Monday, 11 October 2010

Making a desolation


The BBC recently screened Secret Iraq, a two part documentary on the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the appalling aftermath. It was excellent, a standard of television journalism that the corporation often attempts to reach for but just as often fails to grasp. It covered the story from so many angles, some I was not fully aware of, even interviewing former insurgents and tribal chiefs.

If you were under the impression that it was General Petraeus and his vaunted surge that defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq forget it: it was the Iraqi people themselves. It was the Coalition, the political, tactical and strategic stupidity of George Bush and Tony Blair that was responsible for letting this monster out of the bottle in the first place.

In watching Secret Iraq I was reminded of a passage in Tacitus’ Agricola, the part where he puts defiance in the mouth of Calgacus, the tribal chief preparing his troops to meet the onward advance of the Roman army. You may recall it yourself;

But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desolation and call it peace.

Well, that’s exactly what the Coalition did in Iraq; they made a desolation and called it…I don’t know what they called it: freedom, democracy, were words that floated around, saying freedom where there is no freedom, democracy where there is no democracy, only terror of the worst kind, terror and murder. Tacitus is called to mind, so to is Shelly; for anyone watching this documentary truly did meet murder on the way.

I try to be objective about these events, about the death of Iraq; I try to bring all of my detachment and scholarly instincts to bear, with limited success, I freely confess. Yes, Saddam was a bad man, a monster; it would be deeply disingenuous to deny the point. But he was not Stalin, not Hitler; he wasn’t even Mussolini. He was just another petty Arab tyrant. Still, he served a purpose. In terms of simple realpolitik he brought stability to an unstable land. More than that, he was an effective counter to the regional ambitions of Iran, which has increased immeasurably in power since the invasion, a helpful by-product of the Bush-Blair Axis.

After the First World War, when the state of Iraq was in the process of formation, Gertrude Bell, a specialist in Arab affairs, in some ways a kind of female Lawrence of Arabia, gave a highly prescient warning of what would happen if the Western powers failed to pay proper attention to the region;

If Mesopotamia [Iraq] goes, Persia [Iran] goes inevitably…And the place which we leave empty will be occupied by seven devils a good deal worse than any which existed before we came.

The only criticism I have here is that she underestimated the number of devils. I’m sure Bush must have taken advice from historians and other specialists familiar with Iraqi culture, politics and history (surely he must?) I certainly know that Blair was briefed by a panel of experts, people who pointed out the sensitive political and religious balance in the country that might be seriously upset in the wake of invasion. Yes, he came, he listened…and he ignored them. Saddam was a ‘bad man’; that’s all that mattered.

In time the history of the Iraq Affair will be written, hopefully at a point when all passions are dead. I’m not the person to do this for I simply can’t think of an episode in all of military and political history as bad as the invasion of Iraq. The simple fact is the Coalition went into the country in shock and awe without any thought over what was to come. Destruction was the easy part; construction ever more elusive. It’s the simple-minded stupidity of Blair and Bush that infuriates me most: the people of Iraq hated Saddam so they would inevitably be grateful to us, even though we left them without power or water, in living conditions that were barely tolerable.

And then came Paul Bremer- remember him? – like a Roman proconsul, George Bush’s Pontius Pilate, a man with even less wit and sense than his emperor. He dismissed the Iraqi army; he dissolved the Ba’ath party, forces that might have provided some kind of workable framework for security and administration. It was a process of ‘de-Nazification’; the Ba’ath had to go, though in practice it was made up not of dedicated ideologues but people simply trying to advance their careers. And what came in their place? Nothing, that’s what, or rather an insurgency by the less than grateful, an insurgency which the President urged to be ‘brought on’, an insurgency that was to cost the lives of so many American and British soldiers.

It wasn’t just an insurgency, a rising by people who found the presence of coalition troops in their country intolerable. No, there was also a serious outbreak of sectarian violence between the Sunni minority and the Shia majority, a process which reduced the country steadily into a state of chaos, civil war, in all but name, a process that is estimated to have cost thousands of lives. It was during this time that al-Qaeda gained a foothold, foreigners invited to provide help and support to the Sunni community in and around Baghdad, people being murdered by a Shia-dominated police service, helpfully recruited under the auspices of the Coalition.

It was all a vast conspiracy, of course: the insurgency was being controlled by a ‘mastermind’, and that mastermind had to be Saddam, still in hiding. He was captured, a dishevelled, sad old man. Bremer rejoiced; the worst was over. The worst was just beginning. As one of the tribal chiefs interviewed said the insurgency had nothing to do with Saddam, and everything to do with the things the allies least expected – anger, pride and a complete lack of gratitude.

In the end Petraeus was only able to defeat al-Qaeda because the local people turned against them, sickened by their atrocities. American forces were supplemented by Iraqi auxiliary forces two-hundred thousand strong. But at least the Americans could pretend to a victory unlike the British in Basra, soldiers who were given an impossible task with ever diminishing resources, also the responsibility of Blair and Gordon Brown, his chancellor. There can be no mistake about this: the British retreat from Basra, in which control was handed over to murderous Shia militias, was a defeat, one of the worst in our history, almost as bad as the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. What followed for the people, especially the women, was a kind of hell, executions on a whim, atrocities on a notion. The fear was only lifted after Iraqi and American forces came down from the north.

Now, coming to the end, coming to the present day, the point was made that there is little hope and much fear in Iraq. A woman was asked what she thought of the country’s future. She shook her head for a long time, saying nothing. Looking thoughtful, she then said it’s hard to answer, very hard, because she has been living the bitterness of Iraq, that she has drunk the bitterness of Iraq, before, once again, lapsing back into silence, a deeply anguished expression on her face. A hundred thousand deaths later we made desolation...and we called it peace.

38 comments:

  1. What a beautifully written piece! Your sentence, "Still, he served a purpose. In terms of simple realpolitik he brought stability to an unstable land. More than that, he was an effective counter to the regional ambitions of Iran, which has increased immeasurably in power since the invasion, a helpful by-product of the Bush-Blair Axis", if for me the key point in all of this--one that Bush and Blair ignored like the idiot and megalomaniac they respectively are.

    Perhaps though we and this includes Maggie in 1990; perhaps we should have listened to Powell when he said, "The world is full of evil men engaged in doing evil things. That does not make us policemen to round them up nor judges to find them guilty and to sentence them. What is so special about the ruler of Iraq that we suddenly discover that we are to be his jailers and his judges? ... we as a nation have no interest in the existence or non-existence of Kuwait or, for that matter, Saudi Arabia as an independent state... I sometimes wonder if, when we shed our power, we omitted to shed our arrogance".

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  2. Demonization of the enemy to whip up support for war is S.O.P. in British history. E.g the "Leyendra Negra" in Elizabethan times, Gladstone's attacks on the Bashi Bazouks in Bulgaria, the "rape of Belgium" in WW1, ...

    American politicians have generally been even clumsier in their use of the method: "Remember the Maine".

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  3. Oil and zionists, The neo-con George Bush and sidekick Tony Blair totally wrecked the infrastructure of Iraq.They had no exit stategy or reconstruction policy ,they went in for corporate profit.They diverted attention from Afghanistan to Iraq while they still had public support from the 911 attack.George w. had a personal vendetta with Sadam as well.It is believed that Iraqi intellegence after gulf war 1 had devised an assasination plot for George the elder and wife in Kuwait.This did not happen but it upset George Jr.Haliburton and Blackwater etc, made a lot of money and their rich friends own a lot of stock.I suppose Tony Blair got a good piece of the pie as well.What good is a military idustrialized system with out war? People are a commodity and readily expendable.The zionist have a stanglehold on US foreign policy ( whether you believe this or not matters not ) but do you really think that they are going to let Iran reach full neuclear weapons potential?

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  4. Any guesses yet as to what the game was really about, Ana? My own view is that the Bush family have systematically silenced or destroyed their former allies after their usefulness has ended, from the 1960s on, and perhaps before. Why they should feel the need to, I do not know.

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  5. Thanks, Adam. In mentioning Maggie you are clearly referring to the first Gulf War which, as I know you know, I believe was absolutely justified. Thereafter Saddam was a caged beast. He should have been kept like that. Powell was absolutely wrong here. To have ignored Iraqi adventurism would have been to encourage further adventures, which would manifestly not have been in our interests.

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  6. Ana,
    Why is it our business if he attacked the sexist oligarchy of Kuwait or the wretched Saudis? It's nothing to do with our interests. Powell realised this.

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  7. Anthony, I'm in agreement with much of what you have said.

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  8. Ironically, Iraq in 1991 was far less of an oppressive place according to any liberal standards than Kuait or the horrible regime who have usurped the Hashamite regime who Allah has willed to rule Mecca.

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  9. Calvin, this is the gap in the equation: I simply don't understand the Bush motives. Was it really all about oil? It certainly had nothing to do with the 'war against terrorism.' In that particular battle Saddam could only have been perceived as an ally.

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  10. How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.

    Yes, what business was it out ours if Hitler decided to champion the German minority in the Sudetenland? :-) What business of ours was it to go to war for the Polish dictators? The point is, Adam, that Saddam was an unstable aggressor: Iran one day, Kuwait the next, Jordan the day after. The Gulf is a sensitive area, vital for the strategic interests of this country. We had to get involved; we had to stop Iraqi adventurism, no matter the composition of the governments of the lands he threatened. I repeat my observation: Powell was wrong.

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  11. Hitler's ambitions on Europe first of all knew no bounds and secondly would have encircled us. The middle-East was once all ruled by a single Ottoman hegemon. A single Iraqi hegemon would have been no worse--in fact much better than what we've got to-day. He may have also followed in Faisal's footsteps and made an Arab truce with Israel, thus ensuring peace in this unstable region.

    Even if not though--this far off place is not our business. In WWII were we are powerful country, in 1991 we were an insignificant country and America was a powerful but aggressive and idiotic country,.

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  12. Powell had a better grasp on what modern Britain was, modern Russia was and modern America was than any other observer of this period.

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  13. We only had the first part of that brilliant documentary screen last night on OZ TV.
    To me it felt like the Americans couldn't find weapons of mass destruction, and were lacking a real enemy when they arrived in Iraq.
    And just by doing what they did, they established one.
    Pity the innocent civilians that died in this senseless war. Also, the people of Iraq will never forget what the allied forces did to their country; neither did the Iranians, and look at their attitude towards the west today.

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  14. If we're going to talk about 1991, maybe we would have been better placed to talk about the 'adventures'of the tyrant Mugabe who brought disgrace to the Commonwealth which very much is in our interests. If there was any country to invade at that time it was Zimbabwe, not Iraq.

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  15. Adam, in 1938 most people took the view, including the Poles, who participated in the dissection of Czechoslovakia, that Hitler’s ambitions did have bounds, and certainly there were few who believed that he would push them as far as war. I’m not at all sure by what manner he would have ‘encircled’ us.

    In 1991 we knew exactly just how boundless Saddam’s regional ambitions were, and that he was prepared to use war in their pursuit. Mugabe was no threat to anyone but his own people.

    Look, I know for you that Saint Enoch is positively the last word on everything. Not for me, not by several miles. :-)

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  16. Can you honestly tell me with a straight face that there was even the remotest possibility of Saddam's armies landing 'neath the white cliffs of Dover and making slaves of us? There was no more chance of this than Hutu tribesman doing the same. Some times are simply too manifestly remote for us to be considered interested parties.

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  17. Mugabe was a threat to peace in the Commonwealth--this is a British interest.

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  18. Rainer, yes. Wait to you see the look on the woman's face towards the end of part two. What Blair and Bush did to that country is a terrible crime. I don't understand why people are not angrier. Can you get BBC iPlayer in OZ? If so you can watch the second part on that.

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  19. He is not by the way the last word for me--but he's vastly more correct than the grocer's daughter.

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  20. Adam, I wasn't aware that I made any such suggestion. My point again, with or without a straight face, is that Saddam's regional ambitions were a threat to the strategic interests of this country.

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  21. How though? Unless he was going to drop bombs over central London, I don't see how he represented any danger to us.

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  22. Sadaam played a significant role in the "Arms for Hostages" affair that led to Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, and, later, in the intrigue surrounding "Iran-Contra." You might care to seek out and read: "Spider's Web: Bush, Saddam, Thatcher and the Decade of Deceit" by Alan Friedman.

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  23. Because it was a threat to a vital economic lifeline.

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  24. Thanks, Calvin. Books, books, books; I think I may very well keep Amazon afloat by my business alone!

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  25. This simply isn't true. Oil wouldn't have been any more restricted on the world markets had he conquered those other wretched nations. Even if it were--others would have resolved this as the last time I checked, we are not the only country in the world that buys oil.

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  26. We saw just how vital in 1973. Saddam unleashed was a threat to stability of the whole region, not just to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, those 'wretched' nations, but to Jordan, to Israel and to Syria, the last of which was also part of the Grand Coalition of 1991. Adam, we shall just have to take a distance of mutual respect here because we will never agree.

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  27. After WW1 and the collapes of the Turkish empire THE Brittish and French divided the spoils.the current mid-east geopolitical boundries were set up by the Brittish . Palastine was flooded with displaced European Jews that revolted aginst the Brittish and took over .It seems that the Intervention by colonial nations leaves the world with unresolved disputes. Like Palastine ,Iraq-Quiat,India-Packistan,Korea,Much of Afrika.They are perfectly able to settle their own disputes as in ancient times.When the dust settles some conclusion will have been reached.Colonial nations including USA world police selectivly intervene in their own interests.Usually for Natural resources and strategic advantage over their competitors.

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  28. Yes, Ana I now see where you might disagree, nuclear not neuclear.

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  29. Have you wondered why the US never launched a major attack against Iran, in spite of provocations far more severe than those from Iraq?

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  30. Anthony, it's beyond dispute that a lot of today's problems stem from colonial and post-colonial carve ups.

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  31. First of all Jordan, Israel and Syria are not wretched nations and I've never called them this. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are.
    The oil embargo was led by every OPEC state and Saddam wasn't even President of Iraq till 1979, so what that's got to do with Saddam, I'm not sure.

    Syria joined in the 1991 for the same reason Italy switched sides in the Great War, they sought to gain advantage--they gained nothing.

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  32. I did not say that you did. The reference was to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

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  33. I did not say that the 1973 embargo was anything to do with Saddam. It was an illustration just how important this sensitive area is to the economic and strategic well-being of Britain.

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  34. Saddam would have been far more likely to(prior to 1991) participate positively in a peace conference over Israel than would the current hegemon in the reason--Iran.

    1973 was an attempt by OPEC to gain advantage from both sides in the Cold War. In 1973 the main buyers of oil were direct participants in the Cold War. To-day, many more nations are vastly more dependent on oil than they were in 1973. Whereas in 1973 OPEC felt they could play two sides against each other, a similar move to-day would simply mean a period of lost revenue and the equal ire of China, Russia, the UK, Germany, France and US.

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