Picture credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Remembering Iraq

We still feel the consequences of that disastrous war

Artillery Row

The years have not dulled the memories of that momentous month 20 years ago — when the Bush-Blair alliance had the United States and Britain invade another country. When two Western leaders declared war on an enemy of their choosing under false pretences. When they unleashed a tragedy that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, not to mention laying waste to a civilisation deemed the oldest in recorded history.

The memories abound. Of a US President who took the decision to send thousands of his own troops to their deaths, alongside the tens of thousands more who returned disabled for life, while assuring us that he never lost sleep over the decision. As a White House correspondent back then, you received regular updates on George Dubya Bush’s “rock-hard, deep belief in the justness of this war.”

Likewise, watching Tony Blair play loyal assistant to George Bush’s cowboy spawned any number of moments and soundbites that left you gasping as a correspondent. “I will be with you, whatever,” said the British PM in one letter after a crucial visit to the Bush farm in Crawford, Texas. The photocall that day on the ranch, I recall, left even Blair’s fans in the visiting press corps concluding that Tony thought George was his boss. 

Clearly, some felt, the two also shared a belief that God was on their side in removing the evil Saddah Hussein. Certainly Blair’s insistence (“it was the right thing to do … I’m afraid I believe in it”) echoed Bush’s evocation of the old Ronald Reagan maxim, that the United States still represented “the Shining City on the Hill,” in taking on Saddam Hussein and his Iraq.

However my own sense back then, and ever since, is that the Iraq war was born out of a much more cynical and superficially geo-strategic school of thought in the team around Bush at his White House. In the days after the devastating 9/11 attacks in 2001, we’d heard from the likes of his Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld, that the time had come to re-assert America’s standing as the world’s number one power.

Those two never lost an opportunity to brief us correspondents on where they stood, at times leaving you wondering about their state of mind, and the wider world’s stability. The memory bank goes back to a night after 9/11, with the invasion of Afghanistan underway, where Rumsfeld said: “we need to bomb something else, prove we’re big and strong, and that we won’t be pushed around by these kinds of attacks.” 

Likewise, Dick Cheney didn’t hesitate. Let us know what you really think, Mr Vice-President. He did. “We need to be able and willing to strike beyond Afghanistan,” that was the message relayed to us by his team. “We need to send the most powerful of messages to those who wonder where we stand.” 

Then factor in, you figured, the wish to secure Iraq’s oil. Dubya Bush was a failed oilman. Dick Cheney was a highly successful, erstwhile CEO of a major oil company. Saddam Hussein controlled a nation that was second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of reserves and potential, with vast swathes of Iraq not explored back then. The United States was the world’s largest net importer of oil, with its energy chiefs diagnosing a future dependent on such imports. 

In the press room, there was one further clinching, very personal argument behind the Iraq invasion. Dubya’s father, George Bush Senior, had walked away when he could have gone after Saddam in 1991, following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the first war in Iraq, which saw him defeated by the allies and pushed back to Baghdad. The sense of the son dealing with his father’s unfinished business was strong among us correspondents. 

As a result, the countdown to war, with the misleading, if not downright false intelligence saying that Iraq could hit London in 45 minutes with Weapons of Mass Destruction, Saddam cast as the capo de tutti capi of Terrorism, and the notion that the transatlantic alliance was bent on giving Iraq “democracy” — well, it had you thinking of Churchill: “truth should always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.” 

Certainly in the American ranks of the White House press corps, likewise at newspapers of record such as the New York Times, the prevailing mood amounted to acquiescent adoption of the Bush/Blair narrative. Stunning to consider it now, but a few weeks into the invasion, Dubya Bush (once a Vietnam-era pilot) flew a Navy fighter jet on to an aircraft carrier off California to celebrate “Mission Accomplished,” and no American outlet questioned such bravura. We Brits did, albeit cautiously — taking the mickey out of a man who dodged the Vietnam draft, as we wondered whether Iraq was Vietnam re-visited.

The truth was indeed accompanied by a platoon of lies

Only much later, with Baghdad, Fallujah and Karbala in flames, and US marines being blown up by road bombs, did US media correct the course of the narrative. In time, some even owned up to their faults — witness the New York Times publicly lamenting its own reporting of the false intelligence fed to the newspaper by Iraqi defectors opposed to Saddam. There was nothing Churchillian about the true agenda for going to war in Iraq. The truth was indeed accompanied by a platoon of lies.

Similarly, while Churchill had his disasters — think Gallipoli in World War One — it was hard to imagine wars as counterproductive as Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the past 20 years, Iraq has seen millions displaced, more than 250,000 people killed — and that’s a conservative number — and the emergence of Islamic State. Stuff happens, to quote Don Rumsfeld with another memorable, if awful abdication of responsibility back then. In the meantime, the Bush-Blair alliance spent a trillion dollars plus and ended up leaving the country in turmoil. What is Iraq’s biggest client for oil now? Asia — led by China.

From personal experience, as someone who then went to work for the United Nations Secretary-General, it’s clear as well that the UN’s decline, as the global voice of peace and security, started back then. My boss, Kofi Annan, was the most prominent world leader to condemn the Bush-Blair war, calling it “illegal … just wrong.” Let’s just say relations with Washington DC, which pays the lion’s share of the UN tab, have never been quite the same since. How we miss the UN as the go-to mediator now.

As we watch Putin’s Russia, with Xi Jinping’s China in tow, using the peace arena of the UN Security Council to defend the war in Ukraine, we might do well to ask who was right in Iraq? And who’s to blame for its many consequences? George Dubya Bush and Tony Blair still like to tell us they did the right thing. Yet those leaders of the Western alliance 20 years ago should surely ask themselves, as we watch what’s happening in Kiev, and Bakhmut, and Kherson, whether they set the stage for others to invade enemies of their choosing and say: stuff happens.

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