360° Analysis

Iraq: The Lasting Impact of the US Invasion


February 19, 2014 18:59 EDT

Iraq’s upsurge in violence should not obscure the lasting impact of the 2003 invasion.

In a recent article for Fair Observer, Jafar Hassan asserted that: “US foreign policy, while misguided in several instances, is not a decisive cause of Iraq’s failing democracy.”

Upon reading this, I instantly recalled the opening of Rahul Rao’s book, Third World Protest. Observing a demonstration against the decision to invade Iraq. Rao comments:

“I had long been struck by the tacit alliance between a politically correct Western left, so ashamed of the crimes of Western imperialism that it found itself incapable of denouncing the actions of Third World regimes, and a hyper-defensive Third World mentality… in which all the ills of the country were blamed on Western imperialism. Yet if few of the protesters were talking about human rights abuses in Iraq… in the corridors of power in Whitehall and the White House, there was talk of little else. Written out of their narrative was the shameful record of official Western knowledge, silence, and complicity in these events.”

Essentially, blaming one of either “external” or “internal” actors necessarily excuses the other.

Notably, many of Hassan’s observations were accurate and well-articulated. Certainly, ressentiment directed solely toward Western powers has not served the post-colonial world well, often providing ideological cover for domestic despots. Iraq does indeed exemplify this tendency, also seen in Syria, Iran and many other “revolutionary” states.

However, Hassan’s abstraction of domestic Iraqi politics from the enduring impact of the US-led invasion risks descending into an exoneration of Western crimes, as per Tony Blair’s latest re-articulation of the intellectually impoverished “Clash of Civilizations” thesis.

While Hassan does not go so far, local forces operate not in a vacuum, but in social, economic and political conditions inevitably shaped by international and historical context. As the world’s only superpower, the US is by necessity deeply implicated in the production of this context – nowhere more so than in Iraq. As such, it is both empirically and analytically unsustainable to suggest that Iraq’s “failing democracy” is not profoundly affected by the illegal invasion of 2003 and the criminal negligence of its aftermath.

A full analysis would consider the on-off relationship between the US and Saddam Hussein, or even the impact of British colonialism on Iraqi politics. However, for brevity, this article will be limited to the post-invasion period and two factors cited by Hassan which need to be placed in their proper context: “de-Ba’athification” and the Iraqi Constitution.


There is hardly space to discuss the litany of errors made by the US in Iraq. They sent a force numerically incapable of maintaining order, despite the warnings of the US military’s top general. Through gross incompetence, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) lost $12 billion in cash, which, instead of rebuilding Iraq, funded insurgents and smugglers.

The British government, meanwhile, promoted fake “bomb detection devices” made from novelty golf-ball finders. Blackwater Worldwide, a private security firm, operated as a death squad beyond the reach of US Law, drawing condemnation from Amnesty International and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

American troops encouraged mass looting of hospitals and government ministries, depriving the Iraqi state of its basic infrastructure. One US official later estimated that this tripled the cost of reconstruction.

These cases are well-known and far from exhaustive. They bear repeating only because it is stunning that anyone could consider them marginal to Iraq’s subsequent collapse. One example, however, stands out: de-Ba’athification.

De-Ba’athification was a policy of the US Department of Defense, implemented against the advice of a host of senior, experienced officials. These included the man initially entrusted with Iraq’s reconstruction, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who claimed that upon hearing of the order, a colleague in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) immediately predicted: “If you do this, you’re going to drive 40,000 to 50,000 Ba’athists underground by nightfall.” Gen. Richard Myers, the highest-ranking military officer at the time, was not even consulted over de-Ba’athification.

Such dysfunctional civil-military relations were endemic in the build-up and aftermath to the invasion. Failing to utilize, or simply ignoring, the vast experience of specialist military and intelligence bodies, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made de-Ba’athification the direct responsibility of the CPA and its head, Paul Bremer, a man with no experience whatsoever in Iraq or even in the Middle East. Invested with supreme legislative, juridical and executive authority, Bremer essentially became Rumsfeld’s proxy dictator.

The above claims have all been extensively documented, notably by Charles Tripp’s A History of Iraq, Christopher Gibson’s Securing the State, Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, and the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. Written from a variety of political angles, these sources agree on the unmitigated disaster of de-Ba’athification.

Rather than targeting Saddam’s inner-circle, de-Ba’athification comprehensively purged the entire Ba’athist membership. Just under half a million civil servants, policemen, soldiers, teachers and doctors were instantly sacked, with over 80,000 permanently barred from public employment. Overnight, the state was deprived of everyone of any possible use, skill or experience.

Professor Tripp from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London states:

“…[T]he adverse effects [of de-Ba’athification] were to be felt for years to come. They put some 300,000 armed young men out of work at a stroke, stopped the pensions of tens of thousands of ex-officers and purged the slowly recovering government ministries of roughly 30,000 people, including their most experienced administrators… it showed little knowledge of Iraqi society, of the reasons why people joined the Ba’th Party, or even the role of the armed forces under Saddam Hussein.”

The effects of making hundreds of thousands of trained soldiers redundant and denying them any prospect of future employment are not hard to imagine, especially as arms depots, left entirely unguarded, were widely raided. The US has created and armed many insurgencies, but Iraq was perhaps the first time it did so through sheer hubris.

Clearly, de-Ba’athification set the stage for Iraq’s civil war.

Sunnis, having made up the majority of the Ba’ath Party, were disproportionately affected, to the extent that the International Crisis Group stated: “De-Ba’athification was tantamount to de-Sunnification.” A significant religious minority was thus disenfranchised and offered no place in the new Iraqi state.

While former soldiers made up much of the initial resistance, more extreme actors were soon attracted by the security vacuum. These included Shi’a groups al-Dawa and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) — both previously exiled in Iran — and Sunni al-Qaeda offshoots, hitherto entirely absent from Iraq.

Iraq’s descent into sectarian violence was neither inevitable, nor “primordial.” Rather, it resulted from the specific political economy of the post-invasion period.

Most pertinent was the incredible violence of the invasion itself, the militant sectarians who were either welcomed as US allies or exploited the collapse in governance and, of course, the initial US-authored constitution of 2003. Hamid Dabashi, of Columbia University, comments that the constitution was based upon the Lebanese “confessional” model and had “sectarian factionalism” written into “its very fabric.”

War, Carl von Clausewitz said, is simply “the continuation of politics by other means.” Through arrogance and incompetence, the US created a vacuum in which violence became the primary medium of power and sectarian identity gained political currency.

The complete collapse in civil governance produced an “economy of violence” running all the way from the offices of state to the streets of the slums, where militias became the primary providers of food, medicine and employment.

Certainly, local actors were responsible for much of the violence in an “immediate” sense. But on a structural level, the overwhelming weight of responsibility rests with the US occupation, which provided both opportunity and motive for Iraq’s descent into civil war.

Chastising Iraqis for not developing a functional “civil society” or “free press,” for not displaying sufficient “introspection,” seems — literally — incredible when short-term survival was the order of the day.

Iraqi Mistakes?

None of this, of course, devalues Hassan’s criticism of the Iraqi elite. However, the common division between “internal” and “external” politics does not hold.

In particular, the Iraqi Constitution, which Hassan identifies as a source of current conflict and describes as a purely “Iraqi mistake,” deserves greater attention.

As Hassan states, the Iraqi Constitution is indeed deeply flawed, riddled with contradictions. It remains unclear whether Iraq is to be a federative or centralized state, and whether law is to based on secular-democratic or shari’a principles. Inevitably, such ambiguity has been a source of conflict ever since.

Such confusion, however, is not simply due to domestic incompetence, but reflects the chaotic situation in which the constitution was drafted. The “economy of violence,” outlined above, constructed politics as a “zero-sum” game, in which the state itself was imagined not as a unifying national civil structure but as an object to be captured for personal enrichment.

Additionally, the US, having utterly failed to stimulate national dialogue in the two years prior to the constitution’s 2005 formulation, now demanded rapid results. Vagary and contradiction were thus inevitable. A Chatham House report states:

“For the sake of apparent consensus, and under pressure from coalition countries, key areas of the constitution were left in a state of what negotiators like to call ‘constructive ambiguity’… [This]laid the ground for future disputes in which the different parties contend that their own position is entirely justified by the constitution, notably the disputes over the proposed oil investment law and disagreements over the powers of the prime minister. The decision by many Sunni leaders to boycott the January 2005 elections for the Transitional National Assembly, from which the constitution-drafting committee was largely drawn, also meant key Sunni political factions were neither invested in nor felt represented by the document.”

The constitution, instead of providing national unity, elevated and formalized festering social tensions into the legislation and institutions of the state. It is testimony to a political elite selfishly struggling over the finite resource of power within a context created precisely by the invasion of 2003 and the incompetency of its aftermath.

The ambiguities of the constitution, as Hassan states, have allowed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to establish himself as a new dictator. But with life in Iraq following the invasion being often “violent, brutish and short,” it is perhaps unsurprising that a new Leviathan should arise.

Equally unsurprising is that the US, desperate to conceal its abject failure from a critical public, should continue to fund and arm the brutal Iraqi state.

Maliki’s incomplete control and violent method, allied to US drone strikes of questionable legality, in turn encourages and radicalizes the opposition, which finds no shortage of foreign patrons.

“Internal” and “external,” “domestic” and “foreign” — those struggling for influence remain complicit in the butchery of the Iraqi people for their own profit and power.

A Final Word

Hassan could well be right that for Iraqis themselves, a greater focus on domestic politics may be more productive. More nuanced analysis of internal actors is certainly welcome.

However, those of us living in the democracies of the West surely have a moral duty to exercise whatever influence we can over our governments, to remember and remain indignant at the atrocities they commit in our names.

Regardless of any revisionism, the US-led invasion of Iraq stands as one of the most inexcusable of these crimes and its legacy continues to structure political reality in Iraq and beyond.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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