Less than a fortnight out from the ten year anniversary of the first, “shock-and-awe” blasts of the US-led invasion of Saddam Hussein-led Iraq, memories are turning to the leadup to the war. Or journalists’ memories are, at least.
And while there is a danger that anniversary journalism becomes an exercise in navel-gazing, and there is a risk of exaggerating the role of media commentators at the expense of the rest, it is equally worth remembering how critical the fourth estate was in providing a moral foundation for the invasion and occupation.
In that light, the blog of Andrew Sullivan – one of the world’s most popular – will be a fascinating read in the coming days. He has decided to republish posts written in the leadup to the war – posts which argued vigorously in favour of the Bush-Blair campaign.
Call it masochism or basic journalistic accountability or the internet’s revenge. But I was wrong. I was wrong in good faith. But I was wrong. And it’s worth, ten years’ later, to show just how wrong I was in order to understand better my massive error of judgment (let alone of tone).
No such contrition from Nick Cohen, the polemicist at the Observer (a paper which was pro-war, unlike its sister the Guardian).
His defiant column begins:
Every few months a member of the audience at a meeting I am addressing asks whether I regret supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The look in their eyes is both imploring and accusatory – “surely you must agree with me now”, it seems to say. I reply that I regret much: the disbanding of the Iraqi army; a de-Ba’athification programme that became a sectarian purge of Iraq’s Sunnis; the torture of Abu Ghraib; and a failure to impose security that allowed murderous sectarian gangs to kill tens of thousands.
For all that, I say, I would not restore the Ba’ath if I had the power to rewind history. To do so would be to betray people who wanted something better after 35 years of tyranny. If my interrogators’ protesting cries allow it, I then talk about Saddam’s terror state and the Ba’ath’s slaughter of the “impure” Kurdish minority, accomplished in true Hitlerian fashion with poison gas.
My questioners invariably look bewildered. The notion that, even if they opposed military intervention, they had obligations to support those who suffered under a regime which can be fairly described as national socialist had never occurred to them. No one can say that time’s passing has lessened their confusion.
It’s 10 years since the overthrow of Saddam and 25 since he ordered the Kurdish genocide. I can guarantee that you will not hear much about Saddam’s atrocities in the coming weeks. As Bayan Rahman, the Kurdish ambassador to London, said to me: “Everyone wants to remember Fallujah and no one wants to remember Halabja.” Nor, I think, will you hear about the least explored legacy of the war, which continues to exert a malign influence on “liberal” foreign policy.
And how about David Aaronovitch, another of those dubbed the “liberal hawks” or “muscular liberals”?
The Times columnist tackles the subject with reference to the ongoing bloody conflict in Syria today.
When historians judge the Iraq war they also have to deal with the counter-factual. What would have happened if the 2003 invasion had never taken place? Would that have been better or worse? And by how much? … Saddam was not a Robert Mugabe or a Korean Kim. He was far worse — a terrible blend of external aggression and internal repression …
And I look at Syria — where Assad, the palest version of Saddam, has presided over a repression and a civil war that has killed 70,000 in two years in a country significantly smaller than Iraq. Right now, the unaided Syrian opposition is compromised by extreme jihadis filling the vacuum we have left.
If Saddam had been left unscathed, can one imagine what he might be doing now as Syria implodes? And if he’d been sprung by the Spring, surely Saddam’s civil war would have been Syria on steroids; the conflagration that could have absorbed the region.
We feel more strongly about Iraq, where we intervened and shared the trauma, than about Syria where we didn’t and haven’t. How we’ll judge our response ten years on from the first demonstration in Damascus I have no idea but a great foreboding.