Iraq continues to suffer the legacy of two decades of US military intervention and meddling, with little end in sight.
The scene is painful to anyone concerned about the long-range impact of the first US-Iraq war in 1991. Then US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright was asked by 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl if the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1991 war, which according to UN estimates had led to the deaths of upwards of half a million children, were “worth it.”
“I think this is a very hard choice but the price we think, the price was worth it,” was Albright’s now infamous reply. Well, perhaps not to everyone; despite her shocking candour, she was promoted by President Clinton to Secretary of State a few months later.
Seven years later, the United States once again invaded Iraq, and according to the most detailed survey of Iraqi civilians yet conducted it’s likely that another 500,000 Iraqis were killed in the invasion and its long and brutal aftermath. This latest estimate is thirty percent lower than the roughly 655,000 war-related deaths arrived at by a much-disputed Lancet study in 2006, but still far higher than the 100,000 deaths estimated by Iraq Body Count.
At least no one in the US asks if “the price was worth it” anymore. By now, even Americans, whose broad estimation of Iraqi casualties is roughly two percent of the actual number, realise it wasn’t, unless your stock portfolio is heavily tilted towards the defence, security, intelligence and petroleum sectors (in which case, the last decade has been one helluva ride).
But this level of death and destruction can’t be laid all at America’s door step. If it takes a village to raise a child, it take as many people and forces to kill her by the thousands in so many perverse ways. Iraq is crucial here because it reminds us that simply blaming America or the forces of imperialism does nothing to unfold the structural causes of the such large-scale and long-term disasters.
Before 1,000,000 Iraqis were killed in American-sponsored wars they were killed by the hundreds of thousands by Saddam Hussein as a result of the eight-year war he launched against Iran, from 1980-88. This war received the strong support not merely of the US government (which we now know knowingly supplied logistical information that helped Hussein’s troops deploy chemical weapons against Iranians) but of the Arab Gulf states as well, which helped finance the war. The Soviet Union, China, and Europeans, all sold Saddam whatever weapons systems he would buy. Not surprisingly, many of the same countries also sold weapons to Iran.
Of course, the world’s growing addiction to oil provided the incredible wealth that allowed Hussein, Khomeini, the House of Saud and all the other petrocrats to spend so much wealth on repression and death in the name of their own power and self-aggrandisement. So in the end, the guilt trickles down to all of us who so eagerly have addicted ourselves to black heroin. But it must be said that the half-million Iraqi children that died during the 1990s sanctions regime, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians who died in the previous decade, died primarily because of the whims of one man, Saddam Hussein, and the brutal regime he headed. Everyone else were ultimately hand maidens to his death machine.
The latest report stresses that a large share of the war-related deaths—as high as forty percent, or several hundred thousand—were not directly from violence, but because of the lack of infrastructure for health care, and the physical and mental stresses associated with the civil war. Who is to blame for these deaths? As the occupying power the United States bore legal responsibility during the official Occupation, and its utter mismanagement of the occupation and reconstruction, coupled with routine violations of international law also contributed to the high mortality rate. But Iraqis on all sides—the Sunni leaders who bragged they would “kill all the infidels” to get the US out of Iraq (as the head of the Sunni Ulama put it to me in 2004), to the Shia leaders who were happy to let the US do the dirty work of reining in the Sunnis while they took the lead in the new Iraqi state—and all the foreign interests, from al-Qa’eda to competing regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran, equally share responsibility.
The point is that the one million dead Iraqis are the product of a global system that for decades has rewarded little but greed, violence and repression. It’s a system that so many parties have profited from that no one with any degree of power has any interest in changing it. And so Iraqis continue to die in an endless struggle to divide the spoils of the world’s second largest oil reserves.
The 1,000,000 Iraqi dead are still speaking to us. They speak about Syria, where the Obama Administration is happy to arm the rebels just enough to ensure a stalemate but not enough to defeat Assad—thus ensuring that another 100 or even 200,000 Syrian civilians die so that the balance of power between the US and Iran, Hezbollah and al-Qa’eda, isn’t upset in a way that America can’t control. They remind us how Assad was feted by everyone from the CIA and Sarkozy to Brangelina in the last decade before, as Hussein did before him, he became enemy number one. They speak to us about how regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar can spend billions to support a civil war whose dynamics seem poised to produce a history of death that will rival the miserable toll in Iraq, especially if the war’s long term effect on refugees is accounted for.
They remind us about what happens when civil society, including—and in fact especially—civil resistance is ignored or even repressed instead of being encouraged, and how costly is the ultimate turn to violence to meet even greater state violence for all sides. And they point to how easily a sense of national solidarity can be ripped apart and a society that seemed a model of stability ripped in two or even three if enough forces benefit from such a development.
The question remains, Is anyone listening? And if they are, Is there the any will in the international community to change this murderous dynamic?
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden, and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.