Tuesday, 17 June 2014

I Told You So about Iraq - why Hugo is wrong

The frightening advance of ISIS fighters in Iraq has brought back questions about the 2003 war and

Unfortunately it has also brought back people writing rubbish about Iraq in the Times – something that happened a lot in 2002 and 2003.

In the Times (17th June 2014)  Hugo Rifkind , who marched against the war back then, argues that the war's opponents should not  say “We told you so!". Actually he accuses people of ‘trilling’ this, so he is obviously annoyed about people who don’t write for the Times being right. Rifkind says he doesn’t “remember that they did” and that “I don't remember predictions of chaos, sectarianism and failure” and “I'm pretty certain that's not what we were marching about”.

Of course, people were marching against an invasion for a range of reasons. But they weren’t, on the whole, marching because they thought war would be orderly and successful. The anti-war case usually relies on the idea that war causes destruction, chaos and social conflict (mostly because it does).

The pro-war side had such a variety of bad arguments for the war – often relying on lies and rubbish pumped out by the Times – WMD ! Saddam in league with Obama ! Liberation ! –that people arguing against the war had to make many cases.

But the case about chaos and sectarianism was widely made. So for example

The Daily Mirror had a major article by Denis Healey in February 2003 arguing


If anything Healey overemphasised the possible chaos and sectarianism, but he was on the right lines, writing

The most likely scenario is that there will be a civil war between the Kurds, the Shia and the Sunni Moslems and it will spread over into neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, a very close ally of the West, and Iran, Syria and even Jordan. The Jordanian government warned Tony Blair about this only last week”

I put this to Hugo and he said I was “cherry picking”. As if an article in the multi-million selling Daily Mirror by a former Foreign Secretary was obscure.

They were hardly alone – just search any newspaper database on the words “ Chaos” and “Iraq” in the months before the war , and you’ll find plenty of results.

Think also of the many references to an Iraq war becoming “Like the Vietnam war” : They weren't made because  the war’s opponents thought Iraq would be orderly, or a  “cakewalk”

It is also important to note that what went wrong with Iraq didn’t all happen during the invasion. It was the occupation that tore Iraq apart, as the occupiers systematically weakened the Iraq state and encouraged sectarianism. The disbanding of the army and banning Baathists from office was just part of this. The US and UK occupiers encouraged sectarianism to split the rebellious Iraqi’s who didn’t want them remaining in Iraq after Saddam’s fall . They weakened the state so that it would not present a possible threat to the occupiers (which is why the supposedly rebuilt Iraqi army only got tanks, armoured cars and an airforce very much later).

We saw this unfold in front of our eyes – the looting, the botched “reconstruction”. At any point even those who supported the war could have protested about this, and our governments could have changed their course. Indeed many British army officers in Iraq raised exactly these complaints. It wasn’t just about warning about chaos and sectarianism before the war, it was about acknowledging they were happening during the occupation, and trying to do something about it.

So I found Hugo’s ‘don’t say I told you so ‘attitude really mystifying.

Particularly where he writes “I remember a whole bunch of utter guff about Halliburton and oil”. The role of Halliburton, and Bechtel and Blackwater and all the contractors in the occupation was an important source of the chaos: By handing over Iraqi “reconstruction”, including water and electricity and gas and ‘security’ to Western contractors – and paying them with Iraqi oil money – the occupiers weakened the Iraq state, and helped spread the chaos. Especially as they botched the job. The lack of water and electricity and sewage and security all added to the chaos. This was hardly a secret. The US were advertising their wild plan to privatise Iraq before the war. Hugo didn’t understand it, perhaps. It’s odd when journalists proudly display their ignorance, when I thought finding stuff out was one of our key skills.

I think at one point I did grasp why Hugo can’t remember the predictions of chaos, even though I can.

He writes that “I remember fevered debate about whether we, the West, had the right to remake the world in our image.”

Now the “Noecons” were pretending they were going to make Iraq into a modern free market liberal democracy. And apparently Hugo and his circled believed they meant it. And had a “fevered debate” about whether this was a good idea.

But plenty of people sussed out, without the need for a "fevered debate",  that this was just window dressing on some crazy imperial adventure. When Dick Cheney and his pals made those kind of noises, we didn’t believe them. We thought that sinister Dr Strangelove types were more likely to do what the US had done in Vietnam or El Salvador or Nicaragua. That there would be death squads and chaos and shady types trying to get rich from blood. People thought George Bush was a cowboy, but apparently Hugo’s friends thought he really could deliver a functioning Iraq. They just worried if that was the right choice.

The problem is that Hugo tries to make his very odd circle of pals, the kind of people who took the Noecons seriously, and make them “we”, make them stand in for all the anti-War people. And they just didn’t.

It’s the same naivety that makes Hugo want to “rescue” liberal intervention from the “tragedy” of Iraq.

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