“Disaster” doesn’t really describe the invasion of Iraq. Neither does “misguided” nor “mistake.” But that’s how much of the British media treated it as they looked back at the invasion on its 20th anniversary last week.
Hardly any of them can claim that the invasion was a success, even on their own terms. Most can’t even argue it was a good idea, or justified. The fact that the excuse for the war—the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—was soon proven a lie, prevents that.
Instead, they looked for other ways to mitigate the blame. For the BBC’s international editor Jeremy Bowen it was a “failure not just of intelligence but of leadership.” For various writers in the Guardian newspaper, it was simply foolish bad judgement to follow the US into the invasion, “compounded by the failure to plan for what came next”.
None of them called it what it was—an unprovoked attempt to destroy a state and its society, with the sole aim of asserting imperial control. Speaking that truth would mean admitting that the invasion of Iraq, and those responsible, are as bad as Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But that truth was apparent even before the invasion began. And the millions who marched against the invasion knew it. Those at the top of then US-president George Bush’s regime had long wanted to invade Iraq. This was years before the 11 September terror attacks gave them a semblance of an alibi.
As members of the think tank Project for the New American Century, they had feared that the US’s strength as an imperial power was falling. In its place, the thinktank wrote, “potentially powerful states” could emerge as rivals.
Chief among these was China. So too was a possible “resurgent” Russia, which could be dealt with by expanding the US’s Nato military alliance into eastern Europe.
It would all begin with a terrible demonstration in the Middle East of the US’s military might by invading Iraq and overthrowing the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein. Members of the Project wrote letters to US president Bill Clinton in 1998 arguing for precisely that.
By the end of 2000, many of those who’d signed those letters, including Donald Rumsfeld, were in key positions overseeing the Bush regime’s military and foreign policies. All they needed was an excuse—“some catastrophic and catalysing event,” as one Project document put it in 1998, “like a new Pearl Harbour.”
Within days of the 11 September attacks—and with no evidence whatsoever to link them to Hussein—Bush’s government was plotting how it could build towards invading Iraq.
Britain’s Labour prime minister prime minister Tony Blair hitched himself eagerly to this plan. Blair wanted to tie Britain closely to the US’s renewed dominance. He wasn’t some dupe—he was an active and willing participant in the lies, keen to make himself indispensable to the US in its drive to war.
As evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into the war revealed, Bush and Blair plotted together how they would justify the invasion. Blair persuaded Bush to take what Chilcott called the “UN route”. This involved pushing for the UN to send inspectors to Iraq searching for weapons of mass destruction.
Then, if Hussein blocked the inspectors, Bush and Blair could get the UN’s approval to invade. In the end, the inspectors found nothing. But not to worry. Blair, his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, foreign secretary Jack Straw and spy chief John Scarlett produced a dossier of false and exaggerated “intelligence.”
As memos between the gang revealed, Scarlett knew that “in terms of WMD, Iraq is not that exceptional.” So the dossier lied about the threat in order to, as Campbell put it, “set the scene” for invasion.
It’s not true that the architects of the war didn’t have a plan for invasion. And neither is it true that they didn’t know what to do with the occupation. The complete destruction of Iraqi society was all part of the plan to build a new one moulded in the US’s interests.
In the Western media the invaders pretended theirs was a “clean,” precise war. Meanwhile British planes dropped cluster bombs on the city of Basra as they laid siege to it for weeks. Years of economic sanctions that the US and Britain spearheaded had left Iraq’s state, economy and basic services in a fragile state. The invasion destroyed them.
The national energy grid all but collapsed. In the immediate wake of the invasion, just seven of Iraq’s governorates could provide 16 hours of electricity a day. A year later, only one in northern Iraq could do even that.
State services hollowed out and thousands of people lost their jobs as the US sought to drive out members of Hussein’s ruling Baath party.
Even this chaos was an opportunity for the US. It began opening up essential services to the market, granting US firms lucrative, billion dollar contracts to profit from health, education and the “reconstruction” of Iraqi society.
And it was all to be overseen by a corrupt, sectarian political system, which gave rise to radical religious insurgents. One of the dirtiest lies the invaders ruefully now tell is that Iraq was a powder keg of sectarian hatred, which they failed to understand and clumsily ignited. But even that is dodging responsibility.
Religion was never a key dividing line in Iraqi society before 2003. But sanctions and the invasion prized open those cracks, with religious and political groups providing welfare, education and health services to an increasingly desperate population.
The US then imposed a new, sectarian model of government that turned those cracks in gaping fissures. Power, representation, influence and resources were allocated according to religious affiliation.
Now, much of life was shaped by engagement with parties and militias whose access to resources depended on their place in the new sectarian political system. What the invaders really weren’t prepared for was fierce, popular and armed resistance.
The West’s occupying armies kept “control” with raids, killings, mass arrests, and widespread, systematic torture. But soon they faced ambushes and roadside bombs from armed militias, and riots by crowds of people angry at the poverty and brutality the invaders had brought.
Protesters would throw stones at occupying soldiers. Soldiers would frequently respond by massacring them. At its high points, the resistance could cut across sectarian divisions. A mass uprising in the city of Fallujah, near the capital Baghdad, humiliated the US.
Some 200,000 people demonstrated against the occupation. Sunni and Shia Muslim militias both fought US soldiers. Similar uprisings and insurgencies spread across Iraqi towns and cities. For years on end, occupying armies were forced out of cities and had to retake them again and again.
The US re-took Fallujah in 2004 with the use of the chemical weapon white phosphorous—a substance that spreads across a wide area and melts people’s skin. The invaders were never able to stamp out the resistance. As late as 2007, a popular insurgency forced British soldiers to retreat from Basra.
The bitterness, poverty, and division the West left behind proved fertile ground for the growth and spread of groups such as Isis. Far from strengthening its power, the US’s defeat in Iraq left it so weak that it had to rely on its rival Iran to help put Isis down.
Yet for all that, repeated mass protest movements in Iraq have challenged the corrupt and sectarian system the US left in places. Meanwhile, allies that the US had hoped to draw more tightly under its control, such as Saudi Arabia, now operate more freely and in their own interests. They wage their own wars—not always with the US’s approval—and become friendlier with China.
The same commentators that awkwardly shuffled their feet over the invasion’s anniversary last week also lamented this decline in US power. The Guardian wept that “liberal interventionism”—the moral justification for the West’s wars—“was badly discredited.”
Yet the fact that the US is now less capable of launching wars is surely a good thing. But its goal—to contain its rival Russia and confront China, is still the same. Through its involvement in the war in Ukraine, it hopes to rebuild that power once again. It really would be a mistake if we allow that to happen—and the wars it will start would be more disastrous and catastrophic for everyone.
Keir Starmer's Thatcher praising speech
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