Friday, 20 March 2009

The war in Iraq: six years on

Today marks, with little fanfare, the sixth anniversary of the US led invasion of Iraq.

Since the conflict began 4,259 American soldiers have been killed with at least 36,106 others wounded. 179 British troops have died in the country. More than 91,121 Iraqis have been killed since the war started according to the Iraq Body Count database, which tracks casualties of Iraqi civilians.

Currently there are around 138,000 American soldiers stationed in Iraq, down from the number in October 2007 when US troops in Iraq reached a high of 166,000.
On March 20th 2003 a total of 31 countries participated in the ‘coalition of the willing.’ Today only four - the United States, Britain, Australia and Romania – remain.

According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Congress has so far approved more than $657 billion for the Iraq war. It has been projected that additional war costs for the next 10 years could range from $440 billion to £865 billion. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz has estimated that the total bill of the war will reach $3 trillion.

All the while Afghanistan has spiraled deeper into insurgency just as Pakistan stumbles toward chaos. Iran’s power in the region has grown exponentially as they have emerged as the Muslim Middle East’s unrivaled power. Its nuclear ambitions appear undiminished, as does its patronage of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

But it would be wrong to assume that the war had been an unmitigated disaster. Violence, though still common, is now at a record low, reports the AP. An Associated Press count recorded at least 288 Iraqi civilians and security forces killed in February 2009, a 63 percent reduction compared to 769 killed in the same month a year ago.

Iraq has received its first group of Western tourists since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry said on Thursday. The group of eight holidaymakers - five Britons, two Americans and a Canadian - arrived on March 8 and toured Iraq's landmark historic sites.

Fifteen million Iraqis voted in (largely) free and fair elections, emerging from their polling stations with their purple-stained fingers in an atmosphere that was (largely) free of intimidation or violence. What’s more, when the results were announced, it became clear that parties promising security and national unity, led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, had fared far better than exclusively sectarian (NY Times, 2009).

We all too often lose sight of the fact that a despotic ruler was deposed from Iraq and brought to justice. Of course there have been unforgiveable failures; but the future of Iraq today looks brighter than it would have if this year were to instead mark the 30th year of Saddam Hussein’s reign as President of Iraq.


Lewis Cooper said...

Sorry Richard, I know the Iraq War arguments are more than a bit tired, and I know that you weren’t directly defending the war, but I still couldn’t quite let this one go… The humanitarian case for the war is the strongest one by far, as it successfully defeats the pacifist inclination against war, demonstrating that not going to war can at times be the more immoral act. And it leaves the quite potent charge to the critic of the Iraq War, of ‘would you prefer it if Saddam Hussain was still in power?’

However, the humanitarian case simply can’t be used to justify the war, even retrospectively, as it patently wasn’t the reason we went to war (even if it was at times used as an additional defence when arguments were addressed to more left-wing audiences). So even if the end of deposing Saddam from power is a good one, the fact that it cannot properly be said to be our motive for going to war means that the justification for the war must lie in the expressed intentions, namely the risk of WMDs (and additionally Saddam’s links to Al-Qaeda, in the US). This leaves it morally unjustified.

There are many other arguments which undermine the idea of Iraq as a humanitarian war, which I am sure you are very aware of. They include the fact we knew about Saddam’s abuses of power long before we went to war, and the fact that our sanctions on Iraq served to entrench his position of power, undermine resistance movements, and itself indirectly caused deaths to many innocent Iraqis, particularly children.

This is aside from the fact that I believe it remains an open question whether the ‘good’ of no longer having Saddam as ruler of Iraq outweighs the many ‘bads’ associated with the war, a number of which you yourself note, and to which we must add the exacerbation of Islamic extremism.

I hope that Iraq will develop and flourish as a modern democratic state. This is the very least the Iraqi people deserve. I hope that tourists return, and that there remain historical sights for them to see. But the Iraq War cannot come to be seen as simply a poorly executed war, or one based on mistaken judgements, and the eventual development of Iraq can not be used to justify what was in essence a war fought deceitfully for immoral ends.

Calix said...

Your blog is persuasive and backed up with many good figures, Richard, but I'm afraid I side with Lewis.

I did originally think that perhpas it was justified - partly because we were told there were wmd and also to get rid of a tyrant. But, the way things have turned out, I think it was a huge mistake.

Trying to impose democracy on a divided country is highly questionable. Democracy doesn't mean much to people if they are still in poverty and at risk of their lives. It is highly debatable if life is better for the average Iraqi - there are some winners but also there are many losers.

We did not go to war with a UN mandate so it looks like an imperial invasion. This has angered a great part of the world and caused world-wide instability. I think Obama recognizes this and this is why he is so keen to get out when he can.

For all its flaws the UN is very important to keep world peace, and it has been totally undermined and weakened by this episode.

The war was conducted in a very shoddy way without plans of what to do next. How do we leave? What if things turn to civil war?

However, in this case I hope I'm wrong and you're right, Richard.

Sunder Katwala said...

In 2009, I just do not think the constructive debate is who was right or wrong about the war. Of course, that will always be discussed. A much better approach is that taken by Labour Friends of Iraq, bringing together those who supported and opposed it to recognise our responsibility to support and show practical solidarity for Iraqi democrats; combined with an acknowledgement of the need for an inquiry (where it must now be time to set out the method and timetable, as British troops prepare to leave this Spring) both substantially and to close this; and where we also now need a debate about how to rescue the important multilateral liberal internationalist project - such as the Responsibility to Protect agenda - from the damage done by the Iraq war and the fallout. The call of 'no more Rwandas' or 'no more Darfurs' is now less credible because of the Iraq intervention, and continuing to argue for and against the 2003 war deepens that problem. Those who care about that agenda (including those who supported the Iraq war) now need a critique of what went wrong and why, to construct a different agenda which combines legitimacy and effectiveness in international affairs. The Iraq right or wrong debate too often is framed as a choice between them.

Although Saddam Hussein was deposed, with hindsight, the centre-left opponents of the war can clearly show that they had the better arguments about the war, and its consequences. The argument 'would you want Saddam to still be there' is a polemical one. But I don't think it stands up. The serious questions were about the level of multilateral support; whether the Blix process had been exhausted; about the preparations for reconstruction. Once there was no second resolution (nor even a majority of Security Council members, against a so-called "vexatious" veto), then the case for war at that point was weak, especially when the failure of reconstruction was in fact an ideological choice based on the lack of belief in state-building.

I fully believe that Blair and other western governmetns were sincere about the threat, taking the lack of cooperation (which there was) to be evidence of guilt - but he turned out to be wrong. And it was a pre-emptive, cautionary action, and there was no urgent threat on the case made.

I expect Blair also believed in the humanitarian regime change argument he did not make - and that is a more attractive case once a particular threshold (genocide) is crossed. That is why some liberal internationalist supported it, while others who opposed it wanted it to succeed once it took place. But rescuing that agenda now requires a clear assessment of what went wrong, and I don't think a continued defence of the 2003 intervention is likely to contribute to that.

Tom Stratton said...

I think there are two important issues Richard has touched upon which require further thought: The first is the institutions and wider safeguards that aggregate individual states’ foreign policy aims and also decide when a just war can be fought are in disarray. The second is the outlook for the Iraqi state and the people it services.

On the first point, there has not existed, and in my opinion will not exist, a set of institutions that are able to override the interests of the most powerful nations. As it stands, the states with the greatest military power inevitably act as the arbiter in international disputes, or at least provide weight to decisions taken at the UN. Therefore a clear problem arises when the usual arbiter is also the aggressor. Ultimately, countries will want to avoid with the most powerful nations, even if they flout international law and opinion, as demonstrated recently by Russia in Georgia.

On the second point, there seems to be a widespread consensus that the worst is over for Iraq and its citizens, and that the nation can lay claim to a stable, functioning democracy. It is true that the threat from Al-Qaeda has diminished along with much extremism on the part of both Sunni and Shia elements. However, the use of tribal and familial structures to capture this victory should leave food for thought. A commentator (and I would be grateful if someone can name him/her for me) recently remarked that Afghanistan should avoid ‘Serbian Democracy’. This is the formalised access to the resources of the state along ethnic lines. Although the strategy in Iraq hasn’t been formalised in the constitution it would be foolish not to glance across at the Balkans almost fifteen years on for the Dayton Accords. There remains a massive European police presence, ethnic lines in society have solidified, and the potential for inter-ethnic violence due to the competition for resources remains a high security worry for many in the region and beyond. Promoting short term security through informal ethnic networks comes with a serious health warning.

The moral argument over justification for the war will rumble on but its lead up and the current solutions in place pose some very serious operational questions. These need to be addressed if the people of Iraq and their counterparts in similar situations across the world are to be freed of the violence that has devastated so many of their lives.