Iraq: Twenty years of deadlock

The doctrine of pre-emptive war was established eleven years ago with the US led invasion of Iraq. It passed through congress with near unanimity though did face slightly tougher criticisms in the British Parliament, being met with worldwide protests. Compared to the level of opposition to the first Gulf war though, the second was more widely endorsed. The situation as it currently stands in the state can best be described as an internal conflict on grounds of sectarian dissension and divisions as to geopolitical persuasions, however many defence and intelligence experts have deemed it as an extenuation of broader regional turbulence.

To what extent the Bush Doctrine can still be said to be intact within the Western right wing is arguable as the nature of terrorism has undeniably evolved over time and the US Republican party is still in the phase of redefining its role post presidency, lacking a unifying figurehead. Although dangerous chemical materials still have not been discovered, what with porous borders etc. (were they in the country at any point in time), the toppling of the dictatorial Hussein regime was intended as an audacious shot to the heart of Middle Eastern tyranny. 

The debate surrounding the effectiveness of the enactment of superpower, or whether it’s still even tangible in a post Cold war world, is by far the most divisive in the militarily orientated academic community since the Vietnam war. The critical left perceive superpower as a distended overt aggrandisement of the capacity of a handful of society’s powerful members, whereas those who appreciate its democratising force  understand it as a mechanism for change. 

Whether or not one agrees with isolationism, generally the reserve of the minority of right wing conservatives, the doctrine of pre-emptive war on the grounds of installing democracy is something of a socialist conception. It is alien to many on the right as democracy’s imposition is itself contradictory what with the consent element requisite in peaceful effective democratic governance, and it is the confused merger of the two philosophies used to justify the second invasion once it became clear that the imminent threat to either the US or the UK argument did not hold water that divides the academic community to this day. That said, Saddam Hussein’s capacity to affect strategic international allies and pivotal military installations as well as the reported suppression of his own people cannot and should not go unappreciated, a similar argument to that surrounding the formulation of a response to ISIS fighters today.

The Bush era National Security Strategy was the document that laid out the intention to implement internationalist ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘free markets’; however the correlation was only minimally covered with the document’s brevity. Whilst the premise of reconstructing an economy was scooped up with both hands by corporate powerhouses, the political class and intellectuals; with the benefit of hindsight it has become ostensible that the order in which the three aforementioned ends were enacted might have been mistaken. Freedom cannot exist under military rule yet it became the slogan of the war effort. Equally free markets cannot be said to be operating with a major military presence in effect and an underdeveloped indisciplined democratic system accompanied by only minimal rule of law.

The implementation of all encompassing superpower in Iraq was not without the legitimising effect of representative voting, though some of the wide array of reasoning has subsequently been mostly discarded. There is something of an argument to be had on the grounds that proper process was cast aside and that the invasion was subject to short sightedness; a set of circumstances of their time that cannot afford to be recreated if further intervention is deemed favourable. The idealism envisaged of a flourishing trade hub functioning under a loosely secular democratic government free from coercion, yet open to ideas, has yet to be realised. Whilst the calls for a new regime do not appear to have been disputed, the key question of what ought to have replaced it has scarcely been touched still. 

It is imperative to distinguish between superpower, or legitimated hard power, such as that used in Iraq and Afghanistan to straightforward out and out imperialistic dominance. Militarism’s critics or those with diplomatic spines who take a primarily international development based approach (notably Foreign Secretary William Hague) have been forced to eat their proverbial hats after the inaction in Syria led to further unrest. Although armed conflict was voted against what followed was a confused, unpunctual and piecemeal Western response that saw the nation’s President re-elected under inauspicious and fairly dubious circumstances. Although Assad’s regime isn’t totalitarian in nature, in that he lacks both the individual dominance and the drive for unthinking mass mobilisation of a traditional fascist dictator, just how strong his mandate is is not clear. 

The relationship between Iraq’s latest wave of conflict and Syria’s unrest will do damage to the West’s reputation abroad. The soft power mechanisms still being adorned onto President Assad are piling up; resisting the absorption of previously independent bodies into the all engrossing sphere of state control is often difficult for leaders like him who hover on the borderline of hegemonic dominance. In the calms of the Syrian conflict, fleeting glimpses of traditional legitimising political mobilisation have been sighted as President Assad has relinquished some of his grip, however the Western anti-militarists still have a difficult position to defend. It is in this light in which any re-engagement in Iraq should be considered.

A ‘war on terrorism’ is really a ‘war on terrorists’. America in particular has in part debauched the rule of law, specifically by refusing to accept that ‘captured enemy combatants’ are synonymous with ‘prisoners of war’. The Geneva and Hague conventions become enforceable from the outbreak of hostilities, as expressly stated in Article 3 of Protocol 1 to which the US is a signatory. It is a lack of iridescence in this area which can lead to lingering unnecessary hostility, but the greater concern is this; if the law is not upheld so as to allow traditional combat the fallout and methods of warfare change often for the worse.

The gradual erosion of legal precedents by the turning of a blind eye is as bad as the intentional bit by bit chipping away of laws for the sake of opportunism. To substantiate illegality in such regards is difficult, and there have undoubtedly been breaches, but basic appreciations of human rights must be upheld if there is to be any long term cooperation with the civilian population. An acceptable system of military commissions has not yet been passed by the US Supreme Court since the case of Hamdan v Rumsfeld, in his executive position, deemed them unconstitutional. There  is an argument, granted, that the core attributes of the US constitution were changed somewhat to integrate the measures deemed necessary to combat the nature of the terrorist threat. The UK has passed legislation to try war criminals in the domestic courts, however the process has been very much underdeveloped and a Supreme Court challenge is likely. How important it is to pursue rogue soldiers in rare cases in comparison to the pursuance of indiscriminate butchers remains open to dispute. Those who focus to too great an extent on rare Western shortfalls quite simply cannot see the wood from the trees. It must be accepted that to engage in a conflict on the premise of installing democracy, whether or not it can in fact be imposed full stop, the premise of the rule of law must also be acknowledged and upheld. 

The introduction to the US National Security Strategy describes the war against terrorism as a ‘global enterprise of uncertain duration’, however it must be noted that this does negate one of the main principles of a war by its common understanding; time based objectives. In Iraq this factor is academic as peace accords have not yet been properly discussed let alone drafted, but ought to be considered what with the acceptance of subsequent re-engagement and the necessary legal process. Although President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, amongst other Western leaders, have been keen to distance themselves from what is perceived as other peoples’ war, the conflict’s resurgence cannot be ignored. To simply cut and run would be a denial of the burden placed on the nation’s shoulders after voting in favour of participation there via democratic process. The lack of a clear ultimatum such as the mid January 1991 withdrawal from Kuwait is grounds for criticism of the then executive branches of the nations involved.

The situation in Iraq as it stands now has changed as it is not a rogue leader but a disparate rebel faction at fault, making negotiations closer to impossible than with a dominant strongman premier. The Vietnam resemblance ought to be grounds for any reasonable policy maker to acknowledge the necessity of bringing forth support from Iraqi and regional moderates if the conflict is not to be open ended and if investment is to generate any form of long term return. That Iran would consider working with the United States is encouraging as it is the first time there has been a viable relationship between the two states since the administration of Ronald Reagan. Although slamming the door shut on the Iranians would be ill advised, the broader peace process in the area must be weighed up as grounds for disputation, in that their involvement should not take priority in preference of regional stability as a whole.

Whilst politicians and the broader public speak of the ‘mess in Iraq’ it is rarely with any real understanding of what it is that is wrong. The historic ethnic and tribal alignments have diminished in significance after twenty years of warring, as much of the nation’s cultural identity has been set aside. The need for the rebuilding of damaged infrastructure is also of relevance. The real crux of the issue is long term stability. As long as there are deep divides there will be insurgencies. Those who argue what we are witnessing at present is simply the death throes of the 2003 invasion are very much in the wrong, however how it is the conflict is to become subdued is yet to be fully established. A hybrid military and fiscal economic solution should have been drawn up in the early days of the initial conflict but now, even eleven years on, it is still far from forthcoming. 

To enshrine internationally accepted business customs into the domestic law and to ensure the upkeep of the domestic court system are integral if there is to be any form of lasting investor confidence. Corporate distrust is not unjustified after global financial difficulties so corporations wishing to engage in the local markets face the choice of doing so under precursory hefty insurance contributions, with tangible inflated prices with risk adjustment in mind at the cost of diminished competitiveness; or by ensuring the broad based support of the domestic population. The nation’s politicians and legislators must find a balance between protecting local industry and the hospitable acceptance of significant international players operating within the state if trouble is not simply to just lie dormant then re-emerge. 

Passing in and out of the consciousness of the Western world is an obligation to aid in the nation’s rebuilding but if there is any improvement that is deemed sustainable it must be a free market rather than an aid based solution. Sporadic stimuli lead to a helter skelter economic outlook, making it near impossible for agenda setters and investors to predict the desert state’s future business climate. If the militants actions can be sedated to such a degree that they can be handled by the nation’s army and police force, perhaps with nominal support, Iraq could become a successful long term trade partner rather than the quagmire it is at present with so many of its people scraping a living from a poorly managed trickle down economy. Working towards a peace agreement is of course the long term aim but how likely that is to be done so with any rapidity after so many years of turmoil is difficult to assess. 

The implementation of superpower as it is currently understood hasn’t been met with broad international support to date. The power amassed by the US and UK governments over time has been utilised with varying degrees of appropriateness and restraint. It can be argued that the highly advanced forms of economic and military structuring celebrated so fervently a decade ago have now mutated and the public’s inquisitorial drive has been stimulated. How public expenditure is allocated has become a daily topic on specialist talk shows and is breaking into the broader public debate, with the argument that expenditure is simply in the national interest failing to win over many. It is for this reason that a long term thorough and multifaceted direction must be drawn up, thrashed out and agreed upon if any long term and sustainable policy towards Iraq can be established.

The next generation will look back at the coming few years in a foreign policy manner either the same way as we do now at the last decade, a sense of mild national shame and a certain intimation of ineptitude, or with a level of contented humility. How best to handle diffuse power bases with unclear ambitions is not to supersede one overtly military solution with another but to learn from prior failings and modify mechanisms as is required. Invulnerability in a defence sense simply does not exist; if funding for under substantiated foreign jaunts is sustained then the risk of retribution always looms. To reshape Iraq’s political system in a way that makes it more accountable, leading to the appointment of a government that is accepted by both the Iraqi public and the international community, is not an ignoble objective. To have a government forced to kowtow to outside pressures is a dire compromise likely to lead to reprisals and should be acknowledged as such, however a strong independent government that can work comfortably with its neighbours and exist without antagonising its foes unnecessarily is not beyond plausibility.

Terrorism lurks in shadows and vacuums left by states’ accumulated failings. Where radicals cannot air their stance before being cast out into the wilderness of extremism or where the way in which governance is conducted is so far removed from what is acceptable but recourse is unavailable; terrorism will flourish. Once a government can say it has met the basic requirements of its demos its representatives will gain clout internationally allowing it to begin to form lasting relationships leading to longer term security and prosperity. A concerted international effort to instil key societal values, the three ends mentioned above, is different to the imposition of such values by military might. To prevent the slaughter of innocent civilians though does require militarised force. If those fighting were to hold off long enough to allow not only special forces but also urban planners, humanitarian agencies etc. to do their work they may begin to gain a legitimised societal role that could in the longer term lead to them no longer identifying as radical outsiders.

To keep abreast of the rapidly changing situation is strenuous and wearying which is all the more reason to abet in the formulation of a long term stratagem for change. How long in miles a ragtag unit gets in a day, where it is that it’s heading, out of which sect did it form; these questions might make the evening news on human interest grounds but how fundamental they are to the reformation of a derelict society and how much they contribute to the necessary debate is often lacking. In fact, the coverage that’s meant to stride to inform can drag on to the point that it serves as a distraction from what is most important. Whilst a cooperative media with a perfunctory relationship with government can generate manifest expedience it also runs the risk of limiting its own capacity to rebut and question in the name of entertaining. Serious engrained character traits or flaws are instead regularly painted as caricatures meaning real scrutiny goes avoided. 

At the height of the Iraq war casualties became so numerous that the military were hesitant even to report them. Many civilians became emaciated due to limited food supplies and, despite supplication from aid agencies, very little was done about it. Meanwhile domestically a financial abyss was forming, a foothold on which only beginning to be gained in the last few years. Grandiose imperialist plans, as the liberals depict any foreign venture, even with the best intentions behind them, it must be admitted do have a sizeable price tag attached to them. Under a fiscally conservative or centre right foreign policy position any intervention must be properly costed, a statement which is doubly true after previous shortfalls. 

Whilst there are some who suggest the invasion of Iraq was stupid they are in the minority; the main criticism is that it was simply ill conceived and poorly justified to the public. Whilst Britain is poised to support the international community in whatever its decision is regarding the continued presence in Iraq, the justification will need to be crystal clear if it is to meet anything other than yet another dead end.