Foreign Policy / Politics / World Events

Altered State: Iraq, ten years gone

*note—Better retrospectives are coming from better and more qualified writers and analysts than I, but I feel compelled to say at least something about it on this arbitrary 10-year anniversary.

Ten years ago, America went traipsing into Iraq on a whim and cruise missile, and out of the lies, rubble and death that emerged from that smoldering blunder over the past decade like so much smoke from a bombed-out village, Iraq remains forever altered and teeters on the precipice of becoming a failed state. Saddam Hussein and his sons may be dead and our combat troops withdrawn, but the nepotistic and despotic Maliki government remains one of the most corrupt in the Middle East, stacking ministries with party loyalists, harassing and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. Since 2003, at least 111,000 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. And 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. But at least the oil is flowing (though before we went to war the price of a barrel of oil was $25—now it’s over $100).

Of course, America has become an altered state over the past ten years as well. In the Iraq War, more than 4,400 American troops were killed, and, of those that made it home, more than 100,000 were wounded, one in five suffers from PTSD (that’s over 200,000 veterans), several hundred-thousand more have other major war-related mental disorders, and suicide among veterans now accounts for 20 percent of all suicides in the country. Not to mention we spent over $3 trillion and worked through the “dark side” of enhanced interrogation techniques, extraordinary rendition, warrantless wire taps, “sneak and peek” search warrants, CIA black sites, military commissions, indefinite detention, and unitary executive theory—some of which has gotten better under Obama, some of it worse.

Yes, the legacy of the Iraq War is messy and lingering. Long before the Obama administration’s own twisted concept of what constitutes an “imminent” threat deserving of a drone strike to the face, the Bush administration dreamed up the most naked and egregious jus ad bellum for a war of aggression ever perpetrated by a modern democratic state. As the song goes, 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. And in the case of Iraq, the bill of goods they sold the public to justify the preemption of this “eventual threat” was such a blatant and grotesque fraud it would’ve made George Orwell blush (I think it very unlikely that they actually believed their own case for WMDs considering it was such a transparent snow job—though perhaps they thought stockpiles would be found regardless). The Bush administration’s threshold for what constituted “accurate intelligence” didn’t even meet the scrutiny of the sourcing policies of tabloid trash like the National Inquirer, yet single-sourced intel from the government were parroted by the Judith Millers of the Main Stream Media, acting as stenographers and public relations firms eager to sell the “product” to a largely incurious public (though there were a couple of Knight Ridder reporters that got it right).

We all know everything they got wrong in the run-up, as the staggering list now sounds like old hat: 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, Colin Powell at the UN, “old Europe”, a paltry coalition of “willing” allies, and so on… And then, indeed, we know everything they got wrong in the aftermath: 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, allowing 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 realize overthrowing the Sunni Ba’athists would create a Shi’a-controlled Iraq that would become the greatest ally of next-door-neighbor and fellow “Axis of Evil” member Iran.

Though Iraq may be altered, this sort of change has been a constant drum beat in the Middle East, as the modern history of the region is one haunted by imperialism, occupation and the meddlesome eye-poking agitation of Western powers sticking their hands in others’ internal affairs. Such as, after World War I, at the Treaty of Sevres, the Allied powers carved up the Ottoman Empire by drawing random lines in the desert sand that still chart the borders of these countries 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. This would have the unintended eventual effect of ensuring that a Shi’a majority would be relegated to second-class status by Sunni minority-rule in the decades to come.

The U.S. also has quite a bit of its own meddling to answer for in the Middle East. In 1949, the CIA backed a military coup in Syria, overthrowing an elected government and establishing a military dictatorship under Colonel Za’im. In 1953, the CIA helped orchestrate a coup in Iran, overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Muhammad Mossadeq and installing the Shah, Reza Pahlevi, who reigned over a repressive monarchy of imprisonment, torture and murder. In 1963, the U.S. was complicit in the overthrow of the Qassim regime in Iraq by the Ba’ath party, which eventually paved the way for the rule of Saddam Hussein. 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. Not to mention Washington has sent heaps of money and arms in unflinching support to Israel, including supplying them with their kill machines during the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon War. Oh, and we also supported, and supplied with cash and weapons, the brutal regimes in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia for decades. Yes, the U.S. has quite the legacy of schizophrenic policies in Middle Eastern affairs—and all well before our Iraq blunder.

Of course, Saddam had his own list of sins to answer for—but, lest we forget, we propped him up as our favorite Middle East strongman during the worst of these crimes throughout the Reagan ‘80s. Whether it was the Dujail Massacre, the Halabja poison gas attack, the destruction of the Shiite marsh communities, the genocidal al-Anfal Campaign against the Kurds or the numerous war crimes committed during the Iran-Iraq War, make no mistake about it, Saddam was our bestest buddy who did so with our money, weapons and de facto blessing. In fact, he was such a great friend that, in 1987, we let him get away with accidentally firing missiles at the USS Stark, killing 37 Americans, and then allowed Saddam just to shrug it off with a “whoops, my bad.” Can you imagine if Iran or North Korea did such a thing today? Shit, besides Saddam, Israel’s about the only friend we’d let get away with something like that… But, like all America’s favored tyrants, at some point they exhaust their usefulness, or, worse, step out of line. At which time, they either get deposed by their own angry denizens or by the very people who once sold them their armament. For Saddam, the “shock and awe” invasion of ten years ago must have sounded like the clatter of roosting chickens.

Granted, no one is bemoaning the loss of Saddam Hussein, who was unquestionably a world-class bastard. But U.S. policy toward Saddam had been schizophrenic and hypocritical, at best, and when it came time for regime change, those paying attention weren’t the least surprised. Obviously, for various reasons both clear and unclear, Iraq had been in the crosshairs of the neoconservative cabal within the Bush administration since long before 9/11. Shortly after the Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush, many, myself included, predicted that war with Iraq was all but inevitable. And while some of us may have known it was coming, I think what bothers me most about the legacy of the Iraq War is that I’m still not sure I ever fully understood why. I never thought the usual suspects made much sense, such as WMDs, 9/11, terrorism, oil, Halliburton or Bush family neurosis. I know that, obviously, the typical arrogance of age-old Great Power geopolitical machinations was at play on some level: maintaining superpower status by hedging against rivals/threats, creating spheres of influence in strategic regions, making countries more receptive to our markets, etc. But surely there must’ve been more to it than that, right?

Perhaps the most reasonable explanation really can be found in the neoconservative ideology. Mostly a cadre of former leftists with a bizarre disjointed mix of Wilsonian idealism, Leo Strauss and Henry “Scoop” Jackson, these people, who worshiped at the altar of democracy promotion and aggressive American exceptionalism, stared doe-eyed at a huge map of Iraq, moved the toy tanks, planes and aircraft carriers into shock positions, rubbed their hands together, and, with a crooked grin, whispered to themselves, “We’re gonna free the shit outta you…” They believed with fanatical zealotry that American bombs beget the love of American freedom. They ignored hundreds, nay, thousands, of years of Middle East history and society because they had ultimate faith in the potency of American culture as a cure-all for whatever ails ya’, and, sure, if a few hundred thousand innocents get killed in the process, well, that’s just the price you pay to be liberated by the world’s greatest superpower. So, I don’t think the people who perpetrated the Iraq War were evil. I just think they’ve spent the past 40 years wandering lost in a myopic wilderness and have failed, almost willfully, to learn from the mistakes of history.

But, who knows… There are times when I feel that the U.S. foreign policy apparatus is such a sprawling, tangling, multi-billion-dollar complex of ideologies, academics, paranoia and weapons that perhaps even the people at the helm don’t always fully comprehend exactly why we do what we do. When it comes to the forever altered Iraq, the only thing I know for sure is… man, did we fuck it up. But let us hope the country someday rights its course, and let us hope we someday stop learning our lessons only through hindsight. It’s been ten years… We owe at least that much to our veterans and the people of Iraq.

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