Iraq: Lesson in Turning an Opportunity into Disaster

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In his speech on the Middle East in May, US President Barack Obama said: ?In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy?Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress?And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.?

Given the ?Arab Spring? context of his speech, it is hard to tell if Mr Obama was simply praising US contribution in Iraq?s ?progress? or using Iraq as an example of positive change to encourage protesters across the region not to show any signs of let-up in their demand for reform.

Either way, Mr Obama was wrong and the following examples expose the folly.

First, at the most basic level, it is appalling to designate Iraq as a success when Iraq Body Count statistics estimate that up to 110,000 civilians have died during the last eight years of turmoil in the country, apart from about 4500 American military causalities.

Second, while the death count is largely a fall-out of the multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian divisions within the Iraqi society, the inadequate progress in the institution of democracy was evident in the political friction following the neck-to-neck March 2010 election.

In an ironic twist to democracy, while the single-largest political party led by Iraqiya leader Mr Iyad Allawi is part of the opposition, the second-largest party led by Mr Nuri Al Maliki heads the government, following nine months of deadlock and infighting.

Moreover, in another setback to democratic institutions, Mr Al Maliki created headlines in May when he was quoted as saying that the Iraqi parliament ?has no right to legislate?.

Third, making matters worse is administrative corruption and incompetence, not ?just among Iraqis, but even among American officials. According to recent reports, Iraq?s parliament is chasing about $17 billion of oil money from the Development Fund of Iraq that was ?stolen? after the 2003 US-led invasion.

?All indications are that the institutions of the United States of America committed financial corruption by stealing the money of the Iraqi people,? said a letter sent to the United Nations by the parliament?s Integrity Committee.

Further, April 2011 was the bloodiest month for US forces in Iraq since November 2008; the Sadrists are threatening to re-activate the Mahdi Army and challenge US troops if they do not pull out of the country according to the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement; electricity is as rare and rationed in Iraq as water is in parts of Africa; demonstrators continue to call for change every Friday; Kurdish parties are facing Kurds? discontent with the ongoing oppression; a 100-day time limit to evaluate ministers? performance ended on June 7, without conclusive follow-up action; Iraq is caught in the region?s Sunni-Shiite ideological battle that is manifested in Arab-Iran rivalry; and Iraq failed to host the Arab summit this year.

If these are indications of progress for the United States, it is an uninspiring commentary about where is the Middle East is headed?

It is indeed both frustrating and comical that in the first few days following the outbreak of the Arab Spring, former US president George W. Bush and his ?neocon? band used the unexpected political developments in the region to renew the justification for waging war against Iraq.

While Saddam Hussein?s ouster and the ongoing protests for regime change in region have no correlation, the counter-argument that needs to be posed to the same warmongers is: if the 2003 war had not been waged by the US-led coalition, could Iraq have been part of the Arab Spring and witnessed a more peaceful political change as a consequence of a push from within? Would it have been spared the death of tens of thousands of Iraqis and Americans, not to mention monumental destruction and permanent scars from the memories of a war gone wrong?

It is indeed an irony again that the Iraqi protesters took to the streets demanding accountability for poor public services and crackdown on corruption from an elected government that is an evolved product of US-led action in the country.

In view of these developments, former chief UN nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei?s suggestion that Bush administration officials should face international criminal investigation for the ?shame of a needless war? in Iraq is not an exaggeration.

It is often said that ?old habits die hard, but bad habits never die?. Interfering in the affairs of another country, even militarily if required, is an old and unnecessary American habit. This has been made worse by the habit of pulling out before the intended mission is accomplished.

This approach means that while it is a win-win case for the United States, it is most often a ?lose-lose? case for the country that has been meddled with by external forces. It is not entirely the situation in the aggrieved country that determines the timing of the US push and pullback, but Washington?s own convenience, as well as political compulsions and calculations that determine them.

Given these US experiences in Iraq, it is not too difficult to predict whether its current involvement and future decisions in Afghanistan and Libya will manage to salvage the remaining opportunities or if they too will turn into disasters.

Dr N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst and author of ?Boom Amid Gloom ? The Spirit of Possibility in the 21st Century Gulf? (Ithaca Press, 2011). He can be reached at: [email protected]

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