Foreign Policy / Politics / World Events

Altered State: Iraq, ten years gone

Ten years ago, the Bush administration dreamed up the most nakedly spurious jus ad bellum perhaps ever concocted by a democratic state in the post-World War II era, and America went traipsing into Iraq on a whim and cruise missile. Out of the rubble and death that emerged from that smoldering foreign policy blunder over the past decade like so much smoke from a bombed-out Basra neighborhood, Iraq remains forever altered and teeters on the precipice of becoming a failed state. Since 2003, at least 111,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, 2.5 million citizens have been internally displaced, and as many as 1 million children have lost either one or both parents. The violence shows little sign of letting up, as dozens have died in multiple suicide attacks just since January. Meanwhile, unemployment hovers above 30 percent and citizens lack basic services like regular electricity, clean water, and adequate healthcare. The nepotistic and despotic government of Nouri al-Maliki remains one of the most corrupt in the Middle East, stacking ministries with party loyalists, harassing and imprisoning rivals, and continuing to inflame sectarian divide, while security forces and militias run rampant, intimidating the population.

More than 4,400 American troops were killed in Iraq in the ensuing ten years, and, of those that made it home, more than 100,000 had been wounded, one in five suffers from PTSD and several hundred-thousand more experience other major war-related mental disorders. For a price tag in the realm of $3 trillion, America worked through the “dark side” of enhanced interrogation techniques, extraordinary rendition, CIA black sites, military commissions, indefinite detention, and unitary executive theory—some of which has gotten better under the Obama administration, and some of it remains about the same. Yes, the consequences of the Iraq War have proven messy and lingering.

Though Iraq may be altered, this sort of change has been a constant drum beat in the region, as Iraq’s modern history is one fraught with Western intervention. After World War I, with the Treaty of Sèvres, the Allied powers carved up the former Ottoman Empire by drawing lines in the desert sand that still chart many of these countries’ borders today. In the case of Iraq, the old Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul in Mesopotamia were cobbled together into a new puppet Hashemite monarchy and handed, along with a virtual monopoly on oil production in the region, to the British—who went onto to rule a brutal occupation and Mandate in the country for many years. In the decades to come, these new national borders would have the effect, whether intended or not, of ensuring that a Shi’a majority would be relegated to second-class status by Sunni minority-rule.

The U.S. also has quite a bit of its own meddling to answer for in the region. In 1949, the CIA backed a military coup in Syria, overthrowing an elected government and establishing a military dictatorship under Colonel Husni al-Za’im. In 1953, the CIA helped orchestrate a coup in Iran, overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh and installing the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who reigned over a repressive monarchy of imprisonment, torture and murder. Starting in 1979—six months before the Soviets invaded—and continuing throughout the ‘80s, Washington sent billions in training and Stinger missiles to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, inadvertently helping to introduce Wahhabism to Central Asia and install the Taliban into power. And in Iraq, the U.S. was complicit in the overthrow of the Qassim regime in 1963 by the Ba’ath party, which eventually paved the way for the rule of Saddam Hussein.

During the ‘80s, the Reagan administration propped Hussein up as its favorite Middle East strongman, as the dictator committed numerous crimes. Hussein was responsible for the Dujail Massacre, the Halabja poison gas attack, the destruction of the Shiite marsh communities, and the genocidal al-Anfal Campaign against the Kurds—not to mention the horrors committed against Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War. Many such abuses were carried out as American money and weapons flowed freely into Hussein’s hands. In fact, Hussein was such a valued American ally that, in 1987, he was allowed to get away with accidentally firing missiles at the USS Stark, killing 37 Americans, with nothing more than a shrug. Hard to imagine the fallout if Iran or North Korea did such a thing today. Besides Hussein, Israel’s perhaps the only friend Washington has let get away with something like that. However, like many of America’s favored dictators, Hussein eventually exhausted his usefulness, and the “shock and awe” invasion of ten years ago must have sounded to him like the clatter of roosting chickens.

When it came time for regime change, many paying attention weren’t the least surprised. For various reasons both “known and unknown,” Iraq had been in the crosshairs of both the neoconservatives and the traditional, national-interest conservatives within the Bush administration since well before September 11th. The Bush Doctrine shifted the paradigm of American militarism to include engaging in preemptive wars under the pretext that a state may someday prove to be a threat. Yet in selling this argument to the public, the Bush administration’s threshold for what constituted “accurate intelligence” didn’t even meet the sourcing policies of tabloids like the National Inquirer. And the single-sourced intel from the government was parroted—not just by Judith Miller—but by nearly the entire mainstream media, many of whom acted as stenographers and public relations firms eager to sell the “new product” to the American consumer (though there were a couple of Knight Ridder reporters that got it right).

In the run-up, the administration gave the public aluminum tubes, yellow cake uranium from Niger, sole dubious intelligence sources like “Curveball” and al-Libi, mobile bio-weapons labs, “mushroom cloud” smoking guns, training al-Qaeda in chemical weapons usage, Muhammad Atta in Prague, and Colin Powell at the UN. And in the aftermath, they fared even worse: placing Ahmed Chalabi in a position of power, de-Ba’athification, disbanding the Iraqi police force without pay, allowing looting, granting no-bid crony contracts to their corporate friends, putting 20-year old Heritage Foundation kids in charge of important offices, losing $8 billion in reconstruction money, torture at Abu Ghraib, having no cohesive exit strategy, thinking the insurgency was in its “last throes”, and, most baffling of all, somehow failing to acknowledge that overthrowing the Sunni Ba’athists would almost certainly create a Shi’a-controlled Iraq to embolden and become the greatest ally of next-door-neighbor and fellow “Axis of Evil” member, Iran.

How so many people got so many crucial things so very wrong baffles the mind. Perhaps it’s fair to say, the Bush administration ignored hundreds of years of Middle East history and believed too fervently in the hard power of Wilsonian idealism. Perhaps they believed that American bombs beget the love of American freedom and that the potency of American culture and exceptionalism could be a cure-all for dictator fatigue. Perhaps they stared doe-eyed at a map of Iraq, moved the model tanks, planes and aircraft carriers into shock positions, rubbed their hands together, and, with a sly grin, whispered, “We’re gonna free the shit outta you…”  Then again, perhaps the U.S. foreign policy apparatus exists as such a sprawling, tangling, multi-billion-dollar complex of ideologies, academics, paranoia and weapons that even the people at the helm don’t always fully comprehend exactly why America does what she does. If the Iraq War was supposed to be a bold experiment of American militarism in democracy promotion, it’s safe to say the results of that experiment have proven inclusive at best, and catastrophic at worst.



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