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Post date: Mar 20, 2013 1:7:11 AM

IRAQ WAR: 10 YEARS ON; A necessary folly

Jonathan Eyal, Europe Corresponden

20 March 2013

The Straits Times

Launched with the stated goal of wiping out Saddam Hussein's stores of weapons of mass destruction, which were never found, the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago continues to reverberate in an unstable region and beyond. Though the war itself was relatively brief, its aftermath has often been violent and bloody clearly evident from the wave of bombings in Baghdad yesterday. Here's a look at perceptions of the war a decade later.

LONDON - The 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war is not a landmark the US or its close allies are eager to commemorate.

The war is now regarded as a folly from which the US benefited least: As a common joke in the Middle East has it, the Americans may have won the battles but the Iranians won the subsequent peace and Turkey pocketed the economic advantages.

Yet, that may be a bit too harsh. Although it's unlikely that the Iraq war will ever be considered one of America's glorious moments, future generations may take a slightly more forgiving view.

Every narrative of the war invariably starts with the dark, brooding shadow of then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who together with a small cabal of "Neo-Cons", allegedly spoiled for a fight.

But that's a travesty. The reality is that the war initially enjoyed overwhelming support in the US Congress and 80 per cent of the American electorate. The few European nations which had the temerity to oppose it were dismissed as limp-wristed: French fries were famously renamed "liberty fries" in US canteens.

It is now fashionable to claim that this popular support was hyped by a US government which lied about Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction. The "had I known then what I know now, I would not have voted for it" argument subsequently became popular with many American lawmakers and especially with Mrs Hillary Clinton, who spent years trying to prove that she was really against a war for which she actually voted.

Yet, there was no deliberate misinformation. The intelligence failure about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction had nothing to do with a desire to hoodwink but more with the inability of any rational government analyst to decipher Saddam Hussein's complicated game. The Iraqi leader secretly destroyed his stocks of gas and chemical weapons, hoping that this would deprive the West of a justification to attack, but still pretended that he had the weapons in order to maintain his street-credibility in the Arab world. In effect, this was a double-bluff which worked better than Saddam himself intended.

Still, it should not be forgotten that all intelligence agencies - including those of Germany and France, which otherwise strenuously opposed military action - fell for this double-bluff and concluded that the Iraqi leader did have weapons of mass destruction. The war's supporters were not restricted to some extreme US right-wingers.

It is now tragically easy to make the case that the approximately 5,000 US and allied soldiers, plus at least 126,000 Iraqi civilians, who perished in this war died largely in vain. America's standing in the Middle East not only failed to improve, but nosedived. The removal, capture and execution of Saddam Hussein did nothing to promote democracy; the so-called Arab Spring came almost five years later.

Most of Iraq's considerable oil exports now go to China rather than to the nations whose soldiers died in the war. Far from being an ally of the West, Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government is now an ally of Iran. And far from being a bulwark against terrorism, Iraq is now one of the top breeding grounds for men of violence.

Seldom has so much blood and money - a staggering US$1.7trillion (S$2.1trillion) - been spent for so little. Estimates of the war cost vary, with one study by Brown University saying the US would ultimately have to pay US$6 trillion including interest.

Still, the time may come when a more nuanced perspective on this war will prevail. To start with, it is a fundamental fallacy to assume that had the US not launched a war a decade ago, the Middle East could have remained a peaceful place. By 2003, the international sanctions against Saddam were disintegrating. Without a war, the Iraqi ruler would have emerged as the Arab world's most important leader.

And it is likely that, in response to Iran's nuclear quest, he would have revived his own search for nuclear weapons as well as seek to replenish his arsenal of other weapons of mass destruction. The alternative to the Iraq war was never peace: The choice was between an immediate crisis or a prolonged one in which, perhaps, just as many Arabs would have perished.

Precisely because of this, many ordinary Iraqis still hail the war as their liberation. This is particularly true for the Kurds, who are now enjoying the most sustained period of peace and prosperity since Iraq itself was founded a century ago. Oil companies are flocking to their oil-rich Kurdistan autonomous region. Iraq's Shi'ites have also been spared discrimination.

Nor is it obvious that Iraq's neighbours will remain the war's chief beneficiaries, as they seem to be at the moment.

Iran may draw satisfaction from the fact that today's Iraqi leaders share their Shi'ite strand of Islam. But in racial and language terms, the Iraqis are different from the Iranians, and Iraq has no interest in becoming a permanent Iranian satellite.

Meanwhile, Turkey has only embraced the neighbouring Kurdish-controlled parts of Iraq in order to prevent the emergence of a greater Kurdish independent state which could threaten Turkey's own borders. While the policy is clever and produced plenty of economic benefits, it also remains tenuous: The Iranian and Turkish bets in Iraq may turn out to be just as risky as those the US made a decade ago, albeit less bloody.

Just about the only historic verdict on the war which is likely to endure is that provided by Mr Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank in New York, who served as a senior State Department official at the time the conflict started. The military campaign, he said this week, "shows the folly of overlooking local realities" and "trying to remake these societies using large amounts of American military might".

Pity one needed a war to reach this self-evident conclusion.