AN INEXCUSABLE BLUNDER, THAT VOTE FOR THE IRAQ WAR
by John Pedler, former British Diplomat, now a diplomatic consultant currently based in France.
We in the US and the UK got the Iraq war because of a failure of democracy. Both the Democrats in the United States’ Presidential system and the Conservatives in the UK’s parliamentary system failed in their duty as opposition parties.
In the US House of Representatives on 10 October 2002 81 Democrats voted with Republicans to authorise the use of US armed forces against Iraq. The result: 296-133. In the Senate the next day the Yeas had it 77 – 23. Senator McCain the presumptive Republican candidate for the presidency, and Senators Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Kerry all at one time Democratic candidates, voted yea. This despite a remarkable dissenting speech by Senator Byrd. It later emerged that not a few senators (notably including Mrs. Clinton) had not even read the secret papers on Iraq prepared for them in the senate library.
In the UK’s House of Commons on 18 March 2003 the vote authorising ‘the use of all means necessary to ensure Iraq’s disarmament’ passed 412 – 149. This despite an even more remarkable dissenting speech the previous day by Britain’s former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. Some allege that the new leader of the Conservative opposition, Iain Duncan Smith, had too readily believed Prime Minister Tony Blair’s private confidential briefing.
Only the Liberal Democrats voted as a party against the motion. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer – one man whose opposition to the invasion might have prevented the UK’s participation - voted for. So did today’s Conservative Opposition leader David Cameron, then a back bencher (albeit reluctantly).
The sole candidate with a prospect of political leadership in the US or the UK to have opposed the Iraq war is now, of course, Senator Barack Obama.
One searches the US and UK records in vain for a speech setting out the arguments against an invasion of Iraq without wide international support that we Cassandras were making. As is now becoming clear these were also being advanced by experts inside both the US and UK governments (e.g. see Ross Carne’s testimony after he had resigned from the UK’s Diplomatic Service).
Perhaps Brent Scowcroft, a key figure in Republican foreign policy, is the doyen of the Cassandras. An Air Force Lieut. General he was Military Assistant to President Nixon, later National Security Adviser to both President Ford and President H.W. Bush. In his op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal for 15 August 2002 he remarks ‘An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken.’ He warned that war on Iraq would be a diversion from the ‘war on terrorism’. This required wide international cooperation which risked being lost. Scowcroft advised there had first to be a resolution of the Israel/Palestine problem. An attack on Iraq could lead to destabilisation of the Arab regimes. Anti-terrorism (and so the campaign in Afghanistan) needed continued top priority. ‘A comprehensive perspective’ on the international consequences of an invasion of Iraq was essential.
On the Democrat side Leon Fuerth, Al Gore’s National Security Adviser during his Vice Presidency with whom I exchanged views, added to Scowcroft’s warnings the need to put North Korea before Iraq. His letter in the New York Times (4 January 2003) points out that ‘the outcome of the administration’s diplomacy is that America is preparing to fight a war with a country that might eventually acquire nuclear weapons, while another country is closing in on the ability to go into mass production’.
The senators, congressmen, and Members of Parliament all had greater access to the experts and the facts than did we outsiders. On this grave matter of war they all had the duty to probe thoroughly before casting their vote. Our unheeded warnings have, alas, all come true. (For my own claim to ‘Cassandraship’ see e.g. my letter to the Independent of 10 September 2002 beginning: ‘Isn’t a US attack on Iraq just what Osama bin Laden’s flagging plan requires?)
We Cassandras pointed out that 9/11 was not a ‘Pearl Habour’ – an attack to destroy a vital element of the adversary’s military power at the opening of hostilities – rather a ju jitsu ploy to provoke a wildly disproportionate response, so using the adversary’s own strength to bring about a fall. So President G.W. Bush’s carefully prepared and professionally executed invasion of Afghanistan with widespread international support (or at least tacit acceptance) had denied Al Qaeda the rash reaction it had expected.
Clearly what was required was continued top priority for cadres, finance, and forces to ensure Afghanistan’s stabilisation and reconstruction after decades of destruction (no easy task given that country’s history). This needed to be paralleled with a determined attempt to resolve the Palestine/Israel problem which provided Al Qaeda with so much of the Arab resentment on which it depended for support and recruits. For this, as 2002 ended, there had never been such widespread international support.
With the astonishing support that Robin Cook noted, the world was near to establishing the era of international cooperation that the end of the Cold War had made possible. World cooperation on international terrorism and wide support for ending the Israel/Palestine running sore on the international scene, could be harbingers for cooperation on other problems requiring international cooperation from North Korea to climate change.
But Vice President Cheney and the neo-conservatives placed in key positions in the G.W. Bush administration saw things differently. They were concerned to ensure US dominance in the 21st century – their ‘think tank’ was called The Project for a New American Century.
For them an invasion of Iraq would not be a diversion from the ‘War on Terror’ but a means of winning it. For it would:
1. overthrow a hated dictator, so winning kudos in the Middle East and among Human Rights activists.
2. eliminate such WMD as Iraq possessed – a warning to North Korea and others like Iran that might be tempted to acquire the bomb.
3. secure Iraq’s oil – especially important given doubts about the stability of Saudi Arabia, home of Bin Laden’s extremist Wahabism.
4. obtain permanent US bases in Iraq – denied by Saudi Arabia. So achieving US military dominance at the heart of the Middle East.
5. establish an American style democracy in Iraq, the success of which would be imitated, creating a New Middle East.
6. replace a hostile with a friendly Iraq, much improving Israel’s security and its bargaining position with the Palestinians, Syria and others.
7. demonstrate by ‘shock and awe’ to all the world US overwhelming military and economic might – its ability to go anywhere, pay any price, to ensure that the 21stwould indeed be an American Century – the key aim of the neo-conservatives
And added after 9/11:
8. To trump Al Qaeda in its Islamic heartland - effectively winning the ‘war on terror’ by ending its prestige and dashing its hopes of re-making the Middle East in its own extremist Wahabist image.
This beguiling scenario – though the administration stressed only 1. and 2. – could be deduced from neo-conservative writings and the remarks of those ‘embedded’ in the Pentagon and other parts of the administration. Only a handful of politicians challenged its assumptions though many experts in and out of government did.
First, they pointed out, hopes of this sort for the Iraq operation ignored the reality on the ground. Iraq is fissiparous – ethnic Kurds, Arabs etc.; religious Shi’ites, Sunnis, and others (including Christians). The history of British rule after creating this artificial country following World War I suggested that only a firm leader could hold it together. So a strong occupation force and a firm interim administration would be essential to prevent chaotic collapse.
General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the US Army during the run up to war, famously told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that “something of the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would probably be needed for this purpose. After Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz (a leading neo-conservative) pooh poohed this, Shinseki’s testimony was ignored. Yet already in the summer of 2002 the British government had itself expressed much concern at the lack of planning for an occupation.
Second, both Bush and Blair had to present a cheap quick war in order to get the political approvals they needed. That meant adopting the Rumsfeld lite force, and claiming that the whole operation would cost only $50-100bn. The Shinseki alternative involved a far bigger, far more expensive operation – probably impossible given the commitment in Afghanistan.
Let us list the principal arguments put forward against the war:
1. After the Cold War, the US had begun leading towards a new era of international cooperation to deal with the grave issues all humanity now faces. But a virtually unilateral invasion by the US would split Europe, NATO and the UN. Russia, China and others including Middle East countries, were against a unipolar world. This would be magnified by a US attempt to dominate of the Middle East. Worsening relations with all of them could well result, wrecking hopes for international cooperation. .
2. America’s unfinished business in Afghanistan would lose its top priority and risk losing too, the remarkable international support needed quickly to rebuild the country and ensure against the possibility of a Taliban return. With Al Qaeda’s move to the tribal areas of Pakistan, which had formerly supported the Taliban and Al Qaeda, great care would be needed to ensure Pakistan’s own stability and help General Musharraf to justify, thanks to positive results in Afghanistan, the pro-American stance he took after 9/11. The invasion of a second Muslim country would make this more difficult. It would be ‘self-sabotage’ once again to downgrade Afghanistan as America did after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal. That resulted in the Taliban and the bases it provided for Al Qaeda.
3. The resolution of the Palestine/Israel problem, which should have had top priority, would be further delayed, to the advantage of extremists including al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas etc. - all the more militant following an occupation of Iraq.
4. The invasion would put US forces to the west as well as to the east of Iran. That would all but certainly end the initial cooperation Iran had shown over the ousting of the Taliban, its enemy too. Naming Iran part of an Axis of Evil in January 2002 had already set back the gradual progress of the ‘reformists’ and a reassertion of the ‘hard liners’. A hostile Iran would bode ill for the occupation of Iraq. And perhaps encourage it to push harder for nuclear capability.
5. The plan to ‘democratise’ occupied Iraq and later the Middle East would be fraught with difficulty as the State Department had warned. The Middle East potentates supported by the US would be threatened by democratisation brought by force. That could lead to ‘Islamists’ coming to the fore with ‘one man, one vote, one time’. This risk would be reduced with a just resolution of the Palestine situation.
6. It was likely that nothing would help Al Qaeda so much as an unapproved invasion of Iraq. Indeed Al Qaeda must have been aware of the persistent calls for an invasion of Iraq since the ‘90s by the neo-conservatives now in high positions in the Bush administration. Vice President Cheney was a signatory to the Project for a New American Century and its call for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. So it is quite possible that the violent over-reaction bin Laden had counted on with 9/11 (but had so far failed to achieve) was a US invasion removing Saddam’s brutal repression of extremist Islam (including Al Qaeda) and of Iranian revolutionary influence. Without Saddam doing America’s work for it, there could be a second front for Al Qaeda on its Mid-East homeland - not to take over Iraq but to create maximum chaos in the neighbour of Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda’s target for regime change.
7. Those of us who were in Vietnam during that war warned of a return of the ‘Vietnam syndrome‘. Excessive force – particularly of airpower - had turned virtually the entire population of South Vietnam against the Americans. Were the US driven to use violent repression in Iraq provoking a widespread reaction, it could once again find itself with no support and no exit strategy.
8. Clash of Civilisations. Coming on top of the ideological war against Al Qaeda’s introduction of international Islamic terrorism, the unauthorised invasion of a second Muslim country – which many opponents were already presenting as a naked bid for Iraq’s oil – would greatly increase widespread suspicion that the US aimed to dominate the Middle East and dilute its Islamic culture with its own. These suspicions would be likely to spread rapidly across the Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia - and into the large Muslim immigrant communities in Europe.
9. The century of the Pax Britannica from 1815 to 1914 held with remarkable success because of Britain’s ‘fleet in being’. America’s armed power ‘in being’ had held a fraught situation throughout the Cold War and into our new era. But a major commitment of US forces simultaneously in both Afghanistan and Iraq risked over-stretch militarily and financially – the very opposite of the ‘shock and awe’ intended. The limits of American power and finance would then be revealed to all.
Every one of these arguments against the Iraq war (and there are more) were public knowledge in 2002 and advanced by experts. It is all but incredible that politicians almost to a man (and woman) failed to examine them, discuss them, and weigh them before voting to authorise war.
There are no excuses for those opposition politicians who did – ‘we couldn’t get the facts’, ‘we were deceived by Bush and Blair’, etc. Democracy fails when the opposition fails properly to scrutinise government policies and proposals. In the case of Iraq this failure has led to much public cynicism and loss of trust in our US and UK democratic systems.
In sum, the vote for war was a blunder which could and should readily have been avoided. The judgment of any politician who voted for war yet now claims to be strong on security and international affairs, cannot summon the international confidence and respect essential to lead along the rocky road towards cooperation and away from confrontation. This includes Messrs Brown, Cameron, and Miliband in the UK and Senators Clinton, Edwards, Kerry, and McCain in the US. Britain has no leader in sight who is not burdened an error that he can neither deny nor excuse. The US has one who just might – Senator Obama.
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