There have been many occasions during the Iraq War when the conflict has felt like a badly stage-managed show rather than a chaotic, bloody affair: from the sound and light display of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign of late March 2003, to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square the following month and George W. Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 to declare “mission accomplished.”
There was another moment like this on August 19, when the 4th Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, rolled over Iraq’s border with Kuwait to signal the end of US combat troops’ involvement in the war. Almost two weeks ahead of the deadline that President Barack Obama had set, American soldiers left the country they had invaded on March 20, 2003. In another piece of slick presentation work, Obama is due to deliver an address on August 31 from the White House, in which he will officially declare the USA’s participation in fighting in Iraq over.
Like the media-set pieces that went before it, though, Obama’s speech will ring hollow. At the same time that the President will be addressing the nation, there will still be about 50,000 US troops active in Iraq. Technically, they’re not “combat teams” but “advisory and assistance brigades.” But these soldiers will be accompanying Iraq troops on missions and if they come under fire from insurgents, I imagine the Americans will not hesitate to turn their “advice” on the enemy combatants and “assist” them to death.
Perhaps it’s fitting that a war born out of mendacity, falsehoods and exaggerations should be ushered into its closing stages – although clearly not its end – by half-truths and manipulation. Like his predecessor and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Obama, who is desperate for a public relations windfall, appears to be relegating the Iraq War to nothing more than a media spectacle. It also devalues his stance on ending US involvement in Iraq, making it seem a policy of convenience rather than an attempt to provide answers to the very profound and troubling questions posed by the conflict.
More than seven years after the first coalition troops moved in to find weapons of mass destruction and overthrow Hussein, the West – the countries that backed the war and those that opposed it – still desperately lacks self-knowledge. For all the flag waving on one side and the banner unfurling on the other, we are in a state of ambivalence about if or when it is right to use force. Apart from the deaths (between 97,000 and 106,000 civilians according to the Iraq Body Count website), the destruction and the geopolitical ramifications which have seen Iran and Turkey drawn into events, the Iraq War has had another devastating impact – it proved to be the moment when democratic politics broke down.
It failed on two accounts: firstly because Bush, Blair and several other leaders chose not to be straight with their electorates about an issue as important as going to war. This breakdown in the democratic process was compounded by the fact that, despite the attempts of their leaders to obfuscate, voters who knew they were being hustled still remained powerless to prevent the relentless march to war. Secondly, the right and the left both produced very shallow responses in the face of a complex situation. The neoconservative-led right claimed the moral high ground because it was supporting the ousting of a dictator and moves to bring democracy to not just a country but a whole region. The left felt it was superior because it was rejecting armed conflict as an option and drawing attention to possible ulterior motives for the conflict. To a small extent, both sides could claim to be right but in actual fact they were mostly wrong.
The moral bankruptcy of the neocons has long been proven. For all the bluster of bringing freedom to Iraq, it soon became obvious that there was no reconstruction plan to ensure its people were free to lead normal lives. For all the talk of wiping out “evil” with democracy, there was clearly never any intention of tackling dictators in other countries, such as Zimbabwe, or intervening to stop innocent people being slaughtered in places like Darfur.
The weakness of the left’s position took a bit more time to become evident but it’s clear now that it too has been guilty of treating the Iraq War as a zero-sum issue, when it’s actually a much more complex equation. Although the left clearly had plenty of fodder to support its argument against the war, it has not come up with a convincing alternative. As British journalist Nick Cohen wrote in “What’s Left?”, his 2007 critique of the antiwar movement: “They didn’t support fascism but they didn’t oppose it either. Their silence did not bode well for the future.”
Well, the future has arrived and the silence is still ringing in our ears. We have a Democratic president in the White House who appears to have no moral blueprint to guide him on US intervention around the world. We have European leaders who have plenty to say about fiscal deficits but nothing to say about democratic deficits. We have a feeble United Nations that seems unable to have an impact even in places where it has mustered up a presence – an investigation has been launched this week into how its troops missed the rape of 150 women and boys in the Democratic Republic of Congo when they were patrolling the area. In Greece, we have a prime minister who is a democratic idealist that wants to contribute to the Middle East peace process but is not willing to commit more than a few dozen troops to Afghanistan, where the specter of another brutal Taliban regime hangs over the country.
Iraq, many thought, was going to be the watershed moment for this generation, when beliefs would be honed and theories sharpened — but now that the dust is subsiding, it’s clear we’ve been left with only an ideological bomb crater. When lines were drawn over the invasion, it gave decision makers a chance to turn their backs on vital moral and political questions. More than seven years later, we have made no apparent progress in being clearer about when there is legitimate cause for intervention. In that sense, as well as others, Iraq has been a failure.
This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on August 27, 2010.