Wednesday, 2 July 2008

A slightly longer view

In Why Iraq Was Inevitable, historian Arthur Herman takes a look back at the Iraq war, and doesn’t just limit himself to the period of the current US presidency. 

In a February 17, 1998 speech at the Pentagon, Clinton focused on what in his State of the Union address a few weeks earlier he had called an “unholy axis” of rogue states and predatory powers threatening the world’s security. “There is no more clear example of this threat,” he asserted, “than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq,” and he added that the danger would grow many times worse if Saddam were able to realize his thoroughly documented ambition, going back decades and at one point close to accomplishment, of acquiring an arsenal of nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons. The United States, Clinton said, “simply cannot allow this to happen.”

Arthur Herman recounts the history of policy towards Iraq during the Clinton presidency: the failure of inspections, the failure of air strikes, the failure of sanctions, the failure of covert action, and the consequent examination of alternatives by the Clinton administration.

A plan for an actual land invasion of Iraq had been drawn up a few years earlier under the stewardship of Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was updated after Desert Fox. Although (Pollack writes) “no one thought the U.S. public would support such an invasion,” this was now beginning to seem the only option.

Concurring with this judgment was Scott Ritter, an American who had served on the UN’s weapons-inspection term and had become notorious for his aggressive approach to his job. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in late 1998, Ritter castigated the Clinton White House for failing to confront Saddam with the threat of invasion. This hardly endeared him to the President, but it did win him two warm allies in the Senate. One was the Republican John McCain. The other was the Democrat John Kerry, who outspokenly declared that since Saddam clearly intended “to build WMD’s no matter what the cost,” America “must be prepared to use force to achieve its goals.”

But nothing would happen in 1999. At the end of the year, the UN passed Resolution 1284—an effort to get Saddam to accept a new inspection regime, called UNMOVIC, in exchange for lifting sanctions on all goods for civilian use. Yet, weak as the resolution was, it led to a split in the Security Council, with four members—including France, Russia, and China—abstaining from the vote. That split would become permanent. By 2000, life at the Security Council would turn into a constant battle of wills, with the U.S. and Great Britain in one corner and Russia, France, Germany, and China in another. Although George W. Bush would later come to be blamed for wrecking the coalition that had fought the first Gulf war, the reality is otherwise: the wreck occurred three years before he became President.

It’s not an overlong article, but it packs in a lot more, about how the difficulties of the Kosovo campaign reinforced Clinton’s post-Somalia caution about military action, how the incoming Bush administration was similarly cautious, how the post September 11 reassessment of risk was common to both Democrats and Republicans, and why these risk assessments were not unfounded.

We now know, thanks to captured Iraqi documents, that American intelligence seriously underestimated the extent of Saddam’s ties with terrorist groups of all sorts. Throughout the 1990’s, it emerged, the Iraqi intelligence service had worked with Hamas, the Palestine Liberation Front, and Yasir Arafat’s private army (Force 17), and had given training to members of Islamic Jihad, the terrorist group that assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Saddam also collaborated with jihadists fighting the American presence in Somalia, including some who were members of al Qaeda. It may be that al Qaeda had no formal presence in Iraq itself, but the captured documents show that it did not need such a presence. Saddam was willing to work with any terrorists who targeted the United States and its allies, and he reached out to al-Qaeda-affiliated groups (and vice-versa) whenever the occasion warranted.

He recounts again what was known about Saddam and WMD, facts that stubbornly resist postwar attempts to trivialise them.

Operation Iraqi Freedom got under way on March 21, 2003. In October of that year, the Iraqi Survey Group (ISG) reported it was unable to find any of the WMD stockpiles that everyone believed were in Iraq. Still, what the group did find, in the words of its director David Kay, was “dozens of WMD-related program activities and significant amounts of equipment” that Saddam had concealed from Blix’s inspectors in 2002: proof, in other words, of Saddam’s clear material breach of Resolution 1441.

Of course, this was not the element of the ISG report that attracted the attention of the war’s critics. According to the New York Times, the ISG’s findings supported the view that Bush had “used dubious intelligence to justify his decision to go to war.” That was and is false.

While Kay and his ISG inspectors found no WMD’s, they did not say there had been none. To the contrary: “My view,” Kay stated, is that “Iraq indeed had WMD’s” and that smaller stocks still existed on Iraqi territory. Later he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that he had found evidence of some WMD’s having been moved to Syria before the war. A question mark hangs over that possibility to this day.

In testifying to the Senate, moreover, Kay asserted unequivocally that “the world is far safer with the disappearance and removal of Saddam Hussein,” adding that the upper echelons of the Iraqi regime had become divided into two factions: those willing to sell to the highest bidder whatever they knew about manufacturing WMD’s and those, including Saddam himself, willing to buy someone else’s know-how at equally high prices. Saddam’s FBI interrogations would confirm Kay’s analysis.

I highly recommend the article in its entirety.


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In the resulting comments at Harry’s Place, a commenter asked “Why was invasion seen as the only way to get rid of Saddam Hussein?” My response was in part:

I think the reason why invasion was seen as the only remaining option is that attempted coups had been defeated, and the sanctions regime was being undermined by major players internationally. An ideal alternative might have been a peaceful popular mass movement within Iraq, but given the suppression of the Shia uprising in ’91 and given the violent sectarian response to change displayed post-invasion I think it’s reasonable to assume that even had any popular movement been able to establish itself, it would have been met by extreme violence of the same kind.

The massive death toll post-invasion reinforces the argument that there was no alternative to the invasion.

Given that Saddam’s Fedayeen, who organised much of the initial insurgency, were formed as much to put down internal dissent as to fight an invasion, (according to this interview with Col. HR McMaster,) and given that the post-invasion sectarian civil war was a deliberate strategy by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who had been given sanctuary in Iraq prior to the invasion, and given that the vast majority of people targeted by the insurgency have been Iraqis, not Coalition troops, and given again Saddam’s previous brutal repression of internal dissent, I have a hard time imagining how any internal movement to overthrow the Baathists could possibly have escaped massive violence.

It’s possible to speculate that such a scenario might not have been as bad as what happened post-invasion, but it’s also possible to imagine that it might have been much worse, with surrounding countries less inhibited from intervening.

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