Can Iraq ever recover from the legacy of 2003?

The seemingly unstoppable march of ISIS/ISIL (now the Islamic State, IS) through much of Iraq and some of Syria has quickly rekindled the vociferous debate surrounding the US-led invasion of 2003. While today’s crisis is the product of many factors, the war in Iraq and its subsequent management not only predestined this conflict, but foreclosed any potential for remedial Western intervention. The removal of Saddam Hussein from power was, in itself, no bad thing. Supplanting his dictatorship with democracy necessitated the destruction of Iraqi political institutions, and with them guaranteed a period of instability in which those with a talent for violence often seek the reins. Nevertheless, this period was initially well-managed by Western occupation forces and a newly selected and energetic Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. However, as Maliki grew into the job, the first worrisome signs emerged when, in February 2011, peaceful protests were fired upon by security forces in majority-Sunni areas – a worrying complicity between Iraq’s government and its vengeful Shiite majority. At about this time the consolidation of Iraq’s military into Maliki’s hands was nearing its zenith, and though his victories surprised Western diplomats, the fear was that loaned (and soon to be recalled) American assets were owed much of the credit. The election of 2010 was the final chance to remove Maliki, who suspected that a uninterested and withdrawal-bound America might leave him in the lurch. The court ruling that allowed the continuation of his tenure – despite the predominantly Sunni Iraqiya coalition winning a majority, and with full American support – was the last straw for Iraq’s Sunnis, who, with much forewarning, threw in their lot with the ISIS insurgency. With an American administration bereft of its democratic and mediatorial credentials and desperate to end “George Bush’s war”, nothing short of crisis could reasonably be expected. Though Syria’s instability was bound to transgress borders, this, above all else explains the evaporation of Iraq’s military and the unabated success of the Islamic State in Sunni-majority regions. Here, a trend as pervasive as it is harmful can be identified: the ideological fudging of US foreign policy. An earnest attempt to maintain international primacy, garner a positive image abroad, and appease a liberal-minded public, its jack-of-all-trades nature invariably degrades each. A stubborn and brutal autocrat is dethroned in the name of democracy, yet his Shiite aspirant overturns the constitution with full (if abstracted) US backing. Similarly in Syria – from whence Iraq’s present crisis erupted – an insurgency often indistinguishable from that of the Islamic State is readily armed and soon to be trained to topple the regime of Bashir al-Assad. The notion that weapons can be granted to some insurgents and withheld from others was proven absurd when Western arms lent to Libyan groups showed up in the hands of the Malian insurgency in 2012. In Iraq, there are already reports that IS fighters are returning to Syria with American weapons plundered from abandoned Iraqi bases. The fact that this programme is still readily deployed is testament to the kind of limited options an incoherent foreign policy is wont to supply. The news that 300 additional US troops are to be stationed in Baghdad and the heightened drone programme are not signs of dreaded “mission creep”, but symptoms of an embattled administration, resorting to the kinds of covert operations that will be neither accountable nor effective. As such, the potential results are almost exclusively dire. Should either the self-evidently nasty Assad regime or flagrantly corrupt Maliki government survive, it will be a victory for despotism gained through incalculable bloodshed. Should the insurgency prosper in either Syria or Iraq, similar bloodshed can be expected alongside a renewed (and well-stated) terrorist threat in Europe and America. Having toppled a brutal yet stable autocracy, then abetted Maliki’s disastrous attempt to rebuild it (thence the accession of a vengeful insurgency), the 2003 invasion faces one final indictment. Had the US and UK not invaded in 2003, exasperating their publics and Iraq’s alike by riding roughshod over all matters of legality and due process, a meaningful intervention against a genuine threat to the lives of Western citizens may yet have been viable.


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January 2022
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