Iraq: A Deepening Tragedy

By David McReynolds


Friends have heard me say I could not believe the Bush Administration would launch the Iraq war - until the moment when "shock and awe" illuminated the night sky of Baghdad. My reasoning had nothing to do with the fact the US actions would violate international law (would be, in fact, criminal) but rather my conviction the war would be an act of stupidity almost without parallel.


We had known that the "Vulcans" - that perplexing coalition of neoconservatives which draws its strength from almost equal parts of former Trotskyists, sharply pro-Israel American Jews such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle (who would do anything for Israel except go and live there), and a group of evangelical Christians, often privately anti-Semitic, led by the likes of Pat Robertson - had been in control of the Administration from the moment of Bushs appointment by the Supreme Court in 2001. We had seen them seize upon the tragedy of 9.11 as an excuse to curtail our own civil liberties and put the nation on a war footing, and invade Afghanistan.


But the idea that the United States would actually attack Iraq, that it would be supported in this action by Tony Blair, Prime Minister of Great Britain, and would think its Christian troops would somehow be welcomed as liberators by a deeply Islamic nation . . . this was such obvious folly that I keep thinking some committee of smart Wall Street bankers would tap Rumsfeld on the shoulder and say "Sorry, Rumfeld - no way. Saddam is a nasty man, but there are no weapons of mass destruction there, no links to terrorism - this war would be genuinely crazy".

(Let not forget the wave of massive demonstrations around the world in February of 2003 - demonstrations on a scale never seen before. And the urgent efforts of political leaders in almost every nation - Israel excepted - to dissuade Bush. And the extraordinary steps taken by the Pope to use his moral force - even sending a special Papal envoy to meet with Bush).


The Iraq of Babylon and Baghdad, of the Euphrates and Tigris, the cradle from which Western civilization had sprung, a land which had, early in the 20th century, defeated the British - at that time the greatest Empire in the world. The US really thought it would be welcomed with flowers? That it would be seen as the liberator? After it had, for ten years, caused enormous suffering for the civilian population of Iraq by its economic sanctions?


With others, I was surprised at the relative ease of the first phase - the military conquest of Saddams forces. I had assumed there would be grinding battles in the cities, that the loss of civilian life there might cause the world to demand the US withdrawal. But with the US Occupation we saw the beginning of a "dual reality" - the "reality of Iraq" as seen by the White House and transmitted by the US media, and the "reality of Iraq" as seen from foreign news sources, reaching us in the US either by BBC or the internet. (In fairness, much of the truth was there in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers - but not in that part of the media which most shapes public opinion - the world of "Fox News").


It is possible those around Bush believed their own news reports. It is said that April is the cruellest month - for many American and Iraqi families this has been an unusually cruel and bloody month. April clearly caught the Pentagon by surprise. Even Rumsfeld admitted he didn't expect things to be this difficult a year after "victory".


Listening tonight to David Burns, of the New York Times, as he reported from Baghdad, it was clear there has been a breakdown of the Occupation. As Burns pointed out (and he is not a reporter tainted by ideology - just a journalist doing his job), travel is now extremely difficult and dangerous in Iraq, most roads are closed, there is no commercial air travel, and even in Baghdad things are not safe. He admitted it was almost impossible to know what was happening "on the ground" in any Iraq city outside of Baghdad.


Americans in Iraq rarely venture outside the "green zone" in Baghdad, which is as secure as modern technology can make it. Paul Bremer resides in the palaces and buildings Saddam had built, strides the imperial offices in combat boots, issuing orders which are erratic (such as the dissolution of the Iraqi army - which instantly left tens of thousands of armed men unemployed!).


The hearings from Washington D.C. this month, the flood of books that have come out, have defined the reality there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there was no link with Al Queda, there had never even been any plans for "post-invasion" Iraq, and - most devastating of all - Bush and the Vulcans had used 9.11 as the basis for their war planning, even diverting funds from Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden to plotting the war in Iraq.

So we are here, a year after the invasion. Those of us who opposed the invasion are the Cassandras, as we were in the 1960's when we warned against deepening US involvement in Indochina.


We are in the midst of a disaster - one which the US cannot repair or make right. What course is open to us, to Iraqis, to the community of nations? I can even ask what course might be open to the leadership of the US if it could come to its senses as easily as, a year ago, it lost them.


First, the one course open to the Administration - the only possible course - would be to turn the entire matter over to the United Nations, with the understanding all US and British forces would be withdrawn within 90 days, that UN peace keeping forces, drawn from Islamic, Arab, and neutral countries (which might include Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Finland, Sweden, etc.) would be in place for a period of no more than six months, to organize national elections, that such UN forces would begin immediately to open dialogue with all parties in Iraq - excluding the present US-appointed governing council.


However, this wont happen. It isn't simply a matter that the United Nations might want to avoid so difficult a job - might, in fact, be totally unable to carry it out. It is that the United States will not for an instant consider "turning tail and running". And why should it? Bush might yet win re-election as a war president. John Kerry isn't pressing for withdrawal. Those who run this country have no sons and daughters serving in Iraq - indeed, for the most part the Vulcans are made of up draft evaders from the Vietnam period (or, in the case of Bush, men who were AOL). Those who died this April, and will die in May, June, July, August, and into the dismal months of autumn and winter of the year ahead, are working class youth, in many cases from communities of colour. A handful of them have already begun to resist, to desert, to apply for Conscientious Objectors status, but these are yet only a handful (though they deserve our full support). In the Vietnam War military resistance did not begin on a serious scale until quite late.


Ironically, if the US did want to negotiate its way out of Iraq, it has no one with whom to negotiate, making any potential withdrawal doubly embarrassing. The "Governing Council" the US set up is in no position to negotiate for the people of Iraq.


In India, in 1947, when Great Britain withdrew, it had the Congress Party with which to negotiate an honourable departure. The French, both in Indochina and in Algeria, had organized opposition forces with whom it could negotiate an end of the fighting. The US, sadly, rejected the chance to negotiate its way out of Vietnam but it could have done so at almost any time. (There are two other notable failures to negotiate when negotiations were possible - the Russians have destroyed Chechneya but still cannot control it, while Israel has rejected the negotiations it could have had with the PLO).


What we have is a war with no early way out. Many, particularly in the liberal community, will argue that while it was wrong to go into Iraq "we cant just leave now". Their feeling cannot be dismissed out of hand. There is a danger of civil war - though at the moment the US Occupation seems to have done more to unite the warring religious factions. There is danger of a rigid Islamic government coming to power, one which would strip women of the freedoms they enjoyed under Saddam and which the US says it is committed to guaranteeing. (Ironic that brutal as Saddam's regime was, for women it was far freer than the current regime of Saudi Arabia, Bush's closest ally in the Arab world).


No one in the peace and justice movement should have illusions about the kind of Islamic fundamentalism to which the US invasion has helped give new life - and which might easily win Iraq's first "free election". The tragedy is that serious as these problems are, the US cannot solve them. Our government has done a great evil in its aggression, and if international law had any force, we would not be discussing what the US should do, but rather what the world should do about preparing war crimes trials for the US and British leaders who opened the gates of this particular hell, and about what reparations these two nations must pay to Iraq.


However, international law is weak - as Bush and Blair demonstrated by their actions of a year ago. The international community might hope that Bush would concede his actions were a monstrous miscalculation, and turn the matter over to the UN, but he will not do that. The loss of that pool of oil, the loss of funds to be made by private corporations from public funds "rebuilding" an Iraq we have destroyed, and the humiliation of admitting error - too much to ask.


We are in need of facing the reality. Which is that every day the Occupation continues, so will the violence, and as the violence continues, it will become legitimized in the eyes of the people of Iraq. The resistance may not represent a majority of Iraqis, but neither did the French resistance truly represent the majority in France. Yet it was a real and honourable resistance. That, with each passing day, is what the US is creating in Iraq - a resistance that is morally legitimate.


I understand those who feel that it would be irresponsible "to turn and run". But to think the US can "fix" things now is like thinking a rapist is the ideal person to stay and provide therapy to the victim. It is possible our pressure, combined with the military reality in Iraq, will cause the Administration to pursue a drastically different course of action. And if so, that is good. If it ends the military actions, if it announces plans for withdrawal, if it enters into negotiations directly with the Sunni and Shiite religious leaders, fine.


But what we must demand is withdrawal. Withdrawal without conditions. To those who say we are not supporting our troops, we respond that we are giving them far more support than Bush and Cheney, who sent them there. To those who say we would weaken American influence, we respond that we hope that is the case - the US needs to learn humility, as it briefly learned it after the war in Indochina (a war which did not end until over three million Vietnamese had been killed).

The actions of the US government have not only been foolish and arrogant, they also qualify as evil, as wars of aggression are, by the definition of international law, evil. One cannot argue that launching such a war was wrong but that having launched it we must "stay the course" - what course is being stayed? What purpose is being served? When we hear Bush speak now of the evils of Saddam, as he once spoke with such certainty of the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, those of us with memories would not quibble about the evils of Saddam, but rather ask why Rumsfeld and others chose to do business with Saddam even after he had used poison gas. When did these men learn morality? And who can believe they can teach the world - or the men and women of Iraq - morality, or democracy? These are words and concepts deeply stained by the Bush Administration. Out. Now.


David Mcreynolds was formerly Chair of War Resisters International and was the Socialist Party candidate for President in 1980 and 2000. He visited Baghdad in 1991, just before the start of the first Gulf War, as part of a team from the Fellowship of Reconciliation.