The price of success
Ten years on from the start of the Iraq war, John Chisholm examines its legacy and asks what the future holds for a country still struggling to piece itself back together
The tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war has provoked a lot of soul searching. This was a conflict that not only shaped history, but also left a legacy that continues to haunt policy makers. Intervention in Libya was freighted with Iraq-based assumptions and the assurance that there would be “no Western troops on the ground” was foremost in the bromides politicians fed their electorates. Non-intervention in Syria is equally coloured by the Iraq experience: no boots on the ground; no coalition of the willing; just a vague policy hope that arming the rebels will topple President Assad while the country tears itself apart, people die and the rebels become increasingly factionalised and radicalised.
Before turning to the questionable benefits the war and occupation have brought to the people of Iraq, it is worthwhile considering how the conflict has coloured the legacy of its two major leaders, George W Bush and Tony Blair, in the decade since they ordered military action. The outward raison d’être for the war, Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), was quickly discovered to be mistaken. Iraq possessed no WMD. The central allegation against Bush is that he, and Blair, lied.
The alleged “real” reason for the war was for the US to gain control of Iraq’s oil. In this world view, the US went to war for the purposes of Realpolitik, masking its true intentions by cloaking the operation as an attempt to find WMD. George W Bush was the figurehead for this agenda, which was embellished by horror stories about the Saddam regime, alleged links between Iraq and 9/11 and the narrative that the war would benefit all the citizens of Iraq once Saddam’s regime was gone.
But the occupation failed to deliver stability, instead causing an upsurge in violence and terrorism. And as the occupation became unpopular, so did Bush. The public were turning against him not because things were not going well, but because they had been misled in the first place and were now beginning to realise it. Bush became a universal figure of hatred, widely despised even in many parts of his own country. From being a rather homely joke who seemed a bit dim, Bush became a globally reviled figure, allowing his successor to talk about “rebuilding the presidency”, implying that the Bush administration had allowed it to fall into disrepair. Bush is now toxic. Even the Republicans on the right of the movement make strenuous efforts to keep any mention of him off their campaign literature, although many were his key cheerleaders during his presidency. Bush is being airbrushed from American history; a president best forgotten.
Bush was always a controversial ideological figure. This was not the case with Tony Blair, who strained every nerve to present himself as a centrist/soft left figure, acceptable to the former Thatcher voters of the south east of England. It is also hard to belittle his electoral achievements, his tactical finesse and his ability to communicate with the electorate. His first major military intervention, in Sierra Leone, was widely seen as a major success against a bunch of thugs terrorising innocent people, and he showed considerable leadership over the Balkans when Bill Clinton was much more hesitant.
But all this, and more, has been blotted out by Iraq. He is now known as B Liar. As with Bush, all of his achievements are seen through the prism of Iraq, in which he invested a great deal of personal political capital. Dodgy dossiers and sexed-up WMD threats notwithstanding, Blair was going to side with the US whether there was a UN resolution or not. This reflected Britain’s post-war policy of being an “honourable second” to the US. What Blair failed to understand was how poisonous Iraq was going to be to that relationship in the future. Taking part in this war shackled the British to a president whose popularity then plummeted. It propelled into the White House a totally different personality and an administration that does not seem to be bothered about Europe or having key allies there. Instead, focus has shifted to the Pacific Rim and the rise of China. The British look marooned, the Americans having sailed away and left them.
Blair himself, meanwhile, has become as toxic as Bush. This seems to have been far harder to take for a man whose political ethos was to be liked by the public at large and remain uncontroversial. Iraq has made him disliked and made him as controversial as Margaret Thatcher. Blair now expresses some regret that the outcome in Iraq was not as he had hoped. If he really means this, it shows crushing naivety. No military operation is wholly predictable, and its aftermath can have a huge, tangled mass of unforeseen consequences. But one thing Blair did not have was any grasp of history, once stating that Britain went to war in 1939 to save the Jews. This is a huge blind side for any politician with an eye for foreign adventures.
And what of the Iraq that Bush and Blair helped to create? A bleak story of car bombs, corruption, falling living standards, decaying infrastructure, political deals and an absence of leadership. And the signs are not promising for US-Iraq relations. The visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry as part of Barack Obama’s recent Middle East demarche highlighted a small but significant issue. The US is concerned that overflights from Iran to Syria are carrying weapons to prop up President Assad. The US wants them stopped, or at the very least for them to be inspected. But the Iraqi government has obfuscated. Prime Minister Maliki is not a US stooge and Iraq is not a US colony. Indeed, as the US continues its troop drawdown, its ability to influence Iraq diminishes. Maliki is well aware that in order to survive, Iraq must get along with all its neighbours, particularly those with a proven capacity to cause trouble.
Kerry also placed pressure on Maliki to restart cancelled provincial elections, playing the democratic card. Once again, this ran up against Maliki’s survival instincts: telling people that they have to be democratic is of limited use where democracy is seen as something to be massaged until it yields the right result. These people are democrats when things go their way, but have a proven capacity to ignore the democratic process if it does not accord with their wishes. This is not a hopeful marker for the future. As in the states of Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, not being led by believers in democracy can cause a lapse into authoritarianism.
Meanwhile, the explosions continue. On 17 March a car bomb exploded at a bus terminal in the south, killing nine people. No one claimed responsibility but the Shi’ite majority have been coming under increasing attack from Sunni minority groups in the past few months. On the same day, another car bomb went off in Basra, wounding two people. Three days earlier, Baghdad was rocked by a series of explosions followed by an armed assault by gunmen. Twenty-two people died and scores more were injured. As in Afghanistan, the terrorists used fake police uniforms to disguise themselves and sow confusion. There were no immediate claims of responsibility. Both attacks, and others besides, have the hallmarks of al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq, which recently called for the country’s citizens to take up arms against the government. Prime Minister Maliki must have sorely wondered what Kerry was talking about, given the more immediate and serious challenges facing the Iraqi administration.
For ordinary people in Iraq, this heightened instability only piles on more problems. A few basic statistics are worth reciting. The number of private cars in Iraq has actually fallen in the decade since the start of the war. So has the number of air conditioning units. Other consumer durables such as washing machines and mobile phones have remained basically static. Living standards are not improving under the current administration, and in some ways they are getting worse – even before the security situation is taken into account. The provision of electricity has also fallen, with some people being rationed to eight hours per day, mainly due to the country’s crumbling infrastructure. Efforts to move power generation away from an almost 100 per cent dependence on oil have been successful, with Iraq now using a lot more natural gas, which could be a positive new export; but the ability to tap into this resource is hampered by poor investment.
It is not all doom and gloom, however. In the Kurdish area of the country, the Kurds have turned the dusty, third-rate provincial city of Irbil into a thriving metropolis. One Kurdish MP has described it as “a little Dubai”. The Kurds, to all intents and purposes, are running a state within a state, centred on Irbil. It has its own president, parliament and armed forces. It is also moving forward economically and offers far greater stability than other parts of the country, therefore attracting greater foreign investment. This has led to severe strains with central government as the Kurds have tried to make independent deals with foreign oil companies. There are now an estimated 50 oil companies involved in the Kurdish autonomous region, and managers complain of continual labour shortages.
Given the other problems surrounding Maliki’s administration, an autonomous province that is carving out a route to success is the last thing he needs. After all, if the Kurds are able to provide good governance and economic growth in Iraqi Kurdistan, why do they need the besieged, corrupt and fractured administration in Baghdad? Maliki is fighting hard to retain what powers he has left over this autonomous region, but his grip is slipping. Soon, a new oil pipeline will be completed leading from Kurdish territory through Turkey, allowing the Kurds to sell oil without the permission or infrastructure of Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Kurds have buried the hatchet with Turkey and see Ankara as the obvious partner for them in the region; it certainly looks far more attractive than Baghdad and the fractious administration headed by Maliki, who is widely distrusted.
Will the Kurds simply drift away from Iraq, eventually forming a credible Kurdistan? Clearly, the dream is still alive in Irbil that, one day, there will be a Kurdistan and it will be democratic, prosperous and pro-Western. Ironically, one of the alleged war aims of the US ten years ago was to create an Arabic ally that was more palatable than Saudi Arabia. Iraq has clearly not lived up to expectations, for either the US or the majority of Iraqi people. A potential Kurdistan, however, may prove to be a more durable and credible state than an Iraq that seems unable to get off life support.
John Chisholm is intersec’s international affairs correspondent