This piece was written in response to Harry Gillow’s defence of the Iraq War, also written for OxStu, which can be found here.
Harry Gillow is brave, if nothing else – it takes guts to try to defend the indefensible. But guts don’t guarantee a solid argument, and Mr Gillow’s “tentative defence” of the Iraq War, relying as it does on factual inaccuracies and hubristic assumptions, simply fails to convince.
Mr Gillow begins his article with a preamble lamenting the naïveté of US and British war planners for not understanding “the dangers of military adventures,” yet he remonstrates President Obama for his risky “isolationist” foreign policy. Obama’s “isolationism” apparently encompasses his vast expansion of Bush’s drone killing programme, his cyber-attacks against Iranian nuclear sites (an “act of war” according to the Pentagon), his military build-up in the Pacific, American involvement in Libya and Mali, and plans for military strikes in Syria and Iran.
It isn’t until halfway into his “defence” that Mr Gillow arrives at his arguments for why the Iraq war wasn’t “a disaster”. He informs us that Iraq “is now one of the few functioning democracies in the Middle East.” This will be news to Iraqis. Corruption in the Iraqi government is rife. Torture, rape and executions are practically everyday occurrences. US-installed Prime Minister Maliki, has recently taken steps to consolidate his power, in actions that have been compared with those of Saddam during the 1990s.
Another supposed bright spot in post-occupation Iraq is that “[o]il production, the lifeline of its economy, is up one million barrels per year from 2003 levels”. This is a bright spot indeed for the multinational corporations that bought the rights to exploit Iraq’s oil fields, a major objective of the war. The revenues from Iraq’s oil reserves, the largest in the world, will now flow into the pockets of international investors, though not into programmes and services that might improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis.
No matter. The “greatest vindication of the Iraq War,” which “removes the most powerful argument against the invasion” is to be found elsewhere, in (favourably) comparing the US-led invasion and occupation of the country with the tragic bloodletting that has accompanied many of the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. “[T]hat Iraq would have seen a similar eruption into sectarian violence is almost certain,” Mr Gillow tells us. That is, thanks to the invasion, Iraq did not see such an eruption: “[T]he presence of coalition troops was clearly the only thing preventing a collapse into full-scale anarchy”.
Of course, as anybody familiar with the most basic facts of the Iraq war will know, the majority of the violence in the country after 2006 occurred not between coalition troops and Iraqi insurgents, but between Sunni and Shi’a militia groups in what US intelligence officials – and Mr Gillow himself in his second paragraph – have called a sectarian “civil war”. In other words, three years into the US occupation, Iraq erupted in sectarian violence – violence that caused thousands of Iraqi deaths and displacements, and has continued at varying levels of intensity until today. What’s more, overwhelming evidence shows that top US military officials directly fomented sectarian tensions by organising, training, and commanding a network of brutal Salvadoran-style Shi’a torture squads as early as 2004 to combat a mostly Sunni insurgency.
It is worth noting that under Saddam’s secular dictatorship, sectarian divisions did not play a significant role in Iraqi life: Iraqis were often unaware of and indifferent to their neighbours’ or even their family members’ religious loyalties. Following the invasion, however, these once-ignored Sunni-Shi’a differences have become the major fault-lines in Iraqi society and politics, to the point that the country may one day be torn into three separate states, along ethno-sectarian lines.
It would not be overstating the case, then, to say that the US invasion of Iraq in fact stoked the once-dormant sectarian tensions in the region that have since exploded following the Arab Spring uprisings. We could phrase it this way: the presence of coalition troops was clearly the only thing ensuring a collapse into full-scale anarchy.
In his conclusion, Mr Gillow warns foreign policy elites against the “the temptation to ignore the internal squabbles of the Islamic [sic] states,” lest they be “remembered for allowing the disintegration of society across an entire region”. As we have seen, however, this is precisely what Western governments will be remembered for in Iraq. The disintegration of Iraqi society and of the Middle Eastern region was precipitated not by Western “isolationism,” but by military interventions promising stability and democracy.
There are, of course, many tactics Western governments might adopt to ensure that they do not, in Mr Gillow’s words, “condemn … millions to lives of conflict, lived in desperate conditions in what was once the cradle of civilisation”. They could obey international law, for instance, by not unilaterally invading sovereign states, killing countless innocent people and decimating already feeble infrastructure in the process. They could choose not to impose crippling sanctions that deny vital access to food, medicine, fuel, and construction materials to people in desperate need, as they did for a decade in Iraq, resulting in the deaths of thousands of children, and as they are currently doing in Iran. They could stop propping up and arming dictators as they once did Saddam, and as they continue to do in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Mr Gillow’s primary concern is not for the lives of Iraqis or Syrians, as he would have us believe. What is important for him is the strategic value for Western elites of military interventions in the Middle East. He warns that such interventions can “backfire spectacularly,” but implies that the US and its allies hold an undeniable right to initiate them, wherever they like, whatever the costs, international law be damned.
In Iraq, we have seen the consequences of this attitude: hundreds of thousands are dead, millions displaced, and life for ordinary Iraqis is worse in many ways than it was under Saddam. Mr Gillow’s preferred policy of more interventions invites yet more suffering. Only when we as citizens cease to accept such illegal and immoral actions committed by our own governments – actions that sacrifice ordinary people to “strategic interests,” sold in the name of “humanitarianism,” “liberty,” and “democracy,” – only then will we see an end to the kind of barbarism embodied by the war in Iraq.