Iraq revisited — rising from the ashes?

Iraq holds parliamentary elections today.

Conventional wisdom calls the Iraq War an unmitigated disaster rooted in lies about weapons of mass destruction.

I had supported the war. Saddam was no garden variety dictator; his regime ascended heights of monstrousness; it seriously threatened the whole region; severe sanctions were failing, even while further torturing the population.

About the “lies” — all the major intelligence services (even France’s) concluded Iraq had WMDs. Saddam had already used chemical weapons. And was trying to make it look like he had more. But casting that as a certainty was Bush’s mistake. He should have said, “We can’t be sure whether or not Iraq has WMDs, and can’t take the risk that it does.” (But maybe that would have sounded too ambiguous.)

The invasion was badly botched. It spawned much conflict, destruction, and ultimately the horror of ISIS, overrunning half the country including a leading city, Mosul.

A depressing story. But The Economist’s March 31 issue had a fascinating report on today’s Iraq — “Moving forward” — saying the country is now “righting itself.”


ISIS had made monkeys of Iraq’s army under egregious former Prime Minister Maliki. But his successor, Abadi, is far better, and ISIS’s territorial incarnation has been destroyed by Iraq’s soldiers.

The Economist now calls them the region’s “winniest.”

In Mosul

The battle for Mosul seemingly evoked the sardonic Vietnam War line about destroying the city in order to save it. Yet Mosul is recovering with remarkable speed. Shops, hotels, and restaurants bloom; and “[t]there’s not a niqab, or face-veil, in sight.”

The UN says it takes, on average, five years after a conflict for half its displaced people to return. But Iraq’s conditions are so positive it’s taken only three months. They’re rebuilding.

Meantime, Iraq’s Kurdistan had long been a separate country in all but name. Then in September Kurdish President Barzani (no beloved figure) overreached by insisting on an independence vote. The backlash included Iraq’s army retaking some territories the Kurds had occupied, including Kirkuk, a key city. Now Kurdish separatism seems dead, and Iraq is a more united nation than in a long time.

In 2003, Bush had talked of planting a seed of democracy in the Middle East. Cynics loudly laughed. Yet even while the subsequent “Arab Spring” (partly inspired by Iraq) largely turned to fiasco, the fact is that Iraq did become a functioning democracy — and remains one. Indeed, The Economist’s report is quite upbeat on this score too.

Iraqi democracy had appeared to fall prey to sectarian enmities. Saddam’s minority Sunni regime had oppressed the Shiite majority. After his fall, Shiites sought revenge while Sunnis refused to accept disempowerment. But, in The Economist’s telling, this conflict is finally abating; Iraqis have learned its lessons; having peered into the abyss, they’re drawing back from it.

So secularism is on the rise, with a “striking backlash against organized Islam.” In Fallujah, once the “mother of mosques,” people are rebuilding homes but ignoring wrecked religious sites. “Only old men go to pray,” a 22-year-old says. ISIS’s religion-warped cruelty spoiled the brand. And whereas Iraq’s political parties used to be loudly sectarian, a recent opinion poll showed only 5% of Iraqis would now vote for anyone with a sectarian or religious agenda.

Iraq still has plenty of severe challenges. Governance is still largely shambolic and pervasively corrupt. But the country rebuts cynics who believe people never learn and never change. Progress does happen.

How ironic that while Iraq rises above tribalistic politics, America sinks into it.

Footnote: That photo is of an Iraqi woman after voting in their first post-2003 election. (Fingers are dyed purple to prevent re-voting.) I well remembered seeing the picture at the time; her look of pride and determination moved me deeply. For this blog post I googled “Iraqi woman voting” and happily it came right up. It still thrills me.


5 Responses to “Iraq revisited — rising from the ashes?”

  1. Lee Says:

    The statement that “all the major intelligence services (even France’s) concluded Iraq had WMDs” is true only if you ignore the dates. These reports are all dated years to decades prior to the invasion. That the inspections were working dominated the reports that were timely.

  2. Lee Says:

    The Economist’s argument that the results of the war are better than the status quo is a straw man argument. Shame on them for being duplicitous!

    The question that honest people ask is whether the war was better than the reasonable alternatives. Would an approach like Reagan’s approach to East Germany, Obama’s approach to Iran, or Trump’s ongoing approach with North Korea have likely produced similar positive results without quite so many negatives (shorthand for massive amounts of death, massive amounts of destruction, and ISIS)? Despite that we cannot rewind history and try this out, the answer is clearly yes. (Well, I could have hedged and said that this cannot be known for sure, “but maybe that would have sounded too ambiguous.”)

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Saying The Econ said the war’s results are better than (the prior) status quo is a straw man argument — they didn’t say that, nor did I. Yes, the good results might possibly have been achieved by different means — in a more perfect world — though it’s rather unclear what those different means might have been. Counter-factual history is dicey. Today’s world might be MUCH WORSE if we hadn’t invaded Iraq! We cannot know.

  4. Bajro Nuhanović Says:

    It might as well be argued that some other, “diplomatic”, treatment of Saddamist Iraq would have matured through time fruits easier to swallow. But no one has credible insight into alternative historical realities. Most people’s guesswork can be treated indiscriminately.

    Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein, regardless of all other considerations.

  5. djedi9 Says:

    Nice optimistic view, but today, just a few days later, Shia religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr is ahead in the popular votes.
    Iraqi men may not be so anxious to lose their grip in religiously oppressing the female population as you might hope.

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