Opinion | The Iraq War, a monumental blunder

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, are we doomed to repeat our mistakes?

Back in 2003, there was every good reason to take a look at the international community’s approach to Iraq. Not much had changed for a number of years. Ever since the Iraqi army had been driven out of Kuwait in 1991, the country had been the subject of some of the most comprehensive sanctions in world history.

During the 1990-91 Gulf War, Iraq was found to have had a large-scale programme to develop weapons of mass destruction. The point of the sanctions was to put a definitive end to the programme and to ensure that any existing stockpiles were destroyed. As the years passed, however, it became increasingly clear that, at least for Washington, the point of the sanctions was ultimately to topple the regime in Baghdad.

The sanctions, though, didn’t work out as planned. Saddam Hussein remained in power and constantly challenged the international community by seeking to avoid sanctions and deceive the UN weapons inspectors in their efforts to verify that his weapons of mass destruction were being destroyed.

Instead of their intended effect, the sanctions led to a widespread humanitarian disaster that, according to UN estimates, cost the lives of 500,000 Iraqi children before they reached the age of five. In that respect, there were plenty of good reasons to take a look at our approach to Iraq. In one of the darkest and least pleasant chapters of modern history, the West chose not to step in to prevent the humanitarian disaster from growing.

Iraq was, of course, permitted to sell its oil and purchase food and medicine with the proceeds, but everyone knew that the biggest beneficiaries of the Oil-for-Food programme were Western companies, shady Iraqi middle men and Saddam’s lackeys. As food and medicine grew increasingly scarce, the number of children who died grew, water became ever more polluted, poverty deepened, sickness spread and the death toll mounted.

In 2001, I travelled by bus from Baghdad to Basra. Everywhere along the route, people’s misery was plain to see. Right there where legend has it the Garden of Eden once grew, people were living wretched lives amid the rubbish.

The argument against stepping in to alleviate the situation by doing the only right thing and lifting the sanctions was that it would reward Saddam Hussein. The argument was repeated over and over again by Western leaders not just in London and Washington, but in Copenhagen as well. Meanwhile, children kept dying and Saddam Hussein remained firmly in power.

Our attitude towards Iraq changed only in the aftermath of a terrorist attack the country had nothing to do with. Instead of building support in the UN for military intervention to remove Saddam from power and bring an end to the sanctions, the international community came up with three arguments for starting a war in Iraq – all of which proved groundless.

Firstly, Iraq’s enormous stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and its willingness to use them were a threat to world peace. As the then PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it at that time, “This isn’t something we think, it is something we know.”

Secondly, Iraq was in league with al-Qaeda.

Thirdly, once Saddam was swept from power, democracy would spring up in his place, and Iraq would serve as an example for other Arabic countries.

Iraq, though, did not possess weapons of mass destruction. It had no connection to al-Qaeda and ten years after the country was invaded, it still is not a democracy.

In fact, there is still widespread risk of civil war between the Iranian-backed Shiite government in Baghdad – known for using whatever means available to hold on to power, including violence, terrorism and torture – the Sunni groups that justifiably feel marginalised, and the Iraqi Kurds who, in reality, would rather have their own state than submit to the rulers in Baghdad.

Compared with the situation in 2006 and 2007, the level of violence in Iraq has fallen. The country is safer, but over 4,000 people are still killed annually in acts of violence or terrorism. Al-Qaeda is now active in Iraq and has got involved in the Syrian conflict. Prime minister Nuri al-Malik continues to consolidate power and rules unchecked, answering neither to the legislature nor the courts. Many lawmakers are protected by their own bodyguards, who can also act as goon squads against opponents.

Instead of becoming a shining example for other Arab states, Iraq is, for some, an example of what not to do. For others, it is simply an enemy. Arab states in the Gulf see Iraq as a Shiite country allied with Iran. Iran, meanwhile, is probably the country that has gained the most from the fall of arch-enemy Saddam Hussein. Strategically, Iraq has been an utter blunder.

Iraq is a dark chapter in modern history. To begin with, we watched as a humanitarian disaster unfolded. Then, we started a war based on false arguments, without broad international support and without proper preparation. The results were a disaster for Iraq and the Iraqis, for the families that have lost loved ones in the war, and for an American economy still burdened by the billions of dollars spent on a war that primarily benefited Iran.

History, though, may be about to repeat itself. The leaders of the West are convinced that Iran is on the cusp of developing nuclear weapons, even though there is no evidence to support their claim (that’s not something we think, it’s something we know). We should have learned from Iraq’s tragic history, but did we? We’re still rushing headlong into wars in countries we know little about, such as Libya and Mali. Before you know it, we’ll also be going into Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen too.

The author is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, where he co-ordinates its Middle East programme.