Lessons from War

Lessons in even the worst catastrophes

There surely is not a darker cloud than the war launched on Iraq in 2003. Over 600,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed so far, many times more than the civilians who died in both Britain and the USA (or for that matter Japan including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) during the whole of World War II. Several millions became refugees reliant on charity at home and abroad. Some had to flee with little more than what they had on their backs.

It is, therefore, very difficult to see what could be learnt from such a wretched bout of madness. Nonetheless, it is necessary to take stock of the painful lessons that have now been learnt which will certainly shape future events in Iraq and beyond.

The fruitless search for imported freedom and democracy

For decades Iraqis have longed for a modicum of freedom and democracy. They have had successive regimes that denied them both. The regimes were so powerful that it was accepted that there was little chance of change without outside help. It is currently fashionable to criticise those who sought help from the USA. One, Kanan Makiya, is said to have commented at the start of the war: “I have friends and relatives in Baghdad. I am nauseous with anxiety for their safety. But still those bombs are music to my ears. They are like bells tolling for liberation in a country that has been turned into a gigantic concentration camp.” Such feelings might be understandable in their historic context but seen in retrospect they demonstrate a reckless level of naiveté and lack of foresight. Others, wiser and perhaps more forthright, warned of dire consequences but their voices were drowned by the war lobby.

The war has changed all that. Apart from the deluded few, it is now fully understood that a country such as the USA would not expose its armed forces to death and injury and would not spend hundreds of billions of dollars simply to help others to find freedom and democracy. They do so only if there were compelling benefits to be gained from such an undertaking. In the case of the war on Iraq there were a number of interest groups with their own agendas. They saw opportunities to profit from war (see Iraq Mission). They were not troubled by the consequences to ordinary Iraqis, and one could say to their own people. This is a valuable lesson that others in the Middle East and elsewhere would ignore at their peril.

Freedom and democracy in perspective

The hallowed concept of democracy has always been viewed with a degree of scepticism. In a speech at Parliament in 1947, Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Later, Richard Crossman, a respected British politician commented, in 1975, “The thick masses of foliage we call the myth of democracy.”

However, those living under blatantly oppressive regimes acquire a romantic view of the state of democracy abroad that does not accord with reality. This rosy picture is not accidental: the notion is carefully touted by the ‘Western democracies’ in a mind-making effort that is now an essential part of international relations. The ruse works well at a distance but does not bear close scrutiny. The war gave Iraqis, and others, the need and opportunity to do just that and the results were most revealing. The heated debates about the war, before it started and since, that raged in the USA and Britain were monitored closely by the hapless Iraqis. They discovered that governments in these countries are complex and involve powerful groups whose interests often transcend those of the electorate.

Undoubtedly, democracy itself has shrivelled in recent times from the lofty heights it attained when the Founding Fathers set down the principles for the original American Republic. In the USA, the self-proclaimed bastion of democracy, it seems even the presidency could be acquired against the wishes of the electors. The powers of Congress and Senate have been subverted by the ‘imperial presidency’. In April 2007 they voted to set a timetable for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq but that vote of no confidence was of little practical significance. In fact it now appears that a war that killed several thousand American young men and women and maimed for life tens of thousands more was launched without much regard to either justification or consequences. In the dying days of the reign of Bush even his closest advisors have gone into print to wash their hands of that filthy episode in America’s history and to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of just a few men and their cohorts. The latest to join the rush is George J Tenet, of CIA fame, in a book titled ‘At The Centre of the Storm’ (see New York Times, 26 April 2007).

In a Western democracy, a few individuals could embroil their country into punishing, fruitless, and costly war and the people are powerless to alter that situation. Comparisons with Saddam and his wars against Iran and Kuwait are impossible for Iraqis to avoid. Viewed by Iraqis, the gap between the two systems is more difficult to discern.

There is, however, a more subtle erosion of democracy that predates the blunders of Bush. Basically, in a Western democracy the public can say whatever they wish with little fear of retribution, apart from recent ‘terrorism’ laws, but what they say will not substantially affect what the elite choose to do. People can change leaders but the choice is from a small pool of like-minded individuals. And they have to rely on funding from the the ‘usual suspects’ who expect favours in return. In Saddam’s era, Iraqis could say and do anything they desired as long as that did not impinge on the supremacy of the regime in any way. Iraqis have now concluded that the minor differences between democracy and the lack of it are not worth the hassle. The war altered the views of Iraqis as to what is tolerable, in fact preferable, including rule by Saddam. Quite a revelation, and one that rulers in the Middle East are not slow to exploit. A choice is being subtly put to nations: do you want to put up with us or would you like democracy coupled with what is happening in Iraq? No choice in fact, and this is Bush’s real legacy.

To ram the point home, there is now a bumper sticker advertised on the Internet that reads ‘Be Nice to America. Or We’ll Bring Democracy To Your Country’.

Lying: the acceptable form of modern leadership

The guiding principle followed by most leaders in the ‘advanced democracies’ is several centuries old: the ends justify the means. This obnoxious practice is enshrined into the realist school of political economic thought and is normally attributed to Machiavelli although it has more ancient roots. Based on this tenet, lying is acceptable, even fashionable among the shakers and movers. There was, however, little public appreciation of the prevalence of the practice. This certainly was the case among people in the Middle East. With some exceptions, Eden and Suez being one example, the man or woman in the street believed that politicians abroad, as opposed to those at home, were generally above reproach. The USA and Britain enjoyed an enviable moral standing. Then the Iraq war came and the curtain was lifted on political norms. The public in East and West are not shocked anymore to learn that ministers, prime ministers, and presidents stretch the truth to promote unpopular actions or shirk responsibility for the consequences. More to the point, those who tell lies escape any legal or moral consequences. They, at worst, enjoy a very comfortable retirement.

In Britain, a blue heritage plaque is usually put on the wall of a building in which a famous person had lived. The satirical Private Eye magazine published on 10 May 2007 a cartoon showing two workmen outside Number 10 Downing Street, both home and office of Britain’s Prime Minister. They are about to erect a plaque that read “Tony Blair lied here 1997-2007″. It is a safe bet to suggest that the cartoon was found amusing but hardly surprising by most readers.

To people in the Middle East, and others in the developing countries, this is a wake up call: your untrustworthy leaders are not better or worse those in the ‘advanced’ countries. In that case why try to change them? In short, beware the perils of progress (see Progress Free Zone). Those unhappy with the model have now turned to Islam as the bedrock of moral rectitude. Iraq has discovered religion and the process is spreading fast to Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Turkey, etc. It is easy to understand the trend.

Limits to power

Another lesson learnt from the Iraq war was the near futility of sophisticated armies against motivated and reasonably well-organised militias. The war launched by Israel against the Lebanon last summer suggests that lesson has not gone unnoticed by others. The war in Iraq did not only attract fighters from Iraq and neighbouring countries, but it also sent a clear message that there is much to be gained from engaging the enemy. Attacks on the Green Zone in recent months give clear indications of the new self-confidence bestowed on all resistance groups. So much for Bush’s ‘war on terror’.

This is a painful lesson first and foremost for Americans everywhere. By all accounts, they feel they are now under greater threats than before 2003. In the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Americans are now “Terrorized by ‘War on Terror” (Washington Post 25 March 2007). This “three word mantra” elevated and energised the terrorists and at the same time exposed Americans to actual or, more realistically, imaginary threats that enticed them to accept without much resistance losses in freedoms that they had acquired over several centuries.

However, a more significant lesson has been the realisation that US political writ does not count for as much as it did before 2003. The war finally drove home the truth that Britain learnt decades ago when it lost its hegemonic status: the US simply does not have the resources to rule the world. As Niall Ferguson wrote in the Los Angeles Times of 24 October 2006, “The U.S. doesn’t have the necessary military manpower or fiscal solvency of its imperial predecessors in Iraq.” (see also America’s Suez and USA in Decline). The Democratic Party in the USA has finally got the message; they are advocating a softer touch to foreign policy, but the damage to America’s prestige and sway is already done. Even the Saudi royal family, staunch supporters of everything American, have woken up to the new realities. The King made several critical remarks in April 2007 that would have been impossible only a year or so ago.

It is easy to devastate nations and communities

The war in Iraq wreaked havoc with Iraq’s physical and social infrastructure. Contrary to some US and Israeli claims, there has always been a recognisable national and political entity where present Iraq is located. It was home to a kaleidoscope of ethnic and religious groups who until recently identified themselves as Iraqis. They evolved ways to lead an uneasy and fragile coexistence over many centuries punctuated by skirmishes here and there. This is hardly unusual. Think of the Irish, Welsh, Scots and English and the picture becomes abundantly clear.

The extra ordinary conditions of the war, including the totally predictable consequences of having no army or police in a country of some 26 million people, fractured society almost beyond repair. Old scores and ambitions came to the surface , gangs of criminals suppressed by previous governments and external actors did their utmost to rub salt in the wounds. Those without scores, ambitions, foreign backers or militias, as in the case of the Christians, got in the line of fire and simply fled. Insecurity and basic needs such as food and shelter drove most Iraqi people into states of selfishness unknown before. Family cohesion, a prominent feature of Iraqi society, came under strain and in some cases broke down completely.

All that happened in a few years: a salutary lesson that nations and communities develop exceedingly slowly but could be wiped out very briskly. It is now generally accepted that the Iraq that we have known during the twentieth century is no more. There is no going back. A new reality, as yet unknown, will no doubt emerge over time but that will not happen overnight. By the way, the slow build up and rapid dissolution and the impossibility of a nation in such a situation to go back to a previous state in history is typical of the way Complex Adaptive Systems behave, but that is another story.

So, what does all the above mean?

Above all else, the primary conclusion must be that the US could not win the war in Iraq. However, it is unlikely that ‘democratic’ steps in the US system of government could be taken to force Bush into submission. A change in direction will come about only when there is a new president in the White House; either Democrat or Republican it does not matter which. Sadly, both parties in the USA are hugely influenced by the military-industrial complex and other pressure groups. A change in direction, therefore, is not a foregone conclusion but the latest indications suggest that the USA has had enough. Local Iraqi politicians reliant for their security have only a short time; either to amass fortunes and leave before the turn of the tide or somehow to gain local popular support and legitimacy. Neighbouring regional powers, and yes Islam, are possible umbrellas for shelter and survival. Another of Bush’s achievements!

Questions of freedom and democracy now occupy a low priority on the Iraqi agenda. In fact some would say they have disappeared off the agenda altogether. Equally significant, people in the Middle East have gone in the same direction. Progress on these fronts throughout the region has faltered or stopped completely; tragic news for a region badly in need of progress in human rights and especially the rights of women.

The consequences of the new realities with respect to US power are not easy to determine at this stage. Would America shrink back into isolationism of the early twentieth century? What would that mean to support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt? Would that increase instability in the Middle East?

Or would the realities produce a more collaborative stance by the US government built on harmonisation with the European Union, Russia, and above all China? Would that bring more stability to the Middle East?

What about Iraq? There is no question that the extraordinary conditions of lawlessness could not go on for many years. However, as seen in the civil wars in the Lebanon, peace might not come in a hurry. And then what? That will depend on the Iraqi leaders at that point in time. Could they rise above their usual petty squabbles? Will Iraq discover a Mandela as yet unseen and unheard?

It is obvious there are hardly any certainties. However, if I were to make one prediction it would be that the war on terrorism will go the way of the war on drugs. It will linger on but it would be pushed back into the background and politicians will gradually distance themselves from it as it proves to be less and less profitable for their purposes. Retooling of the slogan is already underway (see interesting article on this topic by Dominic Lawson in The Independent of 17 April 2007).

Above all else there is one fundamental lesson to be highlighted: there are few winners from the Iraq war. Lives were lost or ruined for nothing. The only winners were those who traditionally profit from war. In this context, the war will be remembered for the extremes of corruption it has generated. That is where much of the $1.2 trillion spent will have gone. David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times on 17 January 2007, described what that scale of funding could have achieved if it were spent on essential services in the USA (see also Iraq Mission). Well done Bush, put that as yet another achievement!

PS: A friend sent me this sad/ amusing caricature published in:Democracy or Else

The message, in his opinion, encapsulates what is said in the above article. For those unable to read Arabic, the text reads: “Listen up you lot, if anyone of you does not follow our line and misbehaves we will hit him with democracy like Iraq, understood?”