Iraqi school children (Photo by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

How were we so wrong?

The Iraq invasion was never more than folly

It is important that any analysis of the Iraq War, which was initiated twenty years ago this month, puts its victims first and foremost. This is not the anniversary of some kind of rhetorical game, or eccentric cultural phenomenon, but a series of events that affected countless people.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. Millions were made refugees. Thousands of American soldiers were killed, as well as almost two hundred British troops.

Christians in Iraq have been pushed dismayingly close to the edge of extinction. Numberless Iraqis are disabled or have been made orphans. Mental disorders are absolutely rife.

Indirect consequences were dramatic. Regional instability helped to inspire the Islamic state. Iran, far from being intimidated, was emboldened. Extraordinary amounts of Western resources and attention were focused on a little segment of the Middle East as China quietly prospered.

Supporting the invasion of Iraq was, in 2003, the sensible, moderate thing to do

Granted, we don’t know what would have happened if Saddam had stayed in power. A lot of people would have died anyway — for he was indeed a maniacal and bloodthirsty dictator. There would in all probability have been civil — and perhaps international — conflict regardless. Nonetheless, if I stormed into the house of a local thug, shot him, shot his wife, enraged his son enough to shoot at me and hit his daughter, then somehow ended up accidentally burning the house down, I could hardly say, “Well, it was a dangerous home to begin with. He might have burned it down himself.”

The excellent blogger Harry Hutton (and it isn’t often that you get a chance to say “excellent blogger”) once reflected on the fact that the invasion of Iraq had cost three trillion dollars. “If Bush had spent that $3,000,000,000,000 on shoes,” he pointed out:

No American child would ever have to wear the same pair of shoes more than once. Or he could have bought everyone in Iraq an Aston Martin. Those would be the actions of a madman, of course, yet still more sensible than what he actually did do.

Quite. Yet it is important to remember that supporting the invasion of Iraq was, in 2003, the sensible, moderate thing to do. 

It was not just the Republicans backing the war — most Democrats backed it as well. It was not just New Labour advocating for the conflict — most Conservatives backed it too. Almost all the major British newspapers supported it — including not just the Sun but the Times, the Telegraph, the Economist (though not, to their credit, the Mirror and the Guardian). 

I worry that if I had been a political commentator in 2003, I might have been swept up in the tide of elite opinion (I opposed the war, for what it’s worth, but I was 12). After all, no one knew what we have learned since 2003. Saddam did not have WMDs, but that was hardly obvious — even to opponents of the conflict. The war in Afghanistan had yet to really turn sour. Hussein was not just a brutal dictator, but an at least quasi-genocidal one who had launched disastrous invasions of Iran and Kuwait. Amongst the more prominent opponents of the invasion, in the UK, were unlovely figures like George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party. 

I can see, in other words, how the case for an invasion swam into the minds of right-wing and “decent left” commentators — cohering in shades of moral outrage and half-right contrarian cleverness (“actually, Iraq isn’t exactly peaceful as it is”, et cetera).

But. But. There is a difference between understanding how an argument could appeal to a biased and cognitively limited human being and affirming it as a good one. The fact remains that none of this should have led someone to believe that the war would be anything but catastrophic. What was supposed to happen when the central authority of a deeply sectarian and clannish Middle Eastern state was violently removed by a bunch of cocksure American opportunists

Scour the commentary of the time for a hard-nosed assessment of probable outcomes, and you will be disappointed. Christopher Hitchens said, “No matter how it comes out … I shall never have the least serious doubt that it was the right side to be on.” (Talk about tempting fate.) Nick Cohen claimed, “Most who have experienced state terror don’t start civil wars when it is removed” — a claim that one is able to assess with a quick look at the Wikipedia page “List of civil wars”.

The least that we can be is open to dissenting voices

American commentators were perhaps even more ebulliently reckless. Kenneth Adelman declared that the invasion of Iraq would be a “cakewalk”. He was not in fact mistaken in predicting that the removal of Saddam would be a simple business. What is astonishing is that his piece did not expend as much as a sentence on what would happen afterwards. It was somehow even sillier than making plans to climb Mount Everest without making plans for how to get back down again. Bill Kristol, whose think tank the Project for the New American Century had been amongst the first American institutions to campaign for invasion, said it would “be a two-month war, not an eight-year war”. American troops were in fact in Iraq for eight years.

Neoconservative cum Never Trumper Max Boot has written an essay for Foreign Affairs recanting his belief that liberal democracy can be aggressively exported. “As the saying goes,” Boot says, “when the facts change, I change my mind.” It is good to see Mr Boot expressing some contrition — but it is also worth observing that his faith was never built on “facts” and that he maintained it for the best part of two decades. “When the facts disprove my ideological assumptions, I eventually get around to acknowledging it” doesn’t sound as good.

How did people get it so wrong? It was because of sincerely held (if wrong) ideas about the world, of course, but not just that. It was because of the trauma of 9/11, of course, but not just that. It was because of cynicism, in some cases, but not just that. To some extent, I think, the cause gathered a momentum of its own — picking up size and speed as it rolled down the slick slope of the Anglo-American consciousness. 

We have to remember how wrong the Western establishment was about Iraq — how flagrantly, colourfully and shamelessly wrong. That doesn’t mean the Western establishment is always wrong. Plenty of commentators were dubious if not derisive about American arguments that Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine, for example, before Russia abruptly invaded. In general, taking an absolutist line on who is and is not correct is the mark of a simpleton or liar.

It can still be flagrantly, colourfully and shamelessly wrong — wrong, that is, not in the sense of taking the wrong path, but of veering off the path and rampaging into the forest. The least that we can be is open to dissenting voices — a principle which sounds farcically obvious, but which was widely overlooked in 2020 and is often neglected when it comes to Ukraine. We should also strive to think not just about the immediate consequences of the policies we favour, but about what could follow them. That can be difficult — though it can also be as simple as wondering how you are going to get down a mountain or what will replace a Middle-Eastern dictator.

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