ON December 16, the United States armed forces handed over Camp Adder to the Iraqi government. It was the last base to be officially handed over, as the troops boarded their trucks for the convoy ride to Kuwait. “We have turned the last page of the occupation,” Hussein al-Asadi told the assembled crowd at the base. Al-Asadi represented Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had spent some time with President Barack Obama earlier in the week and received assurances that the U.S. would remain engaged with Iraq. Several thousand U.S. forces are garrisoned in Iraq even after the withdrawal, and the U.S. will continue to maintain its sprawling embassy compound in Baghdad. The bases in general have come to resemble ghost towns, with plans for the construction of a luxury hotel being executed inside the former Green Zone.
Sections of the country that saw the greatest resistance to the U.S. occupation remained unbending. In Fallujah, a thousand protesters burned American flags, and in Sadr City, protests welcomed the withdrawal of the U.S. troops. “The Americans are leaving behind them a destroyed country. The Americans did not leave modern schools or big factories behind them,” said Mariam Khazim. “They left thousands of widows and orphans.”
DRUMS OF WAR
By late 2001, it was clear that the Bush administration wished to extend the battlefield in its Global War on Terror from Afghanistan to Iraq. Hours after 9/11 itself, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld scrawled, “Hit S.H. @ same time – not only UBL,” which is to say hit Saddam Hussein (Iraq) at the same time, not only Osama bin Laden (Afghanistan).
The drums of war beat louder and louder into 2002. By the end of the summer, it appeared as if war would be inevitable with pressure on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and on the European partners moving in one direction alone. By the summer of 2002, President George W. Bush had been making noises about the need to strike Iraq before it completed production of an array of biochemical weapons. Bush went to the United Nations in September, warning: “Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons.” A few weeks later, in his weekly radio address, Bush said: “Saddam Hussein recently authorised Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons – the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have.” The narrative from the White House was simple: Iraq had chemical weapons, and if the U.S. does not act in some way (preferably militarily) then Saddam Hussein would use those weapons in a replay of 9/11.
Washington’s narrative was thin. There was no evidence that Iraq had anything
to do with 9/11, and less that it had the capability or investment in a strike on the U.S. The IAEA’s then Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei cautioned the U.N. on the authenticity of the U.S. claims (the IAEA and ElBaradei won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2005). Nothing seemed to add up. In 2007, ElBaradei told Le Monde that the run-up to the invasion of Iraq was “a glaring example of how, in many cases, the use of force exacerbates the problem rather than solves it”.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, otherwise quite amenable to Washington, brought back the Swedish politician Hans Blix to run a U.N. study team of Iraq’s weapons programme. Blix, who was quite outspoken about Iraq’s obduracy in the 1990s, was nonetheless cautious in 2002. There was simply no evidence that required the international community (namely the U.S.) to go to war. “I have detractors in Washington,” Blix told The Guardian. “There are bastards who spread things around, of course, who planted nasty things in the media, not that I cared very much.” Blix is not known for such colourful language. He had, however, run up against a massive media blitz orchestrated by the White House and conducted enthusiastically by the Murdoch machine. (At Davos in 2007, Charlie Rose asked Murdoch if News Corp. had shaped the agenda for the Iraq War. “No I don’t think so,” replied Murdoch. “We tried. We basically supported the Bush policy in the Middle East [West Asia]”.)
As debates continued in the U.N., with the White House eager for Security Council sanction for its new war, the anti-war movement germinated in the U.S. and elsewhere. It would come to a head when 10 million people marched against the impending war on Iraq in February 2003, perhaps the largest coordinated protests of all time (some estimate that the number is closer to 30 million). Three million people took to the streets of Rome, while about a million staggered through the very cold avenues of New York City.
The alliance against the war was vast: it included those who were generally anti-war to those who were against what they saw as an unnecessary war. Among the latter was a State Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, who gave a well-regarded anti-war speech in Chicago in October 2002. “I don’t oppose all wars,” Obama told the crowd. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne. What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
The war nonetheless began on March 19, with a campaign known as “Shock and Awe”. Saddam Hussein’s military collapsed. Resistance to the U.S. forces came not from the organised units of the Iraqi military but from new guerilla fighters, some Baathists, but mostly Iraqi nationalists of various stripes. Even as Bush declared that combat operations ended in May, this was far from the case. Combat operations would continue into 2010, with more U.S. personnel killed in Iraq (over 4,000) than Americans in the attacks on 9/11. The death toll of Iraqis is too horrendous to comprehend (some count a million dead, with The Lancet offering a slightly smaller number – near 700,000).
Soon after the invasion phase morphed into a U.S. occupation of Iraq, it became clear that all the reasons for the war had been false. As U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq, there is little discussion about this particular problem: that no chemical or biological weapons, or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), were found, that no link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda could be established, and that Saddam Hussein had no plans to attack the U.S.
In the past few years, memoirs by the main players in the Bush administration have appeared, with Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Rumsfeld defending their roles and State Department head Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice putting the onus on Cheney and Rumsfeld. Few recall the lies that led to war. Part of the problem for the Bush team is that despite the outcome, when the war was being planned they were all in agreement. “On one major issue, Rice, Cheney and Rumsfeld were in total agreement – the war in Iraq,” writes Elisabeth Bumiller in her biography of Rice. “Rice helped conceive it and was one of its chief advocates, and when the President finally asked her if he should take the country to war, she said yes.” No one has taken responsibility for the Iraqi fiasco. At most the former managers of the country simply blame each other for poor execution of the war (too little planning, say some, too few troops, say others).
Obama, who had made his own position clear in 2002, could not revisit them in 2011: he is now the Commander in Chief and would find it awkward to belittle the sacrifices of troops who were sent to fight a false war. At most Obama could acknowledge the debate before the war, with the lead-up “a source of great controversy here at home, with patriots on both sides of the debate”. The Iraq war was not perfect, he accepted, but its outcome was good, with the troops leaving behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people”. American liberalism is not capable of any more than that.
To go beyond this is to accept that Iraq was not a “dumb war” but the outcome of a system premised on militarism and one that is capable of the harshest violence against its enemies. During the week of the pull-out, a reporter for The New York Times found 400 pages of U.S. military investigations on the 2005 massacres at Haditha, where U.S. marines killed 24 Iraqis (including a 76-year-old man in a wheelchair, children and toddlers). Most of the U.S. troops had been acquitted by their justice system, leaving a bad taste in the Iraqi body politic. As Michael Schmidt put it in The Times, “That sense of American impunity ultimately poisoned any chance for American forces to remain in Iraq, because the Iraqis would not let them stay without being subject to Iraqi laws and courts, a condition the White House could not accept.”
It was the aftermath of Haditha that forced the Iraqi government to no longer give a carte blanche to the U. S. troops (with the Sadrites, a parliamentary partner of Maliki’s government, putting pressure on the Prime Minister not to allow U.S. troops to continue on such terms that allow Iraqis to be humiliated). The Iraqi Parliament, in a sense, ejected the U.S. because Washington would not allow its troops to come under Iraqi jurisdiction.
No one mentioned Haditha, nor did they remember Abu Ghraib, now renamed the Baghdad Central Prison. The same week as the withdrawal, the U.S. will finally bring Private First Class Bradley Manning to court. Manning is accused of handing over secret files to WikiLeaks. Among those files lay a secret video that documented the 2007 killing in cold blood of Reuters’ photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver Saeed Chmagh. Like Haditha, the impunity towards the Apache helicopter pilots rankled the Iraqis.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees counts about two million Iraqis as displaced. That is a conservative estimate. Others would like to see the figure doubled. Either way, this is the largest displacement in West Asia, and it is entirely a product of the war. Instead of a discussion on how the war created this massive and ongoing refugee crisis, the U.S. tightened its own policy towards allowing in asylum seekers (when the Vietnam War went badly, the U.S. allowed its allies in Vietnam to seek entry into the U.S. – not such an open policy for its Iraqi allies).
The Bush war cost at least $1 trillion, if not more. It was to make Iraq a model private-sector country. All this failed as the Iraqis refused to be utterly pliant. The U.S. miscalculated the neighbourhood. The assumption was that the U.S. forces would be able to create a satellite in the area that could checkmate Iran’s ambitions in the region and provide some relief to Israel. Instead, the wave of democracy that swept the region was not inclined to U.S. power but was against it. Even Iraq’s government was not as docile as hoped.
The costs of war suggest the law of intended consequences. The anti-war movement suggested that the bloodshed would not welcome U.S. troops into Iraq “with sweets and flowers”, but it would open up sectarian fissures and create far more human suffering than imagined. Iraq has been resilient enough to demand more than a public relations withdrawal. Having Iraq exercise its sovereignty is not sufficient to justify the war in the first place. Eight years after the war, no justifications remain. It was a dumb war, and it remains so.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article originally appeared on Frontline.