Waylaid Dialectic

January 1, 2021

Was I wrong to oppose the invasion of Iraq?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:50 pm

I opposed the invasion of Iraq. I joined giant marches. I took part in small protests. I wrote futile, angry letters to the paper.

The invasion was monstrous…

The invasion was monstrous. And yet a part of me doubted it. Part of me doubted my opposition. Saddam Hussein wasn’t a threat to us. But he was a threat to Iraqis. That’s where my doubt came from. Not invading meant, in effect, preserving tyranny inside Iraq.

My doubt wasn’t helped by some other left-wing opponents of the war. There were those, like George Galloway, who seemed to believe Hussein wasn’t actually a problem. There were others who acknowledged Hussein was a tyrant, but then failed to explain clearly why he should be left in power. And there were others who adopted positions — opposed to this invasion but keen to see Hussein removed subsequently by a UN-led force — which involved alternatives that were never going to happen.

Over time, sadly, my own doubts about opposing the war faded away. Faded because it became clear that — no matter how awful Hussein was to his own people — the invasion made most Iraqis’ lives worse.

I can’t say I told you so…

I can’t say I told you so, because I didn’t tell anyone in 2003. I didn’t know. But time has made it clearer why the invasion of Iraq was wrong. And these are lessons worth remembering, because invasions are always on the cards — on someone’s cards.

International law…

Some people opposed the invasion of Iraq because it violated international law. This was as good a reason for opposing the invasion. I don’t think outcomes would have been any better if the invasion had been conducted with the blessing of the Security Council. Indeed, I would have still have opposed the war. But, in a globalising world, rules and collective action need to become global too. It wouldn’t have helped the people of Iraq, but a meaningful global order is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for successfully navigating the world we’re now in. And by setting the global rule book on fire, the US and its allies made the task of tolerable globalisation that much more difficult.

Iraq was a complicated place…

I didn’t know much about Iraq at the time of the invasion. I didn’t know much about the country’s history, or ethnic divides. I also didn’t understand how much Islamic extremism loves a vacuum.

I didn’t know, but someone must have. And anyone who did, could have predicted that winning the peace in Iraq would be much harder than winning the war.

Maybe truly knowledgeable people were hard to find, but any serious nation thinking about invading another would have sought knowledge. Yet the US and its allies didn’t. Rather, they believed in myths and ran with a plan along the lines of: let’s privatise everything (because that worked so well in Eastern Europe), make instant enemies through De-Ba’athification, and from Iraq democracy will flow. That was never going to end well.

With the worst of intentions…

I don’t think the Iraq War was all about oil, or all about Israel. I don’t think it was about any one thing. The alliance to invade Iraq in Washington was a coalition of different groups with different motives. The crucial point though, was that while some individual supporters may have genuinely held humanitarian motives, the meta-motive that emerged from the Washington milieu, and which propelled the invasion, wasn’t one of humanitarian concern. (That much we can infer because in a world full of problems, genuine humanitarian concerns would have led to something somewhere less costly and risky than an invasion).

Motives mattered because, in something as difficult and violent as an invasion and occupation, if you’re not trying to help people, you usually won’t.

Give peace a chance…

Mostly my opposition to invading Iraq was guided by a simple opposition to war. I don’t think I was alone in this. It was a simple motive. It didn’t quiet my concerns about leaving Saddam Hussein in power, but time has shown the simple impulse was right.

Even when they go well, wars are awful. If the invasion of Iraq had gone well, it still would have still led to the deaths of many Iraqis and some invading troops.

If the invasion had gone well, this may have been a price worth paying, but it would have been a real cost, nonetheless.

And — of course — the invasion of Iraq didn’t go well. Just like Vietnam didn’t go well, or Libya, or Afghanistan. In the best of circumstances war comes with a terrible cost. It is also a huge gamble.

Sometimes the risk and the cost is justified. World War 2, obviously. Rwanda would have been too, I think. But the circumstances in which the uncertainties of war, and the horrors of war, are worth it are rare. Usually, they are only situations when war is already afoot, or when catastrophe looms. Otherwise, it’s better to engage in the long slow process of helping in peaceful ways.

The situation in Iraq was bad prior to the invasion, but it wasn’t bad enough to justify an invasion, given the costs and risks.

And so…

It was better to tolerate an awful status quo. Better because the alternative involved war. A war led by politicians and ideologues who didn’t care, and involving a country they knew little about. A war that demonstrated so clearly to China and Russia that international rules are mostly a fiction.

I was right to oppose the invasion of Iraq. I get no satisfaction from it. I’d get more though, if you could convince me that someone, somewhere close to power had learnt the right lessons.

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