Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that always provides evidence for its AME’s (arguments of mass explanation).
In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq this week, effectively ending the U.S. mission, (though the combat mission officially ended last year, the remaining 50,000 troops have remained as “advisers” to their Iraqi counterparts) after only 9 years at war! (that’s it? man, the time sure does fly when you’re invading countries)
This is the most important international event of the 21st century and occurred and progressed as I grew up in high school and through college. It has dominated everyday conversation, news programs, radio shows, classroom discussions, political talk, and most importantly, permeated the daily life of everyone in the United States (and obviously, the people of Iraq). Having heard all sides of the argument for and against war everyday from family, friends, news agencies, and teachers, I was literally a first hand witness to history; a history that will forever go down in school textbooks and future media as confusion: For the first time, the US was launching a full scale invasion for seemingly inexplicable reasons that still beg the question: Why? We’ll get to those reasons behind the war in just a minute, but let’s look at what’s going on now:
This past week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal Al-Maliki met with President Obama in Washington to commemorate the “end” of the war, or the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops in Iraq. On Thursday Dec. 16, the U.S. held a semi-formal quiet ceremony (still guarded by armed forces) to commemorate the end of the war, and with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta congratulating the remaining troops on a job well done of ridding tyranny and implementing democracy. This war is the showcase event in describing U.S foreign policy in the past century and the crux of the foreign policy problems the US will face going forward. We’ll take a look at the history of Iraq and a history of U.S. led overthrows and depositions to see how the U.S. even became embroiled in this war and what exactly the “end” of the war really means.
The region now known as the country of Iraq is often labeled the “cradle of civilization” because of its centrality in the development of modern human civilization. In the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Mesopotamia (“land of Iraq”) held the first known civilization, the Sumerians who from the 4th Millenium BC have the earliest recorded history. The land of Iraq, because of its ideal locale and rich resources, became a land of repeated invasion and takeover. As part of the pathway between Europe and Asia, many peoples attempted and were successful in taking over this region as the importance of this go-between area rose. From the Akkadians in the 24th century BC, to the 14 century long take over by the Babylonians and Assyrians, the Islamic reign, the Mongol invasion, the Ottoman reign, and British “colonial and economic” dominance, the history of Iraq can be defined as a struggle to hold onto a vital region and the failure to create a stable state surrounding multiple ethnic groups.
The most important time in Iraqi history (in relation to the present) was the British occupation and attempted occupation of Iraq after World War 1. The Sykes-Picot agreement (deciding how to divide up the defunct Ottoman Empire) left the British to put Iraq under a Hashemite leader in 1920 and drew strict borders for Iraq that failed to take into account the multiple ethnic groups involved that were hostile to the ruling Sunni and majority Shia populations. Sectarian violence and horrific revolts against the British “peacekeepers” and the Hashemite rulers and Sunni land holders abounded. While the Brit’s main interest was protecting their vital oil interests in Iraq, their military occupation until 1947 and chosen leader until 1958, left the country wracked by civil strife, deepened distrust of Western governments, and left a vacuum to be filled by a strong forceful leader. An occupation that dragged on for 35 years instead of a few months tells the story of how an invasion might play out in Iraq. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, “so closely resembles the events of 1920 that only a historical ignoramus can be surprised.” Unfortunately, the US had one of these as its elected leader in 2000 – 2008 who didn’t see the parallels.
The origins of the 2003 Iraq war begin with a topic we’ve discussed many times here at “What’s the Deal?”: a long term dictator rising to power. The rise of Saddam Hussein and the Ba-ath Party saw the rise of the Sunni minority into power in Baghdad. Like the Ba-ath party in Syria, the Ba-ath party in Iraq rose to prominence after weak governments and revolutions rocked Baghdad following the nominal granting of independence from colonial powers. First led by Ahmed Hasan Al-Bakir after an overthrow in 1968, the Arab Socialist Ba-ath party then assumed control under a Revolutionary Command Council that began to grow under Saddam Hussein’s influence. Saddam assumed power in 1979 by ousting Al-Bakir and political rivals that solidified his leadership. Almost immediately, Saddam led Iraq into a bloody 8 year war himself against Iran and the religious authority of Ayatollah Khomeini who had assumed power after overthrowing the last shah of Iran in the Iranian Revolution. Saddam felt Iraq, ruled by his relatively secular government, was threatened by the new Iranian regime, and with help from the United States (initiated by Donald Rumsfeld in the Reagan administration), conducted large-scale attacks against Iranian soldiers and civilians.
As part of a new campaign based on distrust for other ethnic groups in Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war, Saddam conducted the Al-Anfal campaign, a genocidal military campaign directed against the Kurdish population that killed an estimated 50 -100,000 people. This was not the first or only case of human rights abuses carried out by the Hussein regime, and his heavy handed leadership was pressed many times by the UN and others.
Relations between the US and Saddam didn’t turn sour until Saddam decided to invade Kuwait and incorporate the strategic country as the 19th province of Iraq (Saddam accused Kuwaiti wells of drilling diagonally into Iraqi soil). President H.W. Bush responded angrily to this attack which threatened US oil interests (Oh, and Kuwaitis too) in American-friendly Kuwait. With 89 members of the UN security council voting in favor of a military response, Operation Desert Storm commenced and through brilliant strategic moves led by Chief of Staff General Colin Powell, the coalition armed forces (led mainly by the US), repelled the Iraqi army and forced them almost all the way back to Baghdad.
Hussein’s human rights abuses continued into the 1990s with more genocidal campaigns against Iraqi Kurds and Shiites. Relations between the US and Iraq remained tense, with the US (with UN backing) instituting a “no fly zone” in the 1990s after the Gulf War, so that the Iraqi air force couldn’t send attacking planes to strike Shiite towns. A public “taunting” of President H.W. Bush by Saddam for his “failure” to capture and take him down, as well as a leak of a plan to assassinate the former President in 1993 infuriated many including George Bush Jr. So, Saddam’s rule over his tenure was marked by human rights abuses, a pursuit of nuclear technology, and ended with a steep mistrust between Baghdad and the White Housethat played out until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, where an “alibi” to remove Hussein was found.
Instead of listening to his counterterrorism czar, Richard Holbrooke, who began trying to warn Bush and his top officials about the threat of Al-Qaeda and the intelligence of an eminent attack on American soil since his inauguration, Bush instead considered the real threat to American security as Saddam Hussein and Iraqi sponsored terrorism. Saddam, as we have seen was a threat to his own people, but there was no evidence of Saddam sponsoring radical organizations to attack the U.S. Bush was influenced heavily by an administration greatly controlled by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (yes, that Don Rumsfeld who was in charge of sponsoring Saddam’s fight against Iran in the 1980s). Both Cheney and Rumsfeld held personal vindications against Saddam and were obsessed with finding a way to get rid of the dictator and creating a new “pro-American” state in the Middle East to push American initiatives and policy (and of course to control Iraq’s oil resources). Saudi Arabia had been America’s best friend in the mid-East previously, and the U.S. still maintained an army base there since the Gulf War (that was a source of contention to many Saudis, including among others, a Mr. Osama Bin Laden). America apparently needed a new place to establish a foothold.
So, even before 9/11/2001, the Bush administration was looking for a way to get rid of Saddam. Bush, incredulous to the attacks that he had been warned several times about, rightly ordered a retaliatory attack to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan (the state that was actually sponsoring Al-Qaeda and terror training). The response was justifiable for the administration, but it was incomplete. It accomplished the toppling of the Taliban, but Bush refused to put major American troops on the ground to pursue Bin Laden and his allies (fearing American deaths) and just as importantly, stabilize the country it had just wreaked havoc upon. The results are well known: an escaped Bin laden and Al-Qaeda, and a country erupting in civil war, which the US is still involved in.
Using the veil of a major security threat to the US in the form of nuclear weapons and the prevailing theme of a connection between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, the Bush administration inexplicably turned its attention to deposing Saddam next. What happened next accomplished the complete opposite of the so called goal of protecting American National Security.
Operation Thunder Run in March 2003 easily and quickly made its way past the ill-equipped yet fairly spirited defense of the Iraqi Army (though there were many defectors and deserters) and took control of Baghdad. From that point though, there was no plan on what to do next for the “liberators” or more appropriately, the conquerors: “The division had been given no guidance for the post-combat phase, no orders for what to do with Baghdad once it was in American hands.” Saddam went into hiding, to be captured in 2005. Just as there was not enough troops or investment in time in Afghanistan to stabilize Kabul, the 130,000 invading forces in Iraq were not enough to control what came next: an unleashed anarchic violent response to having no authoritarian ruler. Struggles for weapons, power, and property pitted ethnic group against ethnic group, and Islamic sect versus Islamic sect, just as the British had found out 80 years before. Most importantly, the vacuum of control left by Saddam’s absence and the presence of the occupying American troops gave incentives and power to Islamic jihadists who suddenly found themselves with a population that it could relate to.
Death tolls for American soldiers rose steadily the next few years as story after story of car bombs, suicide bombers, and street battles splayed across news pages and tv screens. The war that many clamored for (based on false evidence given to the American people) suddenly became a war that was increasingly unpopular for everyone, and had become a quagmire for the Bush administration. I could describe the chronology of the war in further detail, but this is well known recent history and doesn’t need rehashing.
Major points that should be remembered now that the war is finally over is that – the troop surge led by new Commander of Armed forces in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus in 2006 was the beginning of the point of control for the Americans in stabilizing the country, – Working collaboratively to train the Iraqi soldiers in counter terrorism tactics helped tremendously. – Finally establishing a somewhat democratic government with Nuri Kamal Al-Maliki as Prime Minister and having officials from multiple ethnic groups in government power stifled some of the ethnic violence.
The impetus for the Iraq war was a false pretense: No weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq, and no facility existed to the extent needed to build them. The report of an Iraqi purchase of yellowcake Uranium in Niger was disproven as well. In the context of time, the admitted UN weapons inspectors were given more access than ever before the war in searching Saddam’s nuclear facilities, and though Saddam wasn’t showing everything, this clearly wasn’t enough of a justification for an invasion. The UN Security council recognized this lack of a justification and therefore refused to join Bush on his campaign (unlike the council in 1991 joining the elder Bush). The war was poorly planned, undermanned, underinvested in time, and was carried out with few allies.
So why did we do this again?
This is why it is such a conundrum to anyone who studies this war, because there is no real straight answer. Bush may have indeed wanted to do the “noble” thing and help the Iraqi people by deposing a brutal dictator, but considering who stood to benefit from the war, it can hardly be called noble. Large American companies in defense contracting and oil and infrastructure benefitted greatly. Cheney’s old company, Halliburton gained huge contracts to rebuild the oil refineries, build prisons, and other projects received on no-bid contracts. Side note: these companies and others who profited from the war happened to be handsome contributors to the Republican Party.
This has been the calling card of the American Empire since the McKinley Administration decided to invade and occupy the Phillipines. Instead of turning over the country to be controlled by its own people in democratic fashion, the US has pursued policies of creating American friendly governments often at the expense of the people. This is often done with a veil of protecting American security, Christianizing “heathens”, spreading democracy, and American “values”, when the real beneficiaries are American businesses.
One last reason for the invasion that should be considered is that senior officials in the Bush administration wanted to restore the image of power and influence that the U.S. had. It had certainly been tarnished from Vietnam and embarrassed by the oil embargo, and the Iran hostage crisis. If America could restore democracy for a suffering people under a brutal dictator, then they would be making a great humanitarian statement along with a show of incredible military power in subduing Saddam’s Iraq in a short time. If only that had been the case.
Instead the Iraq War has:
- Undermined US National Security by creating more incentives for global jihadists
- Lowered America’s standing and influence in the world from this poor decision
- Created a Civil War with over 100,000 Iraqis killed and 4,500 American troops killed.
- Increased American distrust with our government and the foreign policy we pursue.
What kind of country are our troops departing from this week? A country that still has trouble controlling violence and has reinstalled a large army that has increasingly gained power. A government that has been able to keep relatively good relations with the Obama Administration, but that will be recovering for years to rebuild its infrastructure. Most importantly, a country that will have more sway and influence from the Americans than ever before. In the goal of creating a state of American influence in the Mid East, we have been successful. It’s clear that American security contractors, “advisers” (troops), and oil companies will remain in Iraq long after this war is gone from the American media.
We as a generation growing up with this omnipresent war will forever be affected by it. For the 4,500 killed, 32,000 injured, and thousands more suffering PTSD the war has more impact than is explicable. I personally have been affected because I have 2 family members who have served multiple times at war in Iraq. They have thankfully returned safe, but the thought that an entire generation of Americans have been affected in some way by this war is mindblowing.
In interviews with Iraqis by the NY times this week, citizens were asked to reflect on the war now that the Americans were leaving. They nearly all had the same conclusion: that it was great to have Saddam gone, but they were glad the Americans were leaving because they had brought on nothing but violence, and in many ways, things are worse in Iraq now than they were under Saddam. Talk about an entire generation of people affected by war, the Iraqis lost an estimated 100,000 people to this war. A war they did not initiate, ask for, or necessarily needed. My hindsight asks what would have happened if the U.S. did not invade Iraq, and the Arab Spring would have reached Iraq. Would the citizens have risen up with Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, tunisia, and others? Would democracy have come through a people led revolution without a civil war initiated by a foreign power?
These are all questions that we’ll never know, but that future historians will look at and speculate: what if?
Well, that one got a bit wordy. Sorry for the verbosity, but this post required a great deal of thought and energized me to the extent that I forgot to put in all the jokes! Though I attempt to keep my posts unbiased, this one may have been tinged with a liberal bias, thanks to my Mom constantly berating the Bush administration and the war in general throughout my years in high school.
Thanks for reading again folks, and from all of us here at “What’s the Deal?” have a wonderful Christmas/other holiday!
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Stephen Kinzer
American Caesers: Lives of the US Presidents from FDR to George W Bush, Nigel Hamilton
Richard Holbrooke, Against All Enemies
Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward, 2004.
Hardy, Roger (2005-09-22). “The Iran-Iraq war: 25 years on”. BBC News. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
Black, George (July 1993) . Genocide in Iraq: the Anfal campaign against the Kurds / Western Asia Watch. New York • Washington • Los Angeles • London: Human Rights Watch.