Was the Iraq War Inevitable? For A Critical Appraisal of the Background that Led to the War
by Fawwaz Traboulsi
September 18, 2007
[Translator’s Introduction: The article below by Fawwaz Traboulsi first appeared in Arabic in the Beirut daily as-Safir on July 5, 2007.
Was the Iraq war inevitable? The anti-war movement in the West did what it could to prevent it. On February 15, 2003, in hundreds of American, European, and other cities across the globe an estimated ten million people demonstrated against the impending war. Massive demonstrations continued during the weeks preceding the invasion on March 20, 2003. World public opinion notwithstanding, the Bush administration plunged headlong into the war, and eventual catastrophe, with delusional fantasies: they would quickly win in a “shock-and-awe” campaign and the Iraqi people would welcome the invading troops with “rice and flowers” — so they proclaimed.
What about the anti-war movement in Arab countries? There were demonstrations in Arab cities in the weeks preceding the invasion, to be sure, some turning violent in confrontations with the police (chiefly in Cairo); but these were few and sparse, sometimes organized by the state, and far smaller than anything witnessed in the West. Anecdotal evidence from expatriate Arab groups indicated a far larger turnout of Arabs abroad than in their home countries. No doubt the repressive police states that are the norm in most of the Arab world made it difficult to organize anti-war rallies without government authorization. Perhaps also the masses in Arab countries were weary of marching in demonstrations that would be perceived in support of Saddam Hussein’s reviled government. But what about a wider oppositional movement in years preceding the war, if not in Iraq then in neighboring countries, that should have held Saddam Hussein and his government (and other despotic Arab regimes) accountable for their policies and deeds? What about intellectuals and journalists who should have written, and could still write critically, in a press whose freedom in many places (at least in Lebanon and the Gulf states) had not been curtailed? In the article below, Traboulsi addresses an Arab audience that has not always shown a disposition to take to task Saddam Hussein’s regime and others like it. A particular target of Traboulsi’s criticism are the political commentators that are prone to attribute the Arabs’ woes to dark conspiracies or to external forces beyond their control, thus deflecting much of the blame from failed and discredited rulers. In doing so, these political commentators contribute, if not to public apathy and demobilization, then to a feeling of impotence and despair against current conditions. — Assaf Kfoury]
For anyone reviewing the record, it is now plain that the president of the United States was lying to the American people, his allies and the world when he was brandishing the specter of “weapons of mass destruction” as justification for the decision to invade Iraq. Not only was George W. Bush lying when he maintained WMD threatened the security of Iraq’s neighbors, he managed to push the charade to the point of convincing a large segment of American and world public opinion that these weapons posed a direct threat to the security of the United States itself. His dutiful acolyte Tony Blair elevated the lie to an extra level of demagogy when he declared that Iraq’s chemical weapons could be set and launched within 45 minutes!
The lie about WMD was coupled with another lie, this one about a presumed connection between Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaeda, which has since been totally exposed as a fabrication. Osama Bin Laden can now send reams of thanks to the American president for having turned Iraq into a haven for al-Qaeda and other Jihadi organizations. The Mesopotamian lands became a producer and exporter of terrorists within a brief period of importing them during the first few months of the occupation. And Bin Laden can double and redouble his thanks to the American president who has acted, wittingly or not, so as to help make al-Qaeda a truly international terrorist network which now reaches large portions of the planet.
While we recount lies that were used to justify the war, let’s not forget that American neo-conservatives had been clamoring for regime change in Iraq since 1995. We now know preparations for regime change by force had been underway before the terrorist operation of September 11, 2001, and the latter provided the perfect excuse to put the plan to invade Iraq into action.
We know all of that, and a lot more, about the background that led to the war from the American side. But what about the background from the Iraqi side? We know very little about the latter and there does not seem to be much interest in finding out more. Nonetheless, during the WMD crisis in the months right before the invasion, there was one person in Iraq who knew with absolute certainty the non-existence of WMD — this person was of course Saddam Hussein.
So, a question is in order: Why did Saddam Hussein procrastinate for months on end before permitting UN inspectors to proceed with the search for WMD? And why did he put up all sorts of obstacles before finally agreeing to let the inspectors freely pursue their assignment? By the time he agreed it was too late to stop or impede the inexorable drive to war. Many will rush to preempt the question with a flat answer: They were going to attack Iraq regardless!
The same answer came in response to another question several years before: Why didn’t Saddam Hussein order his troops to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991 before the UN deadline? Had he done so, he would have invalidated the main and official reason the US and its allies used to attack Iraq in 1991.
In both situations, Saddam Hussein did not undertake to do any of the necessary steps to undercut the plans of the powers arrayed against Iraq. An attempt to do so may or may not have worked, but why refrain from it? There is no need to speculate why Saddam Hussein acted the way he did. He is no longer alive so that we could still hope he would be asked these questions in front of a truly independent Iraqi court — a court that would judge him for the totality of his crimes and policies, not for only one relatively minor crime which, in the event, led to his execution in an act of tribal vengeance.
Was there a way to prevent the United States from invading Iraq?
Those who maintain the inevitability of the invasion, regardless of the Iraqi regime’s conduct, repeat a logic heard before in justification of every war and every Arab defeat. That sort of logic of fated events complements another justificatory logic, this one preoccupied with conspiracies where the idea of a “trap” is central to the plot: After every war and every defeat, it must be that the unsuspecting leader fell into a “trap” set by his enemies. Some have said that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the Second Gulf War in 1991 resulted from his falling into a “trap” set by US Ambassador April Glaspie, who let him understand that her government would not intervene in inter-Arab conflicts, which led him to believe he would have a free hand in acting against Kuwait!
What is truly amazing in the conduct of our Arab rulers is that, while they literally follow the principles of Machiavelli’s book “The Prince” when it comes to devising forms of internal repression and tyranny, they invariably fail to pay attention to the Prince’s advice in being expert like the fox in uncovering “traps” and avoiding them. If they keep falling into “traps”, it then stands to reason our rulers should be made accountable rather than absolved for their failure.
These questions may now seem from a different bygone time, but they haven’t lost any of their relevance as we watch the unrelenting horrors in today’s Iraq. There may be a lesson in pondering them. May they contribute to put an end to that pernicious habit of elevating defeated leaders to heroes — these leaders who were often rewarded by promoting them to absolute ruler or by renewing their mandate by acclamation after … a war they did not know how to avoid or a defeat that brought destruction to their country and their people!
Fawwaz Traboulsi teaches at the Lebanese American University, Beirut-Lebanon. He has written on history, Arab politics, social movements and popular culture and translated works by Karl Marx, John Reed, Antonio Gramsci, Isaac Deutscher, John Berger, Etel Adnan, Sa`di Yusuf and Edward Said. The translator, Assaf Kfoury, teaches computer science at Boston University.