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West pays price of a delayed invasion

For some reason, and for a number of years, I have been on the email list for the Stop the War coalition. This is bizarre - though in fairness to them each newsletter explains how I could "unsubscribe" should I wish to. Having never subscribed in the first place, and finding these manic missives entertaining in a macabre sort of way, I have never removed myself from their records.

The latest call to (non) arms arrived last Thursday. It asked: "Where will you be on March 18?" The supermarket would be the truthful answer but not the one being solicited. Where they would have preferred me to be was marching in a demonstration marking the third anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.

The email contained rhetoric that has become familiar, though fatuous. It railed against "lies about weapons of mass destruction", an "illegal war", "Abu Ghraib" and the "expropriation of Iraqi resources". All the words so often employed about Iraq were there, except, of course, "Saddam" and "Hussein". The entire episode started in March 2003 was condemned as an "occupation" that has "brought nothing to the Iraqi people except ever increasing death and destruction".

I suppose it depends on how you define "nothing". If two elections, one constitutional referendum, a free press, an independent judiciary, greater religious liberty, the lifting of economic sanctions, reintegration into the region and the wider international community count for "nothing", then nothing is a reasonable assessment.

As many leaders of the anti-war movement have nothing but contempt for "bourgeois democracy" and hate capitalism and its manifestations, then, for them, "nothing" is entirely accurate.

The rest of us, however, might reach a more rounded conclusion. When told that Iraq has been a "tragedy", we might agree -- but not in the way those who use that term take it. The tragedy is not that troops went into that land in 2003 but that they did not arrive earlier or in larger numbers. For the first tragedy of Iraq is that this is the third and not the seventh anniversary of its liberation.

I am not one of those who thinks that it would have been possible for the US to have pressed on to Baghdad in 1991 after expelling Saddam's conscripts from Kuwait. President George Bush Sr. opted to take the "UN route" and was thus shackled by its limited mandate.

What should have happened, however, was a showdown in March 1999, four months after the Iraqi dictator expelled UN weapons inspectors. This was the umpteenth violation of the terms under which he had earlier sued for peace and more than enough justification to remove him from power, irrespective of whether France, Germany or Russia had scant enthusiasm for the venture.

If the US and Britain had acted then, life would have been considerably easier. Delay after that point meant that it could always be asked "why now?" by opponents of intervention. As it was, Bill Clinton, handcuffed by the manner in which he avoided the conflict in Vietnam and shamed by the exposure of his exploits with Monica Lewinsky, could no more launch an assault on Iraq than he might claim membership of the American Celibacy Association.

The second tragedy lies in the miscalculations made about weapons of mass destruction. It should be acknowledged that these mistakes did not rest with the CIA or MI6 alone; every leading intelligence agency believed that Saddam had or was close to securing a biological, chemical or nuclear capacity and that the dictator was inclined to deploy it.

We now know that the senior ranks of Iraq's armed forces assumed that there was an advanced WMD program and were astonished to discover on the eve of war that none was available.

The tragedy of what went wrong in Iraq, therefore, is that the failure to locate WMD has made action against Iran or North Korea far harder to advance Western public opinion. This would have been true even if Iraq, post invasion, was now a land of peace and plenty.

The final tragedy is that while many will prosper within Iraq over the next three years, the price of inept peacetime policies between 2003 and 2005 is that there will be no more Iraqs in the foreseeable future. To that extent, the Stop the War coalition, assisted, ironically, by the Pentagon, will be satisfied.

And what does this mean in practice? It means no more sadistic totalitarian dictators removed from office. It means no more free and fair elections for those who have never had them. It means no more openings for civic and religious liberty. It means no more chances of a cultural reawakening.

Democracy may well progress in parts of the Middle East but, alas, mostly in the states that were most benign to begin with. There is little reason to suppose that the ruling elites in Damascus, Tehran or Tripoli have the cause for fear they must have briefly felt three years ago. Nor have the people under their yoke any optimism that they might yet escape servitude.

It has become fashionable in certain US neo-conservative circles to declare that Iraq has been "lost" and to wash their hands of the enterprise. I have never been part of that fraternity. It seems to me that their logic is dubious. Iraq has not been "lost" -- there is still a reasonable chance that by the actual seventh anniversary of the incursion the vast majority of people there will be more content than ever before. It is the enslaved Middle East beyond Iraq that has been "lost" and thus remains an intense threat to our security.

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