Over 11 years ago we entered a war of choice on a pretext that was always dubious and proved ultimately false. There are several reasons we did this: a messianic belief in the democratisation of the Middle East; a desire to project Western power and install a compliant ruler in Saddam Hussein’s place; in Australia’s case, pursuing the US alliance. But beneath them all lies one essential conceit: we did this because we thought we could. Perhaps some of our soldiers, and multiples more Iraqi civilians would die, but we figured that would be the limit of the fallout.
At the very least we assumed our power would be enhanced. At our most delirious we might have believed we’d leave the world a better place. Indeed that idea hasn’t gone away. When relentless mass uprisings in the Middle East began toppling dictators and promising democracy, the Iraq War’s apologists rushed to claim credit for the change. Saddam’s defeat had unleashed a wave of democratic fervour and a belief in the transience of rulers, so they reasoned.
But today, as democracy in Egypt descends into farce and the uprisings in Syria have exploded into the most horrific civil war, this is perhaps not a legacy we should wish to claim. And now, there’s Iraq itself. Specifically Mosul, which this week fell to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Barely a decade after we set out to save the world, terrorists rule one of Iraq’s major cities. “We can’t beat them. We can’t,” says an Iraqi police officer. “They are well trained in street fighting and we’re not. We need a whole army to drive them out of Mosul.” Which might at least sound possible if it weren’t for the army colonel who explained that we’ve just witnessed “a total collapse of the security forces”. This is quite a spectacular step backwards.
The invasion of Iraq happened in strange times, about 18 months after the Twin Towers fell and when security was about hard military power and little else. Shock. Awe. President Bush’s original name for the war in Afghanistan gives us a good sense of the mood: Operation Infinite Justice. Justice is about balance and measure, not the excesses of infinity. Infinite Justice is the kind of thing you come up with when you think it is impossible to be too forceful; when you think justice subsists in bombing places to rubble. As a result, we never truly bothered with trifling matters like sociology. Iraq was a theatre of domination and triumph – of missions accomplished. We scarcely noticed it was in fact a complicated society with significance to people well beyond its borders.
By the time we discovered Sunnis and Shiites it was all a bit late. We had on our hands a full-scale, international insurgency. And the truth is, we never really defeated it. Indeed the invasion has unleashed forces we simply cannot pretend to have under control. Mosul, after all, isn’t Fallujah or Baghdad with a reputation for fearsome violence. This is a city once held up as a model of Iraqi success: “a model for what Iraq would be like if they could emulate in Baghdad the progress we have made here”, in the words of one commanding officer in 2007 after the famous troop “surge” that was meant to have pacified the city. But even so, it’s impossible to understand this turnaround in Mosul without looking just over the border, in Syria, where a ruler every bit as brutal as Saddam Hussein, is presently in the process of enacting mass violence against his own people.
This is a ruler who has merrily danced across what Barack Obama declared to be his “red line” by using chemical weapons against them, proving that this red line didn’t signify much. Obama ran an anaemic campaign for military intervention in Syria that went nowhere. These days he regards Syria merely as “somebody else’s civil war”. We will never know what would have happened had America intervened at that stage. But we do know that Bashar al-Assad had free reign to unleash brutal force, thereby radicalising the environment and laying down a magnet for Sunni terrorist groups. And we now know that those groups are enmeshed with those in Iraq. ISIS doesn’t see the border between the countries. It sees instead an area to be unified under its own rule. Mosul is in terrorist hands because we blew the lid off Iraq, then refused to help put it back on Syria.
They are quickly becoming indistinct: the same crisis. The contrast is remarkable: there’s the war with no meaningful pretext, and the pretext that had no war. Sure, this is explained partly by the fact that we’re dealing with two contrasting American presidents. But it’s also true that the disaster of Iraq exposed the limits of America’s power, and completely eroded its moral authority, leaving it with no standing, and no will to do anything about a genuine problem in Syria. We haven’t yet come to terms with just how much damage the invasion of Iraq has done. It’s likely we won’t fully know for decades. But it’s clear that the blowback is already under way, and there’s every chance we’ll wake one day to find that Iraq evolves into the security problem it so emphatically wasn’t in 2003 when we grotesquely pretended otherwise.