by Ahmed Humayun
The conquest of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the latest indication of the Arab world's descent into chaos. Described by Western officials as even more extreme than Al Qaeda, this formidable Sunni extremist army controls chunks of Syria and is marching on Baghdad, intending to establish an Islamist state that will redraw the boundaries of the Middle East. The rise of ISIS is merely the latest development that underscores yet again the tragic folly of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Americans lost interest in Iraq long before the last American soldier departed the country in December 2011. It is remarkable that after having occupied Iraq for almost a decade, how easy it has been to let the entire experience simply recede into the background. (This amnesia applies even in the case of Afghanistan where American forces are still present in significant number. There is a palpable lack of interest with what is to become of that country and South Asia after the imminent U.S. withdrawal). It seems that when banners of victory cannot be credibly hoisted atop aircraft carriers ala ‘Mission Accomplished', then the story simply isn't worth following anymore.
We must reject this amnesia. We must remember what our leaders did in Iraq and follow this story all the way to its sordid denouement, if only because though the United States can leave, the inhabitants of these countries cannot. We should harbor no illusions that the nightmare that began on September 11, when Al Qaeda's henchmen attacked the United States, is over simply because we are in the process of disengaging from Muslim countries. We must understand our contribution to the festering of this problem so that we may instead contribute to its resolution.
We should start by acknowledging that the very idea of the Iraq war was a travesty and an enormous strategic blunder. The clearest indications of the disaster to follow were the stated pre-war rationales—which combined one falsehood and one delusion. The falsehood was that Iraq posed a threat to the United States, and the delusion was that the invasion would undermine militant Islam and jumpstart the democratization of the Middle East. This unholy marriage between cynicism and fantasy directly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the displacement of millions of them, the deaths of thousands of American and the expenditure of almost a trillion American taxpayer dollars, the dangerous destabilization of the Middle East, and the further aggrandizement of militant groups in the Muslim world.
Why did Americans support this war at its inception? While the invasion of Iraq was carefully packaged and sold to the American public by the Bush administration, its frenzied propaganda campaign could not have succeeded without the active connivance of many others. In the run up to the invasion it was remarkable to witness the thundering bluster of the most dedicated war enthusiasts—a varied coalition that included Bush administration officials, members of the U.S. Congress, fellows at mainstream Washington think tanks, right wing pundits, and not least, liberal hawks and self-styled ‘reformed' leftists.
During this time, a crass and cynical tactic that conflated opposition to the war with opposition to American soldiers was used to repress criticism. Iraq's veterans – young men who spent their formative years in a foreign land fighting a vicious insurgency because they were told it was necessary to defend freedom – are back and they can't get even get decent health care from their government. How often do we hear the mantra ‘Support the Troops' now?
Although the Bush administration's propaganda campaign was robust enough to scare Americans into an unnecessary war, soon after the invasion, the justifications for the war fell like dominoes. Those weapons of mass destruction (remember Condi Rice saying ‘we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud'?) didn't exist, and the fevered neoconservative fantasies about democracy were quickly exposed as a long-brutalized society exploded into body bags and ethnic cleansing and insurgent terrorism.
The lingering few who still defended the war were reduced to the argument that Saddam Hussein was a bad man, and that removing him was worth the U.S. intervention. There were obvious rejoinders to this claim: Of course, Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant who committed hideous atrocities against his citizens, but are we in the business of overthrowing all the despots and authoritarians out there? What about accounting for the humanitarian costs of the war in this balance sheet—the hundreds of thousands dead, the countless maimed and wounded, the destruction of an entire society? These, after all, are the type of things that happen in wars—and this is why only a necessary one should be waged.
More to the point, neither the awesome crimes of Saddam Hussein nor the fact that the U.S. intervention removed a despot from power changes the reality that our democratically elected leaders launched an unnecessary war based on spurious reasons. Even if this war had turned out less disastrously, even if Iraq today was not a global hub of terrorism, would it then have been justified? How many American deaths would we be comfortable with in service of a war of choice? What would be the morally acceptable number of dead Iraqis?
The core idea of implanting democracy through conquest and occupation in the Arab world was always an incredible delusion, a startlingly mad idea. The fact that this argument touted emancipation through subjugation should have been a dead giveaway. The fact that our leaders voluntarily chose to get embroiled in the toxic politics, regional rivalries, and sectarian divisions of the Middle East, believing they could sort it all out was an extraordinary combination of hubris and ignorance. Leaders who embraced such crazy ideas—who truly believed that ‘we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality'—could only be capable of bungling the enterprise altogether. This is precisely what has happened.
The most enduring legacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been the empowering of the global militant Islamist movement. First, the Iraq war distracted attention from Afghanistan, as a result of which Al Qaeda recuperated from its losses even as the Taliban returned to power in vast swathes of the country. Then, the war added grist to the mill of Islamist propaganda as a new generation of recruits flocked to join militant gangs. ISIS has emerged out of this fetid swamp, comprised of tens of thousands of militants who fancy themselves to be defenders of Islam against Western occupiers and their client states. It is not an accident that the nom de guerre of its leader—described by Western intelligence officials as the true heir of Bin Laden, compared to whom Amyn al-Zawahiri is deemed to be ‘cautious'—is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
This is an unsurprising legacy. Before the war many familiar with the politics and culture of the region warned that the Iraq war would increase global terrorism. Really though, it should not have required Arabic proficiency or unique cultural and religious knowledge to know that the Western military conquest and occupation of a Muslim majority society was likely to strengthen the appeal of an anti-Western militant ideology. In this case, a disregard of elementary principles of human behavior joined appalling ignorance about the politics of militant Islamist groups, resulting in specious predictions by war propagandists. For example, take a look at this screed by the late Christopher Hitchens from February 2003, in which he scorns the idea that an Iraq war would increase extremist recruitment.
Colin Powell is famously reported to have said in reference to the Iraq war: ‘If you break it, you own it'. While the United States certainly broke Iraq, no one owns it today, and the result is a growing militant Islamist takeover in the Arab heartland with no end in sight. If we want to find our way to something approaching a solution to the grave challenge posed by global terrorism today, we can start by not repeating our own colossal mistakes. We should acknowledge that in 2003 a deep rot in our public life and a fundamental failure in our political institutions led us to accept a remarkable delusion, the consequences of which will haunt the world for years to come.