This too, is a choice: Iraq, responsibility and its modern echoes.

An anniversary is coming soon. It marks a decision that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, caused untold suffering, and may – or may not – have been the right, moral and legal choice.

The United States National Security Council decided not to invade Iraq or attempt to topple Saddam Hussein almost 22 years ago, on the 27th February 1991.

Probably, most of us in the west, if we think of this decision at all, think of it as a wise, pragmatic recognition of the limits of Western power.

Had the USA invaded Iraq in 1991, it would likely have overthrown Saddam Hussein’s regime, but also would have been charged with going beyond the UN Security Council Mandate for the liberation of Kuwait. Further, it would have damaged western relations with regimes as varied as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who had their own reasons to oppose regime change, from fear of Iran or Kurdish nationalism to concern at the after-effects of deposing a dictatorship.

Finally, there was the fear of the US being sucked into another “quagmire”, a fear that lay behind President Bush’s repeated re-assurance to the American people that the Gulf war would not be another Vietnam. These are not insignificant concerns.

Yet the decision not to invade Iraq and not to meaningfully support the overthrow Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime had terrible short and long-term consequences.

Uprisings against the regime were put down brutally in both Kurdistan and the south of Iraq1.

We can’t know precisely how many died in the post-Gulf War repression, but one Human Rights Watch report suggests Iraqi government sources acknowledged a figure of around a quarter of a million deaths. In Baghdad in 2007, the prosecutors of those alleged to be responsible suggested between 60 to 100,000 Shia alone were killed in the repression.

Although we will never know how many died in the repression, we do know that there were millions of refugees, that there were massacres, mass graves, and later a deliberate ecological disaster inflicted on the Marsh Arabs:

As Faleh Jabar, director of the Iraq Institute of Strategic studies wrote after the uprisings were put down:

“The uprisings were drowned in blood. The scenes of brief, mass executions exhibited before the eyes of the world an Iraq that still is a wonderland of terror. Yet Arab leftists and philanthropic liberals turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of a nation victimized…

… the passivity of the Arab and, by extension, the international left was incomprehensible. Their fatal error was to neglect the longing of the Iraqi people for democracy. This left the cause of peace and democracy to the hypocritical manipulation of the US and other Western powers. The rightful condemnation of US schemes and hidden agendas should have been complemented by a defense of the Iraqi people’s legitimate right to democratic freedoms and their right to decide matters of peace and war.”

Could a different path have been taken?

In terms of direct intervention, there flowed a remorseless logic of passivity and reaction from the decision not to invade. Once Iraq had agreed to the UN ceasefire, and as long as it did not breach the conditions of UN resolutions 686 and 687, then, in terms of the liberation of Kuwait, it was Mission Accomplished.2 Further, supporting the confused and disparate rebellions of the Kurds and Shia carried grave risks – from the break up of Iraq to shifts in the regional power balance. Who exactly would the west aid, domestically? What were their agendas?

Fundamentally, if the UN and the Coalition had recognised Iraqi territorial integrity and agreed a ceasefire after the evacuation of Kuwait, on what basis was further intervention justified? Even when violations of UN resolutions did occur, the UN could even then only act reactively.

Such action was justified only for humanitarian purposes, it was decided.

So, on 5 April 1991, the UN security council condemned the repression of the Iraqi Kurds, doing so in the now familiar terms of recognising Iraqi territorial rights, seeking an open dialogue, and requesting humanitarian access. In one of the painful ironies of this history, the UN did the two days after the last major Kurdish town fell to the Iraqi forces.

That same day, Iraq’s  Revolutionary Command Council announced “the complete crushing of acts of sedition, sabotage, and rioting in all towns of Iraq“. The UN was too late. The main uprising had already been crushed. In Southern Iraq, the story was the same.  In the years after the Gulf war, Iraqi forces carried out- in the words of Human Rights watch

“Murder of thousands of unarmed civilians following the abortive March 1991 uprising, through summary execution and the indiscriminate bombardment and shelling of residential areas in towns and villages in the vicinity of Basra, al-Nasiriyya, al-‘Amara and across the marshes region”

After both these campaigns began the US, UK and France established a no fly zone, first over Northern Iraq in April 1991, and in Southern Iraq in August 1992.

Yet this intervention for humanitarian reasons was both limited and confused.

The limitations were obvious. Neither No Fly zone prevented ground campaigns As Human rights Watch pointed out about the Southern No Fly zone:

“Except when it violated the terms of the 1991 ceasefire agreement by using fixed-wing aircraft within the zone, Iraq was essentially left to conduct ground operations backed by helicopters (which were not prohibited under the ceasefire agreement) with impunity.”

The humanitarian confusion was more subtle, but perhaps more deadly.

As the Iraqi regime secured its domestic power in the early nineties, this raised the question of what should be done to restrict a state that had been twice willing to launch wars of aggression and still showed little scruple about using chemical weapons, supporting terrorism, assassination, and violent repression to secure its aims.

The response was a sanctions system intended to limit the Iraqi regimes ability to launch any further wars of aggression or to develop supplies of weapons of mass destruction.

The result of the sanctions was child mortality, disease, and in all likelihood, hundreds of thousands of deaths.

That the sanctions regime caused massive humanitarian harm is beyond doubt. The international sanctions regime inflicted on the Iraqi people a price not paid by the regime itself, who, thanks to first illicit trade and later, the corruptibility of the oil-for-food programme, found ways of insulating themselves from its effects.

Any and all of the actors here can be blamed.

After all, if the Baath regime had dissolved itself, or complied fully with the UN, ceased domestic repression, and not sought to evade the sanctions, the sanctions themselves would have been lifted, as they were in 2003.

Equally, the global community found that the desire to restrain Iraq’s aggression and to comfort Iraq’s people were in direct conflict.

All these consequences can be attributed to the pragmatic decision that it was best to ‘contain’ Iraq, both in terms of domestic repression and external threat. One could argue that this approach worked, in real-politik terms. The Iraqi people effectively paid the human price for a policy of international security by containment.

Perhaps we could wish that another, better approach could have been followed, one that would not have seen the Iraqi regime repress domestically, not seen such a severe sanctions regime with such awful consequences and which did not entrench the regime as the distributor of resources under oil-for-food.

However, as the Iraqi military was substantially intact after the first Gulf war, the Iraqi regime was not to be directly threatened, the UN coalition was not prepared to destroy the Iraqi military as a fighting force, and any sanctions regime effective against arms and chemical and biological weapons would also inflict severe hardship on the Iraqi people,3 it’s not clear what that better path might have been.4

The decision not to invade Iraq in 1991 created a political and diplomatic situation where the Iraqi regime was permitted to re-establish itself domestically through severe repression, led directly to the direct deaths of an untold number of people in the early 90s, caused the environmental and human catastrophe of the Marsh Arabs, and = because it was deemed essential that the preserved Iraqi regime be contained militarily =, to the humanitarian catastrophe of a sanctions regime that was the only apparent way of preventing Iraq reaching beyond its borders, (and which, a decade later, appeared to be badly failing at even that task.)

In other words, the domestic repression in Iraq and the sanctions regime were the humanitarian consequences of the decision to contain, not overthrow, the Iraqi government.

This was a choice with hard, painful consequences. Was it the right choice? After all, the arguments against invasion were real and meaningful.5

Today, we are see the echoes of choices about intervention in Syria.

Would it be worse to intervene directly? Would a sanctions regime end up preserving the Assad government as it slowly regains authority? If we choose to intervene indirectly, are we allowing the continuation of a civil war that will kill tens of thousands?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll also hear a lot about the consequences of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

That is proper. As someone who supports that decision, I know that choice had horrific consequences.

I only hope we recognise that a policy of inaction also has consequences, and that they too can be terrible.

  1. In part because the coalition powers allowed the Iraqi military to use helicopters, but largely because the decision was taken not to enter Iraqi territory []
  2. As Paul Wolfowitz  has said:”Saddam Hussein flew helicopters that slaughtered the people in the south and in the north who were rising up against him, while American fighter pilots flew overhead, desperately eager to shoot down those helicopters, and not allowed to do so. []
  3. and, that when oil-for-food was established, the Iraqi regime proved adept at manipulating it to generate income to fund illicit trades in military resources, weapons and components, []
  4. The obvious alternative would have been a looser sanctions regime which would have enabled the Iraqi government to pursue its domestic and regional aims with far less restraint. To put it mildly, this would not have been risk-free, for the Iraqi people or the wider region. This is why the Baghdad government sought the lifting and relaxation of sanctions and apparently deployed resources to encourage those making those arguments around the world. []
  5. For a good setting out of the case against, see General Schwarzkopf’s account here:

    In the Gulf War we had great international legitimacy in the form of eight United Nations Resolutions, every one of which said “Kick Iraq out of Kuwait”, did not say one word about going into Iraq, taking Baghdad, conquering the whole country and hanging Saddam Hussein. That’s point number one.

    Point number two, had we gone on to Baghdad, I don’t believe the French would have gone and I’m quite sure that the Arab coalition would not have gone, the coalition would have ruptured and the only people that would have gone would have been the United Kingdom and the United States of America. And, oh by the way, I think we’d still be there, we’d be like a dinosaur in a tar pit, we could not have gotten out and we’d still be the occupying power and we’d be paying one hundred percent of all the costs to administer all of Iraq.

    Thirdly, I don’t think we could have found Saddam Hussein if we’d done that. We forget the lessons of  Panama. We had ten thousand Americans on the ground in Panama before we went into that very small country, we still couldn’t find a fellow named Noriega, so what makes you think that we would go into a nation the size of Iraq and be able to find one person who has all the ability in the world to escape and hide and fly out of the country.

    But I think, more importantly, there’s a strategic consideration. Saddam Hussein portrayed that war from the very beginning as “This is not a war against Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. This is the Western colonial lackey friends of Israel coming in to destroy the only nation that dare stand up to Israel that is Iraq”. Had we proceeded to go on into Iraq and take all of Iraq, I think that you would have millions of people in that part of the world who would say Saddam was right, that was the objective. Instead we went in, we did what the United Nations mandate asked us to do and we left and we didn’t ask for anything. We didn’t leave permanent military forces over there , we didn’t demand territory, we didn’t demand bases, and the Arabs became convinced that the West was willing to deal with them even-handedly which has led directly, in my mind, to the progress that’s going on at the peace table and between Israel and the Arabs and the Palestinians. It never would have happened if Desert Storm hadn’t occurred. So the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned, is that sure, emotionally I would have loved to have gone to Baghdad and grabbed Saddam Hussein, but this was not an emotional decision, it was a strategic decision, and strategically we were smart enough to win the war and win the peace”

    Seen from the perspective of today -after the 9/11 attacks that used the 1991 war and the presence of US troops as their emotional justification, the failure to make progress in Israel/Arab relations, this analysis seems variously perceptive, credible, wrong and sadly over-optimistic []

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