Azara Blog: Iraq decision day

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Date published: 2005/01/30

It is voting day in Iraq. Needless to say there have been zillions of lines of prose dedicated to the matter, most of it treading old ground. Most people hope Iraq can move forward from here, although the odds are against it, given that the Americans are involved.

The Financial Times just by itself ran many Iraq stories this weekend (the FT website is mostly a subscription service). There was a long article, "War stories", by Carne Ross, a British representative at the UN from 1998 to 2002:

All of these reasons will have contributed to a considerable bias in the information that the government received and the analyses then produced on Iraq's WMD. All of these reasons should have inspired caution; any assessment based on such information should have been heavily caveated. But, as the Butler report relates, instead of transmitting these caveats in its public presentations, such as the infamous Number 10 dossier, the government left them out. What was broadcast to the public was in effect not the summit of a hierarchy of information but a selection from a spectrum of information, a spectrum that ranged from the well-established to the highly speculative, and the selection came from the wrong end. Just as I once produced one-sided arguments to justify sanctions by ignoring all contrary evidence, the government produced a highly one-sided account of inherently unreliable information.

Of course governments in all democracies present one-sided accounts of policy. Economic statistics are always presented with the positive numbers in the forefront, the negative sidelined to footnotes or ignored. Civil servants are highly skilled in slanting information in this way. But there should be limits. When seeking to justify military action, the government has a duty to tell the whole truth, not just a partial account of it.
In the end, when contrasted with the complexity and uncertainty of the alternatives, war may have seemed simpler. In the strange way that governments are swept along by events without properly stopping to think, war came to be seen as the only viable course, a current strengthened in Britain no doubt by the clear determination in Washington, now amply chronicled in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, to pursue conflict.
If Iraq was not a threat and not collaborating with terrorists, why did the Bush and Blair governments go to war? Several plausible explanations have been offered by others: the US administration's need, after 9/11, to demonstrate its power - anywhere, anyhow; a "mission civilatrice" to democratise the world by force, an impulse given strength by the vigorous and forceful lobby of the Iraqi opposition. But less credible, given the record on sanctions, is the claim that the welfare of the Iraqi people was the primary concern.

Another possible explanation lies in the more sinister motives of oil and its control. The prospect of Iraq's huge reserves (the second largest in the world) hung in the air throughout policy deliberations in the years before the war. It was well-known that Hussein had allocated all the massively lucrative post-sanctions exploration contracts to French, Chinese, Russian and other non-US and non-British companies (and it bothered the companies a lot, as they would tell us). It is hard to believe that the immense potential for money-making and energy security did not exert some pull in the decision to invade, but the evidence for a Chomskyan sort of conspiracy led by Big Oil is hard to come by. But again, we do not know, because we have not been told. Instead we were given not the "noble lie", but the somewhat less-than-noble half-truth. The full answer will perhaps be revealed by the chief protagonists in years to come. For now, all we can know for sure is that the empirical reasons these governments have given so far simply do not add up.

Perhaps, therefore, a non-empirical reason is at the heart of this. They did it because they thought it was right. Hussein was a bad man, a potential danger in the future (if not today). And this, if true, is a legitimate reason, or at least arguable. Unfortunately, it is neither the primary reason both governments gave the UN or their peoples for going to war (though Bush alludes to it with ever greater frequency, and Tony Blair has begun to do the same), nor is it justifiable in any canon of international law (although perhaps it should be).

The FT also had an article, "Catalogue of errors bedevilled period of occupation", by Guy Dinmore, which shows that even some Americans involved with Iraq (obviously not those in the Bush White House, and nobody willing to stand up and be counted publicly) realise Iraq is not an American success:

Most agreed it was a painful, but necessary review. Officials and military personnel who had served as part of the US occupying power in Iraq reunited in Washington this week to consider the lessons of their experience.

Hosted by the US Institute of Peace, an independent body funded by Congress, the "Iraq Experience Project" had the atmosphere of a confessional as participants considered reports based on interviews with 110 Americans who had worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Several reporters attended but were asked not to name those taking part. Speakers recounted the lack of pre-war planning by the Defence Department, the misjudgments of politicians in Washington resulting from their ignorance of Iraq, and a bewildering refusal to commit the necessary resources.

Wrong conclusions were drawn from previous conflicts, such as the belief that the Balkans experience had shown early elections were a mistake. The right lessons were forgotten, such as that a sudden collapse of authoritarian regimes, as in Panama with the US invasion in 1989, will probably be followed by a breakdown in civil order and looting.

At the same time, what also came across strongly in the intense discussion was how committed many of the volunteers had been to the idea of liberating the Iraqi people from repression. There was a sense from some of the speakers that the costs in lives, American and Iraqi, had been too high and the mission a failure. The more positive view was that nation-building in the middle of a war is a fiercely difficult task. The biggest mistakes were made before the war began, the participants concluded. The first was to entrust the task of reconstruction to the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary who had openly declared his lack of enthusiasm for nation-building. This lack of inter-agency co-ordination led to a turf war where Defence Department officials were even barred from talking to their colleagues at the State Department, which pursued its own "Future of Iraq" project.

Such a strong belief existed at the top of the US administration in its own propaganda about the enormous threat posed by Iraq, that no one saw the country was a crumbling wreck weakened by wars, sanctions and rampant corruption. This, speakers said, stemmed partly from the lack of intelligence, but also the influence of exiled Iraqis.

Even an interview with Malcolm Gladwell about his new book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking", managed to mention Iraq:

"There is this myth that the US military did no planning. They did do planning. It's just that the planning was preposterous. They were just massively overconfident, they knew that country, they had been there 10 years before, they thought they knew Saddam Hussein, they thought that they had all the pieces."

It's hard to know the real reason Blair was so keen to attack Iraq. He's a fantasist so he probably even gives himself different reasons from day to day. Bush is a different matter. His main concern in life is money, for him and his cronies. Power is the key to that money. Invading Iraq was an easy way to make Bush look like a war hero, and the pre-war posturing helped the Republicans to keep control of the Senate in the 2002 mid-term elections. A foreign war against a country with a comparably pathetic military which you can easily squash always looks like a good idea to American presidents. (Reagan invaded Grenada as one way to divert attention from the disasterous American foray into Lebanon.)

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