Iraq: Missing the Point

26 May 2006

Iraq: Missing the Point

 By Gwynne Dyer

They still don’t get it.

US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, giving their umpteenth joint press conference at the White House on Thursday, showed the amateurs how to deal with the media. Wry, humble, funny, rueful, always upbeat — they were a polished double act that could have put a positive spin on the Black Death. Iraq has allegedly “turned the corner” again: after five months of bitter deadlock. A new government has taken office in Baghdad that only lacks a defence minister and an interior minister, and Bush and Blair were there to sell it as a success.

The press always like to have its tummy tickled, so all the questions were basically friendly. The answers to the last question, however, were very revealing. A journalist recalled that both men have admitted to missteps and mistakes in Iraq, and asked them which ones they regretted most.

President Bush did public penance for his macho remarks about the Iraq resistance movement — “bring em on” — back in the hyper-confident “Mission Accomplished” days of 2003. It was charming, vintage Bush: “I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner, you know.” And he avowed that “the biggest mistake that’s happened so far, at least from [in terms of] our country’s involvement in Iraq, is Abu Ghraib.”

He is a bit behind the times. The massacre at Haditha last November will leave Abu Ghraib in the shade when the full story comes out. As Brigadier-General David M. Brahms, a former top lawyer for the US Marine Corps, told the “Washington Post” last week: “When these investigations come out there’s going to be a firestorm. It’s worse than Abu Ghraib. Nobody was killed at Abu Ghraib.”

Tony Blair aimed for a more reflective tone: “I think that probably…we could have done de-Baathification in a more differentiated manner than we did…But the biggest reason why Iraq has been difficult is the determination by our opponents to defeat us.”

Now there’s a novel concept: our opponents are determined to defeat us. No wonder that Blair added: “Maybe in retrospect, when we look back, it should have been very obvious to us.” But the resentful whine in Blair’s voice was entirely genuine: how was he to know they would fight back? Maybe he could have done de-Baathification a bit better, but apart from that it’s not his fault.

Tony Blair is a fairly bright man, and George W. Bush is not as dim as he seems, so how can they be so obtuse about Iraq? De-Baathification, re-Baathification, retro-Baathification — nothing can change the basic fact that the Baath party that had ruled Iraq since the 1960s was deeply nationalist and profoundly hostile to the United States (because it is Israel’s closest ally) and to Britain (the former imperial ruler of Iraq).

Fire all the Baathists, and they will go underground and join the resistance. Leave them in their jobs, and they will be a fifth column of spies and saboteurs for the resistance. Likewise for the empty debate about whether US proconsul Paul Bremer made a fatal mistake by disbanding the entire Iraqi army in the spring of 2003. Disband the army, and several hundred thousand trained men will take their skills and their weapons and join the resistance. Leave the existing army in place, and its officers will sell the foreign occupation troops out to the resistance at every opportunity while awaiting the right moment for a national uprising against the foreigners.

The original decision to invade Iraq was the fatal mistake; the rest is just consequences. Iraq’s government was crueller and less loved than most regimes in the Arab world, but the United States and Britain would be facing the same kind of resistance movement today if they had invaded Morocco, Egypt or Yemen in 2003. There is no country of over two million people in the Arab world where an invading American army would not soon be confronted by the kind of resistance it is facing in Iraq.

History matters, and for Arabs all the history is bad. Britain lured the Arabs into revolt against their Turkish overlords in the First World War with a promise of independence, then carved them up into the familiar Middle Eastern states of the present and bound them all in colonial servitude. It also promised Jews a national homeland in Palestine, the state of Israel — which America has unstintingly supported, regardless of Israel’s policies towards its Arab neighbours, for over forty years. Why would any Arab country welcome an invasion by the United States and Britain?

This is a concept — that we are unloved in the Arab world because of our past behaviour — that is very hard to get across to the public in Yorkshire and Texas. But then, it’s a notion that is also very hard to get across to the governments in Washington and London. They seem to feel that good intentions (as defined by themselves) should be enough to bridge the gap.

If some other country had invaded Iraq with the best of intentions– Russia, say, or Japan — it might have got away with it. But the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq was doomed from the first, and Bush and Blair had dozens of experts on call who could have told them why. Either they didn’t listen, or they chose not to ask.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“He is…Ghraib”; and “This is…gap”)