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Several weeks ago, the War in Iraq entered its fourth year—despite the official “end of major combat” that the codpiece-sporting President announced mere months after it began—and the steady sectarian violence pursuant to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party shows no encouraging signs of abatement. It has been a busy four years, with opponents of the war criticizing its planners for the endless stream of seemingly empty motivations, the President and his closest associates maintaining the need to finish stabilizing the region, regardless of cost, and a growing swell of political moderates noting the sour taste that the whole affair has left in their mouths. To a reader in 2007, it seems silly—almost masochistic—to read accounts like Anne Garrels’ Naked in Baghdad: the book chronicles the NPR correspondent’s time in Iraq from just before to less than a month after the United States’ invasion, and its message seems congruent with the cries that have been heard since 2003, the truth falling somewhere in between the most stringent rhetoric from either ideological side. This is old news—no pun intended.
Garrels’ fragmented narrative does not coalesce into an overarching parable about preemptive war or the human cost of conflict, nor does it fall prey to maudlin sympathies. The most important “string”—to borrow one of Garrels’ own metaphors—to be found in the story of Iraq’s fall is the similarities to the ailing Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Not only is Russian language and influence pervasive in the Middle East—Garrels notes this, citing the Soviet Union’s own intrusions into the region during the 20th century—but the parallels between Saddam Hussein and some of the former U.S.S.R.’s less illustrious leaders, and between the two countries’ essential dissolution into chaos and mob rule during regime change, is a pressing allusion.
The invasion of Iraq began on 20 March, 2003, but it was many years in the making—arguably as far back as the original Gulf War. At that time, the first President Bush had foregone a removal of Hussein from power, noting that an invasion of Baghdad would have forced the United States into a position of control in Iraq, alienating Arab allies in the region and generally precipitating a disaster of every conceivable sort—a possibly “barren outcome” (Bush and Scowcroft 489). Bush Senior’s reaction to Iraq was a measured response that sought to establish a precedent for international aggression, a policy fresh from the lessons of the Cold War and Soviet belligerence. In fact, the United Nations was continuing this admittedly cautious policy in 2003, when it refused support for President George W. Bush’s intended invasion of Iraq, supposedly to relieve Hussein of his nuclear/chemical/biological weapons programs, no evidence of which had been found at that time by Hans Blix and his team of U.N. weapons inspectors. To date, no evidence of recent illicit weapons programs have been found, save for a specious reference to “Weapons of Mass Destruction-related program activities” (George W. Bush 3), prompting a noisome revision of the United States’ motivations for invading Iraq, namely the removal of the tyrannical Hussein and the installation of democracy and its incumbent responsibilities of self-determination for the Iraqi people. These are perfectly valid reasons, but unacceptable ex posto facto. Journalist Christopher Hitchens cites with some vindication the story of Mahdi Obeidi, a senior scientist under Hussein, who was ordered in 1991 to bury in his backyard the components of a gas centrifuge, an item used for uranium enrichment (Love 464)1. Hitchens seems to view this as proof positive that Hussein intended to become a nuclear power, but in all fairness there are a number of other rogue states—North Korea being the primary example—with weapon programs considerably more advanced than the buried bits of a centrifuge, but this does not provide a pretext for unilateral invasion. If it did, the United States would have the ludicrous responsibility of toppling governments all across the Eastern hemisphere.
The soi-disant “coalition of the willing” announced by Colin Powell just before the invasion was a motley collection of member nations whose roll included social democracies such as Britain and Denmark as well as less illustrious states like Uzbekistan, which harbors a repressive dictator of its own. Notably absent were any important nations of the Middle East, even those which had sided with the United States in the first Gulf War. It need hardly be stated that the United States’ essentially unilateral aggression against Iraq only exacerbated the region’s antipathy for the former’s continued support of the “Zionist entity” of Israel, but in much of Europe as well, public opinion took on a veritable distaste for America—a nation which had, less than two years prior, the sympathy and support of the entire developed world (Schifferes 2-3).
The ambivalence of the Iraqis to the presence of the United States in their country was nothing new to anyone except perhaps Dick Cheney. The Vice President’s prediction that Americans would be “greeted as liberators” (11) was not the blatant error that it is often made out to be, however: coalition forces were in some cases greeted with joy and gratitude (Hitchens, “How to Ruin” 2); in other cases, with a smoldering ambivalence and suspicion; in others, with downright hostility, but all these attitudes coalesced into the latter as the occupation languished and it became clear that the Iraqis had merely exchanged a malevolent despot and a tenuous infrastructure for anarchy, civil war, and a devastated infrastructure. Iraqis understood this beforehand: however much of a surprise the ensuing violence was to the architects of Operation: Iraqi Freedom, it was a simple causal relationship to those in Iraq. At one point, Garrels’ guide/translator (called a “minder”) admitted that “people are not afraid of a U.S.-led war because they believe Americans will only target Saddam and government sites, not ordinary people. However, […] Iraqis are afraid of the aftermath, assuming the country will fragment and dissolve into a vicious civil war” (46). Except perhaps among the Baathist elite, there was no ambivalence about Saddam Hussein: on the subject of their dictator, most Iraqis could agree that he was a repressive, megalomaniacal tyrant with a brutish, iron-fisted regime reminiscent of the nadir of Stalinism. His tyranny, however, was the only thing holding the country together: no collective “Iraqi” identity graced the arbitrary boundaries set by the British in 1917; no religious harmony united the fiercely-opposed Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish communities.
Before the invasion, Iraq was in many respects a floundering country, and this was believed to be not only the fault of Saddam—his multi-billion-dollar expenditures for his war with Iran in the 1980s having largely bankrupted the nation—but also the United Nations and the United States by proxy, whose embargoes in the 1990s strangled economic growth, made affordable and available health care a patent impossibility, and turned Iraq’s culture very much inward; Hussein, though his government was more or less secular, had used the relatively recent upward surge in religious conservatism to his own ends, exacerbating tensions between the Shi’ites and Sunnis (as well as the Kurds and the Christian minority) and generally fomenting a bastard form of nationalism or Pan-Arabism (Garrels 55). What little was imported into Iraq was the result of the United Nations “Oil for Food” program, which died a messy death in 2003 with the start of the invasion and charges of corruption, the truth and impact of which will vary depending on the source. All told, something approaching $65 billion worth of oil was sold in exchange for basic necessities like food; as much as $1.8 billion may have been lost in kickbacks and other schemes by Saddam (Langenkamp 1).
This legacy of corruption would continue even well into the Iraq War, but it would unfortunately be perpetrated by American companies serving as third-party contractors in the rebuilding process. As early as 2004, reports of mismanaged property, missing funds, and fiduciary misconduct were being leveled at contractors such as Halliburton and its business unit, Kellogg Brown & Root. Regardless of the implications of suspicious business connections (some of which were facile and others of which are the vagaries of American politics), the financial management of the U.N.-created “Development Fund” and the billions of tax dollars being funneled into reconstruction seemed a monument to inefficiency and waste (Miller 188-189). In the case of the much-maligned Halliburton, T. Christian Miller writes “The company delivered, but wasted a lot of money doing it” (82). Clearly, there seemed to be no coherent vision for Iraq’s future, nor any sort of comprehensive oversight of the literal warzone pursuant to Hussein’s involuntary abdication. None of the ensuing chaos mitigated the fears and suspicions of the war’s opponents, and the fact that the United States’ immediate priority in post-coup Iraq were the Oil Ministry fostered much distrust among already-ambivalent Iraqis (Garrels 202). Hitchens asserts that oil is, in fact, worth fighting over (“Fault Lines”), and his point is of course true in practical terms: the United States feared that retreating hostile forces would set fire to oil fields and detonate oil reserves, bruising the international market and introducing an enormous logistical problem as it did in the aftermath of the first Gulf War (Garrels 126). The lack of a simple good/evil binary in Iraq—despite the best efforts of certain ideologues to convince Americans otherwise—makes it impossible to successfully balance the necessities of realpolitik with the sort of public relations campaign that the region’s inherent anti-westernism would require of the occupying powers.
Like the Soviet Union, Iraq’s sudden and violent transition from despotic regime to pro forma democracy seems to have been done with little or no regard for the economic and political realities of such a transition. The Soviet Union had the advantage, at least, of changing from within, but the invasion of Iraq smacked to many of imperialism or unjust coercion: even to Iraqis, and not merely dovish Americans and Europeans, the categorical imperative for the war seemed to be oil (Garrels 26-27, 64, 202). If a lowly NPR correspondent, under the strictures of a paranoid government, could separate such wheat from the chaff of official party soundbytes with nothing more than interviews with taxi drivers and students, it begs the question: why was the United States not prepared for such hostility and the inevitable struggles for religious primacy? Why was the onus upon the United States to remove Saddam Hussein from power?—Saddam Hussein who, though undoubtedly a monster, had reached a sort of uneasy provisional stability despite the strain of embargoes. Importantly, U.N. embargoes tended to hurt only the general populace of Iraq: for loyal Party members, money and comfort was still no issue: Garrels makes mention of dealerships selling expensive Mercedes which must only be patronized by oil barons and Baathist elites (53). “While this family [with whom Garrels stays during the initial combat operations] and their friends blame Saddam Hussein for many of their problems and believe that Iraq does need a change, they resent what they see as American arrogance… They are clearly caught in the middle” (130).
The American motivation for attack remains a problem that hasn’t been explained away by the President’s on-camera jingoism: he may have convinced a slim majority of Americans to support his politics, but the situation in Iraq has deteriorated in complete disregard of Bush’s high ideals. Whence, then, the supposition of America’s legitimacy as a liberating power, especially after half a century of careful political tiptoeing? Hitchens proposes four criteria by which a nation forfeits its sovereignty, submitting as well that Iraq met all four prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The first is invading sovereign neighbors, as was the case with Kuwait in the first Gulf War; the second is genocide, as was again the case with the state-ordered massacre of Kurdish villages; the third is the violation of nonproliferation treaties, which Iraq’s clandestine attempts at a nuclear program ostensibly indicate; the fourth and final is the state sponsorship of international “gangsterism,” which Iraq is supposed to have done in a variety of ways (“Fault Lines”). The problem with Hitchens’ assessment is that the sparse evidence for recent WMD research and manufacturing requires a rather great leap to assume an explicit violation of nonproliferation treaties; the fourth item, as well, is famously false insofar as the 9/11 Commission Report found no evident link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda (334), though likely true in that Iraq was and still is a nesting ground for terrorism. The implicit problem, however, is that there are a great many countries in the region which abet “gangsterism”—for instance, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran—as well as one infamous example—Iran—which claims to have not a single, disassembled centrifuge but rather 3,000 fully functional ones (“Iran” 1).
Working under the assumption that Iraq was indeed culpable for all the requisite trespasses, and the United States was justified in its military action, however premeditated2,—this is not necessarily a difficult stretch to make—cognizant lookers-on must still then question not the purported moral authority or practical necessity of invasion, but the relative insouciance with which it was executed. Garrels make a critical point, as sketched with small interviews from people in unspoken places, that there is more to a nation than the despot—be he benign or malevolent—who controls it. That the invading forces did not see this was the fundamental mistake made both before and after the short span of “major combat operations” which sent Saddam into hiding. Iraq was a quagmire long before George W. Bush came into office, and it was a complex set of factors which led to its sorry state: much blame can be laid at the feet of the despot; some can be laid at the feet of petty but deep-rooted religious rivalries more at home in the Dark Ages than the 21st century; still more blame can be laid at the feet of an misaimed embargo, a myopic war plan, and a general lack of concern by the “coalition of the willing” for the well-being of the very people it seeks to liberate. Like the failed “Hearts and Minds” campaign in South Viet Nam during the 1960s and 70s, winning a foreign war has as much to do with popular appeal as it does with military strategy. It seems as though the more effectively the military does its job of rooting out the phantom of terrorism, the further Iraqis are estranged from the ostensible benevolence of the West. The very idea of popularity seems to have been a foregone conclusion inside of a year: Rod Nordland and Babak Dehghanpisheh of Newsweek said, “The insurgents may not win many hearts and minds, but that’s not the point. Their fighting force is based on a shamelessly cynical alliance between Qaeda-inspired religious fanatics and the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s gang of enforcers. […] For the insurgents, Iraq has become a war without rules, and yet the militants also score big propaganda victories every time Americans break their own codes of warfare” (35). With the spectre of Abu Ghraib still looming, the political and civil-rights limbo of Guantanamo Bay still festering, and the historic free elections deepening the cleft of religious and cultural divides with political power, it seems unlikely that comprehensive peace is an implausible goal under the current circumstances—so say Brent Scowcroft, George H.W. Bush’s close friend and advisor, as well as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s former national security advisor and noted Cold War historian. Fundamentally changing the odds in Iraq would require either a commitment of money and troops far beyond the pale of Americans’ current mood or a change of paradigm with regard to control of operations (A12).
Barring a semantic quarrel, it would be accurate to call the war in Iraq so far a “failure” insofar as it has not produced any of the desired dividends: lasting peace, stable oil, democratic influence, or efficacious disarmament. The only considerable goals which have been achieved are the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the implementation of divisive elections. Understandably, the great hope for the Middle East is not a short-term armistice, but rather a long-term process whereby the benefits of secularism, self-governance, and civil liberty will osmose through the Arabian peninsula; however, the approach to the War in Iraq, in all its various and sundry guises, critically misunderstood what was plain as vanilla to anyone familiar with the region. Garrels summarizes the situation succinctly: “Iraq is a complicated place, rife with contradictions and divisions that the Iraqis are the first to acknowledge” (218). This statement describes almost the entire Middle East: there is no simple binary that fits the looming crisis there, as the region is comprised of very subtle differences which tend to elude the grasp of unconcerned foreigners, even though they are entirely clear to its inhabitants. This, in part, was the catalyst for the disaster that the War in Iraq has become, but it should not have been unexpected or surprising: Garrels understood it, as did most of her colleagues. The lesson at work here is that aid without understanding is little more than conquest.
- Bush, George, and Brent Scowcroft. A World Transformed. New York: Vintage, 1999.
- Bush, George W. “State of the Union.” Washington, D.C. 20 Jan. 2004. 4 Apr. 2007 <http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/01/20040120-7.html>.
- Cheney, Dick. Interview. Meet the Press. MSNBC. 14 Sep. 2006. 4 Apr. 2007 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3080244/>.
- Hitchens, Christopher. “How to Ruin an Occupation.” Slate 5 July 2005. 4 Apr. 2007 <http://www.slate.com/id/2121996>.
- —. Love, Poverty, and War. New York: Nation Books, 2004.
- —. “Fault Lines: Rights, Wrongs and Responsibilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine and The Nation.” Mario Savio Memorial Lecture Fund, Berkley. 8 Dec. 2002.
- “Iran ‘enters new nuclear phase'” BBC News 9 Apr. 2007. 11 Apr. 2007 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6538957.stm>.
- Langenkamp, R. Dobie. “Putting Oil-for-Food in Perspective.” Jurist. 2 Nov. 2005. University of Pittsburgh School of Law. 11 Apr. 2007 <http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/forumy/2005/11/putting-oil-for-food-in-perspective.php>.
- Miller, T. Christian. Blood Money. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006.
- National Commission on Terrorist Attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
- Nordland, Rob, and Babak Dehghanpisheh. “Rules of Engagement.” Newsweek 29 Nov. 2004: 34-36.
- Priest, Dana, and Robin Wright. “Scowcroft Skeptical Vote Will Stabilize Iraq.” Washington Post 7 Jan. 2005: A12.
- Schifferes, Steve. “US names ‘coalition of the willing'” BBC News 18 Mar. 2003. 4 Apr. 2007 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2862343.stm>.