Five years after he launched it, George Bush’s invasion of Iraq looks even more disastrous than it did at the end of the first year. Not only did it uncover no weapons of mass destruction. The invasion has led to a collapse in millions of ordinary Iraqis’ personal security, producing a human rights nightmare and annual rates of killing that dwarf the atrocities of Saddam Hussein’s three decades of power.
The damage to the United States has been enormous. As well as the loss of around 4,000 soldiers’ lives, America’s image and reputation in the Middle East have been severely harmed. For Bush and the neocons, the invasion has brought political defeat. Their project for Iraq to become a secular, liberal, pro-western bastion of democracy lies in ruins. The country is run by a narrow-minded group of Shia Islamists with close control over a sectarian army and police force. Many of them are linked to Iran.
As a result, Bush is now forced to run around the Arabian states along the Persian Gulf in an effort to build an anti-Iranian alliance and find a pretext for keeping a strategic presence in the region.
Sunni Arab revulsion at the murderous tactics of al-Qaida in Iraq, as well as the current "surge" of extra American troops, have helped to produce a welcome drop in al-Qaida’s murders of Iraqi civilians and American forces, but it has to remembered that al-Qaida was never in Iraq before the invasion. A successful reduction in al-Qaida’s power cannot outweigh all the harm Bush’s war has caused to Iraqis.
Many critics blame the occupation’s difficulties on a lack of planning, and a series of mistakes in the first few months, including the disbanding of the Iraqi army and failures to provide Iraqi with electricity and water. The line is summed up in the phrase "Winning the war but losing the peace".
But this assumes that a more intelligent and efficient occupation could have worked. It is an extraordinary notion. Like other Arabs, Iraqis have a long memory of US and British intervention in the Middle East, toppling regimes and controlling puppet governments, both to maintain an imperial presence and for the sake of oil. As soon as the Americans made it clear in mid-2003 that their occupation was going to be openended and without a timetable for troop withdrawal, Iraqi nationalists were bound to become suspicious and start resisting.
Yet L Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American overlord, as well as his political masters in Washington, used the template of the occupations of Germany and Japan in 1945. They seemed to forget they were occupying an Arab country with a long history of anti-western resistance. Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi exile whose energetic campaigning against Saddam helped to push Bush into invading, realised the point with considerable regret last year when he said "the first and biggest American error was the idea of going for an occupation".
Other Iraqi exiles, as well as foreign experts on the country, had seen the danger well before the invasion. They tried to warn Bush and Blair that there would be resentment and resistance. Saddam could be toppled easily, but this would not be victory. As long as the occupation continued, it would provoke suspicion and hostility which could quickly lead to an armed insurgency. They also pointed out that the people who would fill the post-Saddam vacuum would be Islamists, both Shia and Sunni. Whatever political structures were put in place, these anti-western groups would become the dominant force.
Amazingly, few people in the Bush administration or in the British Foreign Office got the point. Much attention has been given to Washington’s failures of military intelligence in believing Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction. The failure of political intelligence was equally disastrous. Put another way, the invaders’ real problem was not a lack of planning, but a lack of analysis.
There are many reasons, not least the fact that neither government in Washington or London had good experts. The two countries that were most enthusiastic in wanting an invasion were the two which had no embassies in Baghdad since 1990. The French, Germans, Italians and Russians — who did have embassies — predicted the future much better.
The lessons of the neocons’ defeat in Iraq are clear enough — except to the neocons themselves. If they now proceed to attack Iran, it will be another triumph of ideological blindness over the need to get the facts, and think.
Jonathan Steele’s new book is Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq.