Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Operation “Iraqi Freedom”: Was it worth 4,000 American lives?

When he was elected president by means many believe were foul in 2000, George Bush had already decided to invade Iraq, before he had any thought of doing the same in Afghanistan. He, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were already busy working out a strategy to convince the country that they had to “finish” the job the elder Bush had failed to do a decade earlier. It was a matter of “family honor.”

That, of course, was removing Saddam Hussein from power once and for all. Hussein certainly wasn’t a “good” guy in the Middle East, but being a “bad” guy was all that uncommon either, given the disparate and often violent factions that made up a country’s demographics. Iraq certainly wasn’t the exception. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was broken apart and the various European colonial powers seized nominal control over its former territories. Iraq was never a “formal” country, but essentially a composite of the lands of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites created by the British out of considerations of oil and trade routes to India. All three hated each other, and the British who forced them together even more so. 

Unable to control the fighting between these three groups, the British brought in the nominal King of Syria, Faisal, to be king of Iraq. He and his successors would be either murdered or die under suspicious circumstances, and continued ethnic and religious instability would ensue until the secular and Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party took control, from which sprung Hussein. While it would be politically incorrect to “defend” the Hussein regime, keeping the country “together”—given the ethnic hatreds and differing levels of religious fanaticism—was virtually impossible without the use of force. One should be reminded that contrary to what the Bush administration claimed, Islamic extremism and terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda were anathema to the regime and were suppressed by whatever means “necessary.”

We have been told that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would lead to a “democratic” and “civilized” Iraq. That clearly has not happened. One reason why it did not was because the Shiite-dominated regime that replaced him badly misplayed its new power, refusing to share power with Sunnis out of a sense of revenge for past wrongs. Shiites were also insistent on forcing its version of Islam into the political, social and legislative fabric of the country. All this alienated Sunnis and Kurds from the start; they didn’t need much to start “hating” each other again—and killing each other in the hundreds of thousands all over again.

But more important was the fact that the Bush administration and the American public had no clue about the force of these divisions in Iraq, and that “liberal” democracy and Islam are simply not compatible (that economically the country is still in disarray has not helped either). Americans thought that if only the Shiites would be allowed a “say” in the running of the country, “normal” political debate would ensue. But instead of being the “oppressed” people, they turned out just like the oppressor. In the north, Kurds had always thought of themselves as an autonomous entity, apart from the state, the Sunnis, meanwhile, found themselves on the losing end of the equation, and it should be no surprise now that they found allies in Al-Qaeda and now the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It goes without saying that support for Syrian rebels also seems to have been a serious “mistake.” 

In the meantime, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is facing a disaster of his own making, with Kurdish and ISIS forces threatening to take control of oil fields in the north. Sunni extremists and its Al-Qaeda allies control most of central Iraq now, and claim as their own about two-thirds of the country as a whole. Iran now sees an “opportunity” to make its own play in Iraq, using the excuse of “protecting” Shiite holy sites. Things might have been different if al-Maliki had agreed to allow a nominal American supporting force in Iraq, whose presence would have given backbone to Sunni moderates against the various extremist and jihadist groups, but that time has long passed. The only real hammer the U.S. has over the current regime is to force it to seek a power-sharing scheme with Sunnis in return for any military assistance.

With Iraq unraveling, the question now is: Was it all worth it? Was it worth more than 4,000 American lives? Some of us did oppose the war from the start, especially since it was “sold” on fabricated “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist links. Its “success” was predicated on the continued U.S. presence to serve as a counterweight to the insurgents and extremists it had “inadvertently” unleashed. Since the U.S. pull-out in 2011, bombings, assassinations and killings have been a daily occurrence with no end in sight. This is a “country” that never really was, and never could be without a “strongman” who ran an "oppressive" regime to keep its disparate parts “together.” It seems inevitable now that Iraq will eventually break apart into three pieces, and U.S. interests (i.e. oil and influence) will be in far worse shape than they were before the Iraq war began.

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