Reflections on the revolution in Iraq

Marines in Fallujah

It is now five years since the start of the war in Iraq, five years in which the toll in money, in lives and in so much else has mounted continually. The cost of the war has turned out to be truly staggering.

Thinking about the financial aspects first, the cost to the United States alone has been estimated by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes at 3 trillion dollars, more than any other war since 1945. Before the war started, William D Nordhaus’ predicted range of costs was between $99 billion, if everything went right, and $1.9 trillion, “if the US has a string of bad luck or misjudgments during or after the war”. The analysis by Stiglitz and Bilmes goes beyond even that.

As an example of what happened, take Rupert Murdoch’s famous comments that “The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy … would be $20 a barrel for oil.” Well, the oil price is now $100 a barrel and shows no sign of falling any time soon. The advocates of war got so much so wrong.

In human terms, some 4,000 American soldiers and 170 British have lost their lives, along with somewhere between 100,000 and 1 million Iraqis, according to which estimate you believe.

And in addition to British and American combat deaths, some 20 times as many soldiers have been seriously wounded (a ratio unparalleled in military history, an indication of the effectiveness of body armour and modern military medicine). This means that the headline figure of fatalities – that sombre list of names read out by the prime minister in the House of Commons each week – understates the true human cost of the war and this is also a major reason why the cost of the war has spiralled so high, the proper medical care for wounded soldiers now being so expensive.

And the benefits? We now know for certain that Saddam Hussein no longer has WMD. However, there were strong arguments at the time of the invasion that he did not (a memorandum circulated by France, Germany and Russia at the UN Security Council on 24 February 2003, calling for continuing inspections, read “While suspicions remain, no evidence has been given that Iraq still possesses weapons of mass destruction or capabilities in this field”) and further arguments that, even if he did, they were not the threat commonly supposed. The policy of containment, for all its costs and problems, was broadly working.

And what about the threat to his own people that Saddam Hussein posed? Richard Perle has argued that “The unearthing of the mass graves that held some of Saddam’s 300,000 victims gave the war a further moral justification.” However, he might also have said that those mass graves stemmed from the period when he himself was an official in the Reagan administration, supporting Saddam Hussein and even helping him with developing and using chemical weapons. Like the former Iraqi WMD programme, the worst of the terror was over.

Now, that it is not to be taken as any kind of excuse or defence of Saddam Hussein, but it is to question the urgency of the invasion to remove him. I think we are also entitled to question the right of those who had previously co-operated with the regime of Saddam Hussein to insist subsequently on the moral necessity of its destruction.

Let me repeat: we don’t right past wrongs by conniving in current wrongs instead, and Saddam Hussein was indeed a monster whose removal from power made the world a better place. But my case against the war was never a case against any war against Saddam, but against that war, at that time, with those allies.

The foregoing casts an increasingly harsh light on the decision to go to war, but saying that now cannot undo the mistakes of the past. The real test is what comes next. Can we learn any lessons from history?

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The discussion about what we might learn from the war has to bear in mind the fact that while Britain and America fought the same war, they fought it for different reasons. That means that there are different lessons for each to learn.

Individuals in the Bush administration started planning the war with Iraq as early as 1998 (fully two years before the election in November 2000). A call to arms from the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC) declared that, if Saddam Hussein acquired WMD, “the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil will all be put at hazard.” They therefore called for “removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.”

Many of the signatories of that letter subsequently ascended to prominent positions in the Bush administration – Donald Rumsfeld became secretary of defense, for example – and set about implementing their plans. The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington provided the pretext that public opinion needed, but even without the intervention of Osama Bin Laden (unconnected with Saddam Hussein, as we all know), some other excuse would no doubt have been found. George W Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, had come close to war with Saddam Hussein in December 1998 so a suitable trigger moment would not have been hard to find.

The neo-con influence on American foreign policy is now roundly discredited. Donald Rumsfeld stepped down after the Republican congressional election defeat in November 2006, and many others have moved on from their positions in government. Not a single candidate for president in this year’s elections supports what George Bush has done in Iraq, although, as we shall see, opinions differ as to what should replace it.

This American fear of Iraqi WMD was, at the outset, widely shared among its allies, but as the reports came in from the UN inspectors in the early part of 2003, countries such as France withdrew from the military coalition. Others, such as Britain, stayed firm. Why was this?

First of all, there was Tony Blair’s conviction that it was essential to stand by America, whatever it did.

(Actually, this is a conviction passed down within the British establishment since Suez. The French and British drew opposite lessons from that experience when their joint military action against Egypt was undermined by the Americans. For the French: never again would we be in a position where the Americans could undermine us; for the British: never again would we be in a position where the Americans would want to undermine us.)

Blair thought that the wider consequences for the world of an American unilateral invasion would be worse that than those of a multilateral invasion. The strain of exceptionalism in American political thinking, as demonstrated by the PNAC, for example, would be fuelled if America was forced to do the hard things on its own.

The second British motivation was more distinctly Blairite. It was the assumption of a moral duty to do something about bad things in the world. It was there in Blair’s reaction to the crisis in Kosovo, and in his remarkable speech to the Labour party conference in October 2001:

“The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause.”

But look at how the world is now. Is the condition of the Iraqi people better than it was? Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and millions displaced from their homes. Electricity and water are hard to come by, and for all the demands that Afghan women must liberated from Taliban oppression: a similar misogyny is now being applied in Iraq by Islamist militias that were unknown there before the American invasion.

Elsewhere, Robert Mugabe is still safe in Zimbabwe, knowing that British rhetoric will not and cannot be backed up with action. The people of Darfur have only George Clooney to save them and not George Bush: the governments of the world stand impotently by while the civil war rages on.

And for the final repudiation of the Blairite interventionist model, simply look no further than Tibet. If ever there was a case where human rights and democracy needed a champion, it is this.

But no, China is too rich and powerful. Europe’s trade with China is now worth 254 billion euros a year and America’s is worth 326 billion dollars. There is little willingness to put this at risk on behalf of a faraway country of which we know little. In this instance, I’m afraid, money talks.

But the damage goes further than a simple uneven application of the Blairite principle. It reaches into the heart of the Blairite coalition, too. The very Western alliance itself is in disarray.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the Bush neo-con doctrine is discredited, but on each side of the ocean, a different conclusion is being drawn about what should replace it.

In American, the Republican candidate for president, John McCain, thinks the problem is that the war was not fought hard enough. For a long time, he has called for more soldiers and a stronger military effort. His Democratic rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, both want to withdraw American soldiers from Iraq, but neither has foresworn unilateral military action elsewhere in the future and there is bipartisan consensus in American politics now for an increase in the size of the US armed forces.

In Europe, on the other hand, there is little appetite for this. Even an expansion or reinforcement of the current deployment in Afghanistan (the “good” war) is resisted, let alone an increased commitment to Iraq itself. Europe has largely been spared war and the threat of war over the past 60 years and Europeans would like to keep it that way. However, even if the Europeans do not go looking for trouble, trouble might come looking for them.

The problems of terrorism and the proliferation of small arms will not stop at Europe’s borders and will continue to be a threat unless they are tackled at source in the countries where they first arise.

In the light of this realisation, there are small steps within the Lisbon treaty to give Europe a stronger and more coherent external voice. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will be able to speak on behalf of the 27 member states of the EU, when they all agree on what it is should be said. The new External Action Service might lead to a more shared approach to foreign policy issues among the EU member states, and the European Defence Agency could have the same effect on their military efforts. But even once the Lisbon treaty comes into force, and notwithstanding these institutional innovations, the core decisions on foreign and defence policy will remain national and not European.

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The founding document of European integration, the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950, opened with the statement that:

“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”

That observation remains true today, but it applies not only to the countries of Europe but to the rest of the world. What are those creative efforts appropriate to the 21st century?

The Americans need to learn that they need allies. Their cold war position of leadership of the free world is now over. Even though they spend as much on arms as the rest of the world put together, they cannot get their way by military means alone. A major reason why Donald Rumsfeld’s battle plan of 2003 failed to achieve the kind of victory he envisaged was that America could not deploy enough soldiers to bring the country to order. Based on peace-keeping experience in other war zones such as Bosnia and Kosovo, something like 300,000 troops would have been needed for a period of several years which America simply did not have.

A broader international coalition could have done so, but that would have been in direct conflict with the PNAC aspirations with which he took office.

For an illustration of how profound that American failure has been, simply compare the recent visits to Baghdad by President Ahmedinejad and Vice-President Cheney. The Iranian president, denounced by America as a hostile influence, was greeted by schoolchildren with flowers. Dick Cheney on the other arrived unannounced and furtively, and could barely leave the fortified Green Zone in the centre of the city. After five years of war, hailed by George W Bush as a “success”, Americans cannot even move freely in the capital of the country they claim to control. They have not won this war by force, and now cannot do so.

The Europeans too still have to come to terms with the passing of the cold war. No longer can they delegate their security to the Americans: they have to take more responsibility for themselves. The Lisbon treaty currently being ratified gives them some of the tools with which to do this, but it does not of itself give them the political will. That will come only from a frank and honest realisation of Europe’s role in the world. A political entity that possesses around 20 per cent of the world’s GDP and generates 15 per cent of the world’s trade cannot stand by when faced with the world’s problems. With power comes responsibility, which the Europeans must now accept.

If those are lessons for the Americans and the Europeans respectively, there is one further lesson that applies to them both. It is the lesson of how power should be wielded, for what ends. Every judo player knows that strength must be used for a purpose.

And to find this purpose, they should return to their own founding principles.

Both the American constitution and the treaties that make up the European Union are based on the idea that the relations between states need to be regulated by law. The Americans of the 1780s and the Europeans of the 1950s knew very well what war meant and were determined to avoid its repetition. They could not leave disputes and conflicts to be decided by the strongest or the most aggressive: political institutions were needed instead to settle these questions by peaceful means. It is no accident that the most peaceful and prosperous parts of the world are those that have adopted this means of resolving their arguments.

With this in mind, the explicit objective of American and European policy should be to recreate around the world the same conditions that they have benefited from at home.

The rule of law should be observed by the strongest and most powerful countries in the world as well as by the weakest, even though this will limit the way in which they may use their strength and power. However, the experience of European and American unity shows that this is to be welcomed and not resisted.

Crucially, the Europeans and Americans will only be able to ask others to join this system if they have already done so themselves. For example, they cannot insist that other countries should observe human rights if their own security services continue to engage or turn a blind eye to practices such as extraordinary rendition and waterboarding.

This approach to the use of power and the rule of law will breathe new life into international institutions such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, once the democratic powers start standing for democracy rather than the narrow pursuit of national interest. Whether the problem is an arms race among regional powers, or the growing threat of climate change, there is no national solution, only one that can be shared by all.

But to pursue such a policy requires new thinking on the part both of Europe and of America. If they can adopt this new attitude, they will reunite the western alliance around a new set of shared principles and values, and ensure that the catastrophe now unfolding in Iraq will never again be repeated.

Richard Laming is director of Federal Union, and may be contacted at The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. 25 March 2008.


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