Iraq: Even If We Win We Lose

News Abroad

Mr. Benjamin, PhD University of Pennsylvania, is a retired professor of history (Foreign Policy and International Relations). He is the author of A Student's Guide to History.

            Has George W. Bush surged to victory in Iraq?  If so, he can thank Iraqi tribalism, the success of ethnic cleansing, the loss of legitimacy by Al Qaida in Iraq, the “standing down” of the Sunni militias and Iran’s willingness to let its friends in Baghdad make their own peace with Washington.  The anti-U.S. Shia militia of Muktada al Sadr also left the field.  Only one factor behind victory was made-in-USA: the success, finally, of the counterinsurgency wing of the U.S. military in shifting tactics from policing a civil war to dividing the insurgency.  Why it took five years to figure this out is worth pondering.  Nevertheless, the shift in tactics would not have made much difference had not the other developments also occurred.  By that time the damage to Iraq, to our military and economy had already occurred.

            While the Bush administration may have been surging to victory, most Americans came to realize that the war, sold as a way to eliminate Saddam’s WMDs and his secret alliance with Osama Bin Laden and to spread the blessings of liberty throughout the Middle East, had very different aims.  One didn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to conclude that the war was mainly geostrategic in its goals.  Saddam was evil but less because he “gassed his own people” (he also gassed Iranians but they don’t count) than because he had the will (and might at some point have had the ability) to use his military forces and Iraqi oil reserves to upset the strategic balance in the Middle East.  He might have evaded sanctions, sold Iraqi oil for Euros rather than dollars, threatened Israel, intimidated the emirates, invaded Saudi Arabia, etc.  Then again, conscious of his own weakness, he might not have done any of these things.  The war came when the Bush administration decided to eliminate these geostrategic risks by preemptive war.

            For the administration, the evil dictator theme worked long enough and well enough to defy opposition to the war.  Many Americans and much of the media had heard the vague references to the roles of strategic position and oil wealth.  But they were satisfied that the “real” motives were things that they (or someone else) could properly die for.

            There were very large anti-war demonstrations well before the leaks and exposes of the post-2003 period.  Many Americans refused to accept the lies and the imperial motives that hid behind them.  Still, the Bush administration was able to move toward war because many Americans, fooled or not, wanted to “liberate” Iraq; wanted to secure access to oil; wanted to “stand tall.”  Even when they could peek behind the curtain, they did not look too closely.  A similar orientation explains the reaction of much of the media and of the opposition in Congress. 

Of course there were news organizations and political forces that found the lies easy to believe or that accepted the need for them.  More significant was that most of the media was not willing to challenge a “wartime” president.  Once George Bush − with the aid of the events of 9/11 − declared war on terror, his power was immense.  In newsrooms and minority caucuses people were susceptible to the fear that powerful political voices and many millions of Americans would easily label dissent at that point as treason.  To be effective, opposition forces had to face that fear directly.  It would have to challenge the lies of the administration at a time when evidence of them was not great and when even saying that the president was “lying” made one's own motives suspect.   It would have to challenge the coziness with power of some media and the fear of that power by others.  Most difficult perhaps, it would have to challenge the fear of the American people, their trust in their leaders, and, in some, the desire to hear the eagle scream again.  Finally, war with Afghanistan had gone unchallenged and had already been “won.”  In the coming months we will again face the difficulty of challenging one war while accepting another, especially when much of the justification for one has been applied to the other.

            Some Americans want to live in the seat of an empire.  For them pre-emptive war is not so difficult to justify.  When America invades other nations because they might threaten its interests and when it consciously chooses war because it possesses huge military forces, then citizens of the empire can be proud − even while others are ashamed.

            The main danger of geostrategic wars (aside from their “collateral damage”) is that our republic can be grievously wounded by them.  A war fought by a republic is lawful and in defense of values that serve the republic.  This is why lies become necessary and not only to hide the true motives but to allow us to look away when the sausage of empire is being made.  Demonizing the enemy and questioning the loyalty of any who challenge the policy help us to believe that our empire somehow serves our republic when the opposite is the case.

            Reasonable citizens of a republic may understand that conducting high-tech war abroad does little to prevent small groups of terrorists from flying planes into office towers; that an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy assures that a “war on terror” of some kind will never end.  Still, we should not assume that such points are obvious or persuasive.  The irony implicit in an “empire of liberty” is one that has haunted us from the start.  Now it offers us a war to assure our economic interests in the Middle East.  It declares victory in that war just as the structure of the U.S. economy begins to topple.  The rent fabric of the rule of law may now catch on the broken windows of abandoned homes.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Raul A Garcia - 8/30/2008

I would like to see when there has ever been a legal war. It barely caused a ripple when India and Pakistan almost went to war a couple of seasons ago- no oil involved. I believe Gaddafi admitted Libya had WMD's and they finally accepted international "carrots" and he dismantled them. It may be, like the WWII Coventry bombing disclosure by the British government, years after the fact, that WMD's were in Iraq and are now in Syria or Iran or etc. Not much said about the recent wiping out of an alleged nuclear installation in Syria by Israel. Thank you Israel for taking action against Iraq and wiping out that nuclear installation before Saddam had a chance to use them. Inaction and cynicism supports your local dictator. Hey, we're voting out the "Emperor" in November!

Raul A Garcia - 8/23/2008

Thank you Mr. Hughes! It would be great if we could retreat to scholarship funded seminars, "down with the empire" chat rooms,conspiracy conferences, or put our heads in the sand and sip latte through dialectical straws as some others imply. I would rather take action and know I took a stand rather than lapse into cynical indifference and let the dictators move with impunity. Who misses Hussein, Milosevic? I will not miss Castro or Mugabe either. Once our elected "emperor" is deposed/voted out, who will be the object of hate for the simplifiers of history?

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/22/2008

I have trouble putting any confidence in "international law," and also in calling the overthrow of Saddam "illegal." It might more readily be called a humanitarian act to stop mass murder, which, parenthetically, it was. I can't see any difference between "preemptive" and "preventive," either.

There is a case to be made that the weapons of mass destruction today are far worse than ever before in history, which might justify a preventive war today which in an earlier time was not justifiable.

But we have been engaged in foreign military interventions for as long as we have been a nation, well before WMD, beginning with Jefferson's excursion into Tripoli. In the 20th century we sent troops to China, Haiti, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Murmansk in 1920, Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and probably elsewhere, in addition to all the major wars. You can call those smaller events "illegal" all you wish. The truth is they were intended to be peace keeping activities, they mostly helped to improve the world, and often the United States was motivated heavily by altruism. (And Iraq was no exception).

jay sumu - 8/19/2008

-Dr. Benjamin is incorrect when he uses the word preemptive invasion. The illegal war of aggression against Iraq was hardly defensive in nature in need of imminent action. Therefore it was a preventive war, an important distinction in terms of international law.

-I don't think anyone is doubting the patriotism of George Bush or his love of country. Many despots around the world and history have acted in the best interest of their nation or so they thought, damn the consequences.

-The no-fly-zone was an illegal creation of the Americans. Iraq like Georgia is a member-state of the United Nations with internationally recognized boundaries which need to respected. There shouldn’t be any question about the territorial integrity of Georgia/Iraq. The no-fly-zone was an obvious violation of Iraqi territory and sovereignty.

-The preventive war against Yugoslavia was also illegal under international law.

-As for the prosperity of Iraq, I don't think it matters much whether they are democratic or not. Saudi Arabia is hardly democratic or a liberal society and yet they are very propserous. China is hardly democratic or has stellar human rights records yet they will become the most powerful economy.

It probably would have been easier and cheaper to have dealt with Iraq diplomatically rather than attempt illegal regime change.

jay sumu - 8/19/2008

Yes that's correct. Human rights violations committed by a sovereign state does not give an automatic green light for invasion.

Otherwise it would give any country on the planet the right to bomb the USA.

jay sumu - 8/19/2008

The illegal war of aggression against Iraq was not defensive in nature.

Therefore it is a preventive war, not preemptive.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/19/2008

Dr. Benjamin is on thin ice if he denies that the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq looked like the best option to President Bush at the time. Remember that Democrat CIA Director George Tenet told Bush it was a "slamdunk" to assume Saddam had WMD and was likely to use them. It may have been a mistake--I think not--but if so, it was an honest one.

Bush is a man who always tells the truth, and to look at him is to appreciate he is the quintessential Middle American Christian who likes ballgames and back-yard barbeques. It is impossible to doubt his patriotism or devotion to his country, or to impute to him imperialistic desires. That is just not part of his nature. He does what he considers to be in the best interests of the United States--as he is supposed to do.

We had been paying heavy bribes to Israel and Egypt and Jordan and others for several decades to keep peace in the Middle East, and all it got us was worse carnage than ever in the form of child suicide bombers. Our friends in Europe were letting us do the heavy lifting of the No-Fly-Zone, which was costing us billions as well as airmen. The UN was worthless, as always. To his credit, Bush recognized we had to do something different, and acted. His pre-emptive strike into Iraq was just as reasonable as our pre-emptive strike into Yugoslavia a few years earlier.

We have now created an independent, democratic state in the heart of Mesopotamia. It will become very prosperous, sitting on so much oil. The realistic hope is it will remain democratic, become envied by its neighbors, and then copied by them. Over the long pull, especially if other states around Iraq also become democratic, the entire region will be transformed for the better. The swamp will have been drained. It now looks like this policy was at least worth a try.

Tim Matthewson - 8/19/2008

When asked about the improved security situation in Iraq, al-Malaki listed only domestic consideration as leading to the reduction in violence. Pointedly he specifically avoided giving any credit to George Bush and the Surge. The same is true of other Iraqi politicians.

omar ibrahim baker - 8/19/2008

Professor Benjamin should be slightly lauded for his, though very brief, reference to " the geostrategic goals" of the Iraqi conquest....amazingly seldom noted and usually flagrantly absent hitherto from any discussion of the question.
However his failure to high light the decisive role played therein by the Israel/AIPAC factor detracts from the value of his timid contribution by equating it, en passant, with such factors as "sell Iraqi oil for Euros..." etc.

According to a very well informed man of the administration,a man well versed in the inner goings on and extremely knowledgeable about the inner forces formulating US policy , particularly under president Bush, according to Philip Zelikow.,as reported in the noted below article Zelikow HAD ABSOLUTELY no doubt about what was the real motive behind the USA/BUSH decision to conquer and destroy Iraq.

Latter denials never touched on the actual words Zelikow used at the University of Virginia.:
His words:"Why would Iraq attack America or use nuclear weapons against us? I'll tell you what I think the real threat [is] and actually has been since 1990 - it's the threat against Israel,"
Zelikow told a crowd at the University of Virginia on September 10, 2002, speaking on a panel of foreign policy experts assessing the impact of September 11 and the future of the war on al-Qaeda. “

Two points re Zelikow:
1-He had the highest degree of access, and security clearance, to the inner most circles of the decision making centers at the White house
2-He said whatever he had to say about the real motives behind the conquest of Iraq while still serving at the White house .

Is it fear or self delusion or a combination of both that consistently down plays the decisive importance of the AIPAC/Israel factor in what is turning out to be a catastrophically ill advised and hugely expensive demarche by the USA to the USA both as a nation and as a state??

(The complete article is at:

Michael Davis - 8/18/2008

So what you're saying is the US should no longer go into any region where there are human rights violations, correct?
This would preclude us from going into Bosnia, Haiti, Panama, Lebanon, Darfur, Afghanistan, and anywhere else our executive would like to put us, am I correct?
I mean, it's fine with me, and most other Americans. The simple fact is the money to do these things has run out, and our influence on the world is slowly going to wane from here on out.
Might be for the better.

Lisa Kazmier - 8/18/2008

Is the loss only in terms of "empire of liberty" as a hollow phrase? Seems to me there are plenty of tangible issues here, too -- including the fact that Russia can act by provocation and still be told, though will zero moral authority, that it acted inappropriately vs. Georgia.