Crusade versus Jihad: The mistaken narratives of a misbegotten war

With this week marking the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, TV viewers can, no doubt, soon expect to see a heavily marketed multi-part historical docudrama that trumpets lifting the lid on the behind-the-scenes wrangling over the murky decision-making that precipitated the conflict. There will be an army of characters, casts of thousands and a chorus of eager, embedded journalists trying to inveigle themselves into history. The real difficulty of making the mini-series, however, lies in accurately conveying the calamitous power and impact of the fundamentally “How could they be so stupid?” ideas that proved a catalyst for death and destruction, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Some years ago, artist Andy Warhol said, “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. But that was probably before the historical mini-series on TV really had come into its own. Since then, famous – and some not so famous – people from throughout history have routinely showed up in a multi-part NBO or Showtime docudramas that are carefully cast and recorded like a David Lean film epic. Even though their viewers usually know how things turned out (no prizes for remembering, for example, that the US developed the atomic bomb to end the war rather than Japan in Fat Boy and Little Man), clever scriptwriters peel back the curtains so that viewers can get inside the machinery, to see the discussions where the hard, brutal choices were made by leaders – and the suspense is kept up through weaving in clever subplots.

And so it is crystal clear that the murky decision-making that led to the Iraq War is certain to become a riveting TV documentary series. Now that we are at the 10th anniversary of that disaster, undoubtedly there are already meetings about such docudramas taking place in Hollywood. There will be all those dramatic opportunities for cross-cutting between the various capitals as the protagonists set out on their fateful courses, leading their respective nations down decision-making blind alleys and into culs de sac.

And it’s going to feature a whole army of characters like Ahmad Chalabi, Saddam Hussein, “Comical Ali”, George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, Hans Blix, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Kofi Annan and so many others. This will be in addition to the casts of thousands including ordinary soldiers on both sides, the thousands of hard-done-by civilian bystanders, suicide bombers, bombing victims and all the rest. 

And it will get interspersed with choice bits from breathless news footage from the hundreds of embedded journalists who were so eager to replicate the exploits of legendary correspondents like Ernie Pyle or Walter Cronkite. The good news is that casting all of this will give work to dozens of Hollywood’s best character actors – and probably every Arab-American actor with an Actors Equity membership, and maybe even a place in all this for Omar Sharif, in addition to actors like Tony Shalhoub and Alexander Siddiq.

The real challenge, however, is going to be to depict accurately the disastrous power and impact of those so very wrong-headed ideas that drove the protagonists into this conflict. Watching such a mini-series, viewers will find themselves smacking themselves on the forehead repeatedly, saying, “How could they be so stupid? Doesn’t anybody ever learn from history?” Yes, this particular mini-series isn’t scheduled for viewing yet, but with this week marking the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, it is certain somebody is about to pitch the story to a commissioning editor any moment now – if it isn’t already underway.

Watch: GW Bush announces Iraq invasion

Any such series will inevitably focus on striking visual moments. There will be Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech at the UN on 5 February 2003, the one where he had that little vial of talcum powder to stand in for the non-existent anthrax germs; and there will be the hush-hush search for Iraq’s non-existent yellow cake – uranium ore – purchases in which senior officials burned their own CIA operative in the process. There will also have to be those White House meetings where neo-conservative war hawks like Dick Cheney convinced George W Bush to link Iraq with al-Qaeda in his rhetoric and decision-making on the basis of the dissembling of Ahmad Chalabi. And there will be scenes of yet other meetings in which Saddam Hussein and his advisors decide the Americans will not, actually invade; and between US and British leaders – the ones that created a united front over those weapons of mass deception – a decision British observers now call totally wrong-headed and dangerous.

Then there would be “Comical Ali’s” (information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf) famous broadcasts via satellite news reports that American troops were dying by the thousands at the gates of Baghdad even as US tanks could easily be seen driving by in the background. Inevitable, too, would be that famous – and largely staged – destruction of the giant Saddam Hussein statue in downtown Baghdad; the chaos in the aftermath of the collapse of civil order in the capital; and finally the hunt for Saddam Hussein that was finally concluded when he was discovered in his ad hoc underground dugout. And then there will have to be a numbing montage of suicide bomb attacks, deaths from IEDs, vicious battles like the one in Fallujah, and of course any miniseries will have to depict a subplot of a Baghdadi family ruined and torn apart by sectarian, religious and political disputes to stand in for all the victims, counterbalanced against the anguish of an American family in Iowa or Kansas that lost a son or husband in that war.

Taken together, all of this will definitely be very strong, very affecting television drama. But the problem is that even collectively it will be unable to deliver the full inside story of this tragedy. While even now it is hard to understand how Saddam Hussein decided the Americans would not invade, it is clear that several factors contributed to pushing the Bush administration into a needless war.

On one front, psychoanalysts will forever analyse George W Bush’s move towards invasion in psychodynamic terms. Roughly stated, his father, as president in 1991, had guided a tremendous multinational coalition, the first post-cold-war war, which had successfully invaded Iraq to force the liberation of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. In order to keep the invasion focused on its prime purpose, that vast invasion force did not overthrow Saddam Hussein through a violent regime change, nor did it even support the maximum goals of the autonomy-seeking Shiite community in the south or the restive Kurdish population in the north.

But in the minds of many of Bush’s more conservative, more hawkish critics, this decision effectively meant a job left half finished – and a job frustrated by the hesitations of some in his international coalition and even from doubts by leftist, apologist critics inside the US – right at the moment of the American apogee. George W Bush, less comfortably located in the global mainstream and more closely tied to the hawkish neoconservative wing of his party, would have been searching for a way to “finish dad’s business” and assuage this blot on his father’s reputation. And then the opportunity came right to the fore in the grave crisis that was 9/11. As terrible as 9/11 was, it also seemed true that the national resolve and the patriotic energies unleashed in confronting al-Qaeda and Osma bin Laden might also be extended to deal with Saddam Hussein’s clearly despotic, authoritarian regime. In the end, the Bush administration seems to have convinced itself (with a generous nudge or two from people like vice president Dick Cheney and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz) that despite the absence of any real, definitive evidence, Saddam Hussein’s regime was a threat to international peace and security with those putative WMDs – those weapons of mass destruction that were redefined by opponents as Bush’s weapons of mass deception instead.

Of course, Iraq has always figured in the imagination of every American in a curious way. A constant of American education has always been the timeline in history and geography classes that the Fertile Crescent was an incubator of global civilisation, what with its Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Hittite civilisations, one after the other for thousands of years. And then too there is the Biblical narrative that permeates Western culture that consistently points to Mesopotamia – the land between the waters in Greek – as the opponent of Judeo-Christian values. That too may have contributed subliminally to a Bush antagonism towards Iraq.

Folded into this set of feelings too was the near-eschatological fervour over a deep clash of civilisations – the “crusade” of the modern West against the religiously inspired, obscurantist fundamentalism – its “jihadism” – of Islam, exemplified by a murderous al- Qaeda and via an imaginative extension – Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime as well. But this was simultaneously heedless of the circumstances that his regime was both more secular than most Bush administration figures were prepared to admit and that it had stood largely in opposition to that truly radical Shiite establishment in Iran – fighting a pitiless, take-no-prisoners war for nearly a decade with that nation in the process. (The Bush administration had first evoked the loaded phrase, “a crusade,” in its first public statements after 9/11, withdrawing them only after other advisors explained that term generated deep roots of resentment in the Middle East, thereby getting in the way of any alliances with any Arab nation – and harking back to the European crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries that had tried to bring Jerusalem back under Christian control.)

Feeding into this set of ideas about Iraq was also the fact American foreign policy has always been in a kind of dance between two poles of thought. The first represents those exceptionalist, Manichean values exemplified by the enduring vision of the “shining city upon a hill” that inevitably features in presidential proclamations, major speeches and those eponymously named presidential doctrines. The second pole is the much less transcendent sense of “realpolitik” that speaks to basic interests and the policies that support them, even if it sometimes means an embrace of the occasional unpleasant authoritarian despot, as long as that nation helps ward off a yet greater enemy. The downside with the transcendent becomes apparent, however, when that “shining city upon a hill” translates into “we had to destroy this village in order to save it” rather than an example of American exceptionalism.

With Iraq, the Bush administration became so seized by its own vision of conquering, then rebuilding Iraq in the American image, once Saddam’s influence had been scoured away, that fatal realities were elided or ignored. The Iraq that American troops rushed into was a society deeply fissured between ethnicities and religious divisions but under control realpolitik – just. The quick removal of the Iraqi army and the defenestration of the Baath Party unleashed the divisions, and allowed for a rapid rise in lawlessness – including the highly public and destructive looting of national treasures – and then years of sectarian violence directed against American forces as well as each other.

By the end, this second Iraq War had virtually destroyed the effectiveness of the Bush presidency, a downward spiral that began right after its preemptive declaration of “Mission Accomplished” printed on a huge banner hung on the superstructure of the USS Abraham Lincoln for all to see when Bush arrived on that carrier in 2003. This was seen by the world just as the major internal violence in Iraq was just getting started. Along the way, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reputation was also fatally compromised by virtue of his near-slavish adherence to the Bush storyline and his spirited insistence that those WMDs were real, or would have been soon enough if matters had been allowed to run their course. 

In American political circumstances, while Barack Obama had initially thought the 2008 US presidential election would be fought over the futility of the Iraq War, the financial-economic crisis that broke at the end of the Bush presidency changed that calculation. Regardless, the incoming Obama administration promised to depart from Iraq and ultimately managed to extract the US military from that unhappy nation just before he ran for reelection – meeting an initial campaign promise that had been repeatedly reasserted throughout his first term of office.

By the end of the American involvement, the human cost of the war was enormous. While nearly 4,500 US military personnel became fatalities from the invasion and then through the years of the insurgency (along with 300 others from the coalition forces), Iraqi casualties were many times greater – and may never be completely known. Iraqi military deaths in the first fighting were over 16,000, but thousands more died in the years that have followed. Most estimates give the total casualties from the fighting as between 110,000 to 189,000 persons, although some, such as in The Lancet survey of casualties, put the total at the much higher figure of 601,027. And the massive financial burden may never be comprehensively calculated. At this point, estimates of the total cost range from $1 trillion to $3 trillion, depending on how one figures in the ultimate costs of veterans’ benefits, lost wages and expenditures of national wealth on war materiel, as well as the cost of financing a war in which the bulk of the expenditure was largely financed via deficit spending pushed onto future generations.

And what was achieved from all this? The US did achieve its goal of removing Saddam Hussein’s rule over Iraq, and while the country has become a better place for the Kurdish minority in the northern quadrant of the country, the Arab Shiite plurality has a larger share of the nation’s political power, and the way is open for a thorough-going reconstruction of the country’s creaky infrastructure and petroleum industry. Ironically, the overthrow of that regime has made it that much more difficult to counterbalance the ambitions of revolutionary Iran to become a hegemon in the Middle East and around the Persian Gulf. And the population of Iraq itself has become that much more divided among itself, and between the many competing communities within the nation.

Moreover, from the perspective of maintaining the basic of American national interests and a balancing of more antagonistic forces in the Middle East, success in the war has made that task has become that much more difficult. And one further price has become the truth that the Obama administration and future presidents will all have to cope with the newest iteration of the Vietnam syndrome – a deep distrust of government and a great, abiding reluctance to support the use of American military forces in directly projecting power almost anywhere in the world. In that sense, the Obama administration’s reluctance to commit US forces – except in the most limited and carefully circumstances – will be one more lingering casualty of a nearly decade-long war that was triggered by an illusion and carried out in the service of a delusion. DM 

Read more:

  • A Decade of War in Iraq: The Images That Moved Them Most in Time at Time Lightbox
  • Hans Blix reflects on Iraq war 10 years on at the BBC
  • Iraq war planning wholly irresponsible, say senior UK military figures at the Guardian
  • Iraq Ten Years On in the Economist
  • Conservatives’ contradictions on American power, a column by EJ Dionne in the Washington Post
  • A War, Before and After in the New York Times
  • US bill to rebuild Iraq reaches $138bn in the Financial Times 
  • Jihad vs. McWorld – The two axial principles of our age—tribalism and globalism—clash at every point except one: they may both be threatening to democracy by Ben Barber in The Atlantic (and early statement of the clash between the West and contemporary Islam)

Photo: An explosion rocks Baghdad during air strikes in this March 21, 2003 file photo. U.S. led forces unleashed a devastating blitz on Baghdad, triggering giant fireballs and deafening explosions and sending huge mushroom clouds above the city center. March 20 marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. led war against Iraq. The war started on March 20 Baghdad local time, March 19 Washington D.C. local time. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic


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