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It’s been 15 years since President George W. Bush made the controversial decision to invade Iraq to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Alas, while Iraq has taken great strides forward, many of the pundits and policymakers not only continue to treat Iraq and Iraqis as a partisan football, but perpetuate false myths about its run-up and aftermath. Here are 12:
1. Sanctions killed 1 million Iraqis (and 500,000 children). False. Where did this claim come from? Saddam Hussein’s government.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, Saddam’s government claimed that United Nations sanctions resulted in more than 1 million deaths. Baghdad refused to allow humanitarian organizations to conduct independent studies to verify the claims. Unable to conduct their own surveying, some organizations adopted Iraqi government figures. In 1999, for example, UNICEF released a report that concluded that sanctions had contributed to the deaths of 1 million Iraqis. While activists often cite UNICEF as its author, Saddam’s Ministry of Health co-authored it and provided the statistics. They were nonsense numbers.
More here but, in short, there was almost no difference between Iraq’s population growth rate between 1977 and 1987 (35.8 percent), and between 1987 and 1997 (35.1 percent). Or, consider that according to the UNICEF-Saddam government report, the infant mortality rate allegedly was 98 deaths per 1,000 in 1995 while, three years later, it was 103 deaths per thousand. This would mean that as the U.N. relieved sanctions via the oil-for-food program, mortality increased. The only independent report from the time was a September 2000 Food and Agriculture Report, written in collaboration with the World Health Organization, which found half of the Iraqi adult population was overweight and two of the leading causes of mortality to be hypertension and diabetes, not diseases of the hungry.
2. The 2003 Iraq war was illegal. Wrong. Too many activists who cite international law to back their positions of the day act essentially as armchair dictators. They assume they alone can act as judge and jury and discount alternate interpretations. As first a state senator and then U.S. senator, Barack Obama repeatedly declared the 2003 Iraq war as illegal because Bush acted absent U.N. authorization. It is reasonable to debate whether or not the war was wise or necessary, but it was not illegal: Bush acted under existing U.N. Security Council Chapter VII resolutions allowing force to ensure compliance. To suggest that they were no longer binding would be to establish a precedent in which binding, enforceable Security Council resolutions expired after 13 years. To declare that the Iraq war to be illegal, therefore, risks undermining the entire basis of permanence in international law.
3. Iraq was a war of choice. Any war is one of choice, but this is the wrong framing. The question wasn’t to invade by an arbitrary date or let stability reign. The sanctions regime was actively collapsing, thanks to countries like Jordan, France, Germany, and Russia. Had it collapsed entirely, Saddam Hussein could have rebuilt his weapons programs. In some ways, of course, there is always a choice. In this case, then, the choice was to constrain Saddam or allow the restoration of his power. The status quo was not an option.
4. Bush lied. False. Bush (and Vice President Dick Cheney) read the intelligence presented them. Sometimes, that intelligence was wrong. The problem wasn’t Bush-era politicization of intelligence. The problem was more systematic and, as the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency sought to deflect blame, it remains unresolved. The core problem is that much of the Iraq-era intelligence rested on either signals intelligence (e.g. intercepted phone calls) or human intelligence (e.g. debriefing defectors).
Hussein had bluffed even his own people about having weapons of mass destruction. That meant that generals speaking to each other on the telephone might make reference to a capability they believed Iraq had and debriefs of defectors deemed not to be deceptive reinforced this claim, because the defectors also believed Saddam’s propaganda.
How to avoid multiple streams of bad intelligence each reinforcing each other? Lost in the blame game is the fact that there still is no answer.
5. Saddam had no interest in WMDs. False. Let’s put aside the residual WMD discovered in Iraq, as that fell far short of what U.S. intelligence suggested Iraq had. While true that Saddam had suspended his WMD program, he wanted to keep the illusion of one and so did not cooperate fully with inspectors. All documents seized the aftermath of his fall, however, show that the Iraqi dictator planned to restart his program as soon as sanctions collapsed. The war prevented an Iraq armed with a nuclear, biological, or chemical arsenal, period.
6. The Invasion of Iraq caused the deaths of 1 million Iraqis. False. Let’s put aside the exaggerated figures used by some analysts, most of whom cite a statistically flawed 2006 article in the Lancet, a British medical journal. Certainly, many Iraqis did die in the wake of the war, but who killed them? Most were killed not by U.S.-led forces but rather by Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.
To attribute these Iraqis’ deaths to the United States is backwards: Officials in Tehran, Riyadh, Damascus, and Amman made conscious decisions to support terrorism. The United States military worked with Iraqis to defeat that terrorism.
7. At least Iraq was stable under Saddam. False. Iraqi Kurdistan had been in a state of near-constant insurgency since 1961. As for southern Iraq, Saddam controlled the day, but even his elite Republican Guards were afraid to patrol at night. The simple truth is that as Saddam confused brutality with stability — he had gradually lost control of broad swaths of Iraq. Nor is it clear that Iraq would have been stable had Saddam remained. Let’s put aside that he’d be 80 years old if he still lived, and his sons were mentally unstable and politically unskilled. Instead, just compare Iraq to Syria: Bashar Assad was also a Baathist dictator who wielded power through terror.
Iraq today is far better off than Syria or, for that matter, Libya, and Yemen.
8. At least Saddam was a secularist. Well, yes and no. Saddam himself worshipped only himself, but he used religion as a tool. After his 1991 defeat, he “found” religion. He changed the Iraqi flag to read, in Arabic, “God is great.” And a group calling itself Saddam’s Fedayeen began terrorizing secular and professional women in Baghdad, beheading several. And Saddam Hussein’s deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, reportedly died fighting alongside the Islamic State. In reality, Saddam kept power by playing the Baath Party, military, tribes, and clergy off each other, ensuring that he could use the others to cut any group that got too powerful down to size.
9. The Iraq war created al Qaeda in Iraq. False. Remember Laurence Foley, a U.S. diplomat assassinated by al Qaeda in Iraqi leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Amman, Jordan, in October 2002? Well, that was more than four months before the war began. The post-war chaos in Iraq exacerbated the problem, but it did not create it.
10. Dismantling the Iraqi army caused Insurgency. False. Baath Party cells planned and carried out the insurgency. When U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq, the Iraqi army more or less dissolved. Ordinary conscripts went home; they never wanted to be in the Iraqi army in the first place and went AWOL at the earliest opportunity. Senior officers had blood on their hands and were loyal more to Saddam than Iraq. And the reconstructed army welcomed in most of the mid-level officers who wanted. The problem was the inefficiency with which the U.S.-led forces and the Coalition Provisional Authority paid pensions.
11. De-Baathification caused insurgency. False. Founded by a Syrian Christian in the 1940s, the Baath Party was, in its early years, a secular, socialist pan-Arabist political movement. With time, however, it became a vehicle for power, both for Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assad family in Syria. De-Baathification referred to the purge of the top four levels of the party in Iraq. Senior Baathists deemed complicit in Saddam’s regime lost their jobs and their qualification to work in government or the military.
Did this leave them no recourse but insurgency? No. Actually, re-Baathification — rehiring purged Baathists — may have done more to spark insurgency. When Gen. David Petraeus, for example, sought to co-opt Baathists by placing them in key positions in Mosul in 2004, they simply turned over the keys to the city to insurgents causing far more deaths to Iraqis and Americans than if he had left them outside power.
12. Ousting Saddam empowered Iran. Let’s put aside the intellectual inconsistency inherent in this statements by critics of the Iraq War who then support empowering Iran with other policies such as the Iran nuclear deal or caving to Iranian ambitions in Syria, Lebanon, or Yemen. The idea that ousting Saddam alone empowered Iran was false. The majority of Iraqis may be Shiite, but they have an identity distinct from Iran and often resent Iranian attempts to subordinate Iraqi interests to those of Tehran. Indeed, a democratic Iraq with religious freedom would be Iran’s Achilles’ heel. That said, Iran is resurgent but what enabled this was not Saddam’s fall but rather a combination of naive American diplomacy and a refusal to push back on Iranian interference when Tehran violated its agreements. Remain invested in Iraq, and Iraq will strengthen as an independent state rather than transform into an Iranian vassal.
Fifteen years on, Iraq has turned a corner. About 40 percent of Iraqis were born after the war and never knew Saddam Hussein. According to United Nations statistics, violence in Iraq has declined precipitously. It is now safe to walk around Baghdad, and many Iraqis are taking advantage of that city’s parks, restaurants, and shopping malls.
And, importantly, Iraqis across the ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum have real say in their governance.
When then-President Harry S. Truman embroiled the United States in the Korean War, critics accused him of embroiling America in open-ended war and ignoring his generals. They insisted democracy was alien to Korean culture. Time proved Truman right, as any juxtaposition of nuclear North Korea with democratic South Korea shows.
Increasingly, it looks like time will prove Bush right as well. Iraq and Iraqis suffered tremendously both before and after Saddam’s ouster, but left to their own devices, they now show they can and will succeed. Unfortunately, while they have overcome war and insurgency, they must still suffer under those who see them only through the lens of Washington’s partisan invective. That reflects less on them than on the tragedy of American political culture today.
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