While visiting Baghdad last year, I was struck by what Iraqis said every time I tried to apologize for the 2003 invasion: “Don’t apologize for that. We needed an invasion to get rid of Saddam Hussein.” And then they would add, “But you do need to apologize for the occupation.”
Each person then went on to tell me their occupation horror stories. Like the ubiquitous stories of ‘the night when US soldiers broke into our house.’ “Unlike the secret police of the Baathist regime,” they’d say, “US soldiers would go upstairs. They’d go through our bedrooms, can you believe that?” People told me stories of near-death experiences on the streets with trigger-happy occupation troops. People told me terrifying anecdotes of harrowing encounters, like the one about the produce truck at the American checkpoint, and the military linguist who translated the word “pomegranates” as “grenades,” and nearly got two men killed in the process. Oftentimes—too routinely to be mere coincidence—the electricity would suddenly go out as they were narrating some traumatic detail, and I would listen to them in the darkness. Somehow, it was fitting.
This week, I remembered how my Iraqi friends had somehow managed to distinguish between invasion and occupation. I still do not understand how they did it, especially since the latter was so obviously the natural outgrowth of the former. Of course, they were so eager to see the end of Saddam Hussein that they could accept intervention, even if they could not accept all its consequences.
What reminded me of this distinction was listening to how American political elites are talking now (again) about intervention. Like the people I met in Baghdad, they also seem to imagine intervention without consequence. But there is a difference: barring a significant shift in power, American elites will not pay the costs of this American intervention just as they did not pay for the last one. Nor will they suffer any meaningful consequences. Herein lies the magical power of interventionism as an ideology in American life.
The architects of the invasion sought to remake Iraqi society and they did. In our name and with our tax-dollars, American politicians and generals pursued an unpopular war with gusto. The Iraq intervention may have been invented by neo-cons but it wouldn’t have happened without the support of liberals. Forget the millions who protested in the streets: intervention was one of the very few points on which the two parties, their corporate sponsors, and their pundits, could agree during a long decade of nasty partisan fights. The list of cheerleaders is as long as it is illustrious—for every Dick Cheney, there were two Thomas Friedmans and a George Packer. Together, Democrats and Republicans gave the world a living example of what the free-market, withered-state American dream would look like. And the picture has only grown uglier with age.
The corruption, criminal neglect, torture, indiscriminate violence, murder and manslaughter perpetrated under American auspices deeply injured an Iraqi society already poisoned by the totalitarian violence of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, not to mention years of war and sanctions. By deliberately collapsing the Baathist state while also increasing the level of violence on Iraq’s new mean streets, the Americans pushed ordinary Iraqi citizens to find and create new sources of safety and security. With no local or state governance to support or protect them, Iraqis did what people will always do in such situations: they abandoned abstract, complex and state-dependent notions of open community (like a civic nation) in favor of concrete, austere and immediate notions of closed community (like family). As Fanar Haddad, Sinan Antoon and Zaid al-Ali have shown, the security vacuum our interventionism created gave rise to the sectarianism and tribalism we see today.
After creating Hell once, you might think Americans would hesitate before doing it again. But our interventionists have never paused and never blinked. In 2011, before the last troops had even left Iraq, we began bombing Libya to liberate the people there from the tyranny of another dictator. Of course, once the Qaddafi regime collapsed, it was chaos—not freedom—that broke out. The next year, a bi-partisan alliance of interventionists demanded action against Iran. In 2013, another popular front of interventionists clamored for action, this time in Syria—and all while repeated their favorite mantra: “We can’t just stand by and let this happen, can we?”
It is on this point that we need to correct our language. For it was common knowledge that in 2013, like in 2011 and 2012, “we” were not just “standing by and letting things happen” in Libya or Iran. And with regard to Syria, “we,” like the Saudis and Qataris, had already been intervening—with covert action and diplomatic support—to overthrow the Asad regime.
Similarly, against the backdrop of American covert action against the Baathist regime, and the bombing campaigns that began during the buildup to the Gulf War of 1991 and continued unabated for more than a decade, it is not accurate to think of the 2003 invasion as an “intervention,” if by that term we mean an extraneous force suddenly inserted into Iraqi history. Rather, the invasion was the culmination—and escalation—of a long history of American military involvement in Iraq. Likewise, the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan was itself the culmination of more than a decade of covert action and military involvement. What proponents of intervention call for now, as before, is not intervention in the sense of a one-time action from outside. What they demand is an escalation of an already existing military entanglement. And, once the operation is underway, they can be counted on to demand that the military be given support until victory is accomplished, as if that were a possibility.
The term “intervention” implies that an action is discrete rather than ongoing, and that it marks a break in a chain of history, rather than a continuation of an existing routine or an expansion of an old repertoire. But that is not what American interventionists call for. A more accurate term for them would be escalationist. How else should we refer to people who only ever reach for one blunt tool—military action—whenever they encounter any of the many vexing problems of the modern world? When it becomes clear, as it always does, that intervention has not resolved the issue (or that it has exacerbated it) the escalationists will always be there to say, “Of course, any military campaign needs to be coordinated with a political/economic/humanitarian strategy.” But by then, it is already too late. Escalationism is the ideological platform for militarizing every policy issue that arises.
It is a truism that escalationists are inconsistent, arguing in favor of intervention against weak states and against it when status quo alliances and interests might be disturbed. It is also true that the hypocrisy and selectivity of escalationists debases whatever values and norms—human rights, humanitarianism, even regional stability—they touch. Yet these debasements pale in comparison to what escalationism does to policy debate in this country. While military intervention has a very poor track record of resolving real-world social and political emergencies, arguments for intervention always transform the process by which such issues are addressed in government. Escalationists know, as anyone knows, that on balance American military intervention has caused far more intractable problems in the world than it has ever solved. However, intervention does ensure that generals, intelligence agencies, and the public-private security industry have a privileged place at the table when policies are debated and decisions are taken. Indeed, the history of the last fifty years is one in which the center of gravity for American foreign policy has shifted from the State Department to the Department of Defense and NSA.
This is a horrendous development for American democracy for the following reasons: when escalationists demand militarized solutions to the problems of the world, they are effectively arguing that military and intelligence officers and businessmen—not elected officials—should be the ones making the critical decisions when it comes to foreign policy. When elected officials clamor for intervention, they are, in effect, forfeiting their right and duty to address how these issues impact the lives of American citizens. Given the restriction on information in military operations, and the secrecy of intelligence institutions and security corporations, arguments for intervention are also effectively demands that policy deliberations take place far from public scrutiny and that decisions have only an oblique relation to public accountability. Admittedly, it is doubtful that most escalationists think of themselves as hostile to the basic principles of democratic governance but in essence, their position is fundamentally at odds with the values of transparency and accountability.
To his credit, Obama ignored the war drums in 2012-13, a real feat in a town where interventionism is pumped directly into the water supply along with fluoride. But when the Syrian conflict spilled across Sykes-Picot lines this June, it became hard for Obama to ignore the escalationists. True, it is not that America has been sitting and watching Iraq from outside. On the contrary, American involvement in the Iraqi military and intelligence has remained sizeable. And even if American occupation troops were withdrawn in 2011, American advisors—and military contractors—have never left. The bombing campaign that Obama initiated last week is not an intervention, but an escalation of a direct military involvement that goes all the way back to 1991.
Again, we are bombing Iraq to save it. Again, our bombs are humanitarian. Again, they will save lives. Again, they will protect national interests. Again, the engagement will be short, limited to airstrikes, no boots on the ground. Time will tell what the scope of this escalation will actually be, but if recent history is any indication, we should not think aerial bombardments will meaningfully change the nature of the civil war(s) now linking Syria to Iraq, nor should we expect to learn the true scope of the intervention anytime soon, nor should we be surprised if it escalates into something that was never initially advertised.
It is disconcerting that this escalation takes place in the shadow of a widespread consensus—that unites experts the American public and the Iraqi public—that the last American escalation in Iraq was such a complete failure.
Given this dismal history, it is hard to interpret the bombing campaign as anything more serious than a we-have-got-to-do-something gesture. Even if this smaller intervention promises to be more of the same, only less so, the Obama administration is speaking (again) as if intervention has no cost or consequence. In that regard, we might remind ourselves of some of the more salient costs of the last decade of intervention in Iraq:
* 2 ± million Iraqi refugees. Many more internally displaced.
* 4,400 + American military deaths. Another 5000 violent deaths among foreign contractors and coalition military personnel.
* $2 – 4 trillion expense to US taxpayers. The final amount will grow over time.
Obviously, the costs of the war cannot be measured solely in bodies and dollars. The well documented (but largely unprosecuted) accounts of torture and human rights abuse in US detention centers and prisons in occupied Iraq also need to figure into any reckoning, as do the long list of documented cases of negligent and criminal violence on the part of occupation forces and security contractors. Similarly, there has been no deep accounting for the corruption that ran rampant through the occupation administration, nor for the widespread profiteering and fraud on the part of defense contractors and development firms. Only a fraction of these cases have been prosecuted. When Obama’s Justice Department decided not to pursue Bush administration officials for torture, lying, and malfeasance, they sent a clear message that the past was to be forgotten, the slate wiped clean.
Escalationism is a frail ideology that cannot survive without a steady diet of indemnity and recklessness. But in Washington, that greenhouse of unaccountability, it thrives like a weed. We have yet to reckon with the costs, mistakes and crimes of a decade-long US occupation in Iraq, and yet we are starting another round. It is not just that we have failed to learn from the past or have forgotten to pay the piper. We haven’t even bothered to look at the last bill because we imagine someone else will clear the dishes and pay the check. Someday, the escalationists will be forced to live with the consequences of their ideology, but for now, it will be—once again—the Iraqis who will have to suffer and survive.
Elliott Colla is associate professor in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is also the author of the acclaimed murder mystery set in American-occupied Iraq, Baghdad Central of which The Independent wrote: “A murder mystery set in post-Saddam Baghdad is as good as it is daring.”