The Iraq war: No clean break

US troops have now left Iraq, but the war’s ghosts will haunt the world for many years to come.

On December 18, 2011, the last convoy of US soldiers withdrew from Iraq [Reuters]

Wars never end. Troops pack up and leave. But the ghosts of war soldier on. They are too many in Iraq to exorcise with a mere declaration terminating the war.

The Iraq war that began in 2003 has many closets that neither the Americans nor the Iraqis can easily close – much less walk away from – without facing up to the ethical questions of a war that Obama deemed “dumb”. It would be more accurate to describe it as “illegal” and “wrong”.

“Dumb” is not a word that captures the pain of the devastated families across the world whose sons and daughters, more than 4,000 of whom are American, were lost in the Iraq war. While nobody can verify how many lives were lost with certainty, hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in Iraq. Such figures do not speak dumbness.

 US leaves behind an Iraq divided

They scream illegality and wrong-doing.

Nor can the masters of the current geo-strategic system provide acceptable reasoning as to why hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children had to die through the sanctions regime imposed in the 1990s. This is yet another closet, which has been shut with no attempt whatsoever to seek justice for the victims.  

Barack Obama presided over the end of the war in order to fulfill an electoral promise, not to right a wrong. It’s a “dumb” war, but one in which the result, he thinks, is positive and an astonishing achievement!

For whom? Not for the US economy: Close to $1.5tn was spent on the Bush administration’s war. Certainly not for Fallujah and other places plagued by the poisons of depleted uranium. And not for the abused inmates of Abu Ghraib, or the victims of the violence of the Blackwater security firm contracted by the US government, but for the US and Iraq governments-sponsored Sahawi militias, al-Qaeda, and innumerable sectarian and ethnic-based brigades and death squads.

A war for ‘democracy’

One needs to be a constructivist to understand the identity-based politics involved in the waging of the Iraq war. Democracy was integral to that identity and the “selling” of the Iraq war.

Democracy through the barrel of the gun is not convincing, just as the “election fetishism” since the invasion in Iraq is not impressive. It is an improvement on Saddam’s Baathist state. Nouri al-Maliki may have a degree of legitimacy, and the political system has a set of checks and balances never before instituted in Iraq. But Maliki is held back by sectarian affiliations, patronage and clientelism. Secrecy surrounds a web of liaisons tying Maliki and his top lieutenants to Tehran, Beirut, Damascus and of course, Washington.

Like his predecessors, Maliki is yet to construct the democratic showpiece the Americans and their allies pinned high hopes on when they invaded. Corruption is rife and the war led to misfortune for millions of Iraqis who today live with less comfort, well-being, and confidence about the future.

Meanwhile, no one can account for the disappearance of billions of US dollars from the Iraqi coffers – another closet that will not be easily shut.

The ethno-sectarian closet

The constitution approved in the 2005 referendum is a major gain, with a strong US imprint. The federal and parliamentary elements of the system is a plus, and so are the constitution’s safeguards against laws that stifle democracy and basic freedoms. Also, the formerly oppressed Kurds enjoy more autonomy than they had under the Baathist state.

The flip side of the Kurds’ relative success could be that the “demonstration effect” of their autonomy-based rule feeds into other Iraqi provinces’ appetite for greater distance from Baghdad. In the long run, Iraq may splinter into a few “Iraqs”.

This is a thesis already found in a genre of scholarship smacking of the old colonial carve-up mentality. But fractious tendencies abound at the expense of “centrist” political behaviour, complicating the career of the post-Baathist Iraqi state.

The state’s career will no doubt follow an itinerary different from the constitutional one crafted with American input. Religious and ethnic sectarianism will impede nation-building.

A formerly emasculated and oppressed Shiite polity has supervened its Sunni predecessor, but not without human rights abuses and exclusion of other groups. Furthermore, these practices have been wrongly drawn into permanent battlefield divisions with outside patronage, support, and dogmas.

Other states, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – and non-state actors such as al-Qaeda – are also involved in Iraq. The ethnic card, especially where Kurdistan is concerned, adds another regional dimension that chips into the integrity and sovereignty of the Iraqi state. Iran, Syria and Turkey will play different roles in the ethno-nationalist design of what kind of “Kurdistan” is to emerge – if they can help it, there will be no Kurdistan at all.

The ‘Condi’ closet

Condoleezza Rice, among others, speculated on the possibility of a 10-year sojourn for US troops in Iraq. Obama shaved off more than a year of that period.

Rice was fond of the Greater Middle East Initiative, a piece of failed political rhetoric. The plan was for Iraq to become a gateway for the promotion of democracy. Like the neo-cons, she thought that force was needed to carry out this plan.

The Americans invaded Iraq to kick out the ghost of Vietnam. What war will they now wage to bury the ghosts of Iraq?

American administrations can be so clueless. The democracy that they promoted in Iraq is today emerging in states that were not previously on their diplomatic radar: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, et cetera. Iraq is today an “electoral democracy”, if that. No more, no less.

Today, terrorism (which the US falsely sought to link to Saddam) threatens the country’s stability. Bombings and killings have not stopped, and the Green Zone is not a barometer of what happens in the rest of Iraq. There are no invasions that don’t cause lasting conflict and strained relations. These conflicts may in the future draw the Americans back to Iraq, and Iraq back to the US.

But these problems are not insoluble if the Iraqis commit to truth and reconciliation, transitional justice, participatory governance and national solidarity.  

The end of a war?

It is debatable why the Americans fought this war, why they fought a lost war, and why the world’s oldest democracy committed trillions of dollars that could have bought them Middle Eastern petroleum for decades and alleviated poverty and indebtedness. No one knows, and no doubt, this issue will be debated for years to come.

Why Obama is leaving now is not just a question of fulfilling a promise in time for next year’s presidential election. Realities on the grounds have made it imperative to leave: the global financial crisis, the killing of Saddam and bin Laden, the Arab Spring, and the rise of Islamism as the political future in the Middle East. These new realities necessitate diplomatic adjustment.

The Americans invaded Iraq to kick out the ghost of Vietnam. What war will they now wage to bury the ghosts of Iraq?

Regardless, the American people would definitely have been better off without this war. When the US engages the world through soft power, not hard power, their image, finances and security always fare better – it is win-win for all.

Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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