A ‘Dumb War’: Taking Stock of the Iraq Invasion

November 26th, 2010 - by admin

Alexander Smoltczyk and Bernhard Zand / Der Spiegel – 2010-11-26 19:06:08


A ‘Dumb War’
Taking Stock of the Iraq Invasion

BERLIN (November 25, 2010) — With its invasion of Iraq, the United States rid the Iraqi people of a tyrant. But it also broke the law and destroyed tens of thousands of lives. With the release of close to 400,000 Iraq logs by WikiLeaks and the coming publication of George W. Bush’s memoir, it is time to take stock of a war that was catastrophic for Iraq and America’s standing in the world.

In early October, there were 500 unidentified bodies in the Baghdad city morgues. According to one doctor, just as many bodies are being delivered to morgues today as in 2007. At least 630 people were shot to death with silenced pistols in the last three months alone.

Although most were guards at checkpoints, the victims also included politicians and their relatives, as well as a television reporter who suddenly collapsed in the middle of a broadcast, in broad daylight. The source of the fatal shot could not be located. The atmosphere is eerie.

“I have friends who returned from their self-imposed exile in Damascus last year. Now they’re packing their bags again,” says Ahmed, a young attorney who is sitting under a ceiling fan in the Shah Bandar Café in downtown Baghdad.

People are crowding past the displays in the book bazaar outside the café, where vendors sell everything from prayer books with gold embossing to English language courses, editions of Nietzsche and a Saddam biography. The best selling title these days is a book titled “Turban and Civil Uniform,” a settling of accounts with bigots and Philistines.

The Shah Bandar Café has been a popular spot among the educated and anyone who wants to appear as such since the days of the monarchy. Professors, pensioners and ordinary families sit under the faded portraits of poets, smoking water pipes and drinking tea.

“I was in prison under Saddam,” Ahmed, the attorney, says. “Back then we wouldn’t have been able to talk here. The secret police were everywhere. Today you can say what you want in Iraq …”

A man sitting next to him finishes his sentence: “… because no one is listening, anyway.”

That, at least, would seem to be a step forward. The indifference of elected politicians toward the people is one of the traits of Iraq’s new democracy. Another is that, in the future, regime change will not be a guarantee of better times — just different times.

A City Full of Corpses
The white-haired owner of the Café Shah Bandar, Mohammed al-Khashali, sits slumped in his chair in front of the cash register near the exit. He complains about Iraqi politicians and the obliviousness that comes with power. Then he tells the story of how, in March 2007, a blue pickup truck came to a stop in front of his café, prompting him to rename it the Shah Bandar Martyr’s Café a few days later.

The blast killed dozens of people. “Including my four sons,” says Khashali, “and a grandson.” He says this almost matter-of-factly, without even expecting a reaction.

The city is full of corpses, except that today they are no longer being found in palm gardens early in the morning. And every sentence about the purpose or senselessness of the Iraq war, about the merits and crimes of the liberators and occupiers, is uttered against the background of a still-growing army of the dead.

America’s war in Iraq lasted seven years, longer than its war against Adolf Hitler. The Iraq war has claimed the lives of 4,426 US soldiers and about 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Now DER SPIEGEL, the New York Times, the Guardian and other media have been given access to almost 400,000 documents compiled by the website WikiLeaks: the war logs of soldiers in the US military.

According to an initial analysis of these documents, the number of dead is even higher than previously believed.

What was the outcome of this war? Iraq is rid of a tyrant. Today Iraqis can vote for their leaders, and millions have already made use of this right.

But for this war the United States violated international law, vilified allies and mocked the United Nations. It squandered its authority as a military and moral superpower. It spent more than $1 trillion (€720 billion). It was triumphant at first, but then it gave up hope for a moment and allowed terrorists to push it to the brink of an historic defeat. Then it rallied once again — not to emerge victorious but to avert defeat, a strategy that resulted in many, many casualties.

Four of the victims, Ghanem, Kadhim, Mohammed and Bilal, were Mohammed al-Khashali’s sons. Another, Katib, was his grandson.

A Moral Appraisal
Was it worth it? Does the outcome justify this war?

The war would not have taken place without three men, former US President George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, his defense secretary for many years, and his vice-president, Dick Cheney. All three will publish their memoirs in the coming weeks and months: Bush in November, Rumsfeld in January and Cheney next spring. They will not be able to avoid a moral appraisal of the Iraq war.

Bush’s book is titled “Decision Points.” Rumsfeld, according to a statement from his publisher, begins his memoirs in 1983, the year of his first encounter with then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

What exactly these three men have written in their defense isn’t yet know. But does anyone seriously expect mea culpas? “The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency,” Bush said on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, “it is the right decision now, and it will be the right decision ever.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed similar sentiments in his autobiography, published in early September. “I did what I believed to be correct, even if the public disagreed,” Blair wrote. “Of course Iraq is a better place today than under Saddam.”

It makes perfectly good sense that Bush’s and Blair’s discussions of Iraq always end with Saddam Hussein. It’s even legitimate, to a certain degree. The overthrow of the most brutal of all Arab dictators is the least controversial chapter of the Iraq war. The notion that he could still be in power today and, at 73, would be gradually putting his house in order, is intolerable, even for staunch opponents of the Iraq war.

But, strategically speaking, even this aspect has generated criticism to this day. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, himself involved in attempts to assassinate Saddam, still insists that it would have been better to bring down the leaders of the regime with a special forces mission — instead of waging a war, destroying the army and severing the last bands holding the country together.

But regime change was only one of the goals America and its coalition of the willing had in mind when they marched into Iraq. The invaders had more in store for the country. They wanted, as Bush put it, to bring freedom to the Middle East, a freedom that wasn’t “America’s gift to the world,” but “God’s gift to mankind.”

They wanted, as the Iraq War Resolution passed by the US Congress and signed into law on Oct. 16, 2002 states, to disarm Saddam Hussein’s regime, put an end to human rights violation and terror in Iraq and, like the rest of the Middle East, make it democratic. History will judge this war on the basis of these goals outlined in the resolution ratified by both houses of Congress.

The events are still too recent to have become history. Indeed, the United States only withdrew its last combat unit two months ago. But more than seven years after the beginning of the invasion, now that the most detailed and comprehensive chronology of this war, documents produced by the US Armed Forces themselves, is available, it is time to take stock.

A New Regime of Terror
The first chapter of this war, the story of the disarming of Saddam Hussein, is also the shortest one. The dictator no longer had any weapons of mass destruction. None of the 391,832 military reports now released mention an appreciable discovery of biological, chemical or nuclear materials.

The documents reinforce the conclusion that David Kay, the first director of the “Iraq Survey Group” formed to search for weapons of mass destruction, cited when he stepped down in January 2004: “I don’t think they existed.”

With audacious irony, Bush initially tried to gloss over the disgrace, even posing for photographs that showed him searching the cabinets in the Oval Office. One of the captions read: “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere.”

But despite Bush’s flippant approach to it, the affair led to a catastrophic loss of credibility for the United States and its intelligence services. His first secretary of state, Colin Powell, would eventually become a proxy for that loss of credibility, after having told the United Nations Security Council: “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” Powell, who resigned in late 2004, later said that his appearance before the UN was a “blot” on his record.

The disarming of Saddam Hussein, cited as the central goal leading up to the invasion, was not enough to justify this war.

The argument of human rights violations as a justification for war was a different story. In the summer of 2003, the Iraqis looked on in horror as American experts excavated one mass grave after another between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. They had long known of the existence of the graves, which contained their husbands, brothers and sons.

But this was the first time in the history of the Middle East that a regime was directly confronted, in a legally binding way, with the evidence of its brutality, in a way that gave at least some satisfaction to the victims. It was a real achievement.

An Atmosphere of Total Lawlessness
But while human rights activists and forensic scientists continued to dig for the victims of Saddam’s murderous regime in Iraq’s deserts, their survivors were already beginning to suffer under a new regime of terror. With their overly hasty disbanding of the Iraqi army and destruction of public order, the occupiers had plunged the country into an atmosphere of total lawlessness.

Looters and criminals, the legacy of the overthrown regime, were the first to fill the vacuum, but an army of Islamist terrorists soon followed suit and made its way to Baghdad. One year after the invasion, the situation in Iraq was diametrically opposed to the allied nations’ declared goal of ridding Iraq of Islamist terror.

Jihadists, the mortal enemies of both the United States and the ousted dictator, were a new part of the mix. They had not been there previously, but now they were coming to Iraq by the hundreds. And when they arrived they sparked an inferno that the newly released military reports document more bluntly than any previous accounts.

They unleashed a sectarian conflict that claimed 3,000 lives a month at its height in 2006. The security forces, painstakingly rebuilt after they had been disbanded, intervened in the war on behalf of the Shiites, striking back with a brutality on a par with that of Saddam’s Sunni-controlled regime.

More than 2 million Iraqis fled abroad from the liberated Iraq, and at least as many moved to the relatively calm northern part of the country. At the time, even victims of the old regime longed for its return.

The United States experienced its own lapse in the spring of 2004, when it was still officially an occupying power. Two words — Abu Ghraib — have come to symbolize the enormity of that fall from grace.

The way the soldiers, who had marched into the country as liberators, trampled on human beings and human rights in that torture prison on the western outskirts of Baghdad did irreparable damage — to the victims themselves, to the further course of the war, to the West’s relationship with the Islamic world and to America’s mystique as a moral superpower.

A Horrifying Record
The United States, unlike the regimes of the Middle East, found its own strength to unfold its torture scandal. But was it worth it? Did this war bring human rights to Iraq? It did, at least on the surface. Today Iraqis have the free and general right to vote. Under the law, they also enjoy freedom of opinion and freedom of the press.

But the record is horrifying. One is eager to read the chapters on Abu Ghraib in Bush’s, Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s books, to discover what words they found to address the widows, the amputees and the emotionally scarred.

There was also a fourth reason for going to war, a reason that made sense to many in the turbulent days before the invasion, even those deeply reluctant to join the contingent of Bush allies. The plan to establish a bridgehead for democracy in the Middle East in Iraq contained not only the core of American promises of salvation.

It seized upon a fundamental experience that the Germans, the Japanese and, after the end of World War II, the people of Eastern Europe had made. Who was prepared to deny the Iraqis the right to freedom and democracy? Did anyone imagine that Arabs could only be ruled by autocrats?

The democracy argument contained an element of fairness and sustainability that went beyond the claims of the intelligence agencies, which were already flimsy enough then.

Did the war justify the argument?

Iran Is True Winner of Iraq War
It certainly is a positive outcome of the invasion is that the Iraqis have voted three times since 2003. After the last election, in March of this year, the candidates spent seven months conferring. For the past three weeks, it has seemed apparent that incumbent President Nouri al-Maliki will continue in office for another term.

But many Iraqis are deeply upset about the way Maliki was chosen and the consequences it will have. It is a warning sign for the future of Iraq and a travesty of the democratic auspices of 2003. Maliki’s election contradicts the election results (he was defeated by a narrow margin), thereby cementing the dominance of one sectarian group over another.

The parties to the sectarian war spent the entire summer unsuccessfully seeking a compromise. Then, in early September, Iran intervened. Tehran wants to see a Shiite autocrat like Maliki in power in Baghdad, and not his secular rival, Allawi, whose coalition had won the vote.

Only days after the withdrawal of the last US combat unit at the end of August, an ayatollah in the Iranian holy city of Qom took an enemy of Maliki, Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, aside. Until then, his resistance had stood in the way of Maliki’s re-election. But now his fellow Shiites were able to convince al-Sadr. To be on the safe side, another Shiite leader was brought in: the Lebanese Hassan Nazrallah, head of the radical Islamist group Hezbollah.

Together with the Kurds, Maliki is now able to form a government. This leaves the Sunnis, most of whom had voted for secular candidates, out in the cold.

Maliki, who already began to exhibit strongly authoritarian traits in his first term, is now having full-body portraits of himself suspended from the fronts of bombed-out buildings. Not much more can happen to him now. He has the support of Iran, which, partly because America has rid it of its enemy Saddam, is the true winner of the Iraq war.

A Country too Weak for Democracy
The Arab television channels paid close attention to the flawed attempt to decide the election. It was accompanied by violence not unlike the violence that followed the 2005 election — and it confirmed, once again, the religious realities in Iraq and the influence of its neighbors. Iraq is not an example other countries in the region would want to follow.

The country spawned by this war is too weak for democracy. Perhaps it would be strong enough if the United States intervened once again, not militarily, as it did in 2003, but armed with all of its expertise on the Middle East, expertise it possessed at the time but, in its rush to invade Baghdad, negligently swept aside.

But that is a feat America will no longer accomplish — not in Iraq, not in China and not in Burma. When Barack Obama, a democrat and proponent of human rights, talks about democracy and human rights today, no one, neither at home nor abroad, seems to be listening anymore.

This is precisely what this war has brought about. No one has described the aporia into which his predecessor steered the moral superpower more aptly than Obama himself. “I am not opposed to all wars,” he said at a demonstration against the Iraq war in 2002. “I’m opposed to dumb wars.”

The Iraq war came about at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons — and the consequences were catastrophic. Much of what happened could have been predicted. This is why the Iraq war was a dumb war.

Horse Racing Supplants Human Rights Abuses
The road from Baghdad to Abu Ghraib passes explosive barrier walls painted in patriotic colors, warehouses, cement depots and truck repair shops. Every few hundred meters, guards are dozing in oversized pickups or standing behind concrete-filled oil drums, wearing new uniforms and gesturing as nonchalantly as their role models, the former occupiers.

The Abu Ghraib Hippodrome is far from downtown Baghdad, past Amiriya, a Sunni neighborhood that was one of the last to surrender to the Americans.

Horse races are held here twice a week now. It’s a sign of progress that Iraqis can now be more concerned about the starting lineup in a horse race than about rival militias.

The road passes piles of sand with the same pale yellow color as the sky, past junkyards, heaps of garbage and discarded parts of cars. The houses are fortresses, with their own generators and tall, welded gates.

Nevertheless, bougainvillea trees bloom across the walls, and one man is even washing his car. Otherwise the street is completely empty, except for the occasional car lurching through the potholes, driving a little too fast for such a poor road.

“We should turn around,” the driver says. Then he gets lost. There are no signs, only the empty windows of houses. It isn’t a good idea to ask for directions in Amiriya. The driver passes the same street corner for the third time. The interpreter is also getting nervous. He starts raising his voice, curses and slams his fist on the dashboard. It isn’t a good idea, being seen with foreigners.

Things are getting worse every day, he says: the magnetic bombs attached to cars, the killings with silenced weapons, the instability, the agonizingly long wait for a new government. This isn’t his neighborhood. He is afraid, and his fear is both crippling and contagious.

But maybe it’s just his imagination. Maybe things will turn out well. Everything is possible in this devastated country. The interpreter fidgets with his mobile phone and wipes his forehead. Then he shouts out the words he has been wanting to say all along: “You can leave again, but we have to stay behind.”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

* The WikiLeaks Iraq Logs: A Protocol of Barbarity (10/25/2010)

* Hellfire from the Sky: Iraq War Logs Reveal Details of Dubious Apache Attacks (10/22/2010)

* Iraq, Nov. 23, 2006: A Day in Hell (10/22/2010)

* Outrage, Applause, Indifference: US Reacts to WikiLeaks Iraq Documents (10/23/2010)

* The Atlas of Horror: An Iraq War Logs Interactive Graphic


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