The scene of attack on US army Humvees in the al-Waziriyah quarter of Baghdad, April 2004. Photograph: Moises Saman/Magnum Photos, April 2004. Photograph: Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
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The hawks were wrong: Mehdi Hasan on why Iraq is worse off now

Saddam is gone – but at what cost?

You are invited to read this free preview of the latest issue of the New Statesman, out on 14 February. To purchase the full magazine - with our Iraq cover package including this piece by Mehdi Hasan alongside articles by John Lloyd, Caroline Hawley, Adnan Hussein and Ian Taylor, as well as our signature mix of opinion, longreads and arts coverage - please visit our subscription page.

On Saturday 15 February 2003, more than a million of us – students, toddlers, Christians, Muslims, nuns, Telegraph readers – gathered in Hyde Park for the biggest public demonstration in British history. “Not in my name,” we chanted, as a series of speakers – from Charles Kennedy to Jesse Jackson – lined up to denounce the impending invasion of Iraq.

In Glasgow, a sombre yet defiant prime minister delivered a speech to Labour Party activists. Responding to the march in London, Tony Blair declaimed: “The moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam.” He continued, “It is not the reason we act. That must be according to the United Nations mandate on weapons of mass destruction. But it is the reason, frankly, why if we do have to act, we should do so with a clear conscience.”

Whether or not Blair’s conscience remains “clear” is, as he once pointed out, between him and God. But a decade on from the debate about dodgy dossiers, WMDs, 45-minute warnings and various clauses and subclauses of UN Resolution 1441, those of us who marched against the war stand vindicated. We were right; the hawks were wrong.

It isn’t the size of our demonstration that those of us against the war should be proud of, it is our judgement. Our arguments and predictions turned out to be correct and those of our belligerent opponents were discredited. Remember the rhetoric? There was “no doubt” that the invaders would “find the clearest possible evidence of Saddam’s weap­ons of mass destruction” (Blair) as well as evidence of how Iraq had “provided training in these weapons [of mass destruction] to al-Qaeda” (Colin Powell); the foreign troops would be “greeted as liberators” (Dick Cheney); “the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East” would be “a watershed event in the global democratic revolution” (George W Bush).

It was a farrago of lies and half-truths, of delusion and doublethink. Aside from the viewers of Fox News, most people are now aware that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, no ties between secular Saddam and Islamist Osama. The fall of the Ba’athist dictatorship failed to usher in a democratic or human-rights revolution. Every argument advanced by the hawks proved to be utterly false.

The Iraq war was a strategic disaster – or, as the Tory minister Kenneth Clarke put it in a recent BBC radio discussion, “the most disas­trous foreign policy decision of my lifetime . . . worse than Suez”. The invasion and occupation of the country undermined the moral standing of the western powers; empowered Iran and its proxies; heightened the threat from al-Qaeda at home and abroad; and sent a clear signal to “rogue” regimes that the best (the only?) means of deterring a pre-emptive, US-led attack was to acquire weapons of mass destruction (see Korea, North).

There may have been a strong moral case for toppling the tyrant and liberating the Iraqi people – but there was a much stronger moral case against doing so. Brutal and vicious as Saddam’s reign had been, a “humanitarian intervention” could not just be justified in March 2003, given the complete absence of an ongoing or imminent mass slaughter of Iraqis. Some of us warned that the cost of action, in blood and treasure, would far outweigh the cost of inaction.

And so it came to pass. The greatest weapon of mass destruction turned out to be the invasion itself. Over the past ten years, Iraqis have witnessed the physical, social and economic destruction of their country – the aerial demolition of schools, homes and hospitals; the siege of cities such as Fallujah; US-led massacres at Haditha, Mahmudiyah and Balad; the biggest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

Between 2003 and 2006, according to a peer-reviewed study in the Lancet medical journal, 601,000 more people died in Iraq as a result of violence – that is, bombed, burned, stabbed, shot and tortured to death – than would have died had the invasion not happened. Proportionately, that is the equivalent of 1.2 million Britons, or six million Americans, being killed over the same period. In a typically defensive (and deceptive) passage in his memoirs, Blair described the Lancet report as “extensively challenged” and said its figures were “charged with being inaccurate and misleading”. Sir Roy Anderson, the then chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, told ministers in an internal memo that its methods were “close to ‘best practice’” and the study design was “robust”.

Presumably, denialism is how hawks sleep at night. They dispute the studies that have uncovered the human cost of the war – whether it be the civilian casualties across the country, or the torture and abuse inside Iraq’s prisons (which a UN investigator described in 2006 as “worse than it has been in the times of Saddam Hussein”), or the fivefold increase in birth defects and fourfold increase in cancers in and around Fallujah. Or they try to blame the violence and turmoil in Iraq exclusively on terrorists, “jihadists” and “Islamofascists”. Few would dispute that most of the killings in Iraq have been carried out by the sadistic monsters who fight for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But to focus only on the crimes of AQI (or “al-Qaeda in Iraq”) represents a gross moral evasion.

First, according to the Lancet survey, 31 per cent of the excess deaths in Iraq can be attributed to coalition forces – about 186,000 people between 2003 and 2006. Second, most studies show that only a minority of Iraqi insurgents were card-carrying members of AQI. The insurgency kicked off in Fallujah on 28 April 2003 as a nationalist campaign, long before the arrival of foreign jihadists but only after US troops opened fire on, and killed, 17 unarmed Iraqi protesters. Third, there were no jihadists operating in Iraq before our Mesopotamian misadventure; Iraq had no history of suicide bombings. Between 2003 and 2008, however, 1,100 suicide bombers blew themselves up inside the country. The war made Iraq, in the approving words of the US general Ricardo Sanchez, “a terrorist mag­net . . . a target of opportunity”.

The Iraq invasion turned out to be the best recruiting sergeant that Muslim extremists could ever have prayed for, radicalising thousands of young men from the Middle East to the Midlands. Listen to the verdict of the former head of MI5, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller: “Whatever the merits of putting an end to Saddam Hussein, the war was also a distraction from the pursuit of al-Qaeda. It increased the terrorist threat . . . [and] spurred some British Muslims to turn to terror.”

Ultimately, say some hawks, such arguments are irrelevant. Didn’t Iraqis welcome the removal of Saddam? Despite the bloodshed, isn’t their nation better off as a result of the war? Not quite. “Let me clear it up for any moron with lingering doubts,” wrote the Iraqi blogger known by the pseudonym Riverbend on her blog Baghdad Burning in February 2007. “It’s worse. It’s over. You lost... You lost every sane, red-blooded Iraqi when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out... You lost when you brought murderers, looters, gangsters and militia heads to power...”

In September 2011, a Zogby poll found that 42 per cent of Iraqis thought they were “worse off” as a result of the Anglo-American invasion of their country, compared to only 30 per cent of Iraqis who said “better off”. An earlier poll, conducted for the BBC in November 2005, found a slim majority of Iraqis (50.3 per cent) saying the Iraq war was “somewhat” or “absolutely” wrong.

Should we be surprised? The post-Saddam government, observes the noted Iraqi novelist and activist Haifa Zangana, is “consumed by sectarian, ethnic division, but above all by corruption”. The Human Rights Watch 2012 report shows how the rights of the Iraqi people are “violated with impunity” by their new rulers. In his book Iraq: from War to a New Authoritarianism, Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics documents how the war has produced an Iraqi system of government not so different from the one it replaced. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Dodge argues, is leading his country towards “an incredibly destructive dictatorship”. The establishment of a liberal democracy on the banks of the Tigris remains a neocon pipe dream.

So, Saddam is gone – but at what cost? Iraq has been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of innocent people have lost their lives, as the direct result of an unnecessary, unprovoked war that, according to the former chief justice Lord Bingham, was a “serious violation of international law”. “It was worse than a crime,” said the French diplomat Talleyrand, responding to the execution of the Duc d’Enghien by Napoleon; “it was a blunder.” Iraq turned Talleyrand’s aphorism on its head – it was worse than a blunder; it was a crime.

Mehdi Hasan is the political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman. This piece is also published on huffingtonpost.co.uk

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit