The choice: two kinds of disaster

by Robert Manne (SMH, November 17, 2003)


Seven months ago the neo-conservative supporters of the war on Iraq proclaimed a stunning victory. As the military situation in that country deteriorates, it is time to attempt a balance sheet on the progress of the invasion and occupation.

Concerning the justification for the invasion, the overwhelmingly most important fact is the failure to find even one "weapon of mass destruction". Oddly enough, it is now obvious that the oft-repeated pre-war Iraqi claim - that it did not possess WMDs - was true. One of the most important questions the Anglophone democracies must now face is how and why their citizens were so comprehensively misled.

Best evidence suggests the near-total politicisation of the intelligence process by a Washington pro-war cabal, whose leader was the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney. It is now known that this cabal created its own intelligence unit, the Office of Special Plans; that stale or worthless intelligence, supplied either by carpetbaggers or Iraqi exiles, was re-analysed to get the required results; that the pro-war group overrode more cautious judgements of intelligence professionals; and that it convinced not only the President but even more intelligent people, like the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, of the deadly danger of Saddam Hussein's vast WMDs arsenal.

What has been the human cost of the invasion? The most authoritative estimate of Iraqi civilian war deaths puts the figure at between 7376 and 9178. Since the formal end of hostilities another 2200 or so have died at coalition hands. Strangely enough, no one knows, even approximately, how many Iraqi soldiers were killed. The humanitarian group, Medact, recently suggested that the number might be as low as 13,500 or as high as 45,000.

What, then, beyond their casualties, have the Iraqi people experienced since the invasion? According to US occupation authorities supplies of electricity and clean water have finally reached their pre-invasion levels. Urban Iraq faces massive unemployment. According to one common figure, 60 per cent of young men in Baghdad have no work. Health problems seem even worse than they were before the invasion, that is, after a decade of crippling economic sanctions.

These problems are overshadowed in the daily life of urban Iraqis by something quite new. Before the invasion Saddam set free 100,000 hardened criminals. The occupying powers dismantled Iraq's army and most of its police. Iraq is awash with weapons. The consequence of all this is the near-total breakdown of law and order. In a recent Gallup poll, 94 per cent of Iraqis said they felt more insecure now than under Saddam.

Through opinion polls we now know a great deal about what the people of Iraq think about the invasion of their country. According to the recent Gallup poll, 43 per cent believe that America invaded to "rob Iraq's oil"; 37 per cent to get rid of Saddam; 6 per cent to change the Middle East in the interest of Israel; 5 per cent to assist the Iraqi people; 4 per cent to destroy WMDs; 1 per cent to introduce democracy.

And what do they think of the occupation? Seventy per cent believe life will be better in five years. Most are pleased Saddam is gone. Only 40 per cent, however, believe democracy can work in Iraq. Two-thirds want US and British troops to leave within the year. A sizeable minority thinks the attacks on the US and British troops are sometimes justified. About one-third think that the US will "help" Iraq over the next five years. One half think it will do "harm". As the US pollster John Zogby puts it: "Only one thing is clear: the predicted euphoria of Iraq has not materialised."

Since the occupation the military situation has steadily deteriorated. In May attacks on coalition troops were rare. In the summer they averaged 12 a day. At present the daily average is 35 to 40. Towards the beginning of the occupation there were two or three coalition troop deaths a week. In the past fortnight or so there have been close to 60. Soft targets have repeatedly been blown apart. Last week the CIA station chief in Baghdad warned that large numbers of Iraqis now support the insurgency.

What is truly astonishing is how little the US military knows about the enemy. It does not know whether or not Saddam is involved. According to the US military chief, General John Abizaid, there are 5000 insurgents; according to one US intelligence assessment, 50,000. The official US line is that the enemy is composed exclusively of foreign Islamists and diehard Baathist remnants. Journalists, however, have discovered anti-Saddam tribesmen who have entered the struggle because of their ancient code of honour, after the death of clansmen at coalition hands.

What, then, of the political situation? When the coalition entered Iraq it planned the swift introduction of democracy. Such a hope had no chance. In order for democracy to succeed Iraq has to shrug off its Saddamite totalitarian legacy; invent a liberal-democratic tradition where none exists; transcend religious conflicts; reconcile the different world views of the profoundly religious and profoundly secular segments of society; satisfy the nationalist appetites of the long-starved ethnic Kurds.

No form of government is more difficult to create than a federal democracy divided on ethnic and religious lines. It took the Swiss several hundred years. Iraq is being asked to lay the foundations in months, at a time of occupation and military insecurity, in order to meet the re-election timetable of Bush.

As things stand, the coalition must now choose in Iraq between two different kinds of disaster. If its troops stay the course, they seem certain to face increasing popular hostility and military threat. If they depart relatively soon, Iraq will almost certainly descend into chaos of a fearful kind. To remain will be terrible; to leave probably worse.

Robert Manne is professor of politics at La Trobe University.

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