How the West destroyed Iraq

The bloody mess created by the occupation of Iraq was built on the West's own weakness and incoherence.

Tara McCormack

Topics World

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There has been considerable media focus recently on Syria and Egypt. Yet 10 years on from the invasion of Iraq, and two years after the official withdrawal of American troops (hundreds of thousands of private military contractors remain), the violence in Iraq is on-going. This year, the violence has been rising again. Earlier this month, several car bombs in Baghdad killed at least 25 people and wounded hundreds of others.

The intervention and occupation of Iraq ended a period during which intervention in other countries had won wide support among the political elites in Western states. During the 1990s, advocates argued that the post-Cold War order offered an opportunity for powerful states to act as a force for good in the world. Kosovo, arguably the high point (or low point, depending upon one’s political position) of humanitarian intervention was, as Tony Blair argued in his 1999 Chicago Speech, a war for values, not interests. The intervention in Iraq seemed to tarnish humanitarian intervention. Even those who had cheered as the bombs rained down upon Serbia in 1999, such as Jurgen Habermas and Gareth Evans, argued that Iraq was not a good intervention.

As David Clark, a key author of the UK’s so-called ‘ethical foreign policy’, has argued, the Iraq war had sown doubt about the legitimacy and efficacy of Western military power: ‘In departing from the principle of non-intervention and lacking a UN mandate, Kosovo is often regarded as the original sin that made Iraq possible. Even Russia’s invasion and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been characterised as blowback from Kosovo’s declaration of independence a few months before. Comparisons of this kind confuse more than they clarify. The war in Kosovo was a response to a humanitarian emergency, not a geopolitical power play.’

Advocates of humanitarian intervention criticise the Iraq invasion on the basis that is was driven by material interests rather than values or the wish to liberate or save the people. Recently, the intervention in Libya, presented as an altruistic act, has to some extent rehabilitated the interventionist creed. Thus the intervention discussion is to a large extent framed in terms of a debate about whether intervention can ever be ‘pure’ or good.

Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics, who has been writing about Iraq for many years, has written an insightful book about the consequences of the Iraq invasion and occupation and what the future holds for Iraq. Iraq, From War to a New Authoritarianism is an important contribution to the debate about intervention and also for thinking about the nature of the Iraq conflict. As Dodge rightly concludes, what has happened in and to Iraq raises fundamental questions about the very capacity of external powers to change politics and economics in a society. In the context of demands to intervene in Syria, such questions need to be raised again and again. It is simply a cop-out by intervention advocates to suggest that the problem with Iraq is that it was not done with ‘pure’ intentions. In fact, as I will suggest below, this misunderstands what happened in Iraq.

Drawing upon literature about civil wars, Dodge uses three factors as a framework to understand civil conflict: ideological trends within a society that encourage the non-state use of violence; the weakness of the state’s administrative and coercive institutions; and the nature of the constitutional settlement structures and politics. Dodge looks in great detail at these factors in Iraq and finally considers the extent to which these have been overcome.

Dodge argues that the most important dynamic in the conflict is the total collapse of the Iraq state and the inability to rebuild that state. During the 1990s, Western sanctions, which were explicitly aimed at the capacity of the Iraq state to govern, left it seriously weakened, leading to increased social uncertainty and instability. This situation was compounded by the chaos brought by the Western invasion as the Baathist regime fell and the army was totally disbanded. Subsequent looting and destruction may have been equivalent to one third of Iraq’s annual GDP. American analysts warned the American government that about half a million soldiers would be needed to impose order.

Thus the sectarian violence that followed the invasion was as Dodge argues, a consequence of the collapse of the state. It was not inevitable; the state was not ‘keeping a lid’ on ‘ethnic’ grievances. In the absence of other strong social forces or organisations, the normal rules of the game eroded. The turn to ethnic and religious identities needs to be understood in this context.

The American-led political settlement that was established in 2003 mirrored the disintegration and fracturing of Iraq society. It was a settlement built almost entirely around particularist networks, sectarian or religious identities, and interests with no basis in any kind of popular or national constituency. Even the timetabling of this process was dominated by American national concerns; as the violence in Iraq grew after the invasion, the US official in charge of the country, Paul Bremer, was ordered to sort out some kind of governing coalition as soon as possible so that America could ‘hand sovereignty’ back to Iraq.

Dodge also discusses in detail the grim and often murderous machinations of the Western-backed elites as they sought/seek to shore up their power, including using the federal military police to conduct campaigns of murder and terror around Baghdad, and by generally supporting ethnic and sectarian violence. Central to this has been the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki. Initially supported by the West because he seemed weak and without strong political support, Maliki has gone on an extraordinary power grab: centralising power, placing family members in key positions, arresting political rivals, and so on. Corruption exists on a staggering scale, whereby extremely lucrative government contracts are awarded to companies closely related to the government.

However, Dodge points out that the elite pacts sponsored by the US govern on a kind of ‘winner takes all’ basis, where allocations of governmental ministries and departments are treated as spoils, with positions, contracts and any money to be used at will. Given that Maliki and other members of the political elites are simply a ruling strata imposed upon Iraqi society, this outcome hardly seems surprising.

In summary, what has the invasion and occupation achieved? Have the factors contributing to conflict been resolved? Documented civilian deaths are well over 100,000 (see Iraq Body Count). These are just the clearly documented deaths – the real figure is likely to be much higher. The US itself has lost about 4,500 soldiers. By 2012, the US and Iraq had spent $200 billion trying to rebuild the capacity of the state. Aside from the impressive achievement of having managed to reconstruct a classic rentier state at huge human and financial cost, the Iraq state remains incapable of supplying even basic services, such as sewerage, to three quarters of the population. Violence continues, as does the increasing slide towards outright authoritarian rule based on particularist interests.

How do we account for this catastrophe? As Dodge argues, one of the major problems was a complete lack of any master plan and coordination between US state agencies within and without Iraq. The US government’s own 2008 assessment of its operations in Iraq was blunt: ‘Coalition efforts have suffered from a lack of a coherent strategy that outlines priorities and assigns lead responsibility to a specific directorate or agency.’ Security, given the level of violence, has remained a key problem, while the political system has simply entrenched problems rather than overcome them. Iraq, as Dodge argues, raises key questions about the capacity of external actors to transform states politically and economically.

Ultimately, however, the question of intervention is a political and a moral one, not simply a technical one. That is not to say technical questions don’t play an important role in understanding political and moral questions. It is right – indeed, necessary – to consider the outcomes of a political action. The political realm should not be the realm of abstract ethics in which, as long as the intentions are good, little else matters. As Weber argued, an ethic of responsibility demands that one gives an account of the foreseeable results of one’s actions.

It is this lack of concrete political aims – and an unwillingness to take responsibility – that needs to be brought into the discussion about Iraq in particular and interventions in general. As I have argued above, intervention advocates suggest that intervention with the right motives works. That is, if one has the right intentions, all will be well. Critics of the Iraq war have, in a way, agreed with this position by arguing that the intervention in Iraq was driven by the material and/or ideological interests of the US. Toby Dodge states clearly at the start of his book that in the aftermath of the invasion, the US explicitly set out to transform Iraq into a free-market society and a democracy.

I would argue, however, that Dodge’s own discussion about the total lack of planning or coordination challenges both his statement and the arguments more generally about America’s aims in Iraq. It is not a revelation that the invasion and occupation of Iraq have been marked by a total absence of plan or strategy. The astonishing lack of planning or coherent policy (as illustrated by the eccentric approach to rebuilding Basra) suggests the opposite of a clear pursuit of material or ideological goals or a serious attempt to transform Iraqi society.

Did the members of the coalition really believe that they could impose control and transform a society of about 35million people in a vast country with 173,000 soldiers? And if one thinks about Britain’s annual public-spending budget – currently over £700 billion – then $200 billion over 10 years does not seem a large sum for the reconstruction of an entire state. As has been discussed on spiked before, the military tactics of the coalition – ‘shock and awe’, for example – can be understood as an attempt to circumvent the need to fight to impose control, all of which requires a clear political will and an end goal.

What is notable in terms of political developments in Iraq are the many ways in which the American government has consistently sought to divest itself of responsibility: the cobbled-together political arrangement discussed above; the 2006 Iraq Study Group report which was explicitly framed in terms of finding a way out of Iraq and giving over control to Iraqis; the 2007 US Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act which, in an astonishing inversion of reality, made the nature of the US presence in Iraq dependent on the performance of the Iraqi government and the extent to which it succeeded in meeting 18 ‘benchmarks’. The list goes on. It is Weber’s ethics of ultimate ends rather than of responsibility: ‘The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord.’

The invasion and occupation has, in essence, destroyed Iraq and resulted in well over a hundred thousand deaths. Yet the West has not had the political will to attempt to really transform Iraq. Rather, it is a kind of half-hearted invasion and occupation, occupation-lite as it were, hugely destructive yet devoid ultimately of clear political or material purpose. In this situation it is perhaps unsurprising that Maliki has effectively been able to sabotage some American strategies yet remain in power.

There is a famous quote attributed to US President Franklin D Roosevelt about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: ‘He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.’ This no longer seems to be true anymore. Without the political will and financial clout, the West is less and less able to dictate even to those it pays for. This also seems to be reflected in other states in which traditionally the West has had great influence, for example Israel, Egypt and Pakistan. Iraq, I would argue, is representative of some very important trends in international relations. Firstly, a lack of clear political or material interests in terms of international intervention; and secondly, an increasing incapacity of the West to control events.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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Topics World


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