The tenth anniversary of the launching of the Iraq war is tomorrow and it seems that everybody and his uncle are weighing in on it, and with the inevitable question posed by mainstream commentators: “was it worth it?” (answer: for the US, a categorical NO; for Iraq, I would say categorically NO as well but only Iraqis themselves are qualified to answer that one). I have much to say on the subject—in short: the war was America’s biggest ever foreign policy disaster, caused the violent death of up to 200,000 Iraqis and suffering for millions, cost the American taxpayer over a trillion dollars and with upwards of 40,000 Americans killed or wounded—but will not get into a lengthy discourse. What I will do, though, is publish my analyses and views of the time, between August 2002 and September 2003 (more on this below). In the meantime, a few comments.
First, I was opposed to the war. Period. But I wasn’t opposed 100%. My tenacious hatred of Saddam Hussein and his regime—dating from the 1980s—was such that a part of me—say, one-third (33%)—was not opposed to the idea of a military intervention to free the Iraqi people from the yoke of the criminal Ba’athist tyranny. I 100% supported the 1990-91 intervention and war from Day One—from the moment I heard the news on August 2, 1990, that Iraq had invaded Kuwait (I was in France, the US, and Algeria during that period)—and somewhat regretted that the 101st Airborne didn’t go all the way to Baghdad at the end of that one (though knew it wasn’t realistic or in the cards; though I did condemn Bush 41 for allowing the Republican Guard to slip away and doing nothing while the latter crushed the Shia uprising). I likewise 100% supported the post 9/11 intervention in Afghanistan (but then, everyone in America and France outside the hard left did). These two interventions were no brainers IMO and I had little patience with those who opposed them (and who included numerous American leftist and Maghrebi friends, and with whom I had numerous arguments).
But the 2003 Iraq war—a war of choice and entirely fomented by the Bush-Cheney administration—was different. The notion that Iraq possessed actual weapons of mass destruction and ergo posed a threat to the US was bullcrap, as was its purported links to Al-Qaida and “international terrorism.” In 2002-03 Iraq did not even pose a threat to its neighbors, let alone to the US and Europe. IMO the only halfway legitimate argument for intervening was regime change and for the benefit of the Iraqi people (I emphasize IMO, as no intervention could have ever been justified—either legally or with American public opinion—on this basis alone). I could have gone along with an intervention if I had been certain that such would have been swift and relatively painless—with minimal death and destruction inflicted on Iraq—, and followed by a quick US withdrawal and smooth transition to a pluralistic political order. But, as I explicated at the time, I knew that it wouldn’t happen this way, that the war and its aftermath would be a fiasco, that the US had no justification in launching an unprovoked war, and was too arrogant, ignorant, and incompetent for anything good to come of it (and as a Lebanese friend rhetorically asked me at the time, what right did the United States have to drop bombs on Iraq and sow death and destruction, when Iraq had done nothing to provoke it?). So while a third of me was for an intervention—and that would momentary spike when seeing televised images of the imperious Saddam and his psychotic sons around a conference table, with government ministers or army generals dutifully taking notes like schoolchildren and while quaking in their boots—two-thirds of me (67%) was hostile to it. And since 67 is greater than 33, I was against. Period.
Though opposed to the war I did, however—and for the record—, feel satisfaction at the fall of the regime on April 9th, cheered Saddam’s capture in December, and gave the thumbs up to the termination with extreme prejudice of his wretched sons the following July. Sorry but no apologies for this.
My opposition to the war was fueled in part by revulsion at the nationalist hysteria in the US at the time, stoked by the Bush-Cheney administration and its shock troops in the media. Or its lemmings. While visiting the US in late ’02-early ’03 I watched Fox News every evening (Bill O’Reilly etc), to study the phenomenon, as it were. And I regularly tracked various right-wing organs on the web, notably The Weekly Standard and NRO. To get the kind of jingoism and militarism in France that was standard fare on the American right, one would have to go into Front National territory. And even then. I will say nothing more here about the chicken hawk commentators on the American right except that in their beating the drums for war—and denigrating and slandering anyone who disagreed with them—they couldn’t have cared less for the Iraqi people. It was all about America and nothing but America—of the need for America to, in the words of the unspeakable Michael Ledeen, “pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” (any takers on the American right for throwing North Korea against the wall? hey, that’s a little country! and why doesn’t America pick on a country its own size, like China or Russia? yeah, sure). As I’ve said before, if Bill O’Reilly and others of his American right-wing ilk—and including the women (Ann Coulter et al)—had been Italian in the early 1920s, they would have worn black shirts and carried black truncheons.
This being said, I was convinced at the time—and remain so—that the Bush-Cheney administration was not lying about the WMDs, in that they really believed their rhetoric on this. They did not knowingly recount falsehoods. There were enough reports in the years following the invasion (by Seymour Hersh, among others) that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al were certain that Saddam had CBWs and was trying to develop a nuclear bomb, and that if there wasn’t any clear evidence on this, they were going to find it. And in the post-9/11 nationalist hysteria, they easily swept up most of Washington—Congress, think tanks, MSM—in their alternate reality, and where discordant or dissenting views were dismissed or simply not listened to. It was groupthink. The phenomenon was as much psychological as political.
It was likewise on the link between Saddam and 9/11. In January 2001, the American Enterprise Institute published a book entitled Study of Revenge: The First World Trade Center Attack and Saddam Hussein’s War against America, by Laurie Mylroie, which argued that Saddam had been behind every terrorist attack against America and Americans since the Gulf War. On the back of the book were plugs by Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, and the book’s post-9/11 second edition carried a forward by James Woolsey. If one bought Mylroie’s argument before 9/11, it stood to reason that one was going to continue buying it after. I read Mylroie’s book in the month following 9/11 and found it compelling, even though I had had a generally low opinion of her (despite her government/Middle East studies Harvard Ph.D. she was, intellectually and academically speaking, not Harvard material). And a lot of her evidence was speculation, some of which she could have in fact verified (had she been a better social scientist). But in the immediate post-9/11 period I was ready to believe her argument. Why? Because I wanted to. My hatred of Saddam Hussein was such that I wanted to believe that he was in cahoots with Bin Laden and the 9/11 operation. But after running my views by a couple of DC friends in the know and continuing to read a lot, I dropped the Mylroie thesis (as has just about everyone who initially bought it; she was always regarded as a nutcase by the foreign policy establishment and was finally repudiated even by erstwhile associates on the right).
It was likewise with Saddam and CBWs, which I believed for a stretch, having listened to the categorical assertions of Thérèse Delpech in 2002 that Iraq was seeking to build up its stocks of chemical weapons—and the brilliant and intimidating Delpech, who had been France’s representative on UNMOVIC, definitely knew of what she spoke, or so I assumed. But then I read stronger evidence to the contrary; and in any case, possessing chemical weapons, which are not WMDs, is hardly a casus belli. (Delpech was, BTW, one of the few members of the French state elite who wanted France to align itself with the US on Iraq and tried to persuade the government that Saddam was acquiring CBWs; but Bruno Le Maire—Dominique de Villepin’s top aide at the time—, who received her at the Quai d’Orsay and heard her out on the subject, found her unconvincing—as he recounted here—, in large part because the French had near ironclad intelligence that Iraq had nothing in the way of CBWs or WMDs—and which they shared with the Bush-Cheney administration, but who wouldn’t hear of it).
And then there was Khidhir Hamza’s 2001 book Saddam’s Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq’s Secret Weapon, which I read with great interest soon after it came out. I basically bought Hamza’s core contention—that Saddam was hellbent on acquiring a nuclear device—, though found some anachronisms in his account, not to mention a portrait he painted of Saddam’s regime as being so crazy, nepotistic, and pathetically incompetent that the mere notion that Iraq could ever achieve the technological and organizational sophistication to go nuclear was simply laughable. So with time I scratched that one (and it turned out that Hamza was a fabulator and whose book was riddled with gross exaggerations and downright falsehoods).
I recount all this simply to underscore the point that if one wants to believe something, one will find credible-sounding evidence to back it up. And dismiss evidence to the contrary. And such was the case with the Bush-Cheney administration and its supporters on Iraq. Again: groupthink.
A couple more points. Though I detested and loathed the Bush-Cheney administration’s right-wing cheerleaders, I was somewhat indulgent toward liberal hawks who were willing to acknowledge the validity of arguments against going to war, to seriously debate the issue (so this does not include Christopher Hitchens or the editors of TNR at the time) (and I found the small number of liberal hawks in France, e.g. Romain Goupil, to be downright refreshing). There were those out there—liberals but also a few neo-conservatives (e.g. Robert Kagan)—who genuinely supported military intervention in Iraq to free the Iraqi people from the yoke of Saddam’s tyranny. The Wilsonian strain in US foreign policy is real and I am personally not unsympathetic to it. There were also longtime activists on the Kurdish issue who were not opposed to an intervention. To these may be added the small group of bona fide academic specialists of Iraq, a few of whom—e.g. Eric Davis, Phebe Marr—favored regime change and offered advice to the USG (notably the DOS) (though it should be said that the larger cohort of academic Middle East and international relations specialists were almost universally hostile to the invasion; and this included political science MENA specialists, who largely supported the 1990-91 intervention, not to mention Afghanistan in 2001).
(A note on the so-called neocons. They were obviously gung-ho for the invasion and for a variety of reasons but Israel was not one of them. Neocons thought regime change in Iraq would be beneficial to Israel but as a fortuitous byproduct; this was not the principal factor for any of the neocons, who are America Firsters above all. On this, John Mearsheimer & Stephen Walt are full of caca.)
And then there were the Iraqi people themselves. In December 2002 the International Crisis Group published a report, “Voices from the Iraqi Street,” whose author—who had been in Iraq—informed the reader that
Attitudes toward a U.S. strike are complex. There is some concern about the potential for violence, anarchy and score settling that might accompany forceful regime change. But the overwhelming sentiment among those interviewed was one of frustration and impatience with the status quo. Perhaps most widespread is a desire to return to “normalcy” and put an end to the abnormal domestic and international situation they have been living through. A significant number of those Iraqis interviewed, with surprising candour, expressed their view that, if such a change required an American-led attack, they would support it.
ICG reports are not signed but I know the author of this was a well-known Paris-based specialist of Iraq—a French citizen of Saudi origin—, who had lived in Iraq in the preceding years, where she did field research for her doctoral dissertation. She knew her subject better than just about any non-Iraqi and was well-connected in Baghdad. And she was not an advocate of the US intervention (for the anecdote, she told me in 2003 that she had attended a closed conference on Iraq the previous year in Madrid, and was confronted in the hotel lobby by Ahmed Chalabi and Richard Perle, who, fingers pointed, accused her of being an Iraqi agent; a woman in her late 20s, she was sufficiently intimidated by these high-powered alpha males).
In this vein, France’s best-known academic specialist of Iraq, Pierre-Jean Luizard—who is on the left and was resolutely opposed to the invasion—, asserted during an interview-debate on France Inter in early June 2003—which I heard with my own ears—that the Iraqi people in their majority favored the American intervention and that, like it or not, one needed to understand this. It did, after all, make sense: the Kurds (20% of the Iraqi population) were for the invasion, which no one disputes; the Shi’ites (55-60%), who hated the Ba’athist regime in their great majority, were also not opposed; toss in a few Sunnis, do the arithmetic, and voilà, there you have it.
But despite the attitudes of Iraqis, the aforementioned 2002 ICG report did make this observation
It should not be assumed from this that such support as might exist for a U.S. operation is unconditional. It appears to be premised on the belief both that any such military action would be quick and clean and that it would be followed by a robust international reconstruction effort. Should either of these prove untrue – if the war proved to be bloody and protracted or if Iraq lacked sufficient assistance afterwards – the support in question may well not be very long sustained.
Nor does all this mean that another war is either advisable or inevitable. Even in the event some significant “further material breach” is established within the meaning of UN Security Council Resolution 1441, the costs of military intervention – in terms of loss of life, material and economic damage, regional spillover effects, hardening the attitudes of future generations of Arabs and distracting from and even complicating a war on terrorism that, as recent events demonstrate, remains unfinished – must be carefully balanced against potential benefits, with the impact of intervention or non-intervention on the credibility of the UN itself of course having to be part of the calculation.
Just because Iraqis may have wished for a foreign military intervention in no way justifies a said intervention, in view of both the costs of the intervention to the invading power—the United States—and the inevitable course the war would take. It is rather clear, IMO at least, that the Iraqi people would have been better off had the invasion not happened, Saddam remained in power, and with the sanctions regime ended (but with controls on CBW/nuclear technology maintained). As for what would have happened had the Ba’athists remained in power, who knows? Perhaps Iraq would have ended up like Syria today, but perhaps not. One cannot possibly know.
On Iraqis supporting the US intervention, this was very much akin to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which was—yes!—initially supported by a majority of Lebanese: clear majorities of Maronites and Shi’ites (and with the Druze neutral), who wanted the Israelis to eject the PLO from their country. They needed an outside power to do the dirty work for them, that they couldn’t do themselves. And also for the foreign invader to pave their own way to power—Bashir Gemayel in Lebanon, Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq—, after which the foreigners would pack their bags and leave—and maybe get a thank you but little more (if the foreigners were looking for gratitude, they were bound to be disappointed). If Lebanese supported the Israelis in June ’82 they were not supporting them in June ’83, needless to say, not to mention in subsequent years (and nowadays, of course, everyone in Lebanon hates Israel). Mutatis mutandis, it was likewise in Iraq. The Israelis got played by their (temporary) Maronite allies in Lebanon, just as the Americans got played by Ahmed Chalabi. The Middle Easterners were smarter than the Americans (and Israelis), or at least more wily.
A final point, or, rather, assertion. The principal actors in the Bush-Cheney administration and their Iraq war supporters in Congress, the MSM, and Washington think tank archipelago will unfortunately not be held to account. Leftists are using the anniversary to beat up on Democrats and the MSM for having supported the war (and the lefties are right, of course). And many are still demanding war crimes trials for Bush-Cheney or some indictment by the ICC but, for reasons that hardly need to be explicated, it’s not going to happen. What all those who uncritically supported the Iraq war—and who rubbished those who opposed it—should do to at least partially make amends with the likes of me is to prostrate themselves before and profusely apologize to two men who were dragged through the mud during those miserable months in late 2002-early 2003: Scott Ritter and Jacques Chirac. Scott Ritter because he emphatically insisted that Iraq had no CBW or nuclear weapons capacity and explained why to anyone who would listen. Ritter was, of course, speaking from rather extensive personal experience on the question and knew what he was talking about. That was he was not listened to in Washington—and was, moreover, sullied and denigrated on cable TV and right-wing media—was unconscionable.
As for Jacques Chirac, because his opposition to US policy was well-considered and based on principle, and for which he, along with the entire French nation, was subjected to slander and calumny in the US. Chirac did not exclude the possibility of joining the US in Iraq and told his military to prepare for it. But it became obvious to the French that the Bush-Cheney administration’s “evidence” of WMDs was bogus, that there was no casus belli. France needed the proof from Washington and never got it. After Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the UNSC—which the entire MSM pronounced a slam dunk, grand slam, blah blah—analysts in the French media pronounced Powell’s photos of mobile labs impossible to interpret (and that vial of white powder: was that really anthrax? did Powell actually carry a biological weapon on his person and bring into the UN? but if was just milk powder, then, as they say in these parts, les Américains se foutent de nos gueules, i.e. the Americans are taking us for fools). So the French could not but announce that they would vote against a UNSC resolution authorizing war. If the Americans and Brits wanted to wage an unprovoked war in Iraq, they would have to do it without the green light from the United Nations. The French position was impeccable, ironclad, and irreproachable. The final demonstration of this: France suffered no lasting consequences for saying no to the Bush-Cheney administration, and which had, by 2005, let bygones be bygones and started to make nice with the French. On Iraq, France was right. She really was.
I was going to publish my Iraq War file from 2002-03 here but seeing how long this post has become, I will do so separately, in the next post.