In an interview with Muslim Press, Nick Alexandrov discusses the Iraq War and its consequences for the Middle East.
The following is the full transcription of the interview:
Muslim Press: In Britain, a cross-party alliance of MPs is pushing for Tony Blair to be declared guilty of “contempt” towards parliament over the Iraq War. What’s your take on this?
Nick Alexandrov: “Contempt” is being used here to mean something “a bit like contempt of court. Essentially by deceit,” Conservative MP David Davis, who is part of the cross-party alliance, clarified. Finding Blair guilty of “contempt” towards Parliament in this sense would be a welcome development, and would reinforce what reports from the past dozen years make clear.
The 2004 Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction (the Butler Review), for example, “concluded that Blair’s speeches” outlining the threat from Saddam Hussein “left ‘the impression that there was fuller and firmer intelligence than was the case,’” as Walter Pincus reported in the Washington Post. And this year’s Iraq Inquiry (better known as the Chilcot Inquiry, after its chairman Sir John Chilcot) revealed Blair’s fears he “couldn’t be sure of support [for invasion] from Parliament, party, public or even some of the Cabinet.” But he stayed optimistic. “If we recapitulate all the WMD evidence; add [Saddam’s] attempts to secure nuclear capability; and, as seems possible, add on Al Qaida link, it will be hugely persuasive over here,” he hoped.
Still, even if successful, the MPs’ campaign will apparently have little more than symbolic import, and like many worthwhile political undertakings seems likely to fail. But one could also argue it doesn’t go far enough, since what Blair should be found guilty of is something far worse than lying to Parliament—namely, waging a war of aggression. That goes for Bush as well, needless to say.
Regarding Iraq, Benjamin Ferencz, who was Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, argued that a “prima facie case can be made that the United States is guilty of the supreme crime against humanity, that being an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign nation.” The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg concluded that this “supreme international crime…contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Where Iraq is concerned, this “accumulated evil” is what followed the 2003 invasion: the explosion of sectarian violence, ruined archaeological riches, cities like Fallujah reduced to rubble, populations sickened and infants deformed by contamination from Depleted Uranium munitions, hundreds of thousands displaced, and hundreds of thousands more slaughtered.
MP: Do you blame him and Bush for the war and its consequences?
Nick Alexandrov: Bush and Blair are hardly the only culprits, and both had crucial support in the run-up to war from their intelligence agencies. Robert Dreyfuss and Jason Vest, in Mother Jones, wrote of “the Pentagon’s Iraq war-planning unit,” for example, which “manufactured scare stories about Iraq’s weapons and ties to terrorists” in the year before the invasion. Britain’s MI6 worked to shape public opinion with its Operation Mass Appeal. And the U.S. media went out of its way to support Bush’s efforts. One study by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) found that, “when 61 percent of respondents were telling CBS pollsters they felt the U.S. should ‘wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time’” in early 2003, “network newscasts [on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS] were dominated by current and former U.S. officials, and largely excluded Americans who were skeptical of or opposed to an invasion of Iraq.”
Furthermore, singling out Bush for blame ignores the fact that contempt for suffering Iraqis has long been the default attitude in Washington. Joy Gordon writes that “it was the consistent policy of all three U.S. administrations, from 1990 to 2003, to inflict the most extreme economic damage possible on Iraq.” She adds that Congress backed this policy “irrespective of which party controlled” it. As Washington’s 1990s sanctions savaged the country—Madeleine Albright, in an infamous “60 Minutes” segment, deemed the 500,000 Iraqi children the measure was expected to kill “worth it”—“there were few in Congress who had any substantial interest in the issue.” The legislative branch’s aim, instead, “was regime change, accompanied by frustration that it had not yet taken place. This culminated in the [1998 Iraq Liberation Act], which formalized the U.S. policy of regime change in Iraq,” Gordon concludes. Bush’s war thus had roots in his Democratic predecessor’s decisions.
MP: Tony Blair says the world would be "in a worse position" had he not taken the decision to invade Iraq. Do you agree with him? How has the world changed after the Iraq war?
Nick Alexandrov: Whether we agree with Blair depends on a number of factors. Is the spread of global terrorism a welcome development? If we answer “yes,” then we must admit Blair is right.
I mention this because the Iraq war did give global terrorism a shot in the arm, as expected. “Months before the invasion of Iraq,” Walter Pincus and Karen DeYoung reported in the Washington Post, “U.S. intelligence agencies predicted that it would be likely to spark violent sectarian divides and provide al-Qaeda with new opportunities in Iraq and Afghanistan,” a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report concluded. This study circulated “at senior levels of the White House and the State and Defense departments and to the congressional armed services and appropriations committees.” But the “War on Terror” went ahead as planned.
A few years later, it became clear that these predictions were accurate. As Mark Mazzetti explained in the New York Times in late September 2006, “A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.” This National Intelligence Estimate concluded “that Islamic radicalism, rather than being in retreat, ha[d] metastasized and spread across the globe.” The Estimate thus echoed a National Intelligence Council study from early 2005, which determined “that Iraq had become the primary training ground for the next generation of terrorists, and that veterans of the Iraq war might ultimately overtake Al Qaeda’s current leadership in the constellation of the global jihad leadership.”
And a Washington Post piece published this month concedes that, since 9/11, “The problem appears to have grown bigger” where global, non-state terrorism is concerned. “The threat is actually worse: It has metastasized and spread geographically,” top terrorism adviser Richard Clarke argued.
Or perhaps one thinks torture should be common practice—if so, one would have to agree with Blair that the world improved after the Iraq invasion. As medical ethics expert Steven Miles notes, the “war on terror rationalizes torture and harsh treatment to facilitate interrogation.” Historian Alfred McCoy writes that “the White House made torture its secret weapon” after 9/11, adding that to this end Bush and his team “began building a global gulag for the CIA.” He estimates “the toll from President Bush’s orders” as including “some 14,000 Iraqi ‘security detainees’ subjected to harsh interrogation, often with torture” and “1,100 ‘high-value’ prisoners interrogated, with systematic torture, at Guantánamo and Bagram,” among others.
Or perhaps one thinks the erosion of civil liberties, as justified by conditions the “War on Terror” ostensibly imposes, signals a better world. “Abetted by Congress, President Bush vastly expanded domestic surveillance, lowered warrant requirements, instituted discriminatory watch lists, legalized the indefinite detention of terror suspects, and arrested and convicted hundreds on flimsy ‘material support’ charges,” as Sam Adler-Bell summarized the post-9/11 developments in Jacobin. He added that “Obama’s DOJ largely continued these policies (with the exception of torture),” and that Obama himself “has ramped up investigations and prosecutions of national security leakers”—part of what Karen J. Greenberg, in The Nation, called “a war against whistleblowers of every sort.”
Or maybe one thinks the world would be “in a worse position” without the prospect of a Trump presidency. Former U.S. Congressional staff member Mike Lofgren, writing for Truthout earlier this year, explained that “nearly every word US government officials have uttered about the matter during the last 15 years has been designed to instill dread of terrorism in the population. And it has worked.” One result is that “voters who felt most strongly about terrorism chose Donald Trump,” he pointed out.
And one can find still other reasons why Blair is right. Perhaps one thought, before 2003, that Iraq’s excess population was around 2.5 million. If so, the invasion and occupation solved that problem, killing a million people and displacing a million and a half.
Perhaps one thought Hiroshima and Nagasaki needed to be surpassed as the record-holding sites for congenital birth defects. If so, one can only applaud as, to quote Dahr Jamail, “children…born with two heads, children born with only one eye, multiple tumors, disfiguring facial and body deformities, and complex nervous system problems” emerge in Fallujah. U.S. forces assaulted the city twice in 2004, “using large quantities of [Depleted Uranium] ammunition,” a suspected cause of birth defects and cancers plaguing the city—home to “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied,” according to Dr. Chris Busby.
Or maybe one thought Iraq too cluttered with artifacts, in which case the fact that Washington “and its allies ignored the warnings of organizations and scholars concerning the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage,” while its “forces destroyed or badly damaged many historic urban areas and buildings,” must be welcome news.
Indeed, one can think of many reasons why Blair was right in saying the world would be worse off had he not invaded Iraq.
MP: ISIS has become a major problem for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world. What has led to the growth of this terrorist group? Do you think former President Bush and his allies are to blame for the crisis that the world is facing right now?
Nick Alexandrov: Yes, most definitely. Again, the “supreme international crime” of aggression “contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,” as the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg concluded. Bush and his allies invaded Iraq after intelligence agencies predicted the assault would increase terrorism. And in early 2005 the National Intelligence Council found these predictions accurate, warning that “veterans of the Iraq War might ultimately overtake Al Qaeda’s current leadership in the constellation of the global jihad leadership.” It was a prescient statement.
“In early 2003 al Qaeda was on the ropes,” Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The group had no presence in Iraq. “The invasion of Iraq breathed new life into the organization,” however. Byman and Pollack stressed that “Iraq, as President George W. Bush has declared, has indeed become a ‘central front’ in the war on terrorism—largely because of the administration’s policies, which have created a Salafi terrorist problem in Iraq where none existed.” This was a branch of al-Qaeda, which in 2006 morphed into ISIS.
As Juan Cole elaborates, al-Qaeda members “flocked [to Iraq] to fight the US troops” after 2003, “and gathered under the rubric first of al-Tawhid of the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” who “initially had bad relations with Usama Bin Laden” but “made up and joined al-Qaeda” to better “fight the US presence.” Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan concur: “Al-Zarqawi and bin Laden may not have trusted or even liked each other, but their partnership was forged in a common objective: snaring the United States and its Western allies in Iraq.”
And Bush’s occupation policies helped advance their efforts. Weiss and Hassan cite Colonel Derek Harvey, who “estimated that between sixty-five and ninety-five thousand members of Saddam’s…Special Republican Guard; Iraq’s many intelligence directorates (known collectively as the Mukhabarat); the Fedayeen Saddam; and state-subsidized militiamen were all rendered unemployed with the stroke of a pen after L. Paul Bremer, the Bush-appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), chose to disband the Iraqi military.” Some of these victims of U.S. “de-Baathification” measures “joined a nascent campaign to expel their expropriators,” becoming some of al-Zarqawi’s “most enthusiastic champions.”
It’s for reasons like these that ex-CIA agent Graham Fuller said “the United States is one of the key creators of” ISIS (the self-proclaimed Islamic State).
MP: In the United States, Republicans blame Obama for leaving Iraq too early and creating a vacuum out of which ISIS has emerged. How do you analyze this?
Nick Alexandrov: First of all, the fact that this is even considered a serious discussion topic in the U.S. reveals how deeply-rooted the imperial mindset is among scholars, commentators, political advisers and other well-educated people. Does the U.S. president have the right to decide whether or not to occupy Iraq? Does Washington get to choose when to withdraw its forces, how quickly and on what terms? Clearly these questions should be for Iraqis alone to answer—but try to find this point made anywhere in the flood of articles on Obama’s foreign policy.
I mean, suppose for the sake of argument that Putin invades and occupies Ukraine, then builds an enormous base (call it the Red Zone) in Kiev to try to halt NATO expansion. Suppose next that he withdraws his troops after the better part of a decade, and that following his departure Ukrainian nationalists engage in a series of bloody clashes with pro-Russian separatists. Hardliners in Russia’s Federal Assembly cite this violence as proof Putin departed too soon, that he left a void in Ukraine. Would U.S. political analysts, watching this debate unfold, agree that, yes, perhaps Putin ought to have left a residual force in Ukraine, or argue that he should have occupied the country for several more years? These thoughts would never cross anyone’s mind, and yet where Iraq is concerned similar questions are not only considered legitimate, but the only appropriate ones.
And once we’ve stooped to the level of mainstream political debate in the U.S., we find that the Republican charge is ludicrous. First of all, in departing Iraq, Obama was “honoring the [U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement] signed with Iraq’s government under the Bush administration,” as Emma Sky reminds us in Foreign Affairs. Second, Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and not Obama’s withdrawal nearly nine years later, created the conditions from which al-Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS, emerged.
And lastly, those criticizing Obama’s withdrawal argue that it gave Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, free reign to implement his sectarian policies. In Newsweek, for example, Jonathan Broder asserts that al-Maliki’s “sectarian campaign” ruined “the fragile sectarian balance the U.S. occupation had enforced.” But these sectarian policies were part of the U.S. occupation strategy under Bush, who backed al-Maliki for years. “The most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq’s modern history followed the 2003 US-led occupation,” Sami Ramadani wrote in the Guardian, describing Washington’s “divide-and-rule policy, promoting Iraqi organizations founded on religion, ethnicity, nationality or sect rather than politics.”
MP: What’s your take on the Obama administration’s policies in Iraq? Was he successful in fighting ISIS?
Nick Alexandrov: When Obama chose to begin airstrikes on Iraq in August 2014—six months before seeking Congress’ authorization, by the way—he justified the decision, in part, on humanitarian grounds: the U.S. had the responsibility to protect the minority religious Yazidi sect, the target of a genocidal ISIS campaign. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, liberal websites like Slate—everyone simply picked up this story and ran with it, as if U.S. concern for suffering Iraqis was well-established and beyond challenge.
But there were a few issues with Obama’s justification, beginning with the fact that, during the U.S. occupation seven years earlier, bombings that U.S. officials attributed to al-Qaeda—a presence in Iraq only following Bush’s invasion—had killed several hundred Yazidis. “This is an act of ethnic cleansing, if you will, almost genocide,” one U.S. military official warned at the time.
And Yazidis were merely one among many suffering religious minority groups in Iraq then. “Since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the Christian community [has] found itself under attack and tens of thousands have since fled the country in fear of religious persecution,” Firas Al-Atraqchi noted. He added that “Mandeans, or Sabians, a sect of people who follow the teachings of John the Baptist and pre-date Christianity and Islam in Iraq, have since 2003 been forced to leave en masse because of a brutal campaign against them.” And a 2008 Minority Rights Group International study concluded that “Mandaeans face extinction as a people.” These tragedies played out, again, during the U.S. occupation and in part as a result of Washington’s policies—a fact the U.S. media couldn’t be bothered to point out as Obama’s crusade began. This crusade’s nobility is laid bare on the Airwars website, which documents the civilian deaths from Coalition airstrikes in grim detail.
And one could argue that Obama, like Bush before him, has helped arm ISIS while aiding its recruitment drives. Discussing weapons, William D. Hartung explains “that the Obama administration has approved more arms sales than any U.S. administration since World War II.” He adds that much “of the $25 billion in arms and training supplied to Iraqi security forces—most of it on Bush’s watch—was abandoned to ISIS forces when they swept through northern Iraq in summer 2014, and IS also captured weapons that the CIA supplied to ‘moderate’ Syrian factions.”
Where terrorist recruitment is concerned, recall that last November a group of “former US air force service members, with more than 20 years of experience between them,” wrote “Obama warning that the program of targeted killings by unmanned aircraft has become a major driving force for Isis and other terrorist groups,” the Guardian reported. Even in his first year as president Obama launched more drone strikes than Bush had in his two terms in office. As Trevor McCrisken explained in International Affairs, these strikes reflect Obama’s efforts “to deepen Bush’s commitment to counterterrorism,” and to demonstrate that he has long been “a ‘true believer’ in the war against terrorism.”
But being a “true believer” in this sense by no means implies one will actually work to reduce terrorism, or to stop participating in it—a qualification that applies both to Bush and Obama, not to mention the two miserable candidates that stand a chance of winning the 2016 U.S. presidential contest.
Nick Alexandrov writes regularly for CounterPunch and has contributed to the Asia Times. Most of his work focuses on U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America during the Cold War. He has received his PhD from George Washington University.