Lessons to be learnt from the Iraq War

The War was a serious setback for international law, the UN and world order, writes Falk.

Nouri al- Maliki
"Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki resembles the authoritarian style of Saddam Hussein more than the supposed constitutional liberal regime that the US pretends to leave behind," writes author [AP]

After a decade of combat, casualties, massive displacement, persisting violence, enhanced sectarian tension and violence between Shias and Sunnis, periodic suicide bombings and autocratic governance, a negative assessment of the Iraq War as a strategic move by the United States, the United Kingdom and a few of their secondary allies, including Japan, seems unavoidable. 

Not only the regionally destabilising outcome – including the blowback effect of perversely adding weight to Iran’s overall diplomatic influence – but the reputational costs in the Middle East associated with an imprudent, destructive and failed military intervention make the Iraq War the worst American foreign policy disaster since its defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s. 

Such geopolitical accounting does not even consider the damage to the United Nations and international law arising from an aggressive use of force in flagrant violation of the UN Charter, embarked upon without any legitimating authorisation as to the use of force by the Security Council. 

The UN hurt its image when it failed to reinforce its refusal to grant authorisation to the US and its coalition, despite great pressure from the US, to launch the attack. This post-attack failure was compounded by the fact that the UN lent support to the unlawful American-led occupation that followed. 

In other words, not only was the Iraq War a disaster from the perspective of American and British foreign policy and the peace and stability of the Middle East region, but it was also a serious setback for international law, the UN and world order. 

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the US was supposedly burdened by what policymakers came to call “the Vietnam Syndrome”. This was a Washington shorthand for the psychological inhibitions to engage in military interventions in the non-Western world due to the negative attitudes toward such imperial undertakings that were supposed to exist among the American public and in the government, especially among the military who were widely blamed for the outcome in Vietnam.

‘Vietnam Syndrome’

Many American militarists at the time complained that the Vietnam Syndrome was a combined result of an anti-war plot engineered by the liberal media and a response to an unpopular conscription or “draft” that required many middle class Americans to fight in a war that lacked popular support or a convincing strategic or legal rationale. 

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The flag-draped coffins of dead young Americans were shown on TV, leading defence hawks to contend somewhat ridiculously that “the war was lost in American living rooms”. The government made adjustments: the draft was abolished, reliance was henceforth placed on an all-volunteer professional military and renewed efforts were made to assure media support for subsequent military operations. 

President, George HW Bush told the world in 1991 immediately after the Gulf War was fought to reverse the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait that “we have finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome”. In effect, senior Bush was saying to the grand strategists in the White House and Pentagon that the role of American military power was again available for use around the world. 

What the Gulf War showed was that on a conventional battlefield, in this setting of a desert war, American military superiority would be decisive, and could produce a quick victory with minimal costs in American lives. This new militarist enthusiasm created the political base for recourse to the NATO War in 1999 to wrest Kosovo from Serb control. 

To ensure the avoidance of casualties, reliance was placed on air power, which took more time than expected, but further vindicated the war planners’ claim that the US could now fight and win “zero casualty wars”. In fact, there were no NATO combat deaths in the Kosovo War. 

More sophisticated American war planners understood that not all challenges to US interests around the world could be met with air power in the absence of ground combat. Increasingly, political violence involving geopolitical priorities took the form of transnational violence (as in the 9/11 attacks) or was situated within the boundaries of territorial states, and involved Western military intervention designed to crush societal forces of national resistance. 

The Bush presidency badly confused its new self-assurance about the conduct of battlefield international warfare and its old nemesis from Vietnam War days of counterinsurgency warfare, also known as low-intensity or asymmetric warfare. 

David Petraeus rose through the ranks of the American military by repackaging counterinsurgency warfare in a post-Vietnam format relying upon an approach developed by noted guerrilla war expert David Galula. Galula contended that in the Vietnam War the fatal mistake was made of supposing that such a war would be determined 80 percent by combat battles in the jungles and paddy fields with the remaining 20 percent devoted to the capture of the “hearts and minds” of the indigenous population. 

Galula argued that counterinsurgency wars could only be won if this formula was inverted. This meant that 80 percent of future US military interventions should be devoted to non-military aspects of societal well-being: restoring electricity, providing police protection for normal activity, building and staffing schools, improving sanitation and garbage removal, and providing health care and jobs. 

Afghanistan, and then Iraq, became the testing grounds for applying these nation-building lessons of Vietnam, only to reveal in the course of their lengthy, destructive and expensive failures that the wrong lessons had been learned. 

These conflicts were wars of national resistance, a continuation of the anti-colonial struggles against West-centric colonial domination. Regardless of whether the killing was complemented by sophisticated social and economic programmes, it still involved a pronounced and deadly challenge by foreign interests to the rights of self-determination that entailed killing Iraqi women and children, and violating their most basic rights through the unavoidably harsh mechanics of foreign occupation. 

It also proved impossible to disentangle the planned 80 percent from the 20 percent as the hostility of the Iraqi people to their supposed American liberators demonstrated over and over again, especially as many Iraqis on the side of the occupiers proved to be corrupt and brutal, sparking popular suspicion and intensifying internal polarisation. 

The truly “fatal mistake” made by Petraeus, Galula and all the counterinsurgency advocates who have followed this path, is the failure to recognise that when the American military and its allies attack and occupy a non-Western country – especially in the Islamic world – and start dividing, killing and policing its inhabitants, popular resistance will be mobilised.

This is precisely what happened in Iraq, and the suicide bombings to this day suggest that the ugly patterns of violence have not stopped even with the ending of America’s direct combat role. 

The US was guilty of a fundamental misunderstanding of the Iraq War displayed to the world when George W Bush theatrically declared on May 1, 2003, a wildly premature victory from the deck of an American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, with the notorious banner proclaiming “mission accomplished” plainly visible behind the podium as the sun sank over the Pacific Ocean. 

Bush revelled in this misunderstanding by assuming that the attack phase of the war was the whole war, forgetting about the more difficult and protracted occupation phase. The real Iraq War, rather than ending, was about to begin, that is, the violent internal struggle for the political future of the country, one made more difficult and protracted by the military presence of the US and its allies. 

This counterinsurgency sequel to occupation would not be decided on the kind of battlefield where arrayed military capabilities confront one another, but rather through a war of attrition waged by hit and run domestic Iraqi forces, abetted by foreign volunteers, opposed to the tactics of Washington. Such a war has a shadowy beginning and a still uncertain ending, and is often, as in Iraq, as it proved to be earlier in Vietnam, a quagmire for intervening powers. 

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Crime against peace

There are increasing reasons to believe that the current Iraqi leader, Maliki, resembles the authoritarian style of Saddam Hussein more than the supposed constitutional liberal regime that the US pretends to leave behind, and that the country is headed for continuing struggle, possibly even a disastrous civil war. 

The Iraq War was a war of aggression from its inception, being an unprovoked use of armed force against a sovereign state in a situation other than self-defence. The Nuremberg and Tokyo War Crimes Tribunals convened after World War II had declared such aggressive warfare to be a “crime against peace” and prosecuted and punished surviving political and military leaders of Germany and Japan as war criminals. 

We can ask why have George W Bush and Tony Blair not been investigated, indicted and prosecuted for their roles in planning and prosecuting the Iraq War. As folk singer Bob Dylan instructed us long ago, the answer is “blowin’ in the wind”, or in more straightforward language, the reasons for such impunity conferred upon the American and British leaders is a crude display of geopolitics – their countries were not defeated and occupied, their governments never surrendered, and such strategic failures (or successes) are exempted from legal scrutiny. 

These are the double standards that make international criminal justice more a matter of power politics than global justice. 

There is also the question of complicity of countries that supported the war with troop deployments, such as Japan, which dispatched 1,000 members of its self-defence units to Iraq in July 2003 to help with non-combat dimensions of the occupation. Such a role is a clear breach of international law and morality. 

It is also inconsistent with Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. It was coupled with Tokyo’s diplomatic support for the US/UK-led Iraq War from start to finish. Should such a record of involvement have any adverse consequences? 

It would seem that Japan might at least review the appropriateness of its complicit participation in a war of aggression, and how that diminishes the credibility of any Japanese claim to uphold the responsibilities of membership in the UN. At least, it provides the people of Japan with a moment for national soul-searching to think about what kind of world order will in the future best achieve peace, stability and human dignity. 

Are there lessons to be drawn from the Iraq War? I believe there are. The overwhelming lesson is that in this historical period interventions by the West in the non-West, especially when not authorised by the UN Security Council, can rarely succeed in attaining their stated goals. 

More broadly, counterinsurgency warfare involving a core encounter between Western invading and occupying forces and a national resistance movement will not be decided on the basis of hard power military superiority. But rather by the dynamics of self-determination associated with the party that has the more credible nationalist credentials, which include the will to persist in the struggle for as long as it takes, and the capacity to capture the high moral ground in the ongoing struggle for domestic and international public support. 

It is only when we witness the dismantling of many of America’s 700-plus acknowledged foreign military bases spread around the world, and see the end of repeated US military intervention globally, that we can have some hope that the correct lessons of the Iraq War are finally being learned. 

Until then, there will be further attempts by the US government to correct the tactical mistakes that it claims explain past failures in Iraq (and Afghanistan), and new interventions will undoubtedly be proposed in coming years, most probably leading to costly new failures, and further controversies as to “why?” we fought and why we lost. 

American leaders will remain unlikely to acknowledge that the most basic mistake is militarism itself, at least until challenged by robust anti-militarist political forces not currently on the political scene.     

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.