Reaping the whirlwind of Sunni extremism


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In retirement, former British prime minister Tony Blair calls to mind a Charles Dickens character: “Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent mood. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject.” He popped up recently to deny that the lightning advance of the bloodthirsty and ruthlessly efficient ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, covering the Levant across Iraq and Syria) could be blamed on the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rather, in his twisted view, the fault lay mainly in not intervening in Syria last year to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. He was widely mocked and ridiculed, especially as western intervention would have effectively been in support of the extremists against Syria’s military battling them with more fight and success than shown by Iraq’s army after more than a decade of the best training that the West has to offer. London Mayor Boris Johnson, who supported the war in 2003, concluded that Blair “has finally gone mad” and become “unhinged” in his refusal to face facts: his “assertions are so jaw-droppingly and breathtakingly at variance with reality that he surely needs professional psychiatric help”.

Who will hold Bush, Blair and Howard to account for defying national and world opinion?
George W Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard took the US, UK and Australia to a war of choice against Iraq in 2003 in order to topple Saddam Hussein. They did so against the massive weight of popular, elite and global opinion, insisting their judgment was superior and they would answer to history. Well, history seems to be giving its verdict and her nemesis is ISIS. The Islamist force has fought, tortured and killed its way through large swathes of Iraqi territory and captured Mosul, the country’s second largest city, and several others as the Iraqi military dissolved and melted away faster than an ice cream cone in the desert heat.

Senior Middle East journalist Rami Khouri points to “the total lack of accountability or restraint in how global, mostly western, powers focus on an issue related to a powerful Middle Eastern country, and then take action, from sanctions to warfare and regime change, to achieve the goals they set”. When it all goes wrong, they profess to have acted in good faith to make the best decision with the information they had at the time, offer a mild public admission of mistake, and “we are asked to wipe clean the slate of moral accountability”. But Middle Eastern leaders are subject “to different rules of accountability. If western powers deem them to misbehave — or merely suspect them of misbehaving”, the “local leaders or countries are immediately sanctioned, threatened, accused of war crimes or attacked”.

How do we impress on US neoconservatives- cum-chickenhawks — and their Australian-British fellow-travellers — the enormous disparity between the vision dreamed, the goals pursued, the means used and the results obtained? More than a decade after the event, conventional wisdom seems to have settled into the conclusion that the war was one of the gravest foreign policy blunders of modern times. To paraphrase Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the good that the coalition may have done lies interred with the bones of the dead in Iraq; the evil they unleashed will live on in infamy.

Barbara Tuchman famously argued in The March of Folly that historical figures made catastrophic decisions contrary to the self-interests of their countries, that were held to be damaging to those interests by contemporaries, and alternative courses of action to which were available at the time. Stephen Walt, writing in Foreign Policy (20 June), argues that until the US “gets better at listening to those who are consistently right instead of those who are reliably wrong, we will repeat the same mistakes and achieve the same dismal results”. The neocons remain utterly shameless about “how wrong they have been”, and “also appear utterly indifferent to the tragic human consequences of their repeated policy failures”.

But did they at least mean well? That is, was the 2003 war well-intentioned but based on a toxic cocktail of flawed evidence and faulty intelligence? Or was it based on an intentional web of lies, deceit and delusions? With hindsight, the balance of probabilities seems to suggest that it resulted from a campaign of deliberate falsehoods rather than honest mistakes. The gravity and immediacy of the threat from Iraq was deliberately exaggerated. Saddam was on the Bush administration’s agenda when it came into office; “9/11” provided the alibi, not the reason. General Wesley Clark, who commanded the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, noted in a public speech in California in October 2007 how the neocons had shifted the role of the US military from deterring conflicts and defending America against threats, to using it to invade other countries, overthrow their governments and install US-friendly regimes.

Going by the writings of many of them since their departure from power, they are like Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” What remains inexplicable to many outsiders is why so many of the hawkish commentators who got it so disastrously wrong in calling the 2003 war continue to be darlings of the US media commentariat as experts on the Middle East.

British intelligence services informed Blair in April 2002 (a year before the war) that Saddam had no nuclear weapons and any other WMD would be “very, very small”. The infamous Downing Street Memorandum of 23 July 2002 made it clear that the Bush administration was determined to go to war and military action was inevitable. But British officials did not believe there was sufficient legal justification: there was no recent evidence of Iraqi complicity with international terrorism, Saddam’s WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran, and he was not a threat to his neighbours. It was necessary to create the conditions that would make an invasion legal, hence “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” and the US “had already begun ‘spikes of activity’ to put pressure on the regime”.

Still counting the costs
Iraq’s invasion mutated into occupation, insurgency and finally a full-fledged civil war. About 4,500 American soldiers died in the lost cause. To estimate the number of civilians dead, we must make use of what epidemiologists call “excess deaths”: people who died from conflict-related starvation, malnutrition and disease who otherwise would have lived without the war. For example, as the health infrastructure collapses and doctors flee to safety, the sick and elderly begin to die in greater numbers and maternal and infant mortality rates climb steeply. These “excess deaths” do not result from soldiers’ guns directly, but there is no question that they are the victims of the armed conflict. Unless commentators are lazy, incompetent, or intimidated, they should say “between 174,000 and one million Iraqis have been killed or have died as a result of the 2003 war”. In addition, the war caused the largest human displacement in the modern Middle East: two million fled abroad and another two million were displaced internally. Iraq’s Christians, in particular, left in large numbers.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz calculates the substantial and lasting economic costs of the Iraq war as $3 trillion. According to the Costs of War project based at Brown University’s Watson Institute, the direct costs of the war — the US federal government spending on it — was $1.7 trillion through FY2013. Future health and disability payments for veterans will come to $590 billion and interest accrued to pay for the war will add up to $3.9 trillion. One can only speculate on the contribution of the treasure wasted in Iraq to causing the global financial crisis of 2008 that originated in the US, on the one hand, and to degrading the capacity of the US government to mitigate the effects and revive the economy, on the other.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars hastened the military, financial and moral decline of America. The US economy — once the biggest, best balanced, most productive and most innovative — became riddled with debts, deficits and distortions. China exploited US entrapment in Iraq and Afghanistan and collapse of reputation for moral and financial rectitude to expand its soft power reach and influence. In 2013, Russia exploited the falling US reputation and its increasingly war-weary public to regain a strategic foothold in the Middle East by successfully playing the peacemonger role to US’ threats of military strikes against Syria. The big strategic victor of the Iraq war was Iran with coffers enriched from the spike in oil prices, its neighbourhood rival regimes in Baghdad and Kabul toppled by US invasions, US and allied forces entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan, support for overseas military entanglements falling steeply across the western world, pro-Iranian Shias in control of Iraq, and sapped western resolve to go to war yet again against another Islamic country. In effect, Bush helped Iran to win its 1980-88 war with Iraq after a two-decade pause.

One of the professed goals of the war was to establish democracy in Iraq and use it as a beacon to promote political freedoms across the Arab world. That worked out really well, didn’t it? Democracy cannot be imposed by bombers, helicopter gunships and tanks. In any case, the global expansion of democracy has not been a pillar of US foreign policy: think 1971, India, Pakistan, China and the Bangladesh war. As this example shows, the rhetoric of democracy is an expedient justification in support of other more traditional goals. As the US retreated after wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it left behind broken, dysfunctional, erratic and autocratic governments in each country as proof of the failure of nation-building and democracy-promotion efforts. At the St Petersburg G8 summit in 2006, responding to Bush’s suggestion that Russia should be more democratic, President Vladimir Putin pointedly retorted: “We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq.” How Moscow feels vindicated about its warnings on the 2003 war!

The 2003 “victory” in Iraq came at the price of relegitimising wars of choice as an instrument of unilateral State policy. There are only two grounds for the lawful use of force against another country: self-defence against armed attack, or under UN authorisation. The Iraq war failed both tests. Saddam’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons was negligible, his nuclear weapons programme was nonexistent and he had little ability to revive the weapons programmes. The then US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, conceded subsequently that the WMD issue was chosen as the ground for invasion for “bureaucratic” reasons, to achieve the necessary consensus in the policy community in Washington’s beltway.

The UN was doubly damaged. For some, it failed the test of standing up to a tyrant who had brutalised his own people, terrorised his neighbours and thumbed his nose at the UN for 12 years. For most, the UN failed to stand up to the superpower in defence of a country that posed no threat to any other country. Lest we forget, protecting a small country from being attacked and invaded by a major power, like Czechoslovakia by Germany, was the primary reason for creating the UN. After the invasion, the UN had to tread the fine line between being seen as legitimising an illegal and unjust war by collaborating with the occupiers who wanted the political cover of the UN flag, and abandoning the people of Iraq who were the true victims thrice over of Saddam’s brutality, UN sanctions, and US war.

The war’s legacy has been particularly pernicious in damaging the International Criminal Court as the institutional custodian of international criminal justice. In 2012, Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu explained his refusal to share the stage with Blair by recalling the “immorality” of the US and UK invasion of Iraq: “in a consistent world, those responsible for this suffering and loss of life should be treading the same path as some of their African peers who have been made to answer for their actions in the Hague”.

Trans-Atlantic relations were also damaged. When the major European nations objected that the case for war had not been proven beyond reasonable doubt, instead of dialogue they got bad-tempered insults from neocons to whom allies are evidence of US military weakness, not proof of its diplomatic strength. Moreover, the characterisation of old and new Europe was quite wrong. Considering the past few centuries of European history, France and Germany standing together in resisting war represented the new Europe built on peaceful relations embedded in continental institutions. The former Soviet satellites that sided with the US represent the old Europe built on balance-of-power policies that had led to two world wars.

There was a precipitous worldwide decline in US global leadership and soft power. Rarely has a US administration faced such isolation and loss of public support among its closest allies from essentially pro-American people as the Bush administration following the Iraq war. The US people were also domestically divided and the wounds to the US body politic are yet to heal. Iraq was the first of three military missions that US forces took part in across the Islamic crescent — the other two being Afghanistan and Libya — whose essential failures have drained support for any further foreign adventures. British Prime Minister David Cameron tabled a motion in Parliament on 29 August 2013 that would have paved the way for British participation in the impending air strikes on Syria. The ghost of Iraq 2003 hovered unmistakably in the ensuing seven-hour debate, with coded (“We must not let the spectre of previous mistakes paralyse our ability to stand up for what is right”) and explicit (“The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode”) references from Cameron and opponents. Parliament rejected the motion by a 285-272 vote. When President Barack Obama sought similar authorisation, opinion polls and surveys confirmed a complete collapse of public and Congressional support for the military option in the US as well.

Fuelling the fire of jihad
The Iraq experience confirms that, as with terrorism, a war of aggression is an unacceptable tactic no matter how just the cause. Saddam’s ouster flowed from strategic not ethical calculations. The US is a great power, and a great power has strategic imperatives, not moral ones. Washington is motivated to act internationally not because it cares about foreign people, but because it cares about its own interests. “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is,” observed Yogi Berra in his infinite wisdom. The three optimistic assumptions behind Washington’s Iraq folly can be summed up as: the people of Iraq will welcome and love the Americans as liberators with the ouster of Saddam; the UN will fall flat on its face and the countries of the world will flock to join the coalition as soon as the WMD in Iraq are found and displayed; and Iraq will virtually rebuild itself with petrodollars. All three proved wrong.

In a memo on the war on terror on 16 October 2003, the then US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, asked: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” His prescient wisdom was ignored in Washington, not the least by himself. Yet it received remarkable affirmation from the then British ambassador to Italy, Sir Ivor Roberts, in September 2004. Al Qaeda would celebrate the re-election of president Bush, he said, for he was their “best recruiting sergeant”.

Saddam’s Iraq was the most secular regime in the whole region, bar none. His strongman rule was brutal but effective in imposing stability. His removal set off a train of perverse and pernicious consequences culminating in the present crisis. It reduced the political space for secularists and promoted a hardening of zero-sum religious identity, which in turn sparked increasingly ruthless sectarian fighting that in a vicious cycle reinforced sectarian hatred. The poison of sectarian hatred and killings between Sunnis and Shias, entered deep into Iraq’s body politic with Nouri al-Maliki’s steady disenfranchisement and marginalisation of Sunnis from State institutions and rapidly spread outwards from Iraq. By now, it has engulfed the entire region with a deepening Sunni-Shia schism that sees Iran as the champion of the Shias and Saudi Arabia and Turkey as the two Sunni nodes. ISIS has been bankrolled by Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalists and other conservative Gulf States. They must now fear blowback from the monster let loose on the region.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — memorably described by my friend Paul Heinbecker, Canada’s former UN ambassador, as perpetually angry and with an enemy list that would have impressed even Richard Nixon — has steadily taken the country away from its secular roots and more and more towards an Islamic identity over the 11 years he has been in power. Yet even Turkey’s impotence has been shown up with the capture of its consular officials in Mosul by ISIS.

So what are US’ options? For all his failings and disappointments on multiple fronts, Obama has been right to be cautious and circumspect about returning to the discredited and destabilising military option for resolving an internal Middle East crisis: there is no local conflict so grave that it cannot be made worse by an external military intervention. In an NBC News opinion poll published on 25 June, Americans said the Iraq war was not worth it by a solid 71-22 majority. Clearly, US personnel — diplomats and soldiers — will be protected as best as possible. Beyond that, options range from doing absolutely nothing, on the reasoning that Washington no longer has a dog in the civil war in Iraq, to another full-fledged military intervention. The first at least will have some support in American policy and commentariat circles; the last will have none beyond the few who are yet to see a war they don’t like, learn nothing and forget everything. A Reuters-IPSOS public opinion poll released on 19 June showed a solid 55-20 majority against US intervention of any kind. Options in between include drone strikes (difficult); military strikes by US planes and missiles stationed in the region; intelligence and logistical support for the Iraqi Army; cooperation with Iran against a common enemy; and acceptance of a tripartite split of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish components.

The crisis confirms the urgent need for parliamentary consent to be converted from an optional add-on to a legally binding requirement before a democracy goes to war. It should not be possible for a president or prime minister to wage war — the most solemn foreign policy decision of all — based on the whims or personal convictions of the leader as was the case with Bush, Blair and Howard.

The writer was a member and rapporteur of the International Commission on the Responsibility to Protect


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