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Five myths about the Iraq war

by Ramesh Thakur

Ten years on, let’s dispel five myths about the Iraq war.

1. It doesn’t matter why we went in, it only matters that we got rid of Saddam Hussein.

Actually it does, greatly. Suppose the government eliminates someone and says he was a mass murderer. Having first killed him, we will search for, find and provide definitive evidence and only then charge him with whatever crime the evidence indicates. If we don’t find any evidence, it’s only because he killed off witnesses. The lack of evidence is sufficient proof of his evil murdering ways.

This roughly is analogous to what U.S. President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard did in 2003. Once it was proven Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction — the sole ground on which the invasion was justified — some could/should have been charged with the supreme crime of aggression. Or is international criminal accountability only for the rest and never for the West?

2. It doesn’t matter that the United Nations said no. We had a duty to act to save humanity from thugs like Hussein.

Among the six most powerful words for a social scientist are “Of what is this an example”? The only alternative to a world of rules and laws is global anarchy. A rules-based order cannot tolerate Washington (with coalition allies Australia and Britain) deciding who should be other countries’ rulers. No country needs a U.N. permission slip for self-defense. All require such a slip for a war of choice. Iraq was not implicated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks (self-defense), and was not pursuing weapons of mass destruction (threat to international peace and security). The U.S. had no more right to attack it in 2003 than it would Mexico because of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

3. One cannot put a price on exterminating Hussein.

Say I have a rat in my kitchen. I call in the exterminators. When they are finished, my dinnerware is shattered, shelves and cupboards are broken, the food in the pantry is poisoned, and the house is wrecked. If I complain about the cost of having killed one rat being too high, does that make me a kitchen rat-lover? The extermination of Hussein — a global public good — must be weighed against the well documented costs (military casualties, civilian deaths, treasure expended, reputation damage, expanding pool of terror recruits, added incentive to get or keep nuclear weapons). Not that we detest Hussein any less; we detest the grim toll even more.

4. In net terms, many lives were saved.

Estimates of killed and dead in Iraqi violence since 2003 range from 170,000 (round figures) by the Iraq Body Count, almost a quarter million by the Iraqi government (both to the end of last year), 650,000 “excess deaths” in the first three years as calculated by a team of Iraqi and U.S. specialists and published in Lancet, to more than a million by August 2007 estimated by the London-based polling organization Opinion Research Business.

Who to believe?

Suppose I gather a group of armed criminals, attack a village, and kill all 200 inhabitants. That is the only “body count” of those violently killed.

Suppose instead I round up all doctors in every village in a region hostile to my rule, empty them all of medicine, destroy all crops and food, bar any food or medical relief supplies from outside, and all the people die in due course. What does a body count of zero (no one killed by guns) mean in these circumstances? Which would be a better toll for Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war over several decades — an actual body count of all those killed by the guns of the soldiers and the guerrillas, or the excess deaths estimate because of severely degraded food and health security?

Coalition forces did not enact a deliberate policy of death by starvation and disease. But the war degraded the health infrastructure and caused many doctors to flee. Epidemiologists use scientifically validated procedures to estimate the range of “excess deaths”: numbers dead who otherwise would have lived.

Because of how they abandoned professional skepticism and proved credulous of government claims, it’s hard to think of an event that did more damage to the international credibility of the West’s English-language media than Iraq.

Unless commentators are lazy, incompetent, or intimidated, should they not at least say “between 174,000 and one million Iraqis have been killed or have died as a result of the 2003 war”?

It’s fair enough for journalists, analysts and officials to insist on the strict body count rather than the best available scientific estimates of excess deaths, provided they are consistent in applying this stricture to all conflicts. What the rest of the world sees is that when the victims die from U.S. violence, the lowest confirmed toll is used. But for anti-Western regimes, the phrase “up to X thousand may have been killed” is substituted to plant the upper end of casualty estimates. Do we think they do not notice and care, or is it simply that we do not care about what they think?

5. Iraq has been transformed into a stable and peaceful democracy.

At the St. Petersburg Group of Eight summit in 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin pointedly retorted to George W. Bush that he did not want Iraq-style democracy in his country, thank you very much. America lost the war in Iraq.

The big winner is Iran. Iraq has been left a broken and dysfunctional country, increasingly authoritarian and riven by sectarian hatreds and enmity. Most of the killings pre-surge were in mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods. In response, whole communities fled from where they were a tiny minority to the safety of their own communities.

As neighborhoods were thus ethnically purified, levels of violence fell dramatically. This, not the surge, is the better explanation for the drop in body count. But it’s not a shining testimony to anything by way of noble goals and mission accomplished.

And guess which U.S. allies remain among the most autocratic and terror-financing regimes in the world?

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Australia National University’s Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.