Allow me to make one thing clear in advance: this post is written from the perspective of someone who strongly supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and still maintains the same position. I am not claiming to be entirely unbiased.
That said, I always accepted, then and now, that there were legitimate reasons against the war. As with every complex foreign policy decision, different alternatives were evaluated and genuine pro and contra arguments presented for each possibility. It is a natural, democratic process and one that should be welcomed because, if we take such far-reaching decisions that have a severe impact on our own people and others, we should make sure that all opinions are represented in the process of the debate.
I have great respect for many of the people who opposed the invasion right from the start, including family members and close friends, and also for those who, over the cause of the war, shifted their standpoint from a pro-war to a contra-war position like, for instance, Professor Norman Geras.
Yes, I even understand them in a way. There were moments when I myself had severe doubts over some aspects of the invasion, although I can say in all honesty that I never came close to the point where I felt that we got it completely wrong and should have left Iraq alone. I still believe the removal of Saddam was a moral and just cause and that the positive implications outbalance the negative ones.
In particular, I had issues with several of the US-led coalition’s post-war policies, like the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the De-Ba’athification. The greatest mistake, in my view, was the American exit policy. After the surge of 2007 under the leadership of General Petraeus, it was fair to say, for the first time, that we won the peace in Iraq. But when the Obama administration pulled out too quickly and over-hastily, the situation began to deteriorate again and that was the moment we once more lost the peace in Iraq.
This brings me back to my original point about the pro and contra arguments for the invasion. The greatest issue I have with the opposition to the war is that a significant part of the anti-war movement opposed the invasion not for the right but all the wrong reasons.
In fact, very few of those who marched on the streets of London 10 years ago, had previously spoken out against the intolerable cruelties committed by Saddam’s fascist regime against his own people. Unlike, for instance Tony Blair, who already spoke about the brutal and inhumane nature of Saddam’s rule in the 1990s, long before the Bush administration took office.
Too many of those who were protesting against the war were doing it because of their own, petty politics. As Nick Cohen pointed out, the anti-war movement united the worst elements of the Left – an amalgam of Marxist Leninists, George Galloway fanboys, and radical Islamists. Their motives were not so much rooted in the humanitarian tradition and a genuine concern for the Iraqi people, but were rather an expression of their deep-rooted anti-Western and anti-establishment sentiments.
Opposition to the war per se was a legitimate and moral position to hold. The tragedy is that the movement was hijacked by individuals with a highly suspicious agenda, who used it for their own ideological and political crusade against those who they despise.
The wellbeing of the Iraqi people was never really central to their cause.
What saddens me is that 10 years later we are basically still stuck in the same level of ignorance. Three points, in particular, are worth addressing.
First of all, as John Rentoul wrote the other day, the opinion of Iraqis is almost entirely absent from the debate, with the possible exception of the Kurds, whose position is rather well-known, as a result of a long history of suffering under Saddam’s regime. But we still know very little about the thoughts of average Iraqis. My prediction is that we would not find a clear cut set of opinion. Neither would the vast majority say that the war was a success, nor that the war was a total failure. Rather, I predict, we would get a variety of views with some arguing that, on balance, they are better off or, on balance, they are worse off. Furthermore, I would expect the result to be different now than, let’s say, three or four years ago. Ever since the pull-out of the Americans, the situation has deteriorated again and, at the moment, Iraq is also suffering not only from internal Shia-Sunni strife, but spill-over effects from the war in Syria. In recent months, we have seen a sharp increase in terrorist attacks, as Assad’s murderous campaign allowed al-Qaida to slip back into Iraq.
The second point is that the counter-argument is also almost entirely absent from the debate. While it is, of course, rested exclusively on hypotheses, it would be wrong not to take into account the scenario of Iraq still being ruled by Saddam and the implications entailed – a consideration made by Fraser Nelson.
And finally, it is quite tragic that we still cannot have a “moderate” debate about the war in Iraq in which both sides acknowledge that they got some things wrong and some things right. For people like myself that means to admit that, while, on balance, removing Saddam was the right thing to do, we got several things terribly wrong which led to chaos and bloodshed. It is important to learn the right lessons from Iraq, especially if we are going to advocate interventions in the future. At the same time, it is of critical importance not to overlearn the lessons of Iraq. Just because we did not get everything right, does not mean that intervention is always wrong and always causes more harm than good. Several examples, such as Sierra Leone and Kosovo, have proven the opposite. The Iraq war did not discredit the notion of liberal interventionism altogether and it would only be fair of those who opposed the war to acknowledge that we, too, had genuine and legitimate reasons to support the overthrow of a totalitarian, fascist regime.
Only when we start meeting in the middle and realise that Iraq was so much more than a clear cut case, a black and white, right and wrong decision, we can do the debate justice. Apparently, 10 years were not enough, as became clear during the event organised by Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan the other week. Maybe, we have to wait another 20 years and leave it to the historians to have an open-minded and intellectually rigorous discussion about the war. In the end, only the Iraqis themselves can determine whether the war was, after all, a success story. And that maybe is also a call too early to make.