Why haven’t they learned the lesson of Iraq?

On the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, spiked’s criticisms of the war and the anti-war movement have been vindicated.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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The invasion of Iraq is five years old. Here, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill looks back at how our arguments about the war and the anti-war movement have been vindicated.

Five years on, what is the key lesson of the invasion of Iraq? That outside interference in another country’s affairs always makes things worse. And yet, even as many officials, thinkers and activists admit that the shock, awe and occupation of Iraq were a disaster (George W Bush is the only person who still thinks it was ‘noble’), they have singularly failed to learn this lesson. Instead, both the war’s authors and the war’s opponents have reunited around a blinkered post-Iraq thesis: that we now need to focus Western interference on other parts of the world, be it fighting the ‘good fight’ in Afghanistan, rescuing genocide victims in Darfur, upping the ante with the Russians, or encouraging instability in the violent, polluting beast of the East: China.

spiked has been implacably opposed to invading Iraq for longer than five years, since before the war actually started on 20 March 2003. In July 2002, we argued that Iraq was being talked up as a target, not because there was any evidence that the Ba’athists were stockpiling dangerous weapons (spiked didn’t need two discredited dossiers to know that ‘after the devastating defeat in the Gulf War and a decade of stringent UN sanctions, Saddam is much weaker than he once was’), but rather because a deeply, historically crisis-ridden White House needed an external focus through which it might discover some of that elusive ‘purpose’. Under the heading ‘When in doubt, attack Iraq’, spiked argued that the tough-talking policy on Iraq ‘is primarily about giving the US administration a self-image of purpose, a sense of mission and clarity’.

Throughout 2002, spiked challenged the ‘evidence’ that was emanating from Whitehall and the White House about Saddam’s alleged WMD and links with Osama bin Laden. Indeed, spiked invented the term ‘dodgy dossier’ on 24 September 2002, the day on which Tony Blair published his first dossier on Iraq – the one that most politicians and journalists accepted as good coin. Blair’s dossier ‘consists of little more than speculation, rhetoric and rehashed allegations that have already been challenged elsewhere’, spiked argued.

Yet even as spiked picked apart and kicked in ‘the evidence’ for war, we argued that, in order to be effective, the opposition to the war had to be fundamentally political and moral rather than merely factual. In 2002, we said: ‘The fact that so many of Blair’s anti-war critics have made The Evidence against Iraq their main focus – always demanding better evidence, more evidence, harder evidence – shows that they have no problem with Blair and Bush sitting in judgement on Iraq and deciding when and how to change the regime. They just need a bit more convincing, and would rather it was done through sanctions/enforced inspections/not so many bombs (delete according to how radical you are), rather than all-out war.’

Since 2002, the key complaint of anti-war activists, commentators and those who initially supported the war but then changed their minds is that ‘we were lied to’ and ‘duped by the evidence’. Yet if spiked could see through the evidence as early as the summer of 2002, why couldn’t they? For spiked, the relentless reduction of the Iraq story in 2003, and since, to a question of lies and false intelligence was a convenient way for those who shamefully supported the war at the start to escape political responsibility for it. In July 2003, we argued: ‘The “debate” over Iraq has been reduced to an evidence-based affair, where the only question is over which facts are true, which aren’t, and who made up what. This is politics with the politics taken out – where principle and judgement have been replaced by technical squabbles, and where no one is prepared to take responsibility for what is going on in Iraq.’ Five years on, the discussion of Iraq is still technical rather than political, forever focusing on the legality of the war or the lies that Blair told us. Some now predict there will be a public inquiry into the pre-war deals and discussions that took place behind closed doors. The moral debate about Iraq – the principled challenge to Western intervention – has yet to take place; small wonder that the key lesson about the destructiveness of outside interference has yet to be learned.

Liberation as farce

On Iraq, spiked was never particularly concerned, in that narcissistic, self-flattering way, with having been lied to by the powers-that-be. (Indeed, we asked why so many people seemed ‘surprised by war lies’, pointing out that ‘from the Boer War of 1899 to the Kosovo War of 1999, British and American leaders have lied, exaggerated and invented for the purposes of launching and justifying military ventures’.) No, spiked’s concern was to argue that interfering in another state’s affairs always intensifies conflict, and robs the people themselves of their agency and ability to take control of their destinies. In February 2003, a few weeks before war began, we argued: ‘The internationalisation of Iraq’s local conflicts threatens to divide Iraqis further and store up conflict for the future, rather than herald anything like a new era of freedom.’

The invasion of Iraq on ‘humanitarian’ and ‘peacekeeping’ grounds would give Turkey the ‘green light’ to pursue its historic war against the Kurds in northern Iraq and encourage Iran to send in its forces in order to secure its ‘interests in the set-up of postwar Iraq’, we said in February 2003. Both of these things have come to pass: the Turks recently invaded northern Iraq, and the Iranians are deeply involved in shaping Iraq’s new government and reportedly in arming some of the Iraq-based militias. The West’s toppling of the Ba’athists and internationalisation of ‘the Iraqi problem’ has invited a whole host of forces to stake their claim in the country.

Just prior to the war, some liberal commentators started talking about the idea of ‘accidental liberation’: yes, they said, the war would be overseen by that unpredictable Texan cowboy Bush ‘who is only interested in oil’, and it might have some bloody consequences on the ground, but at least it would have the accidental spin-off benefit of liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam’s rule. For spiked, this captured everything that is politically wrong and morally repulsive with the arguments in favour of Western military intervention. We pointed out that ‘the idea of “accidental liberation” is a con’ and a ‘contradiction in terms’: ‘It depicts the people of Iraq as hapless saps who should only expect freedom as the by-product of a Western war.’

More fundamentally, spiked pointed out that liberation simply cannot be imposed from without – and thus Operation Iraqi Freedom, as the Coalition named its invasion, was a mad, bad and dangerous idea from the very start. A people can only liberate themselves, spiked argued. In April 2003, shortly after the war began, we said: ‘What we have seen in Iraq is liberation as farce. Liberty, freedom and democracy for Iraq could only come about through the struggles of the Iraqi people themselves. The process of liberation is not just one of freeing people from the constraints of their regime; it is about them deciding how they want to rule themselves, how they want to organise and govern their society. It is in fighting for freedom that people gain a sense of what they want freedom to look like.’ This is a lesson that those calling for Western meddling in Sudan, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Tibet and elsewhere should take on board: spiked offers support and solidarity to people around the world who want to be free, and who fight to make their freedom a lived reality, because we recognise that freedom cannot be delivered on a silver platter by caring, benign, superior outsiders. That is not freedom; it is patronage, which in Iraq’s case meant that ‘the Iraqi people have found themselves washed up in a post-war landscape that they played no part in creating’, said spiked in 2003.

The risks of a risk-averse war

When the war began in March 2003, many anti-war activists argued that it was a ‘war for oil’ or the first salvo in an attempt to build a new American Empire in the Middle East. spiked recognised it as a ‘war without purpose’.

We argued that the swift defeat of the Ba’athist regime by the Coalition forces – which occurred within weeks of the invasion – highlighted how overblown were the pre-war claims of Saddam’s awesome power and his terrible threat to the civilised world. Surely even ‘the wildest of imaginations could not conceive of Iraq as a strategic threat to the world’s only superpower’, spiked said. In April 2003, we argued that the speedy implosion of Saddam’s regime – ‘like the wretched, ruined state that any objective observer of Iraqi affairs knew it to be’ – exposed to ridicule, once and for all, all the pre-war evidence about Iraq being a thorn in the side of the entire world (not that this has prevented observers from incessantly obsessing over the pre-war evidence, of course). Yet the almost instantaneous demise of the Ba’athists exposed a bigger, more fundamental truth, too. ‘The Coalition’s hollow victory in Baghdad marks a fittingly surreal climax to a war that was always empty of meaning’, said spiked.

In April 2003, spiked argued: ‘There has been no conflict of interest underlying the war in Iraq.’ We said that, ‘lacking any substance, the war has been all about image’: ‘Those who would draw a line between the shallow politics of spin at home and this real battle of conviction politics in Iraq are missing the mark. In a sense, the war has shown that the politics of spin can come out of the barrel of a gun.’ Indeed, we noted that as the Coalition defeated the Ba’athists and inherited control of Iraq, its prime task seemed to be to find a justification for the war, to discover in the rubble of shot-through towns and cities or the bombed-out ‘weapons factories’ some dusty casus belli, so that it could hold it up and say: ‘THIS is why we invaded… THIS is what we’re fighting against… THIS is what the West is all about today.’ A couple of weeks after the war began, at the end of March 2003, spiked described it as ‘a war in search of a war aim’: ‘American and British officials, uncertain about what the war is for and of their mission on the international stage, seem to be lashing around desperately for something, anything, to justify the war.’

In many ways, said spiked, this new unhinged war-as-spin – foreign ventures not in pursuit of some specific aim but in search of a general sense of purpose – was even more dangerous than old colonial wars of the past. The disconnection of war from policy gave rise to a new kind of war that was unpredictable, unwieldy and with no obvious end in sight. spiked argued: ‘The war against Iraq was not motivated by traditional concerns about pursuing the national interest, gaining a geo-political advantage, or securing economic assets.’ Indeed, if there was any overriding concern behind Bush and Blair’s Iraq war it was pre-emption – ‘the contemporary Western obsession with precaution and risk aversion’, said spiked. ‘If, as Clausewitz suggested, war is the continuation of politics by other means, then this war is the projection of our fearful domestic political culture on to the world stage.’ Observing that ‘risk-averse’ war frequently means attacking faceless, apparently scary ‘Others’ who allegedly pose a terrible threat to civilisation as we know it, spiked recognised that a ‘risk-free war’ fought against ‘ominous threats’ could be a ‘risky and bloody affair’ indeed for those on the receiving end.

Following the war, in 2004 and 2005, spiked analysed how the lack of purpose and direction to the war led to a peculiar new kind of ‘phantom occupation’. Far from seeking to build a new Empire on the ruins of Iraq, and spread their ‘Project for a New American Century’ around the rest of the Middle East, Coalition forces continually disavowed sovereign and political responsibility for Iraq. Many started to ask: when will the Coalition withdraw from this bloody mess? Yet as spiked pointed out, ‘What this debate overlooks is that America and Britain left Iraq long ago – in spirit anyway. Politically and emotionally, if not physically, the Coalition of the Willing had already “cut and run” from Iraq by late 2003.’

The Coalition’s emotional withdrawal

This was best summed up in the Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004. spiked described it as being ‘nothing like your usual force of occupation, shaping the nation in its own image or interests’; instead it was headed by an ‘administrator’, Paul Bremer, rather than a High Representative, who, strikingly, was guarded by private security guards rather than US soldiers. The CPA described itself as ‘the temporary governing body which has been designated by the UN as the lawful government of Iraq until such time as Iraq is politically and socially stable enough to assume its sovereignty’. The CPA couldn’t wait for ‘such time’ to arrive, said spiked: its website came complete with a Countdown to Sovereignty ticker, which anticipated, by the second, the moment when postwar Iraq would become Iraqis’ permanent responsibility rather than the CPA’s temporary responsibility.

spiked also noted the historical significance of the Coalition’s desire to outsource as much responsibility as possible to non-state military machines. While some shrill commentators discussed this as the state joining forces with corporations in order ruthlessly to pursue their oil grab in Iraq, spiked argued that the Coalition’s turn towards mercenaries to do their dirty work was far more significant than that: ‘The use of money-hungry former soldiers in Iraq is not a product of any clear-cut political agenda on the part of the Bush administration, but rather of its opposite: a severe crisis of authority amongst America’s rulers which means they are even willing to outsource the means of coercion – traditionally the highest form of authority in capitalist society – to non-state actors.’ spiked pointed out that commentators had overlooked ‘the sweeping historical significance of America’s readiness to share its means of coercion with private companies’: ‘Over the past 200 years, capitalist elites centralised and monopolised the means of physical force; they jealously guarded their right to use violence over any other section of society. Now, that is changing – swiftly and dramatically.’

The Coalition’s desire to take a hands-off approach to the government of Iraq, and to send mercenaries to protect their representatives on the ground and to fight some of their grittier battles with insurgents, led to what spiked termed a ‘phantom occupation’. Yes, the Coalition still has troops on the ground in Iraq, but they have been mostly withdrawn from active engagement and are now used largely as a political prop, spiked argued in 2006. ‘The thousands of soldiers, even though they do little of note, have become a kind of prop for the coalition, physical evidence that it remains steadfast and committed over Iraq where no political evidence for such steadfastness exists. Indeed, the more that coalition leaders have politically and spiritually cut and run from Iraq, the more important the brute presence of the soldiers has become, as a sign that America and Britain haven’t given up and remain committed to “developing democracy”.’ Just as the shock’n’awe in 2003 and the search for a casus belli throughout 2004 were media stunts designed to send a message about Coalition bravery and determination, so the continuing occupation is best understood, not as oil-mad Empire-building, but as a drawn-out PR exercise where the troops become cheap adverts for a political commitment and longevity that does not really exist.

In a sense, the Coalition was saying ‘Not In My Name’ about their war in Iraq; in their effort to absolve themselves of political and emotional responsibility, they were washing their hands clean of the bloody mess they had created. This was a distorted mirror image of the anti-war movement’s own stance on Iraq, which as well as being myopically obsessed with The Evidence has also always declared ‘Not In My Name’ – that is: ‘I personally want nothing to do with this war, stop the world so that I can jump off!’

As spiked said following one of the earliest anti-war protests in November 2002, and as we have reiterated in our critical coverage of the anti-war movement since: ‘The “Not In My Name” slogan sums up the current anti-war sentiment. Resigned to the fact that a war will take place and unconfident of their ability to stop it, anti-war protesters instead wash their hands of war. “Not In My Name” is a way of declaring that, when the war does inevitably happen, you personally want nothing to do with it. Far from challenging Bush and Blair’s war-in-the-making, anti-war protesters are virtually saying, “Do what you like, we know we can’t stop you – just count us out”.’ This was an anti-war position driven more by fear, fatalism and narcissism rather than political principle or serious solidarity.

Out-of-control foreign policy

spiked has consistently argued that the real problem today is the West’s disjointed, disconnected foreign policy, which is driven by a domestic crisis of legitimacy rather than by a clear global framework or by definable foreign aims. This means foreign policy is both ravenous, as it searches out new crises in foreign fields to which it can attach itself, and deeply destabilising. And as spiked argued recently, the end result of this desperate and narcissistic foreign interference is to expose rather than resolve the crisis of political authority and meaning at home: ‘As events have shown, it is difficult for the West to pursue a foreign policy in search of meaning without exposing the uncertainties and confusions that gave rise to this quest in the first place.’ From the tortured discussion of the torture snaps at Abu Ghraib in 2004 to the shocking images of Saddam’s execution at the end of 2006, spiked has explored how every crisis in Iraq has been a result, not simply of ‘making mistakes’ as many claim, but of the internal incoherence of the invading powers.

At the start of 2007, on Saddam’s hanging, spiked argued: ‘Iraq is a phantom state without any central authority, where the government’s handpicked volunteer hangmen can turn out to be sectarian political militants, while government officials film the gory spectacle on illicit mobiles. Of course the USA and Britain are invading powers in Iraq. But far from exercising colonial-style domination over the country, these embarrassing events confirm that the Coalition cannot even control what goes on within the Baghdad Green Zone where the American military is bunkered down.’

The impact of the Iraq war has been twofold: it has laid bare the political crisis at the heart of the West, and worse, far from liberating Iraq it has left it a bloody, suicidal mess. As spiked argued in April 2007, contrasting Margaret Thatcher’s use of the ‘Falklands Factor’ 25 years earlier in 1982 with Blair’s failure to make any political mileage out of Iraq: ‘No doubt the Blair government hoped that the Iraq war would have a similar effect, pulling New Labour out of the doldrums, giving it a sense of purpose and uniting the nation as previous wars had done. But it quickly became clear that the opposite would be the case. The Iraq adventure has laid bare and made worse all of New Labour’s woes. If the Falklands launched Thatcher towards electoral triumph and a place in history, Iraq will be recalled as the conflict that sunk Blair as surely as she did the Belgrano.’

And in Iraq, we have what spiked labelled in September 2006 as ‘the world’s first Suicide State’: ‘Iraq looks like a country committing suicide rather than aspiring to independence and liberty. This new Suicide State is not quite as foreign or “evil” as commentators and officials would have us believe. Rather, it seems to have been shaped by some very contemporary political trends, and by the denigration of international politics over the past decade.’

This is the end result of five years of war on Iraq: increased political doubt, disillusionment and cynicism in the West, and a hole in the heart of the Middle East where an Iraq run by its own people ought to stand. Yet rather than face up to and hotly debate these facts, all the better to ensure that such a thing never occurs again, those who supported the war now call for more interventions in ‘dangerous hotspots’ around the world, while some of those who criticised the war want Western troops in Darfur, Kosovo and Tibet. They have learned absolutely nothing. Those who truly value freedom and self-determination around the world should reject both the inexorable interventionism of our hollow Western rulers and the fearful isolationism or ‘liberal interventionism’ demanded by the anti-war critics, and instead state the case loudly and clearly against outside interference in others’ affairs.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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