It was the best of wars. It was the worst of wars. But did the war in Iraq change anyone’s mind? Those who urged the war into being retain their conviction that it was right, as those who sought to prevent it maintain it was wrong. We, whether committed to war or to peace, must understand this: There was no war. There is no peace.
War requires two opposing forces to fight each other. In Iraq, only one army bothered. The other vanished. Operation Iraqi Freedom began with a failed attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein on March 20 and climaxed on April 9, with the felling not of the dictator but of one of his many statues in Baghdad. There are two things on which most of us, pro- and antiwar, should agree. The first is: It is good that Saddam Hussein is no longer president of Iraq. The second is: It is bad that the US military has taken thousands of Iraqi lives and now occupies Iraq.
Anyone in the antiwar camp who cannot see that Iraq without Saddam is a good thing for most Iraqis should abandon the public debate. But as fortunate as his disappearance must be for Iraqis, it should be a matter of indifference to the American people. Saddam Hussein never launched a war against them. His weapons of mass destruction, wherever they may have been, destroyed no American lives or homes. No one, outside the mental factories where propaganda is fabricated, believed Saddam threatened America or its people. The United States now governs another people without their approval, which is bad for Iraq, bad for America and bad for those parts of the world for which Operation Iraqi Freedom may provide, in the minds of our masters in Washington, a precedent.
Having spent almost three months in Iraq before, during and after the brief American invasion, I have returned to Europe to mull over the war-versus-peace arguments. A consequence of the occupation may be to confirm the United States as a global imperial power. Will America now rule by force of arms what it cannot control with threats, money and diplomacy? Iraq is not an isolated case, as America’s neoconservative rulers remind us. They are threatening Syria, Iran and other dissident states with similar attention. For the British, in whose path the United States is treading, Iraq was no isolated instance of nation-building. It was a small part of a grand strategy. Thomas Lyell, “Late of the Civil Administration…and District Magistrate, Baghdad,” wrote in 1923, “Though, as an isolated policy, our presence in Mesopotamia seems to involve a criminal and wanton extravagance, [it] justifies itself as part of the immense Problem of Empire. As the key to the future of our dominions, it will appear less futile and less fatuous to the ‘man in the street’, who, whatever else he may be, is an imperialist at heart.” (The British killed at least 9,000 Iraqis to suppress a rebellion against the British occupation.) Is the American man or woman in the street becoming an imperialist at heart?
America’s proconsul, Gen. Jay Garner, looked to his own career as a guide to running Iraq. He told the New York Times, “Start with Vietnam and the strategic hamlet concept.” That program, for which Garner worked in 1971 and 1972, displaced hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese peasants, burned their villages and corralled them into the kind of collective villages for which Saddam would be accused of war crimes against the Kurds in the 1980s. Garner, at least, did not cite that other notorious Vietnam War operation: the Phoenix Program, which assassinated many thousands of Vietnamese suspected of collaborating with the Vietcong.
At dawn the day before the Marines pulled down the Saddam statue shown on television, I was camping in the desert near Nasiriyah with some Iraqis who had dedicated their lives to overthrowing Saddam. They came close to success in 1991, until the United States permitted Saddam to deploy his helicopters to crush their rebellion. Now the Americans were taking Iraq for them. Some were grateful. Most had misgivings. We were drinking black tea outdoors when a former Iraqi soldier named Hamid talked about war. His family were Shiite Muslims from Basra, and he grew up in Baghdad. When he was only 14, he became a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war. He deserted the army during the war in Kuwait and later joined Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. He had gone to Qatar as the INC’s representative to the US coalition’s Central Command, believing in a role for Iraqis in the liberation of their country. Four days later, he left. “Before that,” Hamid said, “I distrusted the [American] politicians. They’re like politicians everywhere. But I trusted the military.” His trust in the US military vanished, along with his belief in the US invasion, because no American listened to any Iraqi voice. Washington was determined to run the invasion alone, as it would decide the fate of Iraq without what the White House calls “foreign interference.”
Hamid lamented the way the US military was treating the Iraqis, the lack of US help for Iraqi alternatives to Saddam’s loyalists on one side and the Islamic fundamentalists with their Iranian supporters on the other. The Iranians, meanwhile, were organizing the people. They were providing help and arms. They were waiting for America to stumble in the minefield of Iraqi tribal and sectarian politics. Hamid said, “I cannot believe I have fought all these years to turn my country over to Iran.”
The confusion in Iraq today leaves open another possibility: continued chaos and conflict among Iraq’s many factions, with American forces guarding the oilfields and the four airbases Washington says it intends to keep. It happened in Angola: While war raged, an army protected the Cabinda enclave’s oil. Production never stopped.