Iraq and the Limits of Power


Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. He researches the interaction of power and ideas in the making of foreign and defence policy in the U.S. and U.K, and in shaping their conflicts. His book Blunder: Britain’s War in Iraq is published this week by Oxford University Press. The launch of Blunder will be held on 22 November 2018 at RUSI in London. Tickets are available here.

Mesopotamia has always been a vulnerable land. It is located at the cross-roads of jealous powers. Its flat, alluvial plains and lack of strong natural barriers invites predation from outsiders, whether borne on chariots or tanks. It has has long held prizes to be fought over. In the age of clashing city-states, it was the fertile bread-basket between two great rivers. It was later cursed by coveted oil reserves that still drive hard bargaining and fresh battles. During the bloody reign of Saddam Hussein, the Mussolini of the Gulf, external powers obsessively feared the despot’s ability to stamp his foot on the windpipe of the West, or turn petrodollars into apocalyptic weapons. The civil war that rages within the Islamic world also struck Iraq. The golden dome shrine of Samarra was a fateful target that helped ignite communal bloodletting. The Islamic State declared its caliphate from the medieval mosque of al-Nuri, later destroying it as Iraqi forces moved in. Iraq’s mix of confessions and ethnic groups, its past of sectarian bloodletting, the sharp lines drawn by empires, means that the state is always sniffing the wind for forces that would destroy the country. Too strong and potentially rich to ignore, too weak to deter assaults, it is a land steeped in “sorrow”, the late Fouad Ajami called it. Or, like ancient Thebes, a “dancing floor of war.”

Yet this same vulnerable, afflicted place has also exposed the limits of Western power. Conquerors – or self-styled liberators – projected extravagant dreams onto the country and its neighbourhood. They proved too confident in their capacity and knowledge, underestimating resistance, and the defiant ways of Iraqi politics.

For thirteen years, the focus of western fears, and confidence, and pride, was the abattoir regime headed by Saddam Hussein. In the summer of 1990 after misreading signals, Saddam attempted to swallow the neighbouring state of Kuwait. He refused to pull out, even in the face of Washington’s threats, the demands of the United Nations, a naval embargo and coordinated economic punishment. U.S. forces – with British help and that of an international coalition – then executed a military task close to best-case scenario, an enemy that presented itself in open ground where it could be found, fixed and annihilated. An instinctively cautious President George H.W. Bush and his advisors resisted the urge of America’s field commander to drive on to Baghdad. Yet they expanded their informal war aims as they hoped for a decisive termination and as the swiftness of victory put the wind at their back, openly hoping that the rapid expulsion and defeat of Saddam’s forces would lead to his overthrow. They assumed defeat would precipitate Saddam’s fall, whether by coup or through uprising that Washington encouraged from Iraqi Shia and Kurds, only to meet slaughter. Though his record of calculation was very mixed, Saddam in this hour proved a determined survivor.

Until they decided finally to settle accounts in 2003, Washington demanded Saddam’s complete capitulation, and often his fall, both in vain. Well before invasion, regime change had become official policy in the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. Even with the noose of economic sanctions, no-fly zones, periodic bombings, weapons inspections, incitements to revolt and a long, frustrated covert war by the CIA, the death-dealer from Tikrit was hard to dislodge. Inspectors were shocked at the extent of his nuclear programme. So the international community, led especially by Washington and London, also demanded the regime’s complete and final disarmament. Though he dismantled his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes, outwardly Saddam maintained an ambiguous and defiant pose. He refused on both counts – to fully cooperate, or to abdicate.

Sanctions damaged infrastructure but strengthened Saddam’s rule internally, as sanctions often do, and gifted his regime propaganda victories. Baghdad could falsely claim that sanctions were killing Iraqi infants en masse, ironically feeding the moral case for regime change down the track.

As for disarmament, US-UK demands were mutually at odds: demanding his removal, thereby signalling existential hostility, while at the same time demanding his cooperation. Shockingly, the regime was not relaxed enough to open the country for foreigners to comb it at will. Saddam ruled through studied paranoia, and such insecure regimes have strong reasons not to cooperate with intrusive inspections. As Vipin Narangargues, inspectors acquire information that threatens regime or state security, potentially acquiring detail on secret sites that disclose a target set, while “agreement monitoring reveals vulnerabilities to both international and domestic adversaries, which could threaten the very survival of the regime. Information about the leadership’s locations or means of physical protection could make them easier to target by either U.S. missiles or a domestic coup.”

Over the next twelve years, Saddam held on, to America’s frustration. Over this same period, though, a storm gathered against his regime. The west’s military arsenals grew more precise and sophisticated. Seemingly successful, low-cost interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and indeed in Kuwait, strengthened confidence that war could work. Doomsayers in 1991 had wrongly forecast that Operation Desert Storm – a limited war of expulsion- would be a Vietnam-like disaster in the Gulf, a misprediction that would, in turn, help ensure that prophets of disaster the next time would be Cassandras. And after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, policymakers were shocked at their own initial success in Afghanistan. Full of apprehension, in the autumn of 2001 they had struck into the “graveyard of empires”, with a potent mix of airpower, special forces, bribes and proxies, to scatter Al Qaeda and smash the Taliban. With the encouraging nudges of well-organised Iraqi exiles in Washington and London, a wounded yet increasingly bold superpower looked again at Baghdad, and saw a regime that was both an unacceptable threat and an easy target. “Sweep it all up”, Donald Rumsfeld’s note in the aftermath of 9/11 read. “Iraq can’t resist us”, declared Eliot Cohen, the military historian and public intellectual.

With success in Afghanistan in the background, in late November 2001 Paul Wolfowitz oversaw a secret advisory paper “Delta of Terrorism” written with the help of hawkish intellectuals, as Bob Woodward relates, that anticipated a two-generation war with radical Islam and called for the overthrow of Saddam’s Iraq in order to transform the Middle East out of its “malignancy.” This went beyond the assertion of material power, and called for a regional political transformation, to reverse what Wolfowitz called the ‘stagnation’ that produced “radicalism and breeds terrorism.” It required a benign domino wave of democratic and liberal reform. Other candidate targets were too difficult, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Iraq was more plausible. How and with what process this wave was supposed to occur was not clear – indeed, the visionaries were evasive on the point. Nonetheless, the paper had great influence on Bush. As it was not meant for wider consumption or public discussion, and was written fifteen months before the invasion of Iraq, it is hard to dismiss the paper as a public rhetorical posture.

In Whitehall, too, attention turned to Iraq. Aware of the signals coming from Washington, and apprehensive of Washington acting alone, Prime Minister Tony Blair, his counsellors, many security elites, and eventually the cabinet, most of the government and almost all the opposition, the Murdoch press and many of the quality journals, saw a strike on Iraq as desirable and do-able. More members of the British public quietly agreed that war could work, more than now care to remember. The vocal anti-war movement was prescient, like a stopped clock. Its facile slogan “not in my name” signalled a righteous concern for hand-washing that ensured its own irrelevance. Decision-makers in Whitehall were genuinely worried about Saddam’s weapons programme in a post-9/11 world, especially if sanctions broke down, and their minds were focussed by the particular threat scenario of a WMD transfer from Saddam to a terrorist group. Beyond this, though, like the Bush administration they identified a more systemic problem to be urgently addressed, and diagnosed the explosion of violence on 9/11 as the symptom of a dysfunctional Arab-Islamic world. WMD mattered, but the removal of Saddam was the “prize”, in Tony Blair’s words. The campaign, he hoped in a private letter to Bush, opened the way to constructing

the true post-cold war world order. Our ambition is big: to construct a global agenda around which we can unite the world; rather than dividing it into rival centres of power. So our fundamental goal is to spread our values of freedom, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law, but we need a broad based agenda capable of unifying the world, to get it. That’s why, though Iraq’s WMD is the immediate justification for action, ridding Iraq of Saddam is the real prize.

Blair believed – and Bush publicly and privately said similar things – that the road to a better world order lay through Baghdad. A wider transformation beckoned. The Head of Britain’s SIS, Richard Dearlove, advised that though difficult, the invasion would be a stride towards wider disarmament and it would alter mentalities, affecting a

climatic change in the psychology of regimes in the region, a precondition for progress in the Arab-Israel dispute; and revealing a further horizon of intention to address the regional issue of WMD. The problem of WMD is an element in driving for action against Iraq. In turn, this should open prospects for Arab-Israeli talks, and, beyond, regional work to reduce the WMD inventories which threaten Europe as well.

Besides these optimistic assumptions, a very British hope arose. Participation and the “blood price”, the Prime Minister and senior mandarins believed, would purchase influence. It would ensure the superpower- after suffering catastrophic urban terror -would not go off the rails and abandon the international system. It would tilt Washington towards the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Palestine, an abiding obsession of British statecraft and wider foreign policy argument, with Iran often an afterthought. Even civil servants who feared war might not work warned that failing in the final hour to bandwagon would damage British influence, even if the logic of their position meant that in times of disagreement, Britain dare not exercise the influence it husbanded. Hopes of high influence on critical policy decisions would also be disappointed, an episode that deserves a chapter of its own.

Iraqis – and other actors – also had a say. Despite the hawks’ air of triumphant finality, the fall of Saddam’s statue only weeks into the campaign marked not the end but just the beginning of conflict. For rational reasons, Sunnis were fearful of a shift to majority rule after years of B’aath oppression. Shias were fearful of the imposition of a new Saddam and the resumption of tyrannical minority rule. Kurds, so often betrayed, were fearful and suspicious of them all. Iraqis whose lives straddled ethnic, confessional and historic boundaries were caught dangerously in the middle. Under these conditions of security dilemma, invasion gifted them not liberty but anarchy. Iraqis were not ready to take part in American project for federalised capitalist democracy at the time and manner of the occupiers. To the contrary, regime change precipitated deep uncertainty followed by a deadly winner-takes-all logic of politics, given the divisions that were hardened by the B’aath era of divide-and-rule. To make matters worse, Iraq’s borders remained impossible to close against the flow of foreign jihadists and munitions. Iraq descended from terrible to worse, becoming a land of rampant criminality, beheadings, torture, and exodus.

Neither was there a “golden hour” in which the invaders could have translated the war in to a successful lasting peace on their terms. Six weeks before the now-infamous edicts of Lewis Paul Bremer III, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, that purged the army, and civil service, there was widespread looting of state buildings, not an omen of commitment to transcendent nationhood. Indeed, the subsequent purging was partly an Iraqi idea, and a long staple of Shia literature, that a post Saddam Iraq must be de-Baathified. The American regency in Baghdad was surprised that the implementation of Bremer’s order went beyond what even the most enthusiastic American nation-building ideologues wanted. There was no way out of this dilemma: to purge the old order was required to appease some powerful players, but to appease others a more minimal institutional impact would be needed. As soon as the US-led invasion kicked in the door, it had an appointment with strife. Even once the later “surge” depressed levels of violence and restored some stability, and even as General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker curbed some of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki worst sectarian excesses for a time, the Iraqi government took few actions to foster political reconciliation that the surge was supposed to enable.

As with the invasion, so too with the departure. Iraqi agency imposed itself. Consider the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by Bush and Maliki, a veteran of the revolutionary and former exile. The Bush Administration preferred that Iraq would consent to an indefinite presence of US bases. Iraqis, though, were determined to exercise the sovereignty that Operation Iraqi Freedom had, after all, conferred on them, and to do it their way. Maliki (along with Sadr and Iran) successfully put the clock on America’s presence in the country. After intrigue with Iran, he demanded American withdrawal, and on a timetable. The first, largest scale withdrawal was an Iraqi initiative: “The ambitious plans of the U.S. military to use Iraq to dominate the Middle East militarily and politically had been foiled by the very regime the United States had installed.”

In some quarters of Western debate, the fanciful notion persists that the US could have fashioned Iraq along its preferred lines of compliant, democratic capitalism, if only it applied a little more enthusiasm, given that 160,000 troops and billions of dollars were demonstrably not enough. But even the issue of whether to retain a residual US military force was defined by Iraqi politics. Iraqi politicians insisted on American forces not being protected by legal immunity from local prosecution. Such terms, for such a commitment, were unacceptable to the American Congress and White House, and certainly would have been a deal-breaker for any Republican president. The obstacle to any appreciable military presence, whether a division or a few thousand trainers, was that Iraqis overwhelmingly opposed it, and even more sympathetic Iraqi politicians recognised the risks of relaxing any demands for non-immunity. A continuing US presence was opposed by Sunni majorities as well as the Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose support was vital for Maliki’s ruling coalition.The allegation that a residual counter-terrorism force could have arrested the rise of the Islamic State reflects a similar conceit about western power. As former Ambassador James Jeffrey notes, “The Iraqi sectarian divides, which ISIS exploited, run deep and were not susceptible to permanent remedy by our troops at their height, let alone by 5,000 trainers under Iraqi restraints.”

Besides the issue of leaving a small force behind, the U.S. had helped create a new Iraqi army at the price of much effort and billions of dollars, one that refused to fight for the Shia ascendancy in Baghdad, enabling the subsequent onslaught of Islamic State. As it turned out, nation-building demanded much more than strengthening the technical capabilities to govern. It was about the ultimate political question- what was worth fighting and dying for.

Much of our debate still treats Iraqis (and others) as passive recipients of the foreigners’ gift, who needed to be better administered into a friendly client state. But without the atypical conditions that make successful occupations possible, breaking and remaking states is a dangerous gamble and often, a losing bet. These are not fundamentally questions of execution, administration and design. They are problems inherent in the radical act of overthrowing states and occupying countries. So long as we retain a managerial and colonial view of the problem, whereby the well-intentioned occupier delivers services to a biddable host population, we will continue to be shocked by foreseeable resistance and the politics of others. Such innocence is what makes the war in Iraq worse than a crime – a blunder, and not for the last time.

Image: U.S. Army (USA) M1A1 Abrams MBT and personnel from A Company Task Force 1st Battalion pose for a photo under the “Hands of Victory” in Ceremony Square, Baghdad, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Via wikimedia commons.

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