployed them without sufficient military cause in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and considered using them in Korea and Vietnam.
Saddam used chemical weapons in the war with Iran and against Iraqi citizens in Halabja, but there was precious little consternation at the time because he was deemed to be doing the West a service in tangling with the forces of the ayatollahs — and, besides, the components for his WMD came from Western sources. And it was, incidentally, British forces that pioneered chemical warfare in Iraq early in the 20th century.
Given the events of the past dozen years, it is hard to believe that the US would seriously consider tangling militarily with Iran. But there is a worse alternative.
The Western interventions in Libya and Mali indicate that Washington is happier playing second fiddle wherever possible. About the only nation keen to directly have a go at Iran is America’s closest ally in the Middle East, Israel (although even in that case the latter’s politicians are far more gung-ho than its generals).
It is all but inconceivable that Western intelligence agencies could be unaware of the likely Middle East-wide consequences of Israeli air strikes against Iran. One can only hope this knowledge has seeped into the relevant portals of power.
More broadly, it is certainly far from clear whether the lessons of Iraq have adequately been absorbed. And those who continue to crow over Saddam’s overthrow are inevitably reluctant to appreciate that the successor regime of Nouri Al Maliki exhibits some of the same symptoms, although its ruthlessness is restricted by the extent of its control.
Corruption, patronage and incompetence are still the norm. Violence, thankfully, is much reduced from the levels of 2006-08, but nonetheless sporadically claims dozens of lives, often targeting security force trainees.
The threat of disintegration still looms. Many of those thrilled by Saddam’s overthrow are now despondent. Substantial majorities in the UK and the US now deem the war to have been a worthless endeavour. Yet the risk that the grievous error will be repeated elsewhere in the vicinity has only marginally receded.