‘Liberation’ is not Freedom

Avi Shlaim

The Observer, March 30, 2003

Iraqis mistrust the intentions of the West, and a history of failures supports their attitude

The fierce resistance that our troops encountered in Iraq must have come as a very unpleasant surprise to Tony Blair and George Bush.  They assumed that Saddam Hussein is so unpopular and isolated that the Iraqi people would welcome the British and American troops as liberators and help them to overthrow Saddam’s regime.  But the popular uprising has not materialised. However much they detest Saddam’s tyrannical regime, a great many Iraqis view the allied forces as invaders rather than liberators. Our leaders gravely underestimated the force of Iraqi nationalism.
Blair and Bush seem unaware, or only dimly aware, of the crucial role that Iraqi history plays in shaping popular attitudes to current conflict.  Iraqis are not an inert mass whose sentiments can be switched on and off to serve the agenda of outside powers.  They are a proud and patriotic people with a long collective memory.  Britain and America feature as anything but benign in this collective memory.  Tony Blair has repeatedly emphasised the moral argument behind  the resort to force to depose an evil dictator.  Over the last century, however, Britain rarely occupied the high moral ground in relation to Iraq.  As for the Americans, they have even less of a claim on the trust and goodwill of the Iraqi people after their calamitous failure to support the popular insurrection against Saddam and his henchmen in March 1991.
Iraq was just one element in the victors’ peace, which was imposed on the Middle East in the aftermath of World War I without any reference to the wishes of the people.  Iraq’s borders were delineated to serve Britain’s commercial and strategic interests.  Originally, Iraq was made up of two Ottoman provinces: Basra and Baghdad.  Later, the oil-bearing province of Mosul was added, dashing hopes of Kurdish independence.  The logic behind the enterprise was summed up by one observer as follows: ‘Iraq was created by Churchill, who had the mad idea of joining two widely separated oil wells, Kirkuk and Mosul, by uniting three widely separated peoples: the Kurds, the Sunnies, and the Shiis.’
The man handpicked by Britain to rule over this unwieldy conglomerate was Faisal, a Hashemite prince from Arabia and one of the leaders of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks.  After the French evicted Faisal from Syria and put an end to his short-lived kingdom, we procured for him the throne of Iraq as a consolation prize.  We cleared Faisal’s path to the throne by neutralising the local opposition, deporting the leading contender, and organising a plebiscite in which 96 per cent of the people were implausibly said to have voted for Faisal as king.
The 1921 settlement not only sanctioned violent and arbitrary methods: it built them into the structure of Iraqi politics.  The only way to bring about political change was by violence.  The key feature of this settlement was lack of legitimacy: the borders lacked legitimacy, the rulers lacked legitimacy, and the political system lacked legitimacy.  The settlement also introduced anti-British sentiment as a powerful force in Iraqi politics.  In 1941 Rashid Ali al-Gailani led a nationalist revolt against Britain which was put down by force.  In 1958, as a direct result of our own folly over Suez, we witnessed the defenestration of our royal friends in Baghdad in a bloody military coup.
In 1980 Saddam Hussein attacked Iran.  During the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War, we and all our Western allies, tilted increasingly towards Iraq.  The Scott inquiry of 1996 documented the Thatcher government’s duplicitous record in selling arms to Iraq and in providing military credits.  A billion pounds of taxpayers’ money was thrown away in propping up Saddam’s regime and doing favours to arms firms. It was abundantly clear at the time that Saddam  was a monster in human form.  We did not manufacture this monster but we turned a blind eye to the savage brutality of his regime.  We also knew that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons because Western companies sold him all the ingredients necessary to produce this nasty kit.
Saddam was known to be gassing Iranian troops in their thousands in the Iran-Iraq War.  Failure to subject Iraq to international sanction allowed him to press ahead with the development of weapons of mass destruction.  In March 1988, Saddam turned on his own people, killing up to 5,000 Kurds with poison gas in Halabja.  Attacking unarmed civilians with chemical weapons was unprecedented.  If ever there was a time for humanitarian intervention in Iraq, 1988 was that time.  Yet no Western government even suggested intervention.  Nor was an arms embargo imposed on Iraq.
In 1990 we belatedly turned against Saddam only because he trod on our toes by invading Kuwait.  He had a point when he said that Kuwait was an artificial creation of British imperialism.  But Iraq’s other borders were no less arbitrary than the border with Kuwait, so if that border could be changed by force, the entire post-World War I territorial settlement might unravel.  The main purpose of the Anglo-American intervention against Iraq was not to lay the foundation for the much-vaulted ‘New World Order’ but to restore the old order.  The fact that the UN explicitly authorised the use of force in resolution 678 – ‘the mother of all resolutions’ – made this an exercise in collective security and gave it legitimacy in the eyes of the world, including the majority of the Arab states.
On 28 February 1991, Papa Bush gave the order to ceasefire.  Britain was informed of this decision but not consulted.  The declared aims of Operation Desert Storm had been achieved: the Iraqi army had been ejected out of Kuwait and the Kuwaiti government was restored.  But Saddam kept his deadly grip on power in Baghdad.  After the ceasefire, Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against the tyrant, only to betray them when they did so.  When the moment of truth arrived, Bush recoiled from pursuing his policy to its logical conclusion.  His advisers told him that Kurdish and Shiite victories in their bids for freedom may lead to the dismemberment of Iraq.  Behind this theory lay the pessimistic view that Iraq was not suited for democracy and that Sunni minority rule was the only formula capable of keeping Iraq in one piece.  Once again, the Iraqis were the victims of the cruel geopolitics of the region. 
In order to topple Saddam Hussein, it was not necessary for the allied forces to continue their march to Baghdad, my hometown. It would have been sufficient to disarm the Republican Guard units as they retreated from Kuwait through the Basra loop. This was not done. They were allowed to retain their arms, to regroup, and to use helicopters to ensure the survival of the butcher of Baghdad and of his nefarious regime. The Kurds in the north were crushed and fled to the mountains.  The Shiites in the south were crushed and fled to the marshes.
In calling for Saddam’s overthrow, Bush evidently had in mind a military coup, a reshuffling of Sunni gangsters in Baghdad, rather than the establishment of a freer and more democratic political order.  As a result of his moral cowardice, Bush snatched a defeat from the jaws of victory.  Saddam remained in power and continued to torment his people, while Kuwait remained a feudal fiefdom. A quick and decisive war was followed by a messy peace.  Few wars in history had achieved their immediate aims so fully and swiftly and yet left behind so much unfinished business.  The war’s aftermath was a reminder that military force, when used to tackle complex political problems, is merely a blunt instrument.  The war also demonstrated that Americans are better at sharp, short bursts of military intervention than at sustained political engagement aimed at fostering democracy in the Middle East.
This inglorious history of Western involvement in Iraq goes a long way to explain why the Iraqi people are not playing their part in our script for the liberation of their country.  This is why Tony Blair, in his press conference on Tuesday, was so anxious to persuade ordinary Iraqis that this time we are determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein.  Blair directed his appeal particularly at the Shiite Muslims who make up 60 per cent of Iraq's 24 million inhabitants.  ‘This time we will not let you down,’ he pledged solemnly.  But it is naïve to expect mere words to erase the bitter legacy of the past.  Given their own experience of oppression by Saddam and betrayal by the Western powers, it is only natural that ordinary Iraqis prefer to let the two sides fight it out among themselves.