“My fellow citizens, at this hour American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” — President George W. Bush, March 19, 2003
With those words began the greatest folly of our times: the invasion of Iraq. A three-week campaign to take Baghdad later gave way to a decade-long occupation in which the US spilled unthinkable amounts of blood and treasure in an utterly pointless conflict. So catastrophic has been the war that it is impossible to count the ways, but its anniversary demands sober reflection to ponder what lessons might be learned.
Lesson #1: Be Skeptical
“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” — Vice-President Dick Cheney, August 26, 2002
In October 2002, the CIA prepared a National Intelligence Estimate – a document that represents the organization’s “most authoritative written judgment concerning a national security issue.” It asserted with “high confidence” that Baghdad was “continuing, and in some ways expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs,” that Saddam Hussein’s regime “already possesses proscribed chemical biological weapons and missiles” and that an Iraqi nuclear weapon was “months to a year” away. This assessment turned out to be completely inaccurate in every way.
As it transpired, these weighty judgements – so heavy with terrible consequences for so many innocent people – were based on little more than fluff. The inevitable commission of inquiry found that “almost every organization in the Intelligence Community … performed poorly on Iraq.” The organization supposedly expert in such matters mistook aluminum tubes used for rockets for components of nuclear centrifuges. This misjudgment became the chief basis for the claim that Iraq was pursuing atomic weapons. Other intelligence streams on Iraq’s fictional nuclear program were “very thin,” while documents purporting to show uranium purchases from Niger were “transparently forged.” As for Iraq’s supposed biological weapons, “virtually all” of the intelligence on them came from a single, known liar with whom the Americans never spoke and whose claims they failed “even to attempt to validate.” Intelligence on the mythical Iraqi chemical weapons program was no better, relying on flawed analysis and low-quality information.
President Bush, not a man generally given to introspection, later admitted that this “intelligence failure” was the greatest regret of his tenure. If it was indeed a mistake, it was a breathtakingly colossal one. Of course, given the yawning chasm between allegations and reality, many argue that there was no intelligence failure in Iraq – that it was all a massive lie calculated to start a war. Even setting aside such claims, what does such an enormous blunder say about the state and the competence of its agents? Not six months before the war, Washington’s best intelligence estimate got every important point not just wrong, but astonishingly so. If government has any purpose, it is national defence. If it can fail so very spectacularly in assessing threats, how can it possibly keep us safe from them? Who among us would return to a restaurant that had botched our order this badly? And yet the CIA director who insisted he had a “slam dunk” case that Iraq had WMDs received the Medal of Freedom, while Washington’s intelligence apparatus continues its work unmolested.
Lesson #2: Social Engineering Doesn’t Work
“Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation.” — President George W. Bush, November 6, 2003
After infamously proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” the occupation forces turned their attention to replacing the ousted regime. Military administration and a series of provisional governments eventually led in 2006 to the installation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has remained entrenched ever since. To be sure, there have been no fewer than three national votes since the invasion: two parliamentary elections and a constitutional referendum, all of which have been at least arguably fair and transparent.
But is Iraq a democracy? Is it a free country? Is it at least on the way? By the extremely undemanding standards of its recent past, there has been some improvement: the last “vote” shortly before the invasion saw Saddam Hussein returned to power by a 100% margin, with a 100% turnout. And pre-war Iraq was one of the very worst human rights violators on the planet. But in absolute terms, Iraq remains nothing like the country that George W. Bush promised would inspire the region and strike fear in the hearts of autocrats.
On the political front, Freedom House, a think tank linked to the US State Department, still rates Iraq “Not Free,” with only a marginal improvement in its “freedom score” since 2003. It states bluntly that “Iraq is not an electoral democracy. Although it has conducted meaningful elections, political participation and decision-making in the country remain seriously impaired by sectarian and insurgent violence, widespread corruption, and the influence of foreign powers.” (Indeed, Transparency International ranks Iraq as the eighth-most corrupt country on Earth.) The Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index” ranks Iraq 112th out of 167 countries, just outside the “Authoritarian Regimes” category and with a rock-bottom 0.43/10 score for the functioning of government.
As for individual liberties, in 2006 the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture asserted that “the situation is so bad many people say it is worse than it has been in the times of Saddam Hussein.” More recently, in 2012, Human Rights Watch reported that “human rights conditions in Iraq remained extremely poor, especially for journalists, detainees, and opposition activists” and that “reports continued of torture of detainees unlawfully held outside the custody of the Justice Ministry.” It added that “Iraq remained one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist,” revealed a secret prison operating under the Prime Minister’s authority and referred to detainees in other facilities being “tortured with impunity.” Violence against women, including “honour” crimes, remained a major problem. Amnesty International’s most recent account tells much the same story.
While democratizing Iraq was never going to be easy, the Coalition Provisional Authority made two early, monumental blunders, the foolishness of which were fully apparent in real time: Order No. 1, which deposed any officials who were senior members of the ruling Ba’ath Party, and Order No. 2, which dissolved the Iraqi military. The first effectively contributed to the post-invasion chaos by excluding roughly 65,000 experienced administrators from government, and created a large, well-connected constituency for anti-occupation sentiment. As a recent analysis of de-Ba’athification noted, “It is unsurprising that the process became a significant contributing factor in widespread social and political conflict.”
While de-Ba’athification was at least sensible in theory, the second mistake was sheer lunacy. If there is one thing that we know about post-conflict reconstruction, it is to avoid having hundreds of thousands of unemployed, armed young men with military training – not to create them. In the litany of decisions taken in connection with the Iraq War, each seemingly madder than the last, this was truly the maddest of them all.
The utter failure of post-war Iraq to live up to the promises made at the outset of the conflict should give more than a little pause to anyone who believes in the state’s ability to mould society into something different from what its individual members wish it to be. Granted, the mistakes made in the occupation’s early days were impressive even by government standards, and the brute violence employed in Iraq makes it a particularly stark example of failed social engineering, but no matter how benignly packaged, the state’s efforts to direct the course of society rarely end well.
Lesson #3: Unintended Consequences Matter
“Not only is America safer, the region is safer and the Iraqi people free, but the Middle East will be more peaceful and more stable.” — White House Spokesman Scott McClellan, July 16, 2003
The invasion’s salutary effects were to go beyond Iraq’s borders: the entire region – nay, the world! – would benefit. Baghdad would enter Washington’s orbit, undermining anti-Western sentiment. Americans would live in safety, as Al-Qaeda’s appeal weakened and terrorists found fewer and fewer recruits. The region’s citizens would cry out for democracy. How grand were President Bush’s ambitions? Shortly before the war, he declared, “I truly believe out of this will come peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
As of press time, those predictions have not exactly panned out. Last year, the Iraqi prime minister welcomed ties with all countries of the world – save Israel. The past 10 years have seen revolutions sweep the Middle East, Syria descend into civil war, two major Israeli military incursions into the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip, and war between Jerusalem and Beirut. Middle East peace appears not to be just around the corner. On the bright side, the former enmity between Baghdad and Tehran has been replaced by economic and diplomatic links, no doubt to Washington’s great delight.
What of the war’s influence on local public opinion? As the war approached, solid majorities in several Arab countries had very unfavourable views of the US and believed that the war would lead to more terrorism, less democracy and less peace. By 2006, 57% in six major Arab states had a very unfavourable view of America; only 12% were even somewhat favourable and 37% named Bush as their most-hated world leader (more than triple the score of the Israeli prime minister). Since the war, these figures improved after Barack Obama’s election, then plummeted once more before again rising after the Arab Spring – clearly despite the invasion, not because of it.
As for those who suffered the consequences of war – the Iraqis themselves – early polls indicated support for the war and optimism about the future. After all, a tyrant had been deposed and everything seemed possible. By 2005, as violence spread, 82% of Iraqis strongly opposed the presence of foreign troops and two-thirds felt less safe under the occupation. Over the coming years, Iraqis continued to become increasingly negative about their own situation and future prospects, as well as those of the country as a whole. By 2011, two in three Iraqis still felt no better off than before the war and held a negative view of the United States. Asked about nine separate areas of their lives, they reported that not a single one has shown improvement since the war. And almost half believe that political freedom has diminished.
To top it off, far from making Americans safer, the war has only exacerbated the terrorist threat. According to a 2006 US intelligence report, “the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives” and attracting donors to al-Qaeda. It added, “The Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” One official described the report as “stating the obvious.” A year later, one analysis found that the war had increased worldwide terrorist attacks by over 600%.
The Americans may not have wanted any of this to happen, but it did all the same. While nothing spirals out of control quite like a war, the contrast between stated intentions and actual results reminds us that no group of people has sufficient wisdom, power or knowledge to orchestrate precise social change. Politicians and bureaucrats, like the rest of us, can control only their own behaviour. They can neither know nor direct what happens in response.
Lesson #4: Whither the Rule of Law?
“To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
“The law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn, aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.” — Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson, Nuremburg Tribunal, 1946
If the invasion of Iraq was not a war of aggression, then the concept is devoid of all meaning. By 2003, eight years of war with Iran, an invasion by the broadest coalition ever assembled and more than a decade of crippling (and lethal) sanctions had left the regime broken, weak and a threat to no one other than its own population. And yet here it was, facing invasion by a country whose military budget was twenty times Iraq’s entire GDP and that commanded the most advanced military force on Earth – a country that Saddam Hussein could not possibly have harmed, no matter how much he no doubt wished to.
The solemn pronouncements made in the aftermath of World War II have proven meaningless. It is an absolute certainty that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and the other architects of this manifestly illegal war will never face a judicial reckoning. They will never answer for what they have done: not to the taxpayers from whom trillions of dollars have been seized to pay for this madness, not to the soldiers and their families whose lives have been destroyed, but above all not to the Iraqis themselves. We will never know exactly how many hundreds of thousands have died, or just how much suffering has been inflicted on the still-living, but the toll is undeniably grim.
A world in which the “supreme international crime” goes unpunished is not one that values the rule of law. It is a world in which might makes right and where the watchword is power, not justice. And it is a world that should deeply trouble anyone who believes in freedom, limited government and peace, for without the rule of law none of those things is possible.
Have We Learned Anything?
“The United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” — President Barack Obama, September 25, 2012
Perhaps, in some cases, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. But another invasion and occupation of a country that poses no threat to the US would be anything but farcical. It would merely compound the tragedy of war with that of ignoring our collective experience. Are we ready to embark on another tragic misadventure? Or have we absorbed the crucial lessons that the past decade taught us after exacting so terrible a price? Time will tell.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B. A. and an M. A. in political science from McGill.