On his personal website, German journalist Jurgen Todenhofer offers us “Seven impressions of a difficult journey” from his week spend with the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams. He finishes his reflection with a statement that has become a truism in many circles: “We are now paying the price for George W. Bush’s act of near-unparalleled folly; the invasion of Iraq.”
Let us leave aside for a moment how American and British officials lied to justify and sell the war to their publics (although we should remember that they deceived the public about their evidence for WMD – they really did believe Saddam possessed such weapons). The Todenhofer discourse relies on the very problematic, implicit assumption that Saddam’s regime would have been preferable to the current situation. Although the likes of Todenhofer might have enjoyed being a guest of the Ba’athists when he visited Mosul in 2002 or Damascus more recently, the Ba’athist Republic of Fear hardly seems better than the Islamic State of Terror.
Going by the gruesome numbers, the Iraqi Ba’athists (and now the Syrian Ba’athists as well) killed far more people. In 1987-88, almost 200,000 Iraqi Kurdish civilians died in the regime’s genocidal anfal campaigns. In 1991, similar numbers of Shiites perished as Baghdad crushed a rebellion in the south. Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran led to the deaths of more than a million people, and the invasion of Kuwait scarred yet another neighbor. Throughout the 1990s, Christians, Kurds and Turkmen were ethnically cleansed from places like Kirkuk. Under the sanctions and “oil for food” program of the 1990s, Saddam’s regime systematically prevented the distribution of food to southern Shiite parts of the country, leading to the deaths of some 500,000 children while Baghdad suffered from an obesity problem during the same years (and also while the Kurdish-administered north, under the same international sanctions plus additional sanctions from Baghdad, enjoyed a significant decrease in child mortality).
In 2003 Saddam seemed poised to emerge victorious from a crumbling, untenable sanctions regime. If he had done so, would he have refrained from resuming his various weapons programs and adventures in the region? This is a better counterfactual hypothesis than a false one juxtaposing the Islamic State’s rampage with a happy, stable Iraq under Saddam. When the Arab Spring rolled around, we might also have seen a Shiite uprising against Saddam, supported by Teheran and Damascus, that would have competed well with the present carnage in Syria. Instead of the Islamic State, we might be writing about the “State of Ali in Mesopotamia and its Environs,” which we could dub “the SAME.” At the same time that Saddam did his best to crush the revolt, he would no doubt have supported Sunni rebels in Syria the way he did during the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood uprising there.
But surely the power vacuum that the United States created in Iraq led to the emergence of al Qaeda in Iraq, which later metastyzed into ISIS? Yes and no. Paul Bremer’s overnight disbanding of the regular Iraqi Army (rather than just the Republican Guard) and too deep de-Ba’athification did create quite the vacuum. By 2011, however, the insurgency in Iraq was tamed and the Iraqi Army was better equipped than in 2003. It was Nuri al-Maliki’s government that completely alienated Iraq’s Sunnis, eviscerated Iraq’s Constitution and turned Iraq’s new military into his own sectarian and corrupt force. This allowed ISIS forces thriving in the Syrian civil war to return to Iraq. The Americans cannot be absolved of all blame in the matter, of course, especially since they enabled Maliki even after he turned authoritarian.
One might just as easily blame the British and French for creating Iraq and Syria in the first place, however. The whole blame discourse does not appear particularly useful in any case. It sounds like a broken record played by those more interested in grinding their political axes back home than looking at the problems in the region. Foreign jihadis going to join ISIS today are not doing so because America invaded Iraq in 2003. Nor does this have that much to do with why Boko Haram, al Shabab, Abu Sayaf, the Taliban and others are massacring their way across other parts of the Muslim world. Although Western imperialism and colonialism are part of the world’s history, these scourges were not limited to Muslim lands.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press) and co-editor (with Mehmet Gurses) of Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East (2014, Palgrave Macmillan).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.