Yesterday evening I had an argument with a colleague about the invasion of Iraq. It’s an old topic but it never seems to go away, especially when you’ve had a couple of beers and have already solved the meaning of life.
My colleague maintained that the invasion was all about oil. I claimed that America was swimming in oil and therefore had no need to invade another country for that particular resource.
This morning, in the cold light of day, that statement seems to me to fall somewhere between ingenuous and nonsense. It is true that America sits on the largest deposits of shale oil in the world. However, this wasn’t necessarily known back in 2003 and it still remains difficult to extract the oil from the shale. And even if its presence was known and could be taken out of the ground with a bucket and spade, that’s still no reason not to want someone else’s oil. After all, who can ever get enough of the stuff?
I therefore retract that objection to America’s possible reasons for invading Iraq. In my defence I plead provocation as the cause for my daft reply. I am just sick to death of the ‘It was all about oil’ argument.
Most people share my colleague’s view that the whole escapade was really about oil. Yet if America had wanted oil so badly, why didn’t they just do a deal with Saddam Hussain like Jacques Chirac of France did? This would have saved them the costs of a huge military campaign. Invading another country just to steal its oil for a few years would be like mounting a huge operation involving hundreds of men just to raid a cigarette machine. It would be cheaper and simpler to just shove a couple of coins in the slot.
My own view is that oil did play a small role in the invasion of Iraq but no bigger than the 23 other reasons, though the so-called anti-war movement thinks it was the only reason. I prefer to call the ‘Anti-War Movement’ the ‘Pro-Saddam’s Continued Torture Movement’ since Iraqis could have languished forever in Saddam’s torture chambers for all the anti-war people cared. I at least read some of the reports coming out of Iraq prior to the invasion and many Iraqis didn’t care who invaded them, just so long as they got rid of Saddam. I doubt that many Anti-war people bothered reading anything other than Slate and the Guardian. Iraqi dissidents like Kanan Makiya were of no interest to them. Their movement was much more anti-American than anti-war.
I think that America wanted to secure the oil resources coming out of the Middle East because it believed Saddam might consider blocking shipping passing through the Straits of Hormuz. Had he done this, this would not only have been bad for America but for everyone.
Once America had control of Iraq it tendered contracts to oil companies who paid for the privilege of getting oil out of the ground and then selling it for a profit. It is hardly unusual for foreign companies to operate abroad, especially in countries that are barely functioning. It simply isn’t the case that America marched into Iraq and immediately started plundering Iraq’s oil reserves. The revenue generated went towards financing the cost of rebuilding Iraq after Saddam and his crime family had run it into the ground. This, in my opinion, is the extent to which oil played a role in the invasion.
Another objection to the invasion was the subsequent inability of the Americans and Brits to find the weapons of mass destruction they claimed were there, though as Christopher Hitchens said, no one was more surprised than Saddam to find out that Iraq’s WMD program was no longer operational. And just because no weapons were found does not mean there never were any. They could still be hidden away somewhere or they could have been spirited out of the country and into Syria during the long run up to the invasion. The head of the Saddam’s Iraqi nuclear program has written a book about the whole thing called ‘The Bomb in My Garden‘. I wonder if anyone from the anti-war movement has bothered to read it?
People love to say that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq yet they fail to mention that evidence was found that Saddam was trying to attain nuclear weapons partly through his own program, and partly through the buying of parts and materials off the shelf from rogue states. They also forget that Saddam had already used chemical weapons against both the Iranians and his own people, the Marsh Arabs and the Kurds, as well as invading the neighbouring country of Kuwait to steal its oil. After being driven out of Kuwait, Saddam said that his one mistake was to invade Kuwait before he got nuclear weapons. Had he got his hands on those then no one could have removed him from Kuwait, or anywhere else he fancied going.
Of course the main reason for the invasion was non-compliance with Resolution 1441. Saddam had seen that when he failed to comply with the UN’s weapons inspectors there were absolutely no consequences for non-compliance, despite the UN threatening ‘serious consequences’. For decades he played cat and mouse with the UN and how he must have giggled at the latest threat. Resolution 1441 was issued, threatening serious consequences if Saddam didn’t comply. He was correct in guessing that this threat, like all the previous ones, would not be carried out by the UN. What he was wrong about was that this time America, Britain and a few other countries would be willing to carry out the threat without the help of the bumbling and corrupt UN.
The Russians and French didn’t join in. People thought they must be more moral than the Americans. In fact they had lucrative deals in Iraq that they had no wish to see disrupted. Other UN countries that hated America were pleased to see someone stand up to them, even if it was a murderous maniac who had shot dead two of his relatives at the dinner table and whose son, Uday, drove around Baghdad with his bodyguards, looking for weddings so that he could rape the bride.
Saddam was known to support and harbour terrorists. After 9/11 it was in America’s interest to come down hard on any regime that was friendly towards terrorists. This included Saddam’s Iraq.
That America was suddenly prepared to take the bull by the horns must have scared the living daylights out of some tyrants in the Middle East and the invasion of Iraq immediately brought about one positive result: Colonel Gaddafi saw what might happen to himself if he continued to fund terrorism and hoard weapons of mass destruction. He therefore came clean, gave up his anti-Western stance and was welcomed back into the international fold after decades as a pariah.
America hoped that when it toppled Saddam and installed a democracy this would act as an example to the rest of the Middle East. America would then have good trading partners rather than having to deal with either evil tyrants or Islamic nutcases. This idea came from the men that were referred to as Neocons and their strategy was known as ‘nation-building’. They felt it was in everyone’s interest to create as many democracies as they could around the world since democracies are in general more peaceful and civilised than any other kind of -ocracy.
Yet none of that worked out and it is likely that it was the invasion of Iraq that lit the fuse for the so-called Arab Spring, the popular push for democracy in Arabic countries that soon turned from a democratic movement into the rule of Islamic fundamentalists. Such things aren’t unusual in history. The French Revolution was a popular movement that was hijacked by Napoleon, just as the popular Russian Revolution was hijacked by Lenin and Stalin. Now the Muslim Brotherhood has hijacked the democratic movement in Egypt and the same thing is happening in other Arabic countries.
Seeing what has happened to Egypt and Libya after the Arab Spring, the West is now reluctant to get too involved in Syria. On the one hand it doesn’t like tyrants like Assad and would like to help the would-be democrats. One the other hand there is no point in helping democrats if they immediately lose power to fundamentalist Muslims, men who really do pose a threat to the West. Faced with such a dilemma it would be better just to stay out of things.
America has learned lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and has discovered that it is nearly impossible to impose democracy on a people who have no history of it abd care little for it. Americans completely underestimated the level of hatred between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq and they now have no desire to station American soldiers for decades to come in Iraq and Syria. American soldiers might be good at winning wars but they make poor policemen and this shouldn’t be their job. I don’t blame America at all for not wanting to repeat in Syria the mistakes of Iraq.
Apart from that, intervening is a thankless task. It costs a lot of money, the Left-wing media at home accuse you of war-mongering and this makes you unpopular with a large section of your own population. The people of the country you have invaded invariably want to blow you up if you don’t manage to get everything working just as they’d like it.
Be that as it may, if American soldiers can just keep the Islamic mercenaries and the crazies from the Shia and Sunni sects from destroying Iraq’s fledgling democracy then the whole enterprise stands a chance of being something more than just a hugely expensive waste of money and lives.
While the invasion was happening I couldn’t decide how I felt about it. After the fighting was over and we saw people trampling on the statue of Saddam I thought it was probably a good thing. Then when the violence continued for years and years and I changed my mind and decided it had probably all been a mistake. Now I believe that we should just leave the Middle East alone.
Of course if Obama does decide to intervene in Syria then the usual suspects will assume it must be just one more oil grab, given that America allegedly only ever acts selfishly. Then when a bomb is planted in an American city by some Syrian who is unhappy about America’s intervention in his country, these same westerners will say they deplore this kind of violence but they can kind of understand it, given the way that America meddles in the affairs of Muslim countries. In saying such things these people prepare the ground for the next self-righteous bomber or head-hacker.
There is one point that silly people often miss, and that is that a country should only intervene when it can do so at minimal risk to itself. Even if China or Russia were the worst countries in the world, it would be reckless of America to think it either could or should try to force them to change. That would be the best way to start World War III. It’s the same on an individual level. If you pass a group of squabbling 7-year-olds you should stop and pull them apart. If you see a group of 20 skinheads having a fight, you have no moral obligation to step in. Doing so would simply be too dangerous to yourself in a way that parting children isn’t.
To sum up I think America invaded Iraq partly to secure the Straits of Hormuz; partly because they really believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; partly because Saddam was playing games with the UN and weapons inspectors and Resolution 1441 required some kind of action from someone; partly because they thought they could bring democracy to Iraq and possibly the whole region; partly because Saddam had invaded a neighbouring country and used chemical weapons against his enemies years before and the Americans felt they now had a chance to do what they should have done during the first Gulf war, namely, depose Saddam; partly because Saddam was known to be financing and harbouring terrorists; partly because the Americans wanted to warn other countries that they shouldn’t become too brazen in their anti-American stance; and partly because Saddam had violated so many human rights and brutalised his people. Basically, Iraq ticked all the boxes in a way that no other country did.
If after making a list of reasons like the one above you still decide not to invade a country, then you will probably never invade anywhere. This will make you very popular with ‘The Let Saddam Continue Torturing Movement’ and in the pages of the Guardian but you shouldn’t be surprised when the Saddams of this world or the non-state actors backed by Saddam and Iran, after having had time and space to organise, come to us. And when they do it might make 9/11 look like a walk in the park. Then even Guardian readers might wish we had crushed the terrorists coming out of the Middle East while we had the chance.
There is another theory about why America invaded Iraq. It is a very straightforward idea. It is that invading other tribes is simply what men do and have always done. On this view, America invaded Iraq because it is a bully.
I don’t think the facts back up this theory. Since the whole point of such tribal raids is to kill, rape, burn and steal as much as possible then America failed miserably if that was its goal. America tried to keep Iraqi casualties to a minimum and after the invasion they poured billions of dollars of aid into Iraq. As far as I know, rape and willful destruction are not among the accusations that have been levelled at American forces. This theory also fails to explain why America invaded Iraq rather than weaker countries like Kuwait and Oman. After all, don’t bullies pick on the weakest victims?
3 years later. Here is a good article on the causes of the Iraq war by Victor David Hanson.
6 years later, here is a great article by Tal Tyagi on how the war couldn’t have been for oil.