The Iraq War: 10 Years Later

17 Mar

 

 

            After a decade of combat, casualties, massive displacement, persisting violence, enhanced sectarian tension and violence between Shi’ias and Sunnis, periodic suicide bombings, and autocratic governance, a negative assessment of the Iraq War as a strategic move by the United States, United Kingdom, and a few of their secondary allies, including Japan, seems near universal. Not only the regionally destabilizing outcome, including the blowback effect of perversely adding weight to Iran’s overall diplomatic influence, but the reputational costs in the Middle East associated with an imprudent, destructive, and failed military intervention make the Iraq War the worst American foreign policy disaster since its defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s, and undertaken with an even less persuasive legal, moral, and political rationale. The ongoing blowback from the ‘shock and awe’ launch scenario represents a huge, and hopefully irreversible, setback for the American global domination project in the era of hypertechno geopolitics.

 

            Most geopolitical accounting assessments do not bother to consider the damage to the United Nations and international law arising from an aggressive use of force in flagrant violation of the UN Charter, embarked upon in the face of a refusal by the Security Council to provide a legitimating authorization for the use of force despite great pressure mounted by the United States. The UN further harmed its own image when it failed to reinforce its refusal to grant authorization to the United States and its coalition, by offering some kind of support to Iraq as the target of this contemplated aggression. This failure was compounded by the post-attack role played by the UN in lending full support to the unlawful American-led occupation, including its state-building mission. In other words, not only was the Iraq War a disaster from the perspective of American and British foreign policy and the peace and stability of the Middle East region, but it was also a severe setback for the authority of international law, the independence of the UN, and the quality of world order.

 

            In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the United States was supposedly burdened by what policymakers derisively called ‘the Vietnam Syndrome.’ This was a Washington shorthand for the psychological inhibitions to engage in military interventions in the non-Western world due to the negative attitudes towards such imperial undertakings that were supposed to exist among the American public and in the government, especially among the military who were widely blamed for the Vietnam disaster. Many American militarists at the time complained that the Vietnam Syndrome was a combined result of an anti-war plot engineered by the liberal media and a response to an unpopular conscription or ‘draft’ that required many middle class Americans to fight in a distant war that lacked both popular support, a convincing strategic or legal rationale, and seemed to be on the wrong side of history, which as the French found out in their own Indochina War favored anti-colonial wars of liberation. The flag-draped coffins of dead young Americans were shown on TV, leading defense hawks to contend somewhat ridiculously that ‘the war was lost in American living rooms.’ The government made adjustments that took these rationalizations serious: the draft was abolished, and reliance  henceforth was placed on an all-volunteer professional military complemented by large-scale private security firms; also, intensified efforts were made to assure media support for subsequent military operations by ‘embedding’ journalists in combat units and more carefully monitoring news reporting.

 

            President, George H.W. Bush told the world in 1991 immediately after the Gulf War that had been successfully undertaken to reverse the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait that “we have finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome.” In effect, the senior President Bush was saying to the grand strategists in the White House and Pentagon that the role of American military power was again available for use to do the work of empire around the world. What the Gulf War showed was that on a conventional battlefield, in this setting of a desert war, American military superiority would be decisive, could produce a quick victory with minimal costs in American lives, and bring about a surge of political popularity at home. This new militarist enthusiasm created the political base for recourse to the NATO War in 1999 to wrest Kosovo from Serb control. To ensure the avoidance of casualties, reliance was placed on air attacks conducted from high altitudes. The war took more time than expected, but was interpreted as validating the claim of war planners that the United States could now fight and win ‘zero casualty wars.’ There were no NATO combat deaths in the Kosovo War, and the war produced a ‘victory’ by ending Serbian control over Kosovo as well as demonstrating that NATO could still be used and useful even after the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat that had explained the formation of the alliance in the first place.

 

            More sophisticated American war planners understood that not all challenges to United States interests around the world could be met with air power in the absence of ground combat. Increasingly, political violence involving geopolitical priorities took the form of transnational violence (as in the 9/11 attacks) or was situated within the boundaries of territorial states, and involved Western military intervention designed to crush societal forces of national resistance. The Bush presidency badly confused its new self-assurance about the conduct of battlefield international warfare where military superiority dictates the political outcome and its old nemesis from Vietnam War days of counter-insurgency warfare, also known as low-intensity or asymmetric warfare, where military superiority controls the battlefield but not the endgame of conflict which depends on winning the allegiance of the territorial population.

 

            David Petraeus rose through the ranks of the American military by repackaging counterinsurgency warfare in a post-Vietnam format relying upon an approach developed by noted guerrilla war expert David Galula, who contended that in the Vietnam War the fatal mistake was made of supposing that such a war would be determined 80% by combat battles in the jungles and paddy fields with the remaining 20% devoted to the capture of the ‘hearts and minds’ of the indigenous population. Galula argued that counterinsurgency wars could only be won if this formula was inverted.  This meant that 80% of future U.S. military interventions should be devoted to non-military aspects of societal wellbeing: restoring electricity, providing police protection for normal activity, building and staffing schools, improving sanitation and garbage removal, and providing health car and jobs.

 

            Afghanistan, and then Iraq, became the testing grounds for applying these nation-building lessons of Vietnam, only to reveal in the course of their lengthy, destructive and expensive failures that the wrong lessons had been learned by the militarists and their civilian counterparts. These conflicts were wars of national resistance, a continuation of the anti-colonial struggles against West-centric  domination, and regardless of whether the killing was complemented by sophisticated social and economic programs, it still involved a pronounced and deadly challenge by foreign interests to the national independence and rights of self-determination that entailed killing Iraqi women and children, and violating their most basic rights through the unavoidably harsh mechanics of foreign occupation. It also proved impossible to disentangle the planned 80% from the 20% as the hostility of the Iraqi people to their supposed American liberators demonstrated over and over again, especially as many Iraqis on the side of the occupiers proved to be corrupt and brutal, sparking popular suspicion and intensifying internal polarization. The truly ‘fatal mistake’ made by Petraeus, Galula, and all the counterinsurgency advocates that have followed this path, is the failure to recognize that when the American military and its allies attack and occupy a non-Western country, especially in the Islamic world, when they start dividing, killing and policing its inhabitants, popular resistance will be mobilized and hatred toward the foreign ‘liberators’ will spread. This is precisely what happened in Iraq, and the suicide bombings to this day suggest that the ugly patterns of violence have not stopped even with the ending of America’s direct combat role.

 

            The United States was guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Iraq War displayed to the world when George W. Bush theatrically declared on May 1, 2003 a wildly premature victory from the deck of an American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, with the notorious banner proclaiming ‘mission accomplished’ plainly visible behind the podium as the sun sank over the Pacific Ocean. Bush reveled in this misunderstanding by assuming that the attack phase of the war was the whole war, forgetting about the more difficult and protracted occupation phase. The real Iraq War, rather than ending, was about to begin, that is, the violent internal struggle for the political future of the country, one made more difficult and protracted by the military presence of the US and its allies. This counterinsurgency sequel to occupation would not be decided on the kind of battlefield where arrayed military capabilities confront one another, but rather through a war of attrition waged by hit and run domestic Iraqi forces, abetted by foreign volunteers, opposed to the tactics of Washington and to the overall aura of illegitimacy attached to American military operations in a Third World setting. Such a war has a shadowy beginning and a still uncertain ending, and is often, as in Iraq, as it proved to be earlier in Vietnam and Afghanistan, a quagmire for intervening powers. There are increasing reasons to believe that the current Iraqi leader, Nouri al-Maliki, resembles the authoritarian style of Saddam Hussein more than the supposed constitutional liberal regime that the United States pretends to leave behind, and that the country is headed for continuing struggle, possibly even a disastrous civil war fought along sectarian line. In many respects, including the deepening of the Sunni/Shi’a divide the country and its people are worse off that before the Iraq War without in any way questioning allegations about the cruelty and criminality of the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.

 

            The Iraq War was a war of aggression from its inception, being an unprovoked use of armed force against a sovereign state in a situation other than self-defense. The Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals convened after World War II had declared such aggressive warfare to be a ‘crime against peace’ and prosecuted and punished surviving political and military leaders of Germany and Japan as war criminals. We can ask why have George W. Bush and Tony Blair not been investigated, indicted, and prosecuted for their roles in planning and prosecuting the Iraq War. As folk singer Bob Dylan instructed us long ago, the answer is ‘blowin’ in the wind,’ or in more straightforward language, the reasons for such impunity conferred upon the American and British leaders is one more crude display of geopolitics—their countries were not defeated and occupied, their governments never surrendered and discredited, and such strategic failures (or successes) are exempted from legal scrutiny. These are the double standards that make international criminal justice a reflection of power politics more than of evenhanded global justice.

Global civil society with its own limited resources had challenged both the onset of the Iraq War, and later its actual unfolding. On and around February 15, 2003, what the Guinness Book of Records called “the largest anti-war rally in history” took the form of about 3,000 demonstrations in 800 cities located in more than 60 countries and according to the BBC involved an estimated 6-10 million persons. Although such a global show of opposition to recourse to war was unprecedented, it failed to halt the war. It did, however, have the lasting effect of undermining the American claims of justification for the attack and occupation of Iraq. It also led to an unprecedented effort by groups around the world to pass judgment on the war by holding sessions in which peace activists and international law experts alleged the criminality of the Iraq War, and called for war crimes prosecutions of Bush and Blair. As many as twenty such events were held in various parts of the world, with a culminating Iraq War Tribunal convened in June of 2005, which included testimony from more than 50 experts, including several from Iraq and a jury of conscience headed by Arundhati Roy.

 

            There is also the question of complicity of countries that supported the war with troop deployments, such as Japan, which dispatched 1000 members of its self-defense units to Iraq in July 2003 to help with non-combat dimensions of the occupation. Such a role is a clear breach of international law and morality. It is also inconsistent with Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. It was coupled with Tokyo’s diplomatic support for the U.S./UK-led Iraq War from start to finish. Should such a record of involvement have any adverse consequences? It would seem that Japan might at least review the appropriateness of its complicit participation in a war of aggression, and how that diminishes the credibility of any Japanese claim to uphold the responsibilities of membership in the United Nations. At least, it provides the people of Japan with a moment for national soul-searching to think about what kind of world order will in the future best achieve peace, stability, and human dignity.

 

            Are there lessons to be drawn from the Iraq War? I believe there are. The overwhelming lesson is that in this historical period interventions by the West in the non-West, especially when not authorized by the UN Security Council, can rarely succeed in attaining their stated goals. More broadly, counterinsurgency warfare involving a core encounter between Western invading and occupying forces and a national resistance movement will not be decided on the basis of hard power military superiority, but rather by the dynamics of self-determination associated with the party that has the more credible nationalist credentials, which include the will to persist in the struggle for as long as it takes, and the capacity to capture the high moral ground in the ongoing legitimacy struggle for domestic and international public support. It is only when we witness the dismantling of many of America’s 700+ acknowledged foreign military bases spread around the world, and see the end of repeated US military intervention globally, that we can have some hope that the correct lessons of the Iraq War are finally being learned. Until then there will be further attempts by the U.S. Government to correct the tactical mistakes that it claims caused past failures in Iraq (and Afghanistan), and new interventions will undoubtedly be proposed in coming years, most probably leading to costly new failures, and further controversies as to ‘why?’ we fought and why we lost. American leaders will remain unlikely to acknowledge that the most basic mistake is itself militarism and the accompanying arrogance of occupation, at least until this establishment consensus is challenged by a robust anti-militarist grassroots political movement not currently visible.      

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9 Responses to “The Iraq War: 10 Years Later”

  1. arnoldtesa March 17, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    body{font-family: Geneva,Arial,Helvetica,sans-serif;font-size:9pt;background-color: #ffffff;color: black;}Richard:  I fear that few people actually face the fundamental flaw in American policy: The notion that Americans have some right to decide what is right and proper for any of the other 200 plus countries in the world.  While eschewing the notion that it is “the world policeman”, it shows no compunctions about summarily invading and reordering, however unsuccessfully, the affairs of other peoples. In the modern asymmetric war game US policies and behavior evoke, my concern is that some offended individual or group eventually will plant a stolen nuclear weapon or a contrived dirty bomb under the heart of Washington or some other major city. In the process, many Americans who will have had no role, passive or otherwise, in American crimes against others will be wiped out in what the attackers will view as satisfying retaliation. In my view, a fundamental change in America’s leadership response to the rest of the world is required to keep such an event from happening somewhere. All the best to you.  You live in one of my favorite communities. Terry Arnold

  2. Arif Dirlik March 17, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

    Dear Richard, Thanks for this. I would only add that now with the appearance of new centers of power, thanks to global capitalism, the “anti-colonial” and “anti-Western” thrust is tronger than ever–albeit within the confines of a common political economy. Best, Arif

  3. monalisa March 17, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    Dear Richard,

    in my opinion since the WWII nothing could have really achieved by USA with its various wars. I don’t see – or at least I could not figure it out up till today – what USA won by all these wars ! The WWII made USA a rich country and with it it took/established a very good position within the global political and economic powers.
    But what afterwards ??
    And to start wars together with two or three Western “partners” bombing (with depleted uranium) countries less equipped, less advanced means – in my opinion – only one thing: to show the other great power/s where its stand it wants to have.
    However, what has been established ???
    What got the US citizen out of it ?
    What has been acknowledged by other countries in the political arena while the US governments/military couldn’t really win ?? Which picture gives USA to the other great countries with these wars ?

    The first thing which will never be forgotten by the global community (more or less depending on the education in the different countries and its people awareness) – not only by the murdered and raped women, damaged societies and completely damaged infrastructure – is its soil and waters insofar as that there are places so much damaged by depleted uranium that any remedy will be extremely difficult to non possible and that for a long time !
    Many places in Vietnam are still telling what happened – I mean the environment by what had been used as “war material” !

    Anyone owning a company will at first look what could be achieved if doing this or that.
    USA is waging wars with not well developed countries and is doing it over and over again !!
    With lies, without lies, and so forth ……

    What has been achieved for the US citizen ???

    This is the question which should be asked by US inhabitants (and maybe by some Europeans’ to their politicans too). Responsible politicans should stand on trial if citizen have to suffer because of misdoings and wrongdoings and poorly planned political “achievements”. They should be made responsible as they had in reality – to my knowledge – sworn by Constitution/God to take care for the country they are representing and the benefit of its citizen !

    Yes you are right: the UNO lost its initial good stand and is partly corrumped I think – or at least the last ten years showed that more clearly.

    Thank you dear Richard, for your courage to bring such extremely sensitive thoughts into the foreground,

    take care of yourself,

    monalisa

    • Judy Deutsch March 17, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

      The problem of militarism is deeply rooted and now threatens human extinction on two counts: nuclear weapons and climate change (the military is the largest emitter of GHG and is exempt under Kyoto). The US characteristically inflicts wars (and sanctions) of attrition. You mention the UN but fail to include the Korean War which left at least 3 million people dead — it was a UN war declared shortly after the UN formed to end all wars. Many conclude that the NATO bombings Serbia more-or-less sanctioned NATO as the military arm of the UN. The US, and its allies continue to be complicit in innumerable massacres — Indonesia, Latin America, Africa. Certainly it’s persistent and informed action from below, from decent people all over the world, that can stop the atrocity and hypocrisy.

  4. Albert Guillaume March 17, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    When Obama won the White House I rejoiced, hoping that now sanity would return to that once great country, that got high-jacked by one of its own presidents and his handlers. But what a disappointment that turned out to be.
    Not only did Obama continue the policies of his predecessor, but started to use those cowardly drones on innocent people. And to think, that he was awarded the Nobel peace prize. To pick on far less developed countries is cowardly in itself, but whatever morality was left, has now been gambled away. If America is a democracy and that is a big if, then how can they get away with these atrocities time and again? The economy is in tatters and thousands upon thousands of people have not just lost their houses because of fraudulent practices of the big banks, who got bailed out by the taxpayer, without even being asked, if they agreed, but also their jobs, investments and a lot of them their families. Is this supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave? The present situation does not attest to either.
    What do you think Richard would happen, if the government started to print the money instead of the privately owned banks? What possible excuse can be put forward for not having a war crimes tribunal? Would the alleged criminals not go free, if proven innocent? And do they not deserve to be punished the same as others before them have been?
    For the sake of all the innocent victims, who got murdered, raped and tortured by these barbarians, we should have a trial in an independent court of justice and the UN should either be abolished or at least democratized, which now it is not. The Roman empire fell apart, because it rotted from within. America, heed that lesson of history! You more than qualify for the same fate.

  5. monalisa March 17, 2013 at 11:56 pm #

    Concerning Iraq
    I would like to mention too that US citizen didn’t get even jobs out of the Iraq war.
    Very few US companies have been made richer. Those still there: US companies are hiring people with catastrophic working contracts/conditions from poor Asian countries.
    So only US citizen working as military slaves (this is my personal point when people are standing under military commandoes!) in order to maybe get afterwards a better life or can study something.*)
    However, not even jobs have been won for US citizen.

    *) Our whole globe is undergoing a climate change.
    At least any developed country – like USA claims to be – should have had the courage to stand in front of all and declare that this is the foremost point to combat.
    Any country claiming being developed more than other countries should do the same.
    Under those life threatening circumstances as we already have the global communities living on our earth should reach out to each other in order to save mankind.
    Unfortunately. there are unnecessary wars created, the environment is heated up more with unnecessary military equipments, our sees are more and more devasted and so forth.
    Soils in different countries are polluted for the next several millions of years –
    do mankind ever learn ? Science should help us to combat global change and not to create more and more wars.

    PS: to arnoldtesa Terry Arnold:
    USA will have so much inequalities within its own society that before any outsider will do any harm US people might be will start that. (Drones are already “enacted” to control US citizen!!)
    Reading history is a very useful pastime hobby. Too great inequalities within any society (whether it be the Roman Empire, China or the Empire the Zars: inequalities in societies are the trigger point when reached a certain level. To see how many US people aren’t helped by its government within a special social net and can rely only to religious groups points already into a certain directon.

    monalisa

  6. walker percy March 18, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    Richard,
    It is shocking to me that we are all obediently scratching our heads over what could have possibly been the motivation for the US to invade Iraq. The answer is obvious: Saddam lobbed scud missiles at Israel in 1991, and this was payback, plain and simple. The Israelis never forgive and they will never forget that they were prevented from striking back at the time. We are all comfortable blaming the war on neo-conservatives, but this is just another name for zionists, something that no one is allowed to say. But the prohibitions are falling away, as the Internet helps reveal the truth of this group’s crimes throughout history!

    Meanwhile, as we all continue wondering about this mystery, WW3 just started in Cyprus, and no one is paying attention. We know that half of the money in Cypriot banks was deposited by “russian oligarchs”, who are about to take a big haircut, which they will not like. We know that the chosen folks are big on revenge (see above), and so we should expect some major fireworks over this, leading, finally, to collapse of the world economy. I predict that this event will go down in history as the equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarejevo in 1914. The spasm of judeocide that is about to happen will make the h-caust seem mild. But that’s what they want, apparently.
    Walker

  7. Beau Oolayforos September 27, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    The 2003 Iraq War? I could smell that rat from half a world away, and I wasn’t hardly paying attention. Wolfowitz & the Warmongers – what a group – & all the devils & fools dancing to their beat.

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