Main Content
The Hindu (India)
Saturday, March 29, 2008

In June 2003, I organised and chaired a discussion in the United Nations Secretariat on two books recently published by the U.N. University Press, one on democratisation in the Middle East, the other on the transition from civil conflict to civil society. The Iraq war ensured a good attendance. Afterwards, in an interview with a major international news organisation, we gave a timescale of a minimum of five years for American troops to remain in Iraq before the situation stabilised and security was restored. The interview was rejected by the journalist's editor because the esteemed academics, he said, were unduly pessimistic; Iraq was done and over. So much for the U.N. being naïve and unrealistic and academics living in ivory towers compared to journalists and diplomats.

Wars are cataclysmic events. Taking a country to war is among the most solemn responsibilities that a government has. It puts one's soldiers at risk of death and injury, asks them to kill complete strangers on government orders, kills many civilians caught in the crossfire, and the consequences are grave yet unpredictable.

The invasion of Iraq and the defeat of Saddam Hussein proved to be swift and decisive but the mission of a stable and democratic Iraq and Middle East remains unaccomplished. Far from enhancing, the Iraq War has damaged our collective capacity to fashion a robust response to the challenge of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. It has curtailed civil liberties, hardened sectarian divides, eroded America's moral standing and made the world less safe. The biggest strategic victor has been Iran paid for by American blood and treasure.

Once considered a normal condition of sovereign statehood, warfare has been so thoroughly stigmatised that the bar is extraordinarily high for aggressive war.

Among other tragic setbacks to international order and justice, the neocons succeeded in reversing the burden of proof. Opponents of war had to prove, to the warmongers' satisfaction, why war should not be waged or risk being tarred as wimps and peaceniks.

In 2003, no credible analyst thought Saddam Hussein was a threat to any other nation in the region or the world. Rather, the United States as the world's strongest power waged a war of aggression by calling it preventive defence. Saddam Hussein is gone, and the people of Iraq are freed of his tyranny - that is a decided public good. But this does not trump all other considerations. He may be gone but the death and disappearance squads are back on the streets with grimmer viciousness. Saddam's removal was a collateral benefit amid the carnage of destruction to the agreed principles and established institutions of world order. We cannot rejoice at the descent from the ideal of a world based on the rule of law to that of the law of the jungle - though I can see why the lion in the jungle welcomes such a change.

Iraq risked relegitimising wars of choice as an instrument of unilateral state policy. How are we going to prevent the proliferation of the unlawful and unjustified use of force? To argue that military victory bestows legitimacy is to say that might is right, and that ends justify the means: two longstanding Western taboos. It also begs the question: Will others politely accept the new U.S. imperial order, or will they begin to arm and align themselves so as not to become tomorrow's Iraq? Few will accept the doctrine that the administration of the day in Washington can decide who is to be which country's leader, and who is to be toppled. Nor is Washington famous for urging the abolition of the veto power of the P5 as an obstacle to effective U.N. decision-making. Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has wielded the veto most frequently.

Not only were claims to justify the war false; the balance sheet also must include the damage caused by the war. First, the casualties: 4000 U.S. soldiers killed and counting. An even greater moral cost than the risks to the lives of one's own soldiers is asking them to kill large numbers of others on the basis of false claims. Is the total casualty one hundred thousand, one million, fewer, or more? What precautions should be taken to ensure that a coalition of the willing does not become the coalition of the killing? But I forget: they are Iraqi dead, not worth counting.

The U.N. stands doubly damaged. Many say it failed the test of standing up to a tyrant who had brutalised his own people, terrorised his neighbours and thumbed his nose at the U.N. for 12 years. Many more say it failed to stand up to the superpower in defence of a country that had been defeated in war, ravaged by sanctions, disarmed and posed no threat to anyone else.

The U.N.-U.S. relationship was badly frayed. Yet they need each other in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Haiti and elsewhere. A completely pliant U.N. would indeed become irrelevant, even to the U.S.

Trans-Atlantic relations were damaged. When the major European nations objected that the case for war had not been proven beyond reasonable doubt, instead of dialogue they got bad-tempered insults. Robin Cook, who resigned from Tony Blair's Cabinet over the war, argued in 2004 that neoconservative ideologues "regard allies not as proof of diplomatic strength but as evidence of military weakness." If friends and allies are to be useful, they must avoid both slavish obedience and instinctive opposition; be prepared to support Washington when right despite intense international unpopularity; but be willing to say no to Washington when wrong, despite the risk of intense American irritation.

European unity was shaken. The characterisation of old and new Europe was, in fact, quite mistaken. Considering the past few centuries of European history, France and Germany standing together in resisting war is the new Europe of secular democracies and welfare states, built on peaceful relations embedded in continental institutions. The former Soviet satellites that sided with the U.S. represent the continuity from the old Europe built on balance of power policies that had led to the world wars.

The U.S. reputation as a responsible global power suffered a steep fall. U.S. soft power was eroded. The problem of U.S. credibility with the Islamic world is acute. Muslims are embittered, sullen and resentful of a perceived assault on Islam. After 9/11, instead of redoubling its traditional export of hope and optimism, America exported fear and anger and presented a very intense in-your-face attitude to the world.

The U.S.' credibility as a human rights champion suffered a calamitous collapse with the publication of photographs from Abu Ghraib. The abuses were not isolated incidents but reflected a systemic malaise. Washington is yet to regain the moral high ground lost with the pornography of torture.

Domestic American divisions have an edge that is disheartening for all well-wishers who recognise that the American role in world affairs as a great and virtuous power has been historically unique, essentially beneficial, generous to a fault, and both vital and necessary.

The military has been damaged as an institution in a manner reminiscent of Vietnam. Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold (retired) wrote in 2006 that the decision to invade Iraq "was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions - or bury the results ... a fundamentally flawed plan was executed for an invented war ... while pursuing the real enemy, al-Qaeda, became a secondary effort."

The credibility of the Anglo-U.S. media suffered a slow but steady erosion on their Iraq coverage. Media critics were held accountable for minor flaws and gaps in stories but officials whose spin, dissembling and incompetence caused large-scale deaths and killings in an unnecessary war got medals of freedom.

Iraq contributed to a dramatic narrowing of the humanitarian space for NGOs. When soldiers are viewed as foreign occupiers, NGOs operating under their umbrella share the opprobrium and risk attacks by insurgents, as happened in Afghanistan.

Distraction from war on terror

The net result of all this was a distraction from the war on terror. The administration indulged its idée fixe on Saddam Hussein at the cost of letting many of the real 9/11 culprits get away. For months, with the focus on Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden became Osama bin Forgotten while Washington was drawn into fighting a war on the terrorists' terms. The al-Qaeda and their fundamentalist fellow travellers were on the run, badly demoralised and universally stigmatised after 9/11 and the internationally supported war in Afghanistan. Iraq fragmented their enemies' military and political efforts, ensnared the U.S. in a sandy quagmire, regained sympathy to their cause and fresh recruits to their ranks, renewed their sense of mission and purpose, and generally turned a strategic setback into a fresh opportunity. A British diplomat got into trouble for speaking the truth to power when he said that George Bush proved to be the al-Qaeda's most effective recruiting sergeant.


About the Author

Ramesh Thakur, former CIGI Distinguished Fellow

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.