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Destroying a Nation

Far from facing justice for their crimes, the perpetrators of the Iraq War are rehabilitated while anti-war voices are driven out of public life. There are fewer obvious signs of how broken Britain’s political system is.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

March 20th marks the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The ensuing war and occupation resulted in, in all likelihood, more than a million deaths and saw the Iraqi state smashed to smithereens. It sent shockwaves reverberating around the wider region, greatly strengthening the terrorism it professed to be combating. A month before the war, on February 15th, eight million people on five continents—1.5 million of them in London—took to the streets and marched against the coming invasion. They were ignored.

The intervening two decades have been much kinder to the architects and loyal cheerleaders of the war than they ought to have been. Though rightly reviled by the public at large, Tony Blair continues to be feted as an elder statesman by bourgeois media. George W. Bush, too, has been rehabilitated by American liberals as a fuzzy, aw-shucks anti-Trump conservative. Blair’s attack dog Alistair Campbell—he of ‘dodgy dossier’ infamy—has reinvented himself as a mental health advocate and avuncular daytime TV personality. Too many of the pundits who cheered on the carnage, meanwhile, continue to stink out the opinion sections of national newspapers.

Blair’s heirs have also once more cemented their grip on the Labour Party, even if they had to lie through their teeth—admittedly, something that comes naturally to them—in order to do so. Perversely, it is those who had the temerity to oppose the invasion of Iraq, and their allies, who are now condemned to life on the fringes. Labour MPs can no longer join Stop the War platforms or risk losing the Labour whip and with it, ultimately, their place on the green benches; a threat which has kept them in check very effectively.

The 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq comes at a time when militarism is once more running rampant. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been seized on as vindication by neoconservatives, who have enjoyed an unwelcome resurgence. Liberals—and, it must be said, some previously critical sections of the left—have likewise rediscovered their faith in the democratic virtues of US military power, or are at least clinging to it for fear of something worse.

Western leaders, including Gordon Brown, call for Vladimir Putin—a US ally, lest we forget, in the early years of the so-called War on Terror—to face trial for war crimes. (After two decades of inaction over Iraq, an International Criminal Court warrant for Putin’s arrest was issued on Friday.) But those who evaded justice for their war of aggression in Iraq—and the years of murderous sanctions and bombing that preceded it—can hardly cry foul when others follow their own example. Once more, we are reminded that only one rule matters in the ‘rules-based international order’: that is, what we say goes.

‘Coming to Power on a CIA Train’

The personal vilification of Saddam Hussein—though by no means entirely groundless—conveniently obscured his long history as an on-off client of US imperialism. According to historian Mark Curtis in his book Unpeople, his first contacts with the CIA came in the early 1960s, alongside other exiled Ba’ath Party cadres based in Cairo. In February 1963, the Ba’athists came to power for the first time in Baghdad after overthrowing Abd al-Karim Qasim, a left-leaning nationalist military leader in the Nasser mould. In doing so, they had enjoyed fulsome American and British support. 

Qasim had deposed Faisal II—a puppet ruler cultivated by the British—in 1958, but his cardinal sin in the eyes of the Western powers was that he sought to use Iraq’s immense oil wealth for the benefit of Iraqis themselves. He was executed and a list of thousands of people, among them socialists, communists and other dissidents, was provided to the Ba’athists by the CIA; around 5,000 of those on it were subsequently killed, with a young Saddam Hussein personally overseeing torture and executions.  As Ali Salih al-Sa’di, then secretary-general of the Ba’ath Party, later admitted: ‘We came to power on a CIA train.’ 

The Ba’athists were overthrown in November 1963, returned to power in 1968—again backed by the CIA—with Hussein himself seizing power in a palace coup in 1979. From then until the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, relations between the US and Saddam’s Iraq were generally congenial. Iraq had received generous support and weaponry from the Americans during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, which cost about a million lives on each side; the US had also provided Iraqi forces with assistance in targeting chemical weapons attacks during the conflict, even after the Halabja massacre of March 1988, when around 5,000 Kurds were gassed to death.

But Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait marked a breaking point in this hitherto mutually appreciative relationship. The existence of Kuwait as a separate entity, carved out by the British, had been a sore point for every Iraqi leader before Saddam, while Kuwait’s ruling family—the House of Sabah—was highly unpopular among their own people. Before invading, Hussein sounded out April Glaspie, then US ambassador to Baghdad, complaining that Kuwait had been drilling into Iraq’s Rumaila oil field and colluding with Saudi Arabia to undercut OPEC oil prices.

The response Saddam received was ambiguous enough to make him think he could get away with invading and annexing Kuwait without serious pushback from the US. This proved to be a colossal miscalculation. The Western powers were in agreement that Iraq could not be allowed to take Kuwait, which would have given it control over a fifth of global oil production. (It stretches credulity that Western leaders were genuinely outraged at the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, given the unquestioning US support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the Syrian Golan Heights.) This would have represented a major geopolitical threat to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, jeopardising the pro-US balance of power.

A crude campaign of atrocity propaganda was mounted to bolster support for war at home, including, most notoriously, fabricated claims that Iraqi soldiers had pulled sick Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and left them to die. Iraqi forces were driven out of Kuwait with minimal difficulty by the Americans, and a calculated hiding was inflicted on them in order to drive the point home that Saddam’s insubordination would not be tolerated. In February 1991, in the so-called ‘turkey shoot’, a retreating Iraqi convoy was bombed and strafed by US forces for more than 48 hours as it attempted to pull back to Basra. US Abrams tanks ploughed over Iraqi troops while they were still in their trenches, burying many of them alive. 

The sanctions that followed the war laid waste to Iraq’s welfare state, previously one of the most advanced in the region, with collapsing living standards and health outcomes. Denis Halliday, later the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, would estimate the death toll from sanctions at up to 1.5 million. Declassified Pentagon documents later revealed that US war planners had studied Iraq’s drinking water system before the bombing campaign began in January 1991; it was then deliberately targeted and sanctions designed to prevent the Iraqis from repairing it, a war crime under the Geneva conventions. The use of depleted uranium munitions caused a surge in cancer rates, while malnutrition also soared.

Nevertheless, Saddam Hussein himself remained in post. The Americans lacked a viable replacement for him and feared—presciently, as it would later turn out—becoming bogged down in a guerilla war should they attempt regime change, while their Arab clients in the Middle East also did not want Hussein deposed; as dictatorships themselves, they feared the potential repercussions. Sanctions thus crushed Iraq’s economy and destroyed its social fabric without materially weakening Saddam’s hold on power; on the contrary, it may have strengthened it by making the country’s people even more dependent on the regime for basic sustenance.

The Road to (Another) War

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, caused enormous loss of life, with nearly 3,000 people killed. Despite inflicting this carnage, al-Qaeda at no point posed any real threat whatsoever to US global pre-eminence. But George W. Bush and the neoconservative coterie with which he had surrounded himself seized on the shock, jingoism and hysteria that followed 9/11 to proceed with a radical remapping of the Middle East which had in fact been years in the making.

Despite the fact that the 9/11 attacks were committed mostly by Saudi Arabian nationals and bankrolled by Saudi Arabian supporters, the two countries in the crosshairs were Afghanistan—where al-Qaeda’s leadership had based itself—and Iraq. In addition, 9/11 was a form of blowback from the imperial policies of previous years, most notably the US arming of Afghan mujahideen, out of whose milieu al-Qaeda would later emerge, against the Soviet Union. Likewise, the rise of jihadism was also a product of the destruction of secular, socialist and nationalist alternatives in the Middle East and Asia during the Cold War.

Though the war was billed by the Bush administration as a ‘War on Terror’, al-Qaeda was soon relegated to secondary importance as the US government pursued long-held geopolitical goals. Uppermost among these was the buttressing of US hegemony in the Middle East and control over its enormous energy resources. The Bush administration desperately tried to convince the public that Saddam’s secular Ba’athist regime and al-Qaeda were in cahoots—in reality, they detested each other—but while many people in the US proved alarmingly willing to swallow this nonsense, few elsewhere were taken in.

The influence of Israeli Likudniks and their allies on Bush was also a non-negligible factor behind the march to war. Saddam had long been regarded by Israel as a thorn in its side—contradicting US policy, Israel had provided clandestine support to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War—and he had seen himself as a standard-bearer for pan-Arabism after Anwar al-Sadat’s Egypt joined the US camp in the late 1970s. The destruction of Iraq as an independent actor therefore held out the possibility of subjugating Palestine once and for all, imposing a final settlement on terms wholly favourable to Israel.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, regarded the US with starry-eyed wonder and wholly shared Washington’s perception of the benign nature of its own untrammeled power. He was, as he put it, prepared to pay a ‘blood price’—though, naturally, not with his own—to maintain the so-called ‘special relationship’. But Blair’s slavish adherence to US prerogatives was entirely consistent with that of earlier Labour governments, all unfailingly Atlanticist in their foreign policy; Blair is often unfavourably compared to Harold Wilson, who kept British troops out of Vietnam, but Wilson nonetheless backed the Americans in that war.

But manufacturing a convincing casus belli proved difficult for Bush and Blair. They alternated between three arguments for the war on Iraq: first, that Saddam was somehow complicit in 9/11 (he wasn’t); second, that he had or was about to obtain weapons of mass destruction (he didn’t, at least by the late 1990s); and third, that the real aim of the war was to overthrow Saddam and remake Iraq into a liberal democracy. The inconsistency, and the sharp veering from one argument to another, simply underlined the desperate weakness of the case for invading Iraq.

UN weapons inspectors sent to dig up evidence of WMDs came up empty-handed, unable to find anything incriminating despite the UN corps having previously been penetrated by the CIA in the 1990s. Hans von Sponeck visited alleged WMD sites in July 2002 and reported that they were “defunct and destroyed”. Bush and Blair were then forced to change their pretext on the hoof, all but abandoning their earlier claims that Iraq had WMDs and was capable of launching them within 45 minutes, instead insisting that the war was about democracy promotion and bringing down a dictator.

Such pretexts were, in any case, offered primarily for domestic political consumption had little to do with the real objectives of the invasion. The two main reasons for invading Iraq were to shore up US control over the Middle East—mopping up the remnants of Arab nationalism in the process—and Iraq’s copious oil reserves, in which France and Russia had already expressed a keen interest. Washington also had an eye on the balance of power in Europe, seeking to tilt it from what the Americans liked to call ‘old Europe’ (France and Germany) to ‘new Europe’ (Poland and the other post-2004 EU entrants in eastern Europe, all viewed as reliably pro-American).

Opposition from France and Germany had meant that the US and UK were unable to get the initial invasion of Iraq approved by the UN Security Council. But the strength of this opposition should not be overstated: divisions between ‘old Europe’ and the Atlanticist axis were soon papered over, as the fundamental interests uniting the two were never seriously jeopardised. Indeed, no sooner had the attack on Iraq began than Germany and France started agitating for a cut of the action themselves, in the form of lucrative reconstruction contracts.

‘Freedom’s Untidy’

John Newsinger observes in his study, British Counterinsurgency, that the attack on Iraq began two days earlier than scheduled, as the Americans believed they had an opportunity to kill Saddam Hussein straight away in an air strike. But the British, so proud of their ‘special relationship’ with Washington, only learned of this when it was reported on TV, while the Israelis were informed in advance over the phone; an indication, perhaps, of where the real ‘special relationship’ actually lies as far as the US is concerned.

After 12 years of war, sanctions and periodic US-UK bombing campaigns, the Iraqi military was in no fit state to mount a defence against the invaders. Many Iraqi soldiers, realising the futility of the situation, promptly deserted. But the Iraqi resistance that emerged succeeded in bogging the US down and forcing the Bush administration to rethink its plans to change the face of the Middle East. Had it not been for the Iraqi insurgency, the US would have likely expanded its war to Syria, Libya and possibly Iran in fairly short order; in the end, it would have to wait for the Arab Spring to clear up what remained of Arab nationalism.

Both Washington and London were convincted that they would be welcomed warmly as liberators by grateful Iraqis. Little forethought was given to the threat posed by the Iraqi resistance, Newsinger says, as it was simply assumed there wouldn’t be one. Rather, it was hoped the Iraqi middle class would ride to the rescue, providing a popular base for Iraqi liberal democracy and the radical neoliberal reconstruction the occupiers had in mind. One factor they failed to consider, however, was the resentment arising from the years of sanctions that preceded the invasion, with little appreciation of the suffering caused. 

But even the middle class in Iraq had been badly hollowed out by the years of sanctions and war inflicted on the country prior to 2003. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), imposed on Iraq by the occupiers, was intent on remoulding the Iraqi economy along free-market lines; hubristic young American neocon cadres, many fresh out of Ivy League colleges, were despatched to Iraq—a country they knew nothing about beyond what they’d read in the output of right-wing US think tanks—to rebuild its shattered economy and society. 

The general obliviousness of the occupying administration was encapsulated by the CPA’s decision, in May 2003, to bar Ba’ath Party members—amounting to more than 80,000 people, including doctors, teachers and civil servants—from public sector employment, in what was termed ‘De-Ba’athification’. CPA head L. Paul Bremer then proceeded to dissolve the Iraqi army (comprised of around 385,000 personnel) and the interior ministry, including police and other security bodies (employing more than 280,000). Bremer had been warned by the CIA that making so many people unemployed in one fell swoop would give the Iraqi resistance a huge pool of disaffected potential recruits, as indeed it did.

Looting swept the country. Precious artefacts, including thousands of rare artworks, books and manuscripts, were stolen to the apparent indifference of the US and UK governments. Geoff Hoon, then Britain’s defence secretary, stated that the Iraqi people were ‘liberating items from the regime’, while his US counterpart Donald Rumsfeld simply shrugged: ‘Freedom’s untidy.’ (The US had, however, taken care to guard the Iraqi oil ministry with tanks and snipers.) Hospitals, clinics, schools and government buildings were wrecked, leaving entire departments non-functional; so much copper was stolen that prices in regional markets fell. Around $12 billion—a third of Iraqi GDP—was looted. The descent into chaos only further alienated the Iraqi middle class on which the occupiers were pinning their hopes. 

The British and Americans had shared the belief that the whole operation would be quick and efficient, allowing them to make a reasonably quick and orderly exit. They were swiftly disabused of this notion. The indiscriminate response of US troops to the Iraqi insurgency, and the exposure of outrages such as the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, only deepened the people’s hatred of the occupiers. In November 2005, for example, five civilian men were shot by US marines while passing through Haditha, while a further 19 people living nearby—among them six children and a wheelchair-bound 76-year-old—were executed.

Only one of the perpetrators of this massacre was punished, and only then by being given a three-month suspended and demoted from the rank of sergeant to private. Following the murders at Haditha, the US upped its reliance on private military contractors both to make up for the undermanning of its occupation force and as a further way of avoiding the minimal accountability to which regular US troops were subjected. But these contractors were even less disciplined than ordinary US combat personnel and hence, if anything, their conduct was worse.

British troops made a point, Newsinger notes, of patrolling their areas—the southern provinces around Basra—in soft hats rather than helmets, a preening way of supposedly distinguishing themselves from the gung-ho approach of the Americans. But it was British soldiers, of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, who kicked and beat Baha Mousa—a hotel receptionist, one of 10 Iraqi prisoners taken in Basra in September 2003—before strangling him to death. Mousa had suffered 93 separate injuries while in British custody.

The British too, for all their pretensions of enlightened imperial gentility, were invariably loathed and detested by the people of Basra. When British troops quit the Abu Naji base in 2006, local residents tore the camp down in full view of al-Jazeera cameras, and by July 2007 British forces were losing one soldier every three days. By the end of their tenure in Basra, the British were forced to ask permission of local militiamen simply to enter the city, underlining the humiliating scale of their failure and defeat.

Lessons Unlearned

Looking back at the US regime-change operations in the Middle East over the last two decades—Iraq, Libya and Syria—all failed on their own publicly stated terms: namely, turning these countries into stable liberal democracies. But to judge these as failures purely on this basis alone would be credulous. From the standpoint of US imperialism, all three countries have been effectively eliminated as independent regional players; Assad remains in power in Damascus, but only presides over the rubble of a shattered country. Arab nationalism in the region—long despised by the US—has never been weaker.

US intervention in the Middle East (and in neighbouring Afghanistan) has brought in its train little more than chaos and warlordism. But again, this has its upside as far as Washington is concerned. In particular, it provides the US with an ongoing pretext and ample opportunity for continuing military intervention in the Middle East whenever it suits American interests. The US itself continues to station thousands of troops in Iraq—12 years after they were originally pulled out—against the will of the Iraqi people and the parliament the Americans themselves installed.

There are, nonetheless, some signs that US dominance in the Middle East may be beginning to weaken. The recent deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by China, indicates Beijing’s rising assertiveness both in the Middle East and on the global stage more broadly. (Whatever reservations one might have about China’s influence, it could hardly do more damage than decades of US hegemony have done in the region.) The US is no longer so focused on the Middle East, as Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia’—begun under Barack Obama and accelerated under Donald Trump—continues.

Joe Biden and the US government were also belatedly forced to accept reality in Afghanistan and pull troops out of the country in 2021. Its puppet regime in Kabul—lacking any firm base of popular support—collapsed in a heap thereafter, its president high-tailing it out of the country, allegedly with bags of cash under his arms. But there was little reflection on the failure of the 20-year occupation, or on the arrogant delusion of ‘nation-building’; on the contrary, in the House of Commons—always at its worst on these occasions—there were loud, wailing laments that troops weren’t staying put in Afghanistan indefinitely.

The American ‘pivot to Asia’ has ramped up the danger of direct great-power conflict. The sabre-rattling is predominantly one-way, with Washington continually stirring the pot over Taiwan—wondering aloud, almost wishfully, whether it will be the next Ukraine—signing the new AUKUS naval pact in the Pacific and acquiring more military bases in the region. The Biden administration presents the divide in global geopolitics as one between ‘democracies’ on one hand and ‘autocracies’ on the other; the danger with this simple-minded moralism is not only that it cannot but be applied selectively, but also that once this mindset takes hold it becomes almost impossible to reason with, and is a recipe for permanent escalation.

In Europe, US power—both of the soft and hard varieties—has been much strengthened over the last 20 years. The Ukraine war has greatly reinforced European dependence on Washington, both militarily and economically; the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines ensures that Europe will be left reliant on (more expensive) imports of liquefied natural gas from the US. A new generation of telegenic young centrist leaders, groomed by transatlantic NGOs, occupy key positions in European governments, all neoliberal to the bone marrow and ferociously supportive of US foreign policy. The European left remains too weak and divided to offer any alternative.

One sad irony, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, is that those who had the temerity to oppose the war now find themselves persona non grata in the Labour Party. Keir Starmer—whose absolute fealty to US imperial interests predates his entry into Parliament, as Oliver Eagleton has documented—has taken every opportunity to ostracise NATO’s small band of critics on the Labour benches. It was announced on the 20th anniversary of the February 2003 anti-war march that Jeremy Corbyn would not be allowed to run again as a Labour candidate. The irony will not have been lost on Blairites.

The masters of war around the world today remain as arrogant and belligerent as they were two decades ago. The new cold war between the US and China doesn’t just raise the dangers of nuclear conflagration, but further weakens the chances—already slim enough—of doing anything meaningful to avert climate catastrophe. The absence of a coherent internationalist peace movement today, with anti-war opinion divided among itself and having been bullied and browbeaten into silence, ought to be the cause of deep concern. This movement needs to be resurrected as a matter of great urgency.