Posted by on March 21, 2013 in Blog

This March has been witness to a string of anniversaries of momentous Middle East events, some over a decade old, but all still deeply meaningful to the current state and trajectory of the Arab world.

Last week was the 2 year anniversary of the Syrian uprising, an ever-bloodier conflict that few had expected to see when the first peaceful demonstrations began in Dara’a. It also marked the start of a third year of the uprising in Bahrain, which has gone all-but-unnoticed in the West.

It was also the 10-year anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie, the American human rights activist who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting home demolitions in Gaza.

Just yesterday, we marked the 10 year anniversary of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

By almost any measure, the war in Iraq was a devastating failure. It collapsed the foundations of the Iraqi state along with the ouster of its rulers, engendered unprecedented global ill will, provided a training opportunity and launching ground for Islamist extremists, and produced a civil war which claimed at least 100,000 lives.

Important lessons were learned from the failed attempt at US intervention. Military fatigue has largely served to prevent another large-scale nation-building effort, and the blowback from having US troops on the ground – both in terms of American casualties and global anger – have forced policymakers to take a more cautious approach to regional developments, even in this period of unprecedented change.

However, these lessons have been only selectively applied, and other more fundamental realizations have been slow to materialize.

For one, the architects of the Iraq War have been remarkably unwilling to acknowledge the error of their logic.

For example, former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, who famously predicted that the war would last “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that," sent the following tweet:

“10 yrs ago began the long, difficult work of liberating 25 mil Iraqis. All who played a role in history deserve our respect & appreciation.”

It was met with a barrage of condemnation and mockery across the internet, but his was hardly the only comment of its kind.

Some tried to tie the attack on Iraq to the indigenous uprisings of the past two years. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in an interview this week that without a Western invasion, Iraq today “would look a lot more like Syria, and probably a lot worse than Syria.”

But perhaps the most flagrantly upsetting statements came from those who tried to use the Iraq War as a model for a future attack on Iran.

With remarkably recursive logic, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wrote an op-ed boasting about his early realization that the “Iraqi threat” was grossly exaggerated, but argued that “this week’s anniversary is a time to draw the lessons learned from Iraq so that we can avoid repeating past mistakes as we confront a real proliferation challenge in the Middle East: the nuclear threat from Iran.”

Like Menendez’s piece, much of the rhetoric around Iran has borrowed heavily from the Iraq War discourse. The underlying line of reasoning is practically identical: The country is an enemy of the United States, as evidenced by their bombastic anti-US rhetoric. They are attempting to wipe Israel off the map. They have brutally oppressed their own people, and are actively pursuing the development of weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions have effectively kept the threat contained, but will not be sufficient going forward. Diplomacy and dialogue with the regime is counterproductive and weak; the only way to protect US interests, Israel’s existence, and regional stability is direct military intervention.

The Iraq War should have disproved almost every aspect of that narrative. Of course, everyone should acknowledge that the Baathist dictatorship in Iraq, and the current government in Iran, are despicable regimes that have committed unspeakable crimes. But the reasoning behind the pro-war narrative contains three dangerously false assumptions.

  1. Sanctions are an effective tool to pressure foreign governments
  2. Iraq sanctions lasted over a decade, and succeeded only in impoverishing the country, undermining its infrastructure, consolidating regime control, and sowing the seeds of future sectarian violence. The current sanctions against Iran, which have grown more onerous by the year, appear to be on much the same track. Yet politicians and policymakers continue to tout the value and effectiveness of sanctions without any serious evidence of their effectiveness.

    Sanctions have not reduced regimes’ repression of their own people, and – with the unique exception of Apartheid South Africa where calls for sanctions originated from South Africans themselves – have not caused publics to break from their own governments. More often, the opposite holds true, and sanctions force civilians to rely on government patronage more than ever as other economic opportunities run dry.

  3. Diplomacy does not work
  4. The rejection of diplomacy is grounded in the assumption that the opposing country is somehow intrinsically irrational, violent, and anti-American. A cursory review of history proves this to be incorrect. AAI’s own polling shows that the overwhelming majority of these populations are not intrinsically anti-American in any way, but primarily upset by militaristic US foreign policies. To respond to these grievances by force is to perpetuate an endless cycle of mutual recrimination.

    In reality, almost all examples of “anti-US” countries and political movements – from Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s Egypt to the current government of Iran – have increased their vitriolic exhortations when ignored or attacked by the US, and significantly moderated their policies when given the diplomatic and political space to do so. Iraq was once a pillar of US support, and even during the Saddam days Washington relied on the Iraqi state for a number of its regional interests. It is worth remembering that as late as 1982, the US had blocked all UN Security Council efforts to investigate Iraqi chemical weapons attacks, because, in the words of Secretary of State George Shultz, “you don’t want Iran to win the war.”

  5. US intelligence is flawless, irrefutable, and holistic
  6. The Iraq War proved the limitations of US intelligence, and the ways in which our best analysis can be fatally undermined by a lack of understanding of the situation on the ground. However, many continue to take US intelligence – or even any anecdotal evidence that reinforces the pro-war narrative – as gospel. Despite the fact that most experts have determined that Iran is nowhere near the development of a nuclear weapon, much of the rhetoric on the Hill continues to present a nuclear threat as imminent. The problem extends well beyond Iran, into issues regarding the policy of drone assassinations, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and much more.

    The lack of public space for dissent, reason, and caution is one of the greatest impediments to reforming our foreign policy-making apparatus, which has time and again proven dangerously incapable of handling many of the modern threats facing us today. If there’s one lesson we have tragically failed to learn ten years after the Iraq War began, it is this one. Spaces for public dialogue and community inclusion are arguably more important than ever; we have a lot to learn from each other about our assumptions, our concerns, and our expectations from the future. Witness this town hall from shortly before the war began, to see how the seeds of the entire conflict are played out even before it begins. With more conversations like this, perhaps we can avoid such catastrophes in the future.

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