The recent release of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the origins of the Iraq War has predictably inspired recriminations about that country’s disintegration into political turmoil and sectarian violence. Since the American-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, a series of government investigations, of which the British-sanctioned Chilcot report is the latest, have highlighted the role that flawed pre-war intelligence concerning the regime’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs played in transatlantic decision-making. Like clockwork, Chilcot’s findings have led to yet another round of accusations that the American government and its British lapdogs are to blame for Iraq’s postwar descent into bloody disorder.
But blaming the coalition that overthrew Saddam Hussein for Iraq’s current state is an error, on both moral and factual grounds. It’s not America and its allies that are primarily at fault for the past 13 years of violence and political disarray. It’s Iraqis.
While very few casualties were incurred during the coalition’s “shock and awe” campaign, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have died in the years since Hussein’s downfall in a seemingly endless sequence of tit-for-tat sectarian violence. Assessing the war’s toll on the Iraqi people, however, critics invariably attribute these deaths to the United States and its allies. It is sad that such a simple fact bears repeating, but it was not coalition soldiers who killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. On the contrary, American and British troops (along with those of some 40 other nations) risked their lives to save Iraqis and stood in the crossfire of a burgeoning Sunni–Shia conflict that later blew up into full-scale civil war. Nearly all of the Iraqis killed over the past 13 years were murdered by their fellow countrymen in a confessional conflict encouraged by irresponsible leaders who placed sectarian grudges over the national interest.
Of course, those deaths didn’t occur in a void. Many Iraqis would surely still be alive today absent the U.S.-led offensive and ensuing civil war. But damning the initial invasion because of what occurred afterward, and, moreover, faulting Iraq’s liberators for the subsequent chaos, obscures the many Iraqis murdered by the Hussein regime over its 30-year rule. Those killings, committed in hidden dungeons and torture chambers, in the mountains of Kurdistan and the remote wetlands of the Marsh Arabs, took place away from the watchful eyes of the world, unlike the spectacular car bombs that have become a regular occurrence in Baghdad.
Damning the initial invasion because of what occurred afterward obscures the many Iraqis murdered by the Hussein regime over its 30-year rule.
Here is where I will make the obligatory acknowledgment that the coalition’s post-war planning — or lack thereof — was totally inadequate, that its hasty disbanding of the Iraqi military opened up a power vacuum, and that de-Baathification alienated a disenfranchised Sunni population. All of these preventable mistakes exacerbated pre-existing sectarian tensions. But nobody forced Iraqis to murder each other in their hundreds of thousands owing to disagreements over Mohammad’s progeny, the source of the Sunni–Shia divide responsible for so much bloodletting across the Arab world today.
The post-conflict fate of another country is instructive. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Catholics and Protestants in that utterly defeated nation — one whose post-war destruction was of an order of magnitude greater than that inflicted upon Iraq in 2003 — did not engage in civil war. If they had, no serious person would have hesitated to blame them for failing to take advantage of what German president Richard von Weizsäcker called, on the 40th anniversary of the war’s end, “a day of liberation.” Like Germans in May 1945, Iraqis in April 2003 were handed what few citizens of hardened dictatorships ever receive: freedom, and the opportunity to build a new country. At the cost of much American blood and treasure, Iraqis were given what the late scholar Fouad Ajami termed “the Foreigner’s gift.” With the glaring exception of the Kurds, they blew it.
If supporters of the Iraq War can be blamed for anything, it is being guilty of, at worst, a naïveté whereby they expected too much from Iraqis — not, as the latter-day inquisitors of George W. Bush and Tony Blair would have it, of a malignant desire to rape and pillage. Iraq’s tragic predicament is the result not of Western imperialism but of the particular pathologies of a Muslim-Arab world whose depredations are now on full view across the region, from Syria to Lebanon to Yemen and beyond.
In retrospect, opponents of the Iraq War may be proven right. Maybe war supporters were hopelessly deluded to think that, after 30 years of Baathist rule, Iraqis would take advantage of the opening provided them and construct a democratic society rather than drill holes into each other’s kneecaps. If that is indeed the case, if the only possibilities for Iraq are strongman rule or sectarian bloodshed, then the correct tone for the war’s opponents to assume is surely one of somber reflection, not the resentful braggadocio currently on display. Because to blame Bush and Blair for the mess in Iraq is to surrender to a fatalism in which Arabs are considered devoid of agency, inherently incapable of establishing any form of government other than hardened dictatorship. For the same patronizing reasons that they scoffed at the notion of Arab democracy in 2003, the war’s critics today absolve Iraqis of any responsibility for their self-inflicted fate.
— James Kirchick is a fellow of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a correspondent for The Daily Beast, and a columnist for Tablet magazine. His first book, The End of Europe, is forthcoming from Yale University Press.