Iraq 2003: Anatomy of a fiasco

Ten years ago this week my daily routine changed. I began setting my alarm for five o'clock each morning to write a diary of the war in Iraq.

The idea was to provide a short and sometimes opinionated review of each day's events – both military and political – and to have it ready and posted on the Guardian's website in time for people to read with their morning coffee.

Starting on Tuesday, I shall be re-posting the diary each day, here on the blog. It runs for 25 days, beginning with the vote for war in the British parliament and ending with the fall of Baghdad and the arrival of US tanks in Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit. 

I shall be re-posting it without any alterations and I'll leave readers to decide what to make of it (there will be an opportunity to post comments). 

Writing the diary was a task I embarked on with feelings of dismay. Though the war had been much talked about in advance, I was still surprised and shocked when it actually happened, because the official justifications for it had been so unconvincing. It seemed that President Bush had simply decided to have a war. Not only that. He had somehow persuaded Tony Blair to go along with it and democratic processes in the US and Britain had failed to prevent it.

Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly the nastiest Arab leader at the time but I felt the question of his removal was primarily one for the Iraqi people, not foreign powers. Also, the idea often touted in the US that removing Saddam by force would turn Iraq into a democratic "model" for the rest of the region seemed delusory. Even a cursory look at the ethnic, religious and tribal make-up of Iraq suggested that if anyone wanted to establish a model democracy in the Middle East, Iraq was definitely not the place to start.

Bush and the neocons

Bush's arrival at the White House in January 2001 brought a number of hardliners into positions of influence – neoconservatives who took an aggressive and militaristic view of America's role in the world, favoured a Cold War style of politics and tended to regard Islam and the Arab countries as a substitute for the old Soviet Union.

A prime example of this mentality was Richard Perle, a key adviser at the Pentagon. He had previously written a political thriller (appropriately called Hard Line) set in the days of the Cold War. Its hero was a male senior official at the Pentagon, working late into the night and battling almost single-handedly to rescue the US from liberal wimps at the state department who wanted to sign away America's nuclear deterrent in a disarmament deal with the Russians.

Perle also had links with the Israeli right. In 1996, together with Douglas Feith (another key figure in the Bush administration's Pentagon) and several others connected with American thinktanks, he had written an advisory paper for the Netanyahu government entitled "A clean break: a new strategy for securing the realm". Among other things, this advocated removing Saddam Hussein as a way of reshaping Israel's "strategic environment":

"Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions."

Perle was one of the leading figures in a fairly small network of neoconservatives pushing for war who eventually succeeded in hijacking American policy on Iraq. Another was Paul Wolfowitz who became Bush's Deputy Secretary of Defense. 

The neocon network was based mainly around a handful of thinktanks and advocacy groups – the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute, the Middle East Forum and the Project for the New American Century.

During the first few months of the Bush administration, however, the hardliners did not appear to have the upper hand. At the State Department, Colin Powell was pursuing a different track on Iraq, based around the rather nebulous idea of "smart" sanctions. 

The picture changed dramatically in September 2001 when al-Qaeda attacked New York and Washington, and Bush responded by declaring a War on Terror. This generated a climate of fear that brought the neocons into ascendancy and probably sealed Saddam's fate. 

The propaganda offensive

There was no connection at all between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, though that didn't stop the neocons and sections of the US media trying very hard to find one. The effect this had on public opinion was brought home to me early in 2003 while chatting to an American tourist – a Democratic voter with liberal views on most things who had nevertheless become convinced that Saddam was sheltering Bin Laden. When I pressed him, it became clear he had no evidence for this belief other than constant suggestion in the US media.

Even at the more serious end of the American media spectrum, the Washington Post and New York Times – supposedly sticklers for accuracy – published hyped-up scare stories about Iraq. The Washington Post, for example, ran an obviously flawed story under the heading "US suspects al-Qaeda got nerve agent from Iraqis". There was no evidence in the paper's 1,800-word report to suggest that the claim might be true, other than a quote from the Bush administration describing it as "credible".

At the New York Times, meanwhile, star reporter Judith Miller led the scaremongering about chemical and biological weapons that were supposedly in Iraq's possession. Miller's Wikipedia entry says "a number of stories she wrote while working for The New York Times later turned out to be inaccurate or simply false," – but that is misleading. It was clear at the time that many of her stories were rubbish, though editors at the NYT allowed her to carry on churning them out and failed to ask basic questions about her work until much later.

Besides influencing the Bush administration directly, the neocons also set about influencing public opinion – through their thinktanks – in favour of war: providing "expert" talking heads for American TV programmes, placing opinion articles in newspapers, and so on. (Perle, incidentally, was a director of Hollinger International – Conrad Black's media empire.) 

The neocons were entitled to their views, of course, but in the US media at the time they largely succeeded in drowning out other voices. Their privately-funded "institutes" had a quasi-academic appearance but, unlike universities, were driven by a specific agenda. Experts from the universities, however, scarcely got a look-in and the neocons even sought to portray some of them as politically suspect – for example, through Campus Watch.

Juan Cole, professor of history at Michigan University, argued that the attention given to the private "institutes" – by the media and government – was entirely disproportionate. Speaking in 2002, he pointed out that American universities had about 1,400 full-time faculty members specialising in the Middle East. Of those, an estimated 400-500 were experts on some aspect of contemporary politics in the region, but their views were rarely sought or heard.

"I see a parade of people from these institutes coming through as talking heads [on cable TV]. I very seldom see a professor from a university on those shows," he said. "The expertise on the Middle East that exists in the universities is not being utilised, even for basic information."

A tangle over sanctions

Following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the 1991 Gulf war that drove his forces out again, American and British policy towards Iraq became one of containment: keeping Saddam boxed-in, deterring him from further military adventures and, as far as possible, depriving him of the means to execute them.

The main instruments for this were UN sanctions and the no-fly zones imposed on northern and southern parts of Iraq. There was also a possibility that weakening Saddam in this way might encourage Iraqis to overthrow him, but that was only a slender hope and very much secondary to the goal of containment.

By 1999, the Britain and the US were sufficiently relaxed about the situation to offer a suspension of sanctions if Iraq agreed to a resumption of weapons inspections (Security Council Resolution 1284). This also held out the prospect of a permanent end to sanctions, assuming nothing untoward was found by the weapons inspectors.

Saddam suspected a trap and rejected it – which to me looked like a missed opportunity. Given a genuine effort on both sides to make Resolution 1284 work, it could have marked the start of a return to more normal relations. 

Personally, I doubted that Resolution 1284 was intended as a trap because at that stage Britain, the US and the rest of the Security Council would have been quite relieved to extricate themselves from the sanctions tangle. Apart from the harm that sanctions were causing to ordinary Iraqis (and the resulting political embarrassment), they were increasingly ineffective and difficult to maintain. 

In the light of that, Saddam's rejection of the resolution suggests he may have been calculating that sanctions would eventually collapse of their own accord, without further concessions from him – which in his eyes would have amounted to some sort of victory.

In the context of the subsequent war, though, Resolution 1284 is important for what it tells us about the changing positions of the US and Britain. At the time of the resolution, in 1999, both countries were prepared to consider lifting sanctions without any great fear of the consequences. And yet, by 2003, Saddam was deemed to pose an imminent threat which could only be dealt with by invading Iraq.

Looking at what had happened between 1999 and 2003, it was hard to find anything of significance done by Iraq that could account for the change. All the really important changes had happened in the United States.

Britain shifts position

Despite the growing problems with sanctions, the British government's view for a decade or so after the 1991 Gulf war was that, on the military front at least, Saddam had been contained. 

After the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada and the collapse of the Oslo peace process, the British government also regarded the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a more pressing matter than Iraq.

On that point Britain disagreed – for a while – with the Bush administration which saw Iraq as the top priority. Israel's propagandists had been at pains to highlight the supposed Iraqi threat and there were clearly some in the Bush camp who thought prioritising Iraq would be helpful to Israel (or, more specifically, the anti-Oslo Israeli hardliners).

The shift in Britain's position almost certainly came in April 2002 when prime minister Tony Blair visited Bush at his ranch in Texas and the two men spent long periods alone together. Exactly what transpired between them is still unknown but Blair seems to have agreed to war with Iraq in return for what he thought were American concessions on Israel/Palestine.

The deal, apparently, was that after Iraq had been dealt with Bush would formally back the Israel/Palestine "road map" drafted by the Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN) and push for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

Blair, perhaps overconfident of his capabilities at the stage, still had to sell war in Iraq to the British public – and the task proved more difficult than he expected. Amid widespread recognition that he was already committed to war, the subsequent efforts to construct acasus belli around weapons of mass destruction looked hollow (as, indeed, they later proved to be).

In an attempt to convince a sceptical public, the Blair government made its case by publishing a series of dossiers that were said to rely on secret intelligence sources. One of these, which became known as "The Dodgy Dossier", was widely mocked at the time because several of its pages had been plagiarised from academic articles on the internet.

Ten years ago this week, watching President Bush on TV announcing "the early stages" of military operations against "selective targets" in Iraq, I couldn't help wondering if he understood what he was getting into. I didn't doubt that the military forces ranged against Saddam were capable of removing him fairly quickly. The troubling question was: what then?

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 17 March 2013