Memories and omissions of Iraq wars

The Iraq wars and their consequences have been callous, bipartisan campaigns that have profoundly altered Arabs’ views of the United States, says As’ad AbuKhalil

Published: 00:00, Mar 29,2019


US Marine artillerymen set up M-198 155mm howitzer against Iraqis during Operation Desert Storm. — Wikimedia Commons

IT HAS been sixteen years since the US invasion of Iraq of 2003. The event barely gets a mention in the US press or is any longer part of American consciousness. Iraq remains a faraway land for most Americans and the remembrance of the Iraq war is only discussed from the standpoint of US strategic blunders. Little attention is paid to the suffering and humiliation of the Iraqi people by the American war apparatus. Wars for Americans are measured in US dollars and American blood: suffering of the natives is not registered in war metrics.
The Iraq calamity is not an issue that can be dismissively blamed on George W Bush alone. For most Democrats, it is too easy to blame the war on that one man. In reality, the Iraq war and its consequences have been a callous bipartisan campaign which had begun in the administration of George HW Bush and Bill Clinton after him. The war and the tight, inhumane sanctions established a record of punishment of civilians, or the use of civilians as tools of US pressure on foreign governments, which became a staple of US foreign policy.
The US government under Ronald Reagan resisted pressures to impose sanctions on South Africa under the pretext that sanctions would ‘hurt the people that we want to help’ — this at a time when the blacks of South Africa were calling on the world to impose sanctions to bring down the apartheid regime. This was the last time that the US resisted the imposition of sanctions on a country.
For the Arab people, the successive wars on Iraq — and the sanctions should be counted as part of the cruel war effort of the US and its allies — changed forever the structure of the Middle East regional system. The wars established a direct US occupation of Arab lands and it reversed the trend since WWII whereby the US settled for control and hegemony, but without the direct occupation. (The US only left the Philippines because Japan had awarded independence to the country during the war, long after the US failed to deliver on promises of independence).
Washington succeeded in the political arrangement designed by the Bush-Baker team to create an unannounced alliance between the Israeli occupation state and the reactionary Arab regime system, which included the Syrian regime, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Gulf states in the same sphere. This arrangement served to oppress the Arab population and to prevent political protests from disrupting US military and political plans, and to ensure the survival of the oppressive regimes who are willing to cooperate with the US. The Syrian regime, which cooperated with Washington in the 1991 Iraq war was even rewarded with control of Lebanon.
But the war on Iraq altered the regional structure of regimes. They were no more split into progressive and reactionary. Syria in the past was associated with the ‘rejectionist stance’, even though the Syrian regime never joined the ‘Rejectionist Front’ of the 1970s led by Saddam Hussein, the arch enemy of Syrian leader Hafidh Al-Asad.
It was no coincidence that the US invaded Iraq and expelled Saddam’s army from Kuwait in the wake of the end of the Soviet Union. The US wanted to assert the new rules just as it asserted the new rules of Middle East politics after WWII when it signaled to Britain in 1956 in Suez that it is the US and not Europe which now controls the Middle East region. Similarly, the Iraq war of 1991 was an opportunity for the US to impose its hegemony directly and without fears of escalation in super power conflict.
The US did not need direct control or colonisation after after WWII, with the exception of oil-rich Gulf region. (Historian Daniel Immerwahr makes that argument persuasively in his brand new book, How to Hide and Empire: A History of the Greater United States) After the 1973 oil embargo on western countries because of US support for Israel in that year’s war, the US military had plans on the books for the seizure of Gulf Arab oil fields. But the significance of oil has diminished over the decade especially as fracking has allowed the US to export more oil than it imports.

Indelible memory
FURTHERMORE, the previous reluctance of Gulf leaders to host US troops evaporated with the 1991 war.
But the memory of that first Iraq war remains deep in the Arab memory. Here was a flagrant direct military intervention which relied for its promotion on a mix of lies and fabrications. The US wanted to oppose dictatorship while its intervention relied on the assistance of brutal dictators and its whole campaign was to — in name at least — to restore a polygamous Emir to his throne.
The US also bought about official Arab League abandonment of Israel’s boycott, which had been in place since the founding of the state of Israel. As a reward for US convening of the Madrid conference in 1991, Arab despots abandoned the boycott in the hope that Washington would settle the Palestinian problem one way or another. Yet, the precedent of deploying massive US troops in the region was established and the US quickly made it clear that it was not leaving the region anytime soon. Regimes that wanted US protection were more than eager to pay for large-scale US military bases to host US troops and intelligence services. But that war in 1991 was not the only Iraq war; in fact, Washington was also complicit in the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, when it did its best to prolong the conflict, resulting in the deaths of some half million Iraqis and Iranians.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not about finishing an unfinished business by son toward his father. It certainly was not about finding and destroying WMDs. And no one believed that this was about democracy or freedom. The quick victory in the war of Afghanistan created wild delusions for the US war machine. Bush and his lieutenants were under the impression that wars in the region could be fought and won quickly and on the cheap. The rhetoric of ‘the axis-of-evil’ was a message from the US to all its enemies that the US would dominate the region and would overthrow the few regimes which are not in its camp. The quick ‘victory’ in Kabul was illusory about what had just happened in Afghanistan. Seventeen years later the US is now begging the Taliban — which it had gone to war to overthrow — to return to power to end the agony for US troops and for US puppets in the country who are terrified of the prospect of a country free of US occupation.
Iraq created new images of the US: from Abu Ghraib to the wanton shooting at civilians by US troops or by contractors, to the installation of a puppet government and the issuance of capitalistic decrees and laws to prevent the Iraqi government from ever filing war crime charges against the occupiers. Arabs and Muslims developed new reasons to detest the US: it is not only about Israel any more but about the US sponsorship of a corrupt and despotic regional order. It is also about Arabs witnessing first hand the callous and reckless forms of US warfare in the region. Policy makers, think tank experts, and journalists in DC may debate the technical aspects of the war and the cost incurred by the US. But for the natives, counting the dead and holding the killers responsible remains the priority. And the carnage caused by ISIS and its affiliates in several Arab countries is also blamed — and rightly so — on US military intervention in the Middle East., March 27. As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), and The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004).

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