As talk of military action against Syria has gathered pace in recent weeks, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say “we don’t want another Iraq”. From the White House to the Commons, on the Left and on the Right, pro-strikes and anti, the one thing people seem to agree on is that removing Saddam Hussein was an unmitigated disaster, and we shouldn’t have a rerun of it.
But was it really? The obvious answer is “yes”. 100,000 dead Iraqis, by most estimates. More than 4,000 dead American troops, and 179 British. Billions spent. All in the name of a country that is still ruined a decade later, and still in the grip of serious terrorist violence.
So bear with me while I try to make the opposite case. Those who say “we don’t want another Iraq” are looking at it the wrong way around, I would argue. The point to bear in mind is not how bad it got, but how much worse it could very easily have been.
First, though, what qualifies me to challenge the received wisdom? Not much, really, and no, I’m not a paid consultant to Tony Blair Associates. But I do speak from the point of view of having watched the US-led mission in Iraq at close quarters.
In April 2003, after a less-than-distinguished spell as local government correspondent on the London Evening Standard, I quit my job and headed to freelance in Baghdad, basing myself there for the next two years . During that time, I watched the country embark on its downward slide, as a people who initially gave the Americans a cautious welcome turned first on their “liberators” and then on each other, the anti-US insurgency morphing into a vicious sectarian civil war. When I first worked in Iraq, it was possible to live in $4-a-night hotels and grotty flats. By the end, the only places that were safe were hotels that looked like Fort Knox, and even they got car-bombed regularly.
But Iraq’s downward spiral was not only the fault of poor post-war planning. Yes, of course, mistakes were made. These days, it is not hard to find ex-generals or diplomats who regret disbanding the Iraqi army, for example, or not making more effort to improve electricity supplies. But like the wider question of the Iraq war itself, what seems self-evident now has been skewed by the benefit of hindsight. Early on after Saddam’s fall, the reappearance of the Iraqi army in their olive-green uniforms would have provoked riots in the area of Baghdad I was living in. Likewise, under Saddam’s rule, the entire electricity infrastructure was on the point of collapse anyway.
It should also be remembered that every step of the way, there were legions of Saddam loyalists and foreign-backed terrorists hell-bent on derailing the reconstruction mission. Within a couple of months of Saddam’s fall, I was covering stories of people being killed for “collaborating” with the occupation, be it working as a bureaucrat for the new Iraqi government, or applying for jobs in the newly reconstituted police and army. They were threatened, murdered, and car-bombed with a nihilistic ferocity that would have undone any attempt at nation-building, be it by the US, the UN, or anyone else.
But in some ways, to argue over the specifics is to miss the point. Iraq didn’t need anyone else to mess it up. It was primed to go wrong from the start, its people brutalised by 30 years under Saddam, during which the country was seldom not at war. Nearly every Iraqi I have ever met has some terrible tale of woe to tell from that era, be it losing their ears or fingers in Saddam’s torture chambers, or losing their entire families during his frequent massacres of his own people. As in the former Yugoslavia, Saddam’s removal opened up an enormous well of pent-up anger and hatred, stemming not, in this case, from distant memories of atrocities in World War II, but from much more recent conflicts. Hence the ease with which Iraqis took to the gun again when Saddam was gone, not merely as anti-American insurgents, but in sectarian death squads and criminal gangs.
As such, whenever I hear people describe Iraq as a disaster, my response is: “Maybe, but nothing like the disaster it could have been”. Yes, the presence of foreign troops helped create the insurgency, drawing in al-Qaeda’s Sunni zealots who then stirred civil war against Iraq’s Shia majority. But whatever its shortcomings, the US presence also ultimately helped to rebuild a country that had rotted to its core, by re-constituting its discredited security forces, laying the foundations for the new Iraqi government, and curbing – if not stopping – the civil war of 2006-2007.
By contrast, had Saddam been deposed in any other way – for example, via an assassination, coup or Arab Spring-style revolt – there would have no major world power in there to stop things going wrong. Like any totalitarian regime run on a personality cult, a peaceful transition to power would have been unlikely. Instead, the lawlessness, looting and sectarian bloodletting would most likely have been far greater. In short, it would have been Syria on steroids.
Today, though, Iraq has become a excuse for the West to dodge any kind of complex military action whatsoever, including by many who initially supported the war. Those same people forget that intervening in truly messy countries is very rarely going to yield nice clean, Roy-of-the-Rovers style results. If the problems were that simple, they probably wouldn’t need foreign intervention in the first place. And whether or not we end up intervening in Syria, in writing Iraq off as a disaster, we do a disservice to all the Western soldiers who died trying to make it otherwise.