Looking back on Iraq

PERHAPS THE MOST WORRYING feature of press coverage of the war in the fortnight that has passed since the toppling of Saddam's statue, is that many commentators seem to think that it is already possible to 'look back on Iraq' and declare the invasion a success.

A matter of hours after American troops had entered Baghdad in triumph, Johann Hari in the Independent (which now charges for access to much of its its website, so must be left linkless), was pouring scorn on those who had opposed the war as though it was already clear that they had been mistaken. In the face of such instant historical punditry one cannot help but call to mind the words attributed to
former Chinese premier Chou En-Lai, who, when asked what the impact of the French revolution had been, is said to have replied that it was 'too soon to say'.

Chou En-Lai may have gone too far, but what Hari and other like-minded commentators appear not to recognise is that many or most of those who opposed the war did so not because of their view of its immediate or short-term impact on Iraq, but because of its likely long-term impact on the Arab world - and, indeed, on the entire course of world history.
One recent commentator who took such a perspective was Jonathan Raban, writing in the Saturday review section of the Guardian a week or so ago. Although I am not persuaded by his implicit contention that the Islamic self is of a different nature from the non-Islamic self, his long piece was nevertheless an extremely interesting one.

Of course it would be misleading not to acknowledge that some leading anti-war commentators got matters seriously wrong. Robert Lieber has taken Edward Said to task for writing that 'The idea that Iraq's population would have welcomed American forces entering the country after a terrifying aerial bombardment was always utterly implausible.'  Lieber is right; the failure of historical imagination here is clearly that of Said himself.

Julie Burchill, as she would no doubt be the first to acknowledge, was a little nearer to the truth with her vision of thousands of Iraqis dancing for joy as American troops entered Baghdad (see below). But perhaps not quite as near to the truth as she herself would have liked. Some journalists, whose view was not constrained by the distorting perspective of television cameras, reported that those who celebrated the toppling of Saddam's statue on that historic Wednesday in Baghdad numbered but two or three hundred and were mostly young.

Those (and I include myself) who suggested that Iraqi resistance to the invasion would be fiercer and longer than turned out to be the case were indeed guilty of misjudgment. But so too were those who celebrated prematurely before anarchy, riots and looting supervened.

The enemy of judgment in such situations is almost always haste. The observation (see below, 'Legacy of hatred') that the true harvest of any invasion is always a late one, and that 'liberating' armies who are welcomed with joy are sometimes driven out with bullets, was also made by others. Writing in the Guardian, former foreign office adviser David Clark chose exactly the same historical parallel:

Besides, if we recall the British army's deployment to Northern Ireland in 1969 we should also reflect on how quickly the residents of west Belfast switched from making tea for the troops to throwing petrol bombs at them. The timescale in which coalition forces will be deemed to have outstayed their welcome is likely to be significantly shorter than the one the Pentagon has in mind.

The eventual result of British troops, inexperienced in civil policing, being forced into such a role was, of course, Bloody Sunday and its horrific aftermath. In this respect it may be noted that today's Guardian carries a thoughtful comment piece by Jonathan Freedland who notes that the killing by US troops of 13 apparently unarmed citizens at Falluja 'is now at least the third Bloody Sunday-style incident in Iraq in as many weeks'. Freedland's conclusion - reached by way of the observation that  'politics abhors a vacuum' - should serve to remind us that it is much too early to look back on Iraq:

No, this war is far from over. Indeed, when you consider the combustible elements now in play - a blundering, tactless foreign occupier confronting a nation surging with Islamic fervour - this battle may be just beginning.

30 April 2003

Richard Webster, 2003



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