Iraq Redux: How Things Looked Then and How They Look Now

Stephen Eric Bronner



t is now two years since President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed victory in Iraq with the words: “Mission Accomplished!” The threat to the United States had passed, the weapons of mass destruction had not been launched, and an ally of al Qaeda had been destroyed. Statues of the dictator tumbled, Iraqis awaited a democratic regime that was just around the corner, American neo-conservatives and their liberal fellow travelers congratulated themselves on their steely realism, and polls showed that support for the military action had gone through the roof. There was nothing left to do other than mop up. As for the residual resistance of the Ba’ath Party, once headed by Saddam Hussein, the president would soon call upon them to “bring it on!”

The Iraqi resistance brought it on, all right, and it would seem that the cry “mission accomplished!” was a bit premature. More than 1,700 Americans have died and more than ten times that number have been wounded while 100,000 Iraqi citizens are dead and, it should follow, at least ten times that number wounded. The population of Falluja fell from 300,000 to 30,000. Other cities like Mosul and Baghdad were destroyed, along with hundreds of mosques. One new military offensive after another has proven fruitless in quelling the resistance against the occupation. According to Carol J. Williams of The Los Angeles Times (2 June 2005), the frequency of suicide bombings is “unprecedented, exceeding that of Palestinian attacks against Israel and of other militant insurgencies such as the Chechen rebellion in Russia.” Sixty attacks per day are taking place along with ongoing sabotage against oil pipelines and the Iraqi infrastructure. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, said on 28 February 2003 complained before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives that $12 billion had been spent containing Saddam Hussein since the end of gulf War I in 1991. Since 2003 more than $212 billion has been spent on the Iraqi war.

Perhaps the “shock and awe” necessary to bring about regime change would have been worth it had 1) the invasion been supported by international law and an international coalition of forces; 2) had the horrible dictatorship of Saddam Hussein posed a genuine threat to the United States; 3) had the action furthered the assault on terror 4) had the American citizenry been able to deliberate meaningfully on the legitimacy of military action; 5) had the military action improved the international standing of the United States or 6) had there really been the prospect of forming a genuine democracy in Iraq ex nihilo. Two years later, however, it has become clear that none of these conditions actually existed.  They should be taken up in turn.

Three justifications exist under international law for regime change. The first is to avert a humanitarian catastrophe: no one has suggested that a humanitarian catastrophe was on the agenda in Iraq and, in fact, the worst humanitarian catastrophes perpetrated by the disgusting regime of Saddam Hussein occurred while the United States was supporting him in his disastrous war with Iran. The second justification for regime change is self-defense. Since it was not Saddam who attacked the United States, but the other way around, such a justification would have required proof both that weapons of mass destruction were being hoarded by Saddam and that in the future would constitute a threat to the United States. In his State of the Union speech of January 2003, President Bush insisted that Saddam possessed 26,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, one million pounds of sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas, 30,000 munitions for delivery, as well as mobile biological weapons labs and uranium from Niger. Not one of these claims has been substantiated. Two major studies commissioned by the Bush Administration itself,[1] in fact, stated that Saddam had already abandoned his nuclear program in 1991 and his chemical weapons program in 1996. Even if there had been an authentic belief that these weapons actually existed,[2] however, the “pre-emptive” strike undertaken against Iraq would still have contravened international law. In Iraq unlike Afghanistan, which speaks to the third legal justification for regime change, the UN Security Council never sanctioned military action. Unlike in Afghanistan, The pathetic “coalition of the willing” brought together by President Bush, which resulted in America bearing the greatest brunt of the combat, has by now virtually disintegrated. The sympathy accorded the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 has been squandered. The illegality of its Iraqi policy along with the lying and the incompetence and the sheer arrogance of the Bush Administration produced a collapse in the moral standing of the United States everywhere in the world. 

America was instead taken for a ride by the current Vice President Dick Cheney, Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the ubiquitous Paul Wolfowitz, and a host of other neo-conservative colleagues who called for the overthrow of Saddam in their Report for the New American Century of 2000.  They were advised by a group of Iraqi con-men in exile, like Ahmed Chalabi, who insisted that the war would be over quickly and that American troops would be welcomed by the Iraqi citizenry. Indeed, by July 2002, the confidence of these neo-conservative “realists within the Bush Administration had grown to the point where they already considered an invasion of Iraq “inevitable.”

The now justly famous “Downing Street Memo” confirms this. First published by The Times of London on 1 May 2005, the memo contains minutes of a meeting in which the British Intelligence Chief of MI-6, Richard Dearlove, who had just returned from the White House, told Prime Minister Tony Blair that intelligence and facts “were being fixed around the policy” and that, while the case against Saddam was “thin,” military action was on the agenda. Written by the British National Security Aid, Matthew Rycroft, the memo also makes clear that the invasion would prove “protracted and costly” and that “little thought” had been given to “the aftermath and how to shape it.” It noted that, since an arbitrary determination of the need for regime change contravened international law, “it was necessary to create the conditions” that would make it legal (The memo is reprinted with a fine introduction by Mark Danner in The New York Review of Books June 9, 2005).

The Downing Street Memo suggests that going before the United Nations was a sham from the start. Vice-President Dick Cheney, in fact, saw it as unnecessary. But the Bush Administration ceded to the concern of Tony Blair that an imprimatur be given the invasion by the United Nations. Blair apparently feared a revolt among the backbenchers of his Labor Party should England go to war unless as a last resort. In the light of the Downing Street Memo, however, the allies’ reliance on Hans Blix and the weapons inspectors working for the United Nations can be construed less as an attempt to avoid war than as an incompetent attempt to create a trap for Saddam. Precisely because Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, Bush and Blair believed, the inability of Saddam to produce and then eliminate them could be used as a justification for war.

Another tactic complemented this one. In the English Sunday Times of 29 May 2005, Michael Smith reported that the Royal Air Force and American aircraft doubled the rate at which they were dropping bombs on Iraq in 2002 in order to provoke Saddam Hussein into giving the allies another possible excuse for war. By August, in fact, Smith notes that it was already possible to speak of a “full air offensive.” The Downing Street Memo therefore not only complements claims that napalm-like bombs had been used by the American military[3] but, what is perhaps even more devastating, reports that the “war” had already begun before the official attack of March 2003, congressional authorization of the war in October 2002, and the UN resolution of November that would send inspectors into Iraq ( Little wonder then that at a hearing dealing with the memo before the House Judiciary in June 2005, which was organized by the indefatigable Rep. John Conyers, calls were finally being heard for the impeachment of the President  (Sterling Newberry provided a list of grounds for impeachment on 14 June 2005 at As of 30 June 2005, it would seem, 42% of American citizens agree with him <

Bush is slipping in the polls. Well over half of Americans now believe that the war was a mistake and The New York Times reported on 6/16/06 that only 37% support the current policy in Iraq, and only 42% feel that the president is doing a good job.  The House International Relations Committee voted 32 to 9 to call for a plan to establish a stable government that “permit a decreased U.S. presence there” while Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc) introduced a similar resolution in the Senate. Disgust with the mendacious and incompetent policies pursued by the Bush Administration in Iraq have led even members of his own party like Representative Walter B. Jones (R-NC) – the nitwit politician who initially wished to discard the name “french fries” in favor of “freedom fries” when France refused to support American policy – to call upon the president (in all seriousness) to “declare victory” and begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The Downing Street Memo is the smoking gun that could be used to confirm that President Bush and his neo-conservative advisers lied to the American people about the threat posed by Saddam and manipulated information that would lead public opinion to support the war. The only serious justification for the invasion of Iraq would have rested on proof that the regime of Saddam Hussein was somehow linked with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. But Secretary of State Colin Powell himself admitted that no proof of such a link existed while The Chicago Tribune (17 May 2005) reported a discussion on February 19, 2002 between Bob Graham of Florida, formerly Chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, and the head of US Central Command, General Tommy Franks, who told him that “we are not engaged in a war in Afghanistan . . . (and that) military and intelligence personnel are being redeployed to prepare for an action in Iraq.” Graham apparently noted that he was “stunned” upon learning that “the decision to go to war with Iraq had not only been made but was being implemented to the substantial disadvantage of the war in Afghanistan.” What this suggests, of course, is that the Iraqi War appreciably weakened the fight against the real enemy, al-Qaeda, and the criminal organizations that launched the attacks upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. Tacitly, the Bush Administration has admitted as much:  the “war on terrorism” has now, with little fanfare, been relabeled the “war on tyranny.”

Democracy has been trumpeted as a product of the Iraqi War. Elections in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq are positive developments. Developments in Palestine have been marked less by the impact of the Iraqi War than the looming withdrawal from Gaza by Ariel Sharon and the rise to power of Abu Mazen following the death of Yassir Arafat. Parliamentary elections are on the agenda. But they have already been postponed due to the fear that Hamas might win them. In any event, the further success of democracy will depend upon whether they lead to the elimination of obstacles to the construction of a Palestinian State. Massive demonstrations against Syria culminated in parliamentary elections that sought to bring Lebanon out from under the yoke of its neighbor. That Syria did not respond militarily may well have been the product of fear concerning trouble on its border with Iraq and a possible invasion of the United States. In Egypt, however, claims regarding the march of democracy require a dose of skepticism. The campaign to re-elect President Hosni Mubarak seems a sham since it has begun with repression of demonstrations against his rule by a coalition known as “Enough!” while his most important electoral opponent has been threatened with jail. Municipal elections in Kuwait and giving women the right to vote certainly constitute steps in the right direction. But the democratic road is long. As for Saudi Arabia, whatever the minimal democratic gains on the municipal level, the regime remains as reactionary as ever and critics of the ultra-fundamentalist and ultra-powerful Wahabi sect are faced with blatant repression.

Iran has meanwhile been pursuing a nuclear program for domestic energy purposes and perhaps even for developing a nuclear device. This has placed it at odds with the European Union as well as the United Nations. Its aim is quite obviously to produce self-sufficiency and a way of defending against external threats. The new approach has inflamed nationalist passions and there is little doubt that the invasion of Iraq has been used to marginalize genuinely democratic forces by linking them with western imperialists. A backlash is evident and nostalgia has grown for the revolutionary days of 1979. But few believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the religious-populist mayor of Tehran, would emerge victorious in the presidential election of June 2005. A veteran of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, anti-western in his rhetoric, new constraints on civil liberties, social life, and the role of women is to be expected. Ahmadinejad’s election is already being hyped by neo-conservatives as a justification for military action against Iranian “fanatics” whose nuclear ambitions pose yet another threat to American “security.” Tensions between the United States and Iran are running high, especially given the new influence exercised by Iran on Iraq and its Shi’ite majority, and it is doubtful that they will subside in the foreseeable future.  That the Iranian people have spoken doesn’t seem to matter: they obviously voted wrong.

Democracy involves more than elections. It also involves civil rights and a minimal basic commitment to social justice. In Afghanistan, where elections will take place in September 2005, the Taliban has resurfaced in rural parts of the country. Hundreds have been killed and thousands injured in the renewal of fighting while the economy has collapsed to the point where 40% of the population is living below the subsistence level and six million are starving. Afghanistan is now ranked 173 out of 178 on the United Nations Human Development Index. The foundations for a stable, secular, democratic regime are notable only by their absence. Funds for reconstructing Afghanistan, which now amount to les than $20 million in American aid, are obviously constrained by the costs of the Iraqi War. No surprise then that opium production should have increased along with the power of the drug lords and tribal chieftains. The hidden fear is that the Iraqi insurgency – led by a combination of crime bosses, religious leaders, and supporters of the old regime -- will provide a model for what happens in Afghanistan.

As for Iraq: that a vicious dictatorship should have fallen from power, that elections should have taken place, and that certain elements of the Sunni community are willing to participate in drafting a constitution, potentially constitute important developments along the democratic path. But the fundamental contradiction defining Iraqi democracy remains what it was since the fall of Saddam: the sovereignty of the constitutional assembly rests on the support of an occupying power. The only way in which the new constitutional democracy can present itself as sovereign is for the occupying power to leave. If the United States leaves, however, Iraq might conceivably plunge into civil war. No reference to a repressed civic culture of democracy can change this situation, which dwarfs the question of how through political finesse the insurgency might be divided against itself, and all other issues ultimately derive from it. The other important issues involve dealing with the utter economic collapse of Iraq; the deep rifts between its Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish constituencies; and the response to an insurgency that has turned everyday life into a shambles. 

It should be remembered that Saddam ran a society in which 80% of Iraqis were employed by the government. Attempts were made to “liberalize” the economy by Paul Bremer in the wake of the American invasion, but these only whetted the appetites of foreign investors close to the American government, like Bechtel or Halliburton, for swallowing practically the entire wealth of Iraq. The current government of Iraq is, by contrast, committed to employing the state to foster economic equity. Without even considering the future impact of a devastated infrastructure on education, health, investment, and an explosion in crime on the resumption of normal life, it is now the case that 70% of Iraqis are unemployed, the Dinar is virtually worthless, and -- according to Felah Alwan who heads the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq, agricultural workers receive less than $70 dollars a month. Most people in the villages work for $1 per day and even on construction sites around Baghdad and Nasariya, workers receive about $4 per day. 

$11 billion worth of oil revenue has been lost; 92% of Baghdad households have an unstable electricity supply; 39% have no safe drinking water; and 25% of children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.

As for Falluja, Mosul and most other major cities, they are in shambles. Resurrecting the economy will require huge infusions of capital, or extraordinary austerity with respect to benefits accorded workers, and it remains unclear either how to garner the former or how to bring about the latter. The economic future of Iraq, in short, looks worse than bleak. Under the very best of circumstances, dealing with these issues would require an efficient, sovereign, and decisive government whose legitimacy is unquestioned. None of these conditions, however, apply in Iraq. The bureaucracy is a wreck and the only people with inner knowledge of its workings are civil servants of the former regime. Most of them are Sunnis, a minority that held power under Saddam, who tend to view the present government as constituting “an occupation of Kurds and Sh’ites.” Various senior Sunni clerics and some political organizations like the Iraqi Islamic party oppose the insurgency and some will undoubtedly issue religious edicts commanding their followers to participate in drafting the constitution and future voting. Aside from dividing the country into ethnic constituencies, which would leave the Sunnis bereft of oil-rich land, there still remain few incentives even for them to strengthen ethnic and ideological groups whom they perceive as enemies. They will remain a social minority, their religious interpretation of Islam will receive secondary status, and their political influence will be tempered. A centralized government will not place primacy on their concerns in contrast to the Kurds, whose fundamental preoccupation is with autonomy if not independence, though they too are believers in the Sunni brand of Islam.

As things now stand, Iraq is on the verge of disintegrating. The social fabric is unraveling amid economic collapse and chaos in the streets. A constitution is being framed that, assuredly, will receive little respect or loyalty from below.  Ethnic and tribal divisions are on the point of exploding and little remains of the vaunted new civil society. In general, especially given the indigenous character of the insurgency, most of those being trained for military duty are more interested in being paid than in fighting. At the same time, though intent upon “de-Ba’athification,” the present government needs precisely those people whose loyalty it doesn’t command. That the United States must prepare for its “exit” is becoming painfully obvious.

The most basic criterion of sovereignty, according to a political tradition that goes back to Machiavelli, lies in the ability of a state to hold a monopoly on the means of coercion. As things now stand, however, the Iraqi government itself has countenanced the legitimacy of roughly six private, ethnic and sectarian, militias. Disbanding them would most likely have been impossible though the silly idea of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) that they be used in the national reconstruction of Iraq involves nothing less than putting the foxes in charge of the chicken coop (The New York Tuimes28 June 2005). Even the most cursory glance at the history of private militias shows that, wherever they have arisen, they have been ideologically rigid and anti-democratic: they almost always tend to identify the national interest with their own. That situation has clearly not changed. Indeed, when the Sunni Mayor of Baghdad threatened to resign unless the city received increased funding to improve its infrastructure, the paramilitary organization of the Shi’ite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq saw fit to pre-empt the move by simply deposing him.

The largest militia in Iraq is the Kurdish pesh merga. Intent upon controlling the city of Kirkuk, and envisioning a Kurdish state, this militia is now openly policing a region that already gained a measure of autonomy under Saddam Hussein. The pesh merga is comprised of roughly 100,000 partisans while the Shi’ite militia, otherwise known as the Badr Organization, is not much smaller. The Special Commandos Force of the government, meanwhile, however, 10,000 and it has been notably ineffective in preventing the assassinations of numerous Sunni dignitaries. Making matters worse is that President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, leads the pesh merga while the Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari helps direct the Shi’ite militia while Iyad Allawi the former prime minister of the provisional government, who is apparently known as “Saddam without a moustache,” controls the Muthana Brigade and the Defenders of Khadamiya. Thus, while the leaders all have a stake in opposing the insurgency, the existence of their private armies creates a potentially untenable situation with respect to the rule of law and its enforcement.

A Baghdad University poll taken earlier in the year, according to The Los Angeles Times (29 May 2005), showed that the number of Iraqis who expected their democratic government to gain in strength had dropped from more than 80% to 45%. This only makes sense. The insurgency is now basically targeting Iraqi civilians, especially those intent upon working with the existing government, rather than American military personnel. It is, by all accounts, growing stronger rather than weaker. Nearly 500 car bombs have been detonated since “sovereignty” was achieved with over 2,000 Iraqis killed and another 6,000 wounded. Elections may have taken place, but they did so under conditions of turbulence and fear. The fact that so many Iraqis voted speaks to their bravery but also, and this is usually ignored, to the instability of Iraqi society. Little wonder then that anti-American candidates were nowhere to be found, numerous candidates did not have their names on the ballot, and it is fair to say that most voters had no idea for whom they were voting. The deadline of August 15 2005 for drafting the constitution has already passed, moreover, and any future document will most likely paper over the most telling questions facing the new state. The result most likely will be a division between central and regional authority that satisfies no one. What also seems clear is that the Shi’ite clergy will demand various privileges at the expense of the government and Islam will not be treated as simply one “source” of legislative legitimacy but rather as its primary inspiration: Islamic law or Sha’ria will clearly undermine equality for women and have a sharp impact on civil liberties, divorce, inheritance, and the private sphere of social life.

None of this is of particular interest in the United States. Its citizens are worried about the war but increasingly bored with the goal of building democracy in Iraq. The glitz is gone: the devastated cities fade from view, corruption is greeted with a shrug, torture becomes an unfortunate excess, and the news gives its usual nod to the number of American dead. But it ignores how the dream of a secular democracy in Iraq has vanished, the way in which the invasion has intensified fundamentalism throughout the region, and the dramatic collapse of America’s standing in the world community. Scandalized by a pattern of torture that extends beyond the Middle East, sick of a people with a culture that they can neither love nor understand, American citizens are – just like in Vietnam – growing resentful of those who do not understand that war is hell and that it requires sacrifice. There is a sense in which the war is already lost. Discussions are already becoming public concerning the character and timing, if not of a withdrawal, then the gradual reduction of American troops. Even the AFL-CIO has now called for “rapid” disengagement of American troops. The war is carrying an ever more expensive price tag and there is a growing malaise. Everyone loves a winner, but more and more citizens are becoming fed up. This transformation from what was initially a gung-ho hyper-nationalism to what is an increasingly impatient indifference says much about the character of the American polity and its citizens.

Support for President Bush has fallen to Vietnam levels of 34%. Talk of impeachment is growing and 500,000 have already signed a petition calling for a response by the President and his most important officials to the Downing Street Memo. They have, so far, politely “declined” to provide one. Leaders of the Democratic Party, though mostly complicit in supporting the invasion of Iraq and licking their wounds after the disastrous electoral defeat of 2004, now smell blood in the water. Striking is their lack of genuine self-criticism. They are no different in this respect than the half-wit pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Anne Coulter who are upset by the “incompetence” of the invasion and already bemoaning the spread of “defeatism.” No less than those in the Bush Administration who planned the way, or the Democrats who supported it, they remain unwilling to reflect upon the assumptions that got us into this mess or on the legitimate opposition that the invasion generated throughout the world. Unconcerned with why the United States invaded in the first place, content that Saddam has fallen from power, the inability to develop clearly defined goals only follows.

Should the United States leave Iraq things might get worse: “disengagement” is a gamble.” But, then, what does “worse” imply? American officials have already revised what they can accomplish In Iraq: the vision of an oil rich, self-sufficient, secular democracy with a reconstructed infrastructure has gone the way of all flesh (The Washington Post, August 14, 2005). What remains is the dead letter of a “constitution.” Terror against Iraq civilians is continuing unabated and towns once considered purged of insurgents, like Falluja, have seen the resistance arise again from the ashes. That only makes sense since even when considering suicide bombing, most experts now agree, its source is not simply fundamentalism but the desire to compel the withdrawal of imperialist forces from what terrorists consider a colonized territory. How long can it continue? No one can give specifics but, looking at history, any genuinely national response to imperialism can continue for a very long time.

The British Foreign Minister, Jack Straw, has openly admitted that the presence of American troops is fueling the Sunni insurgency ( So long as the United States remains in Iraq, moreover, its sovereignty and the independence of its government will be tainted. Compromise with the Sunnis with respect to local governance, guaranteed levels of representation in the national assembly, a general amnesty for former insurgents, and an improvement in relations with Iran and Syria might – according to the Project for Defense Alternatives – provide a foundation for American withdrawal. Even should such a program be implemented, however, it is foolish to be overly optimistic. The most likely outcomes are a democracy with a legitimacy deficit, a partition of Iraq or a new dictatorship.

American intervention has created a situation in which any genuine “solution” seems utopian. Little wonder then that Karl Rove should be chastising congressional liberals for their “timidity” in dealing with terror or that Donald Rumsfeld and his acolytes should be raising the decibel levels of his warnings against defeatism. Ultimately they have little to offer other than platitudes and assurances that America will “prevail.” The United States wishes to maintain its bases, its lucrative contracts for reconstructing the country, and its hegemonic presence in the region. Under conditions in which ethnic or religious leaders gain their standing through control over private militias, Iraqi politics – to the extent that it remains civil -- will increasingly turn into bargaining based on military calculation. As for the democratic legitimacy of the current regime, it will continue to rest on not much more than the absence of Saddam Hussein. A partitioning of Iraq between Sunnis, Kurds, and Shi’ites remains a genuine possibility. What kind of regimes these groups might erect is unclear though it is doubtful that any of them they will prove particularly tolerant to outsiders and dissidents. Should Iraq remain united, the likelihood is that the strongest of its warlords will survive in coalition with weaker adversarial allies. Or put another way, whether the United States stays or whether it goes, a new strongman – with or without a moustache – is probably already peeking out from behind the shadows concerned only with assuming power and formulating an ideology – secular or theocratic – that can justify its solitary exercise.


[1] Note the transcript of the testimony provided by David Kay before the Senate Armed Services Committee: Also see the Congressional testimony offered by Charles Duelfer, Director of Central Intelligence and Special Advisor for Strategy Regarding Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction at and his final CIA Report  

[3] Contrary to claims made early in the war about precision bombing and the ongoing disclaimers about the use of napalm bombs, according to Colin Brown writing in England for The Independent  (17 June 2005), it appears that the American military employed MK77 bombs in Iraq that were based on “an evolution of the napalm used in Vietnam and Korea, carry kerosene-based jet fuel and polystyrene so that, like napalm, the gel sticks to structures and to its victims. The bombs lack stabilizing fins, making them far from precise.”



Stephen Eric Bronner is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. The author of Reclaiming the Enlightenment (Columbia) and the forthcoming Blood in the Sand: Imperial Fantasies, Rightwing Ambitions and the Erosion of Democracy (Kentucky), he is the Senior Editor of Logos.