Costly Iraq intervention must never be repeated

Chris Doyle

The consequences of the Anglo-American decision to go to war on Iraq 20 years ago this month have haunted that country and the region ever since. The conflict diminished the standing of these two countries and led to the US losing influence not just in the Middle East, but across the globe.
Only the denizens of cloud cuckoo land fail to acknowledge that the invasion and subsequent occupation were not a disaster. Many of those who favored war have admitted as such. Some politicians have publicly regretted their votes. The rights and wrongs of the Iraq war may never end. Its bitter legacy pollutes discussions about the country. It is pointless rehashing this debate. Various inquiries have done this for us. The British Chilcot Report produced a stunning indictment in its 2.6 million-word analysis of the Anglo-American failures. The 150-page executive summary is worth a careful read.
One novelty stands out about the Iraq war that has tainted subsequent decisions on military action and may do so again in the future. Rightly, legislatures have acquired a greater say in going to war. The 2003 vote in the British House of Commons was the first time ever that Parliament had given prior authorization for war. It set a precedent that the Commons should debate and vote on military action, save for in emergency situations. Elected politicians in the UK and elsewhere now have the onerous duty of making these determinations. In Britain, they voted for force against Libya in 2011 and Daesh in Iraq and then Syria, but rejected it against Syria in August 2013. Many MPs feel the burden of the Iraq vote. They are no longer prepared to blindly follow a prime minister who informs them of an imminent security threat to the country.
But how can ever-busier politicians devote the necessary time to understanding conflict zones like Iraq, Libya and Syria? Congressmen and MPs cannot just become last-minute experts. Let’s face it, none of them get elected for their deep and learned understanding of international issues, especially the Middle East. Those days are long gone. Politicians have to devote their time to constituents’ interests. Politics is becoming ever more local. This was the case back in 2003, but arguably the trend has intensified. Clearly, Congress and the House of Commons failed to effectively scrutinize the executive, to devastating effect. Congress authorized the use of force in October 2002. Many, particularly in the US, made up their minds about invading Iraq years before, often in the naive belief that exporting democracy to Iraq would lead to a domino effect in neighboring states like Iran and Syria. Too few questioned the basic assumption that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein still had an active weapons program. Back in 2003, Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, was critical of the Senate for spending so little time debating Iraq.
It was the UK Parliament that hosted the fiercest, bitterest debates over Iraq. Prime Minister Tony Blair won the vote, but against the backdrop of millions of people protesting in the streets against war. Yet, when you revisit the hours and hours of debates in 2002 and 2003, one thing truly stands out – an element that is rarely covered in reviewing this era, even in the Chilcot Report. It is the quite stunning lack of interest and knowledge about Iraq itself. The debates centered on weapons of mass destruction, the legality of the issue and whether Al-Qaeda might be cooperating with the Iraqi regime. What would happen to Iraqis, trying to survive after 13 years of brutal sanctions and decades of Saddam’s rule, did not figure.
Where was the debate about becoming an occupying power? Within weeks, the US and UK were in belligerent occupation of a sovereign state with no clarity as to the role of the UN. This entailed major legal and ethical responsibilities, above all to 25 million Iraqis. References in the debate were made to aid, but rarely if ever to post-conflict governance. How were the US and UK going to run the place? Is it any wonder, therefore, that proper plans for the security of key facilities, including the Iraq Museum, which was looted, were not considered? The decision of Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer to disband the Iraqi army and pursue a policy of de-Baathification was not an issue in the legislatures in Washington and London.
A widespread assumption was that Iraqis would welcome the invading armies with open arms and celebrate their arrival. Some did, but the thrill soon wore off as the occupying forces failed to restore basic services. Anyone with an ounce of knowledge of Iraqi history would be only too aware that the Iraqis are a proud people who will not readily accept being under foreign occupation.
The leader of the British opposition at the time, Iain Duncan-Smith, claimed: “I promise that no one will shed a tear over the departure of Saddam Hussein.” Many Iraqis may not have loved Saddam, and for good reason, but they also feared what would happen after the fall of the regime, who would rule next and the dangers of anarchy. Regional experts feared this but were ignored, especially Arabists. Six academics briefed Blair in November 2002 about how challenging it would be to occupy Iraq. They and others warned that both Iran and Syria would see it as being in their interests to undermine the Anglo-American invasion and occupation, which they did very effectively. Iran was given to Iraq. Once again, politicians failed to appreciate this and the other challenges involved in nation-building.
Another feature was the failure to consult and trust experts from those countries. Back in 2003, too many wedded themselves to the likes of Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi with an overt agenda. Plenty of other Iraqis, who also loathed Saddam, would have been capable of explaining the intricate challenges of occupying Iraq. Even today, Syrian experts are not in the room when their country is debated.
Non-Middle Eastern powers should learn their lessons. Arguably, the subsequent debates on interventions in these legislatures have improved a touch. Politicians recognize their responsibility. It weighs on them. Regarding Libya, more questions were asked about an exit strategy and what the end goal was. However, it was still insufficient to prevent another disastrous intervention. At the root of it was once again a profound lack of understanding of Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya.
If elected politicians in the US and Europe debate and vote on interventions in other areas of the world, it is incumbent on those legislatures to devote proper time, effort and resources to scrutinize the basis for war and plan for any aftermath. Iraqis paid and are still paying an extraordinary price for the poverty of debate and lackluster scrutiny in 2003. This should never be repeated.