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Iraq: Was It Worth It?

19 June 2009

Iraq: Was It Worth It?

By Gwynne Dyer

By the end of this month, all US military forces will have withdrawn from Iraqi cities. Effectively, the US war in Iraq is over. Was it worth it?

There are two quite separate balance sheets of costs and benefits, one for Iraqis and the other for Americans. It’s too early to give a final answer for the Iraqis, but for the United States the answer is definitely no.

No matter what happens in Iraq now, the Obama administration will not re-commit US troops to a combat role in the country, so we can calculate approximately how much the Iraq adventure cost the United States with some confidence. The total cost will work out at well over a trillion dollars, if we count the long-term cost of caring for the veterans.

Random attacks may kill a few hundred more American soldiers in Iraq before all the troops go home, but the final death toll will certainly be less than five thousand. That is only one-tenth of the fatalities that US troops suffered in the Korean War or the Vietnam war, so the cost in lives was relatively low for Americans. But what did the United States gain in return for that investment?

Not a subservient ally, certainly. When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held a meeting with 300 top Iraqi military commanders early this month, an American general showed up to monitor the proceedings as usual.

He was politely asked to leave. Washington’s ability to influence decisions in Iraq is dwindling by the day.

Nor has the Middle East become a safer place, because Saddam Hussein’s regime was no longer a threat to anybody except Iraqis long before the US invasion in 2003. His foolish attacks on his neighbours, first on Iran in 1980 and then on Kuwait in 1990, culminated in a total and irreversible military defeat in the Gulf War in 1991.

The United Nations arms inspectors had completely dismantled Saddam’s various projects to develop weapons of mass destruction by the mid-1990s, and the tight embargo that Iraq was under right down to the US invasion prevented it from rebuilding its armed forces after the 1991 defeat. He never again posed a military threat beyond his borders.

The current regime in Baghdad poses no threat to its neighbours either, but that changes nothing. There is a reservoir of experienced terrorist operatives in Iraq that did not exist before the US invasion, but apart from the minority of al-Qaeda extremists they have little interest in operating beyond the country’s borders. And there will be no permanent US bases in Iraq.

So the balance sheet for the United States is in the red, but not catastrophically so. The investment did not produce any worthwhile returns, but the negative consequences were not great either, and the investment was not all that big. More money has been thrown at failing American banks in the past eight months than was thrown at Iraq in six years.

What about the Iraqis, then? For them, the price in lives was far

higher: up to two-thirds of a million deaths, by some estimates. They also suffered the almost complete collapse of an economy that was already severely damaged by Saddam’s wars and the subsequent trade embargo. The level of violence has dropped sharply from its peak in 2006-07, but the monthly death toll from political killings (which includes sectarian ones) is still higher than it was during the last decade of Saddam’s rule.

For the 80 percent of Iraqis who speak Arabic, the greatest costs have been the destruction of the old secular society, which even under Saddam allowed women more freedom than most other Arab regimes, and the brutal ethnic cleansing that resulted in an almost complete physical separation of the Shia and Sunni populations. At least three million people are still afraid to return to their homes, and most never will.

That was a direct result of the American invasion, for without that the al-Qaeda fanatics would never have gained such a foothold in the Sunni community. It was the senseless al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the Shias that unleashed the civil war of 2006-07, which the Sunnis, being outnumbered three-to-one, were bound to lose. It will take at least a generation to heal this wound.

The other 20 percent of the population, the Kurds of northern Iraq, got a semi-independent state out of the invasion, though they still go along with the fiction of a united Iraq. This is not a stable arrangement, however, and the risk of an Arab-Kurdish war in Iraq over the ownership of the Kirkuk oilfields cannot be discounted.

On the other hand, Iraqis now have a more or less democratic system, with more or less free media. They have a government that is more corrupt and significantly less competent that the old Baathist regime, but will at least not waste the country’s wealth on foreign wars. Given ten or fifteen years of good luck and high oil prices, Iraq could climb back to the level of prosperity it enjoyed in the 1970s.

So was it all worth it? There is no consensus on that even among the Iraqis themselves. We may know the answer by 2020.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“That


Words and Meanings

2 April 2003

Words and Meanings

By Gwynne Dyer

The first casualty of war is not truth, which generally dies well before hostilities begin. It is language. Consider how Iraqi resistance fighters belonging to the Fedayeen organisation and the Baath Party militia have been renamed in only a week.

At first American spokespersons referred to them using neutral words like ‘irregulars’ and ‘guerillas’, for even if they are not wearing uniforms their actions are legal so long as they are clearly armed and not pretending to be civilians. But after the first suicide bomb attack the Pentagon started calling Iraqi militiamen ‘terrorists’ even if they are fighting in the open against American and British soldiers — and US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld began to talk about ‘death squads’.

This change of terms helps to buttress the fiction, now believed by 55 percent of Americans, that Saddam has links with the Islamist terrorists of al-Qaeda. Indeed, 42 percent of Americans have been tricked into believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11 thanks to the relentless juxtaposition of the two in President George W. Bush’s speeches (though he never lies outright by actually saying so). But this cynical manipulation of language pales by comparison with Saddam’s latest change of skin.

Saddam Hussein joined the Arab Socialist Baath (Rebirth) Party as a teenager, and has shared its secular and even anti-religious views all of his life. But last Monday, he wrote this in an appeal to the Iraqis and the broader Arab and Muslim worlds: “The aggression…against the stronghold of faith is an aggression on religion..and on the land of Islam. Jihad is a duty. Whoever dies will be rewarded by heaven….”

Iraq the stronghold of faith? Jihad as a duty? Give us a break. Iraq’s Baath Party is modelled on the Eastern European Communist parties of the 1950s (including party militias, torture chambers, and hostility to religion). Saddam’s hero is Joseph Stalin, not Osama bin Laden. But just as Stalin enlisted the Russian Orthodox Church in his struggle against the German invasion in 1941, Saddam is willing to ally himself with popular Islamic sentiment in his moment of supreme crisis.

He’s actually done it before, praying in the great Shia mosque in Kerbala (though he himself is of Sunni stock) at the height of the war against Iran in 1985. As a highly politicised and radical interpretation of Islam gained ground across the Arab world during the 1990s, Saddam tried to pre-empt it with public displays of devotion and a lavish programme of mosque-building. But Islamist enthusiasm continued to be a career-killer in Baathist circles, and Iraq remained the most secular of Arab states.

Now the Iraqi regime faces its gravest crisis, and suddenly it’s all about jihad and the ‘land of Islam’. And the Islamists of the Arab world, every bit as cynical as Saddam, are willing to let bygones be bygones.

Iraqi military spokesman Hazim al-Rawi declared on Sunday that “martyrdom (suicide) operations will continue not only by Iraqis but by thousands of Arabs who are coming to Iraq,” and sure enough the Palestinian rejectionist group Islamic Jihad promptly announced “the arrival of its first martyrdom attackers in Baghdad…to fulfil the holy duty of defending Arab and Muslim land.” They still privately despise Saddam, but as anger builds across the Arab world, Palestinian extremists are not going to miss out in a chance to associate their cause with Iraq’s.

Everybody in this conflict is sailing under false colours — and that certainly includes the ‘coalition forces’. The US and Britain always use this phrase because it links their enterprise, at least verbally, to the legitimate, UN-backed coalition that drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in the1991 Gulf War. That was a genuine coalition of 28 countries, 13 of them Arab, most of them with significant numbers of troops on the ground.

Mr Bush’s ‘coalition’ has no UN authority because the overwhelming majority of UN members, including a large majority of Security Council members, saw an invasion of Iraq before the arms inspectors had time to finish their work as a wanton act of aggression. It includes no Arab or Muslim countries except Kuwait. Indeed, not one of the non-Western countries that did enlist in this coalition of the bullied and the bribed has actually sent combat troops.

Several of the European countries that the White House claimed as members of the ‘coalition’ turned out not to be. Slovenia strenuously protested against its inclusion (the State Department confused it with Slovakia), Croatia denied that opening its airspace to US planes made it a member, and the Czech Republic still denies that it supports the war even though former president Vaclav Havel sent some Czech chemical warfare specialists to Kuwait. The right-wing governments of Italy and Spain publicly back the US, but faced with 90 percent-plus popular disapproval for the war can make no concrete gesture of support.

Poland, Romania and Bulgaria sent a couple of hundred troops each, but dare not commit them to combat because their own voters so strongly opposed. The Antiguas, Angolas and the Marshall Islands in the ‘coalition’ stay bought, but do nothing. The reality of the ‘coalition’ this time is two and a bit English-speaking armies — American, British, and around 2,000 Australians — attacking an Arab country all on their own.

The independent Arabic-language television network al-Jazeera started out calling the US and British troops by their own preferred title, ‘coalition forces’, but now it just refers to them as the ‘invaders’ or ‘occupiers’. Its viewers got fed up with the hypocrisy.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. “He’sactually…states”; and “Iraqi…Iraq’s”)

Saddam’s Options


17 September 2002

Saddam’s Options

By Gwynne Dyer

Put yourself in Saddam Hussein’s boots. What are his options now?

There was a global sigh of relief when President George W. Bush went to the United Nations on Thursday of last week and said he would seek a Security Council resolution before attacking Iraq. The relief was even greater on Monday, when the UN received a letter from Saddam saying he would re-admit the arms inspectors without conditions. But in fact nobody is off the hook: what President Bush actually demanded was a Security Council resolution making so many demands that Saddam would be almost bound to reject it.

The Bush administration has not abandoned the goal of ‘regime change’ in Iraq; and nothing the UN does will change that. Either it gives Bush the resolution he wants, and Saddam rejects it: result, war. Or it doesn’t, in which case Bush acts unilaterally: war again. (The former outcome is more probable, since the other big powers have essentially decided that a veneer of legality must be laid over what the US is going to do anyway, to minimise the damage that Bush’s actions would otherwise do to the fragile edifice of international law.)

Going through the UN will not derail or even delay the Bush administration’s determination to overthrow Saddam. It merely legalises it, in return for a tip of Washington’s hat towards the principles of international law. And the war could come very quickly.

A US attack is unlikely before the US Congressional elections in ovember, and Bush would not want to plunge the US back into recession by launching a December attack that sends oil prices soaring and kills the great pre-Christmas retail binge. The smart money is still on a January war that ends before the heat gets too great in April, like Bush the Elder’s ‘Desert Storm’ offensive twelve years ago. But the soldiers can be ready much sooner.

If the US decides to strike directly at Iraq’s urban centres using light, air-mobile forces (the so-called ‘Outside-In’ option), it could happen within two weeks of the decision being taken: 30,000 of the 50,000 US troops required are already in the region. Even the heavy’ option, with up to a quarter-million American and British troops launching an invasion across the borders of Kuwait, Turkey and possibly Jordan, could start in mid-November if the orders were given today.

So what does Saddam do now? He has been told repeatedly by the Bush administration that the US wants to overthrow him — in practice, to kill him — no matter what he does, so he has little incentive to behave cautiously. He also has a well-established reputation for being a strategic gambler of near-lunatic boldness: consider the attack on Iran in 1980, or the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. We should therefore expect the unexpected.

The orthodox strategy, given US air superiority, would be to leave only poorly trained conscripts on the frontiers and pull the better troops back into the built-up areas. There they will be in the right place to suppress any revolts, and if US forces plunge into the cities after them the street-fighting would cause huge Iraqi civilian casualties (good for anti-US propaganda), and perhaps quite heavy American casualties too.

That was Saddam’s strategy in 1991, and it saved him then: US forces stopped once Kuwait was liberated. But Bush I had Arab coalition partners to keep happy, and a plan for a comprehensive Middle Eastern peace, and a keen awareness that the US public would not tolerate many American casualties. Bush II has no Arab allies willing to contribute troops anyway, no peace plan, and a clear belief that the US armed forces have invented a way to win wars without significant American casualties (though that belief has yet to be tested in urban warfare).

Saddam can play the ‘cities’ strategy and hope that mounting US casualties or uprisings in the wider Arab world will end the war before US forces find his bunker, but he could easily be dead before that happens. As a fall-back strategy it makes sense, but the current political situation in the Arab world creates opportunities he did not have in 1991, when most Arab leaders were furious at him for seizing Kuwait.

Nowadays Arab public opinion is inflamed by daily television images of Palestinians dying under the guns of the Israeli occupation forces, and sees the Bush administration as wholly in Israel’s pocket. So there is a potential for changing the subject that simply wasn’t there twelve years ago.

Saddam almost certainly still has a few Scud-B missiles hidden away. They are sixty-year-old technology and he probably has no ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to put on them, but they’ll reach Israel if he fires them from the westernmost part of Iraq, bordering Jordan. They would do little damage, but Israel would retaliate massively — and then the whole strategic context changes. It’s no longer just Saddam vs. the United States, but a full-blown regional crisis that offers a cunning leader like Saddam all sorts of possibilities.

If Saddam can get Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to attack Iraq before the US offensive starts — it would only be from the air, as Iraq and Israel have no common land border — then no Arab government could let US forces use its territory to join in the attack. Sharon, who has his own strategic goals, is just itching for a pretext to hit Iraq, and all Saddam needs to justify launching his Scuds is enough Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in one day. We should watch out for an October or November surprise.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 11. (“Going…quickly”; “If…today”; and “Nowadays…ago”)

Oil Prices

March 9, 2000

Oil Prices in the Sanctions Balance

 By Gwynne Dyer

 United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has publicly told Hans von Sponeck, until recently the U.N. official responsible for coordinating humanitarian aid to Iraq, to shut up about the horrendous impact of sanctions on that country so long as he is drawing a U.N. paycheck. However, that will come to an end pretty soon – and probably so will sanctions. Only it will be Western concern for oil prices, not for the plight of ordinary Iraqis, that finally ends the sanctions.

Mr. Von Sponeck resigned from his post in mid-February, saying he could not stay because he believed that the sanctions were unfairly harming Iraq’s civilian population. The U.S. and British governments, the most enthusiastic supporters of sanctions, were furious: “I think an article in the Iraqi press praising his approach to his work is ample evidence of his unsuitability for this post,” said James Rubin of the State Department. But Mr. Von Sponeck’s predecessor, Dennis Halliday of Ireland, walked out of the job two years ago saying exactly the same thing.

It’s almost 10 years since the United Nations imposed a total ban on trade with Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. After the liberation of Kuwait, the trade sanctions were extended until all of Saddam’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons had been found and destroyed. Since that task was never satisfactorily completed, the sanctions were never lifted – and Iraq began its long descent into poverty.

The sanctions have utterly destroyed the Iraqi middle class. Women have been driven out of the work force as jobs disappeared and as the formerly irreligious Saddam decided that his best chance of riding out the storm was to wrap himself in the green banner of Islam. Worst hit were the children: A report by the U.N. Children’s Fund estimates that the death rate for Iraqi children under age 5 rose from 56 per thousand births in 1984-89, before the Gulf war and sanctions, to 131 per thousand in 1994-99.

There is disagreement about how much of the damage to the health services actually stems from U.N. sanctions and how much from Saddam’s choice to spend his limited funds on his own priorities: weapons, palaces and rewards for his key supporters. Some even accuse him of deliberately letting children die in order to generate anti-sanctions propaganda.

But the larger question is what sanctions are really for, given the growing evidence that total elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was simply not in the realm of the possible. The U.N. Special Commission charged with tracking down Saddam’s hidden weapons was withdrawn in November, 1998, with Iraq claiming that some of the agents were Western spies and the Western powers saying that Saddam was systematically hindering the commission’s work. (Both accusations were true.)

As a face-saving measure, the United States and Britain began regular attacks on Iraqi military targets: During 1999, they conducted around 15,000 sorties over Iraq, dropping thousands of tons of bombs. The United States claims 200 military installations have been destroyed; Iraq claims that 200 civilians have been killed. (Again, both allegations are probably true.) But behind this pantomime, the West has started to move toward ending sanctions.

The goad has been oil prices, which have soared from only $10 a barrel in late 1998 to more than $32 this week, mostly because the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has succeeded in restricting its members’ output. The best way to persuade OPEC to open the taps and bring the price back down into the $20s is to threaten it with a flood of Iraqi oil on the market. So in December the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1284, offering Baghdad an end to all sanctions in return for a new arms inspection mission in Iraq.

The new mission, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, would be a toothless body that posed no real threat to Saddam’s hidden weapons. It is mainly another face-saving device for the West, as is the provision that the embargo will only be lifted if a 120-day inspection turns up no hidden weapons. But Saddam immediately rejected the package. He smells blood now, and he wants a clearer victory.

As oil prices kept on rising, Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Nizar Hamdoon warned in late January that his country might stop exporting oil entirely. Maybe Saddam is overplaying his hand, as he has in the past. But when it’s election year in the United States and the party in power is afraid that rising oil prices will kill the economic boom, I’d put my money on Saddam.