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The Iraq Invasion Through an Uncolored Lens

American soldiers and Iraqi civilians pulling down Saddam Hussein's statue in central Baghdad, April 9, 2003. Photo: AP
American soldiers and Iraqi civilians pulling down Saddam Hussein's statue in central Baghdad, April 9, 2003. Photo: AP


NEW YORK – “It was difficult to witness,” says Remziya Suleyman, about the US invasion of Iraq 10 years ago. “There was lots of wrongdoing,” she recalls. “Things are much different,” she adds, especially for the Kurds of Iraq who are enjoying both autonomy and prosperity.

Remziya, a young director with Kurdish roots at the Muslim advocacy group, American Center for Outreach, is not alone in her thinking. The Kurdish population of Iraq has benefited tremendously from the war that ousted Saddam Hussein. They have their own autonomous region, and their most influential thinkers and freedom fighters in positions of power in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). 

Additionally, the KRG has seen a stark increase in wealth. As noted by President Talabani, for instance, the Kurdish city of Sulaimani saw the number of millionaires increase from 12 to 2,000, between 2003 and 2006 alone.

What is more, this is only the beginning: A large part of the current growth is from oil exports, which will only rise after the construction of an oil pipeline for faster, safer, and cheaper transport from the KRG to Turkey.  As of 2010, the per capita GDP in the Kurdistan Region was $4,500. According to World Bank numbers, this is a higher per capita GDP than that of the Philippines, India, Pakistan, and even Iraq as whole. Things have only been improving since.

Yet, only nine years before the US-led invasion, the Kurdistan Region was in a state of civil war between President Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PUK, and less than a decade before that Kurds were being systematically massacred by Saddam during the Anfal campaign.

But 10 years since the beginning of the invasion, the amazingly rapid increase in the quality of life and general prosperity of Kurdistan that followed the Iraq invasion has largely been buried in the West beneath a zeitgeist clogged with apologetic think pieces and nostalgic referendums on what could have been. This is not to say that any of these essays is wrong, per se.  Indeed, the inherent inanity of the invasion is, of course, true. But that thinking has become all but cliche at this time.

For the most part, these essays begin with the author’s rationale as to why they supported the war in the first place. Ezra Klein, the imminent American columnist and thinker, for instance, writes in his apology letter that the policy he supported back in 2003 was one promoted by Ken Pollack, an American expert on the Gulf, who proposed that, America “first focus on destroying al-Qaeda… then work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only then should (America) turn to Hussein.”

Writer Jonathan Chait, points to an American need to enforce the UN agreement, created post-Gulf War, to ensure that Iraqis do not develop chemical or nuclear weapons. And David Frum, a speechwriter for former president George W. Bush, writes of fear due to the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax scare. All three credit the infamous bad intelligence presented to the United Nations and allied governments regarding chemical weapons in Iraq as a major reason they supported the war.

Likewise, all three men echo the same sentiment: the invasion was not only a failure, but a bad idea to begin with.

The problem, though, is that these concerns are all Western-centric and fail to focus on the ultimate political consequences and intricacies of Iraq itself.

For instance, the invasion helped solve issues of corruption that hurt any chance of economic growth. One example was the corruption within the UN-Iraqi Oil-for-Food program, which had allowed certain groups within Saddam’s government (and the UN) to horde money, oil, food, and even medicines, while stopping certain groups (particularly the Kurds) from getting an equal portion.

Post-invasion, though, groups like the Kurds were able to profit from their oil reserves more fairly (though there are oil-rich regions like Kirkuk that are still a point of controversy between the KRG and the Iraqi government).

On the other hand, you have members of the Sunni minority (already shaken after the civil war during the American occupation) who are, frankly, scared by their limited role in the current government (especially with the ouster of the Sunni-backed former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, in favor of the Shiite Nuri al-Maliki). The current protests building up to this year’s elections reflect this problem.

These are two of many examples of the mark the war has left on Iraq, and represent two sides of the same coin: The side that most Kurds, for example, see as having benefited them, and the side that the West sees as having left the nation in a state of continued sectarian divisions and political turmoil.

Such Iraq-centric political questions are all-but entirely ignored in most essays, specifically the three mentioned above.

When analyzing the aftereffects of the war, however, Quil Lawrence reminds the careful reader in his book, Invisible Nation, to pay close attention to the faux-axiom: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

In other words, it is important to remind ourselves that the actual reasons for going into the war: First, the reasons were not directly correlated to the positive results, such as for Kurdistan and many Shias; and second, they did not take any real consideration of the possible negative results the war might have upon sectarianism in the region.

Very few of these apology essays from US authors -- and none of the three mentioned above --- so much as reference the possible positive consequences in Iraq. Certainly, the more than 100,000 total casualties that occurred when working toward the war’s initial goal (namely the death of Saddam) does -- and should -- overshadow any unintentional positive consequences. But this does not mean they should be ignored altogether.

The problem, of course, is that while it might be prudent and “correct” to talk like a realist in retrospect, it is much easier to be a retrospective realist than it is to be a realist in the present (see Robert Kaplan’s take on this in The Revenge of Geography). To admit that the political intricacies of Iraq before and after the invasion were (and, generally, still are) unknown to most Americans would mean the US not only made calculated mistakes politically and militarily, but also failed in how it viewed the needs of the average Iraqi citizen and Iraq’s national interests.

In the vein of post-hoc realism, Klein writes, “Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq war to support.”

Likewise, Frum points to part of the Bush administration’s own rationale for invasion as being, “not only fear… [but] also passionate enthusiasm for a new Middle East.”

This initial, enamored look at the war as not just a campaign against an enemy of America, but a campaign for an idealistic foreign policy or a better, more Western Middle East, seems to reflect a general consensus among Americans, which has transitioned into regret more and more since mid-2005, according to Gallup.

In the end, though, people like Remziya and her family -- traditional KDP supporters who left during the Gulf War -- see the political future of places like Kurdistan as promising, thanking the US for its help.

To say that the war was justified is difficult (and most would say probably not); but to ignore the external political consequences is just blatantly wrong.

Whether or not the American perspective on the war will ever -- or should ever -- take into account the perspective of those whose homeland was directly affected by the invasion, is up to each individual to decide.



Kurd | 24/3/2013
From a kurd's perspective, getting rid of Saddam was a major relief and there is no doubt he was a walking devil who caused major damage to the country. Having said that, I would like to point out the following about the invasion of Iraq: 1) the Kurdish region was already independent from Saddam and didn't need the invasion to become wealthy. They had their resources and would've still been able to survive even if a weakens Saddam was still in power 2) The invasion helped get rid of one aspect of corruption, but produced more venues of corruption under different names. More money has been stolen and laundered by the Anerican and western construction and defense companies than ever happened in the history of Iraq 3) the number of millionaires in Sulaimaniya increased but public service stayed the same, which means those millionaires have somehow taken over public wealth 4) the invasion could've been handled in a more organized fashion and we didn't have to lose billions of dollars to companies owned by Dick Cheney and his companions. 5) Who is responsible for the unrest in Iraq now? Most of te current corrupted Iraqi politicians were brought in by the west. It is an understatement to say the war was mishandled. Let's look at it through fair glasses. Saddam killed and tortured and deserved to have been hanged back in 1991 but I have major doubts about the real intentions of the war. We would e naive to just sit and justify things from one groups perspective.
Todd Feinburg | 29/4/2013
Good work JK. Look forward to reading more. Todd Feinburg
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