Disaster in Iraq foretold: Well, not quite

Along with the rest of the neocon crew, Andrew Bolt is blaming the collapse of the Iraqi state on Obama’s withdrawal of US troops in 2011. Exactly how Obama was supposed to repudiate an agreement signed by Bush, and maintain an occupation force against the wishes of the Iraqi government (he tried, but failed to negotiate an extension) is not explained. But, no matter.

At least Bolt and the rest warned us that Iraq was still too fragile to be left on its own, and that an indefinite occupation was needed. Well not exactly. Here he is in 2009, gloating over the fact that Obama was going slow on withdrawal and thereby disappointing his supporters. That could be read either way, I guess, but there’s no warning that Bush’s timetable needed changing.

More striking is this piece from 2007, claiming that “the war has been won“. Here’s what he has to say about future prospects

Violence is falling fast. Al Qaida has been crippled.

The Shiites, Kurds and Marsh Arabs no longer face genocide.

What’s more, the country has stayed unified. The majority now rules.

Despite that, minority Sunni leaders are co-operating in government with Shiite ones.

There is no civil war. The Kurds have not broken away. Iran has not turned Iraq into its puppet.

And the country’s institutions are getting stronger. The Iraqi army is now at full strength, at least in numbers.

The country has a vigorous media. A democratic constitution has been adopted and backed by a popular vote.

Election after election has Iraqis turning up in their millions.

Add it all up. Iraq not only remains a democracy, but shows no sign of collapse.

If I were an American reading that, I would have said it was time to bring the boys and girls home, as Bush agreed to do in October 2008.

142 thoughts on “Disaster in Iraq foretold: Well, not quite

  1. Posts like this imply that Bolt is a serious commentator who it is important to smack down when he is wrong. But Bolt is just a polemicist. Of course what he is says is rubbish. He writes to tickle the prejudices of his readers. You might as well point to things Ian Paisley has said over the years about the Popes.

  2. @Ken Lovell

    I was definitely not having a go at Obama over Syria. Rather at Russia and China for blocking any action until the damage was done.

    It really is amazing how Russia blocks UN action on Syria, but then just wades into the Ukraine without any approval from anyone…

  3. Much more interesting than Bolt was Tony Blair’s delusional, if not outright deranged, contribution on the weekend that said that the current situation is not directly linked to the 2003 invasion.

    It read like a parody, but Blair was serious. He actually believes his own bull-droppings.

    History will not treat Blair kindly.

  4. @Ikonoclast
    It is hard to define what a ‘natural’ country is because there aren’t any. An explanation of the problems of Iraq that says ‘all this happened because somebody drew arbitrary lines on a map’ is obviously wrong, because people drawing arbitrary lines on maps is the normal, natural way that countries get borders, and the normal, natural, predictable result of that is that some people find themselves inside a country that they didn’t particularly want to be a part of, but it doesn’t always lead to the kind of conflict we’re now seeing in Iraq. If there are going to be countries with borders, then people are going to have to draw arbitrary lines on maps. The only alternative is not to have countries with borders at all. More specifically, laying blame on the people who drew the current borders of Iraq is dubious if you can make no suggestions about how they could have done better.

  5. The Congressional Research Service recently estimated total US expenditure in Iraq from 2003 to 2014 at $57,184,400,000. Not a lot of positives to show for a significant chunk of money, military contractors excepted.

  6. @Jim Birch

    I’ve seen estimates more in the range of trillions??

    CRS isn’t publicly available but some reports are on the web. I found one from 2005 that put it at $192 billion to end of FY2005.

    Lies, damn lies and statistics.

  7. Part of the problem, as Joseph Stiglitz writes, is that the US government has deliberately not accounted for the war honestly. He tries very hard (in Stiglitz, 2008) to beat the numbers into a form that will give a proper bottom-line, and comes up with about Three Trillion dollars, as a conservative estimate. Though he does also include future liabilities incurred through the war, like wrecked equipment and wounded soldiers

    @Megan

  8. > Not a lot of positives to show for a significant chunk of money,

    It’s probably worth pointing out that this is the project the US sunk its national pension funds into, effectively. No wonder the US has a “debt” crisis.

  9. A new study from Harvard puts all to date and future costs of the Iraq and Afghan wars at US$ 6 trillion or US$ 75,000 for every household in the USA.

    See the telegraph UK site.

  10. Drawing borders in the case of Iraq had little to do with what the people on the ground wanted – it had more to do with great power rivalry and spheres of influence rather than local realities or interests.

  11. If there are going to be countries with borders, then people are going to have to draw arbitrary lines on maps.

    Why do they have to be arbitrary? Can’t they be drawn in consultation with the populace who will be affected? I know it’s a bit airy fairy and democratic, but did anybody ever try?

    More specifically, laying blame on the people who drew the current borders of Iraq is dubious if you can make no suggestions about how they could have done better.

    Just off the top of my head they could have given the Kurds one contiguous area and avoided a lot of 20th century heartache.

  12. neither iran nor turkey have been willing in the past to countenance giving up any sovereign national territory to found a kurdish state. there is no reason for them to become willing to in the present circumstance.

    I’m not sure if people are aware, and i’m no expert (but i studied under dreher, r.e. at sydney uni) but there is not one kurdish language. there are three main dialects and these are mutually unintelligible, except to people determined to be bilingual. this is a present practical problem for the kurdish parliament in exile (an organisation formed in 1995, and which has, not surprisingly, adopted a tricolor for its flag). surveys of kurdish literature start three times, once for each dialect, also anthologies. each dialect is heavily endowed with loan words and – depending on where it is spoken (and who they carried trade for in pre-modern times, located as they have historically been, along trade route intersections) – these loan words originate from turkish or persian or arabic.

    there are good reasons why a kurdish state was not formed after ww1 & remains problematic today. -a.v.

  13. ‘Brown University’ in the US runs “costsofwar.org”.

    Their home page currently contains this:

    •The US federal price tag for the Iraq war — including an estimate for veterans’ medical and disability costs into the future — is about $2.2 trillion dollars. The cost for both Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan is going to be close to $4 trillion, not including future interest costs on borrowing for the wars. Many of the wars’ costs are invisible to Americans, buried in a variety of budgets, and so have not been counted or assessed. For example, while most people think the Pentagon war appropriations are equivalent to the wars’ budgetary costs, the true numbers are twice that, and the full economic cost of the wars much larger yet.

    They also mention about 7.5 millions permanently displaced people (never mind the millions of dead), but Morrison was up in parliament today crowing to a silent ‘opposition’ that he had ‘stopped the boats’.

    The ALP’s argument is that, no, it was their cruel and inhumane policies that ‘stopped the boats’.

    Tomorrow (Tuesday) the ALP caucus is going to re-affirm its dedication to cruel and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Pay close attention to a group calling itself “Labor 4 Refugees” as this develops. They are guaranteed to silently buckle under – proving yet again that there is no reason for any decent and fair-minded person to advocate support for the ALP on any issue traditionally within the ‘Labor’ remit.

  14. @Collin Street

    > Not a lot of positives to show for a significant chunk of money<

    It should be pointed out that the same political ideologues also preach national thrift and economic austerity.

  15. @zoot

    After the First World War, there was a series of plebiscites conducted in different parts of Europe to determine where particular boundaries should be drawn, but these still produced borders with minorities living on both sides of them who had voted the other way — that is, to give just one illustrative, people left living in Denmark who had voted to be part of Germany and people left living in Germany who had voted to be part of Denmark.

    Creating a contiguous area with only Kurds living inside it and no Kurds living outside it would mean forcing large numbers of people out of their homes: Kurds living outside that area and others living inside it.

    The 1920 Treaty of Sevres — the one Ikonoclast blamed for the present troubles — did provide for part of what is now Turkey to become an autonomous Kurdish region with the right to claim full independence (and the right of the Kurdish region of Iraq to adhere to it); this provision was dropped by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne because the Turkish nationalists were prepared to resist it and nobody was prepared to fight them to enforce it. Note, however, that even if such an independent Kurdistan had been created, the Kurds of Iran would still have been left outside it: the treaty-makers after the First World War had no legal power to interfere with Iran’s borders.

  16. @Doug

    That makes it sound as if the Iraqi case was exceptional. It wasn’t. That description of how the Iraqi borders were drawn is a description of how borders are usually drawn.

  17. @J-D but they conducted plebiscites in europe, as you said, in the wake of the german, russian & austro-hungarian empires, and they conducted no plebiscites in the wake of the ottoman empire. it was indeed handled differently in iraq, &c. -a.v.

  18. and they did, without consultation, take land from persia, in modern western afghanistan, in order to create a buffer between the russian and british empires. -a.v.

  19. I think from both a self-interested and a humanitarian point of view it would be best for the West to disengage from the Middle East. We have wasted lives and money (ours and theirs) making the Middle East a bigger mess than it was before. If we disengage we save lives and money all round.

    The people of the M.E. should be left alone to sort out their own region and adopt their own borders and governing systems. The whole problem is that we “Euros” (including USA, Canada and Australia) think we should be telling other regions how to run their lives and nations. Why do we thik that? It’s none of our business.

  20. @Megan
    That figure is total US military spending. It’s probably a pretty good figure, in itself, since it is based on examination of budgets. It doesn’t include other countries’ military spending, the cost to Iraq itself, impacts on human lives, and so on. Some of these are difficult or impossible to assess as dollar figures so the Congressional Research Service figure, though obviously incomplete, at least gives a solid lower bound that can’t be argued away.

  21. @alfred venison
    There were no plebiscites in the former Russian Empire; neither it nor its successor states figured in the peacemaking after the First World War either among the victors or among the vanquished. The boundary between the Soviet Union and Poland was settled by force, for one example, and for another it was force that settled that Ukraine and Georgia would not become independent countries.

    Although there were plebiscites in parts of the former German and Austro-Hungarian empires, the major territorial decisions were made without plebiscites: there were, for example, no plebiscites in West Prussia, Alsace-Lorraine, Galicia, Transylvania, or Dalmatia, and the ban on Austrian unification with Germany was imposed without consulting the local population.

    Using plebiscites to guide the drawing of borders is the exception (note that this procedure was not used at in the settlement after the Second World War, for example); in this respect the Iraqi borders are typical of the norm.

    Possibly it would be a good idea to change the norm and to have plebiscites routinely used to guide the drawing of borders. The experience with them after the First World War shows they can’t guarantee fitting the borders exactly to the people’s will, but I admit they could bring them a lot closer. However, if we’re going to advocate that this should be the general principle, why would we think that Iraq is a good place to start applying it, or that it would have been a good trial zone in 1919 or 1920? Why don’t we want to see the system tested successfully in some less volatile areas first? I can think of plenty of zones in prosperous western countries, more settled and peaceful than Iraq, where there’d be a case for a plebiscite to ask people which country they want to be part of, but where there’s clearly no will for one in the national political leadership.

  22. @alfred venison

    I’m not clear on which transfer of territory from Persia to Afghanistan you’re referring to, and don’t have enough to go on to do my own search for more information.

  23. @Ikonoclast

    It is worth bearing in mind that there are people in the Middle East who actively solicit external intervention. I don’t think there’s any good general rule that appeals of that nature should always be responded to, but I also don’t think there’s any good general rule that appeals of that nature should always be refused.

  24. JD

    It is worth bearing in mind that there are people in the Middle East who actively solicit external intervention. I don’t think there’s any good general rule that appeals of that nature should always be responded to, but I also don’t think there’s any good general rule that appeals of that nature should always be refused.

    Nor I, though I’d want an absolutely compelling set of reasons, plus ethical, technical and temporal feasibility satisfied before I’d support the latter. I’d set the bar very high indeed because the unanticipated consequences of intervention are impossible to evaluate. First, do no harm seems a good strong rule of thumb here.

    We really do need to unpick the advocacy for military intervention so that we can be certain about why we are intervening and what precisely we can realistically hope (and would want to) achieve.

    There never was anything like an adequate warrant to invade Afghanistan or Iraq. That was always going to end in massively incrementing misery and hatred, and a massive casualty list at extraordinary material cost. If we had been willing at the outset to bear these costs (frankly I don’t imagine many were) and our objectives had been to obtain freedom or social justice for those folk we could have achieved that easily without the casualty count and had plenty of change out of the few trillions in involved. Of course, Bush might not have got a second term and a bunch of military contractors would have had to find another means of embezzling public funds.

  25. @Fran Barlow

    I’m not disagreeing with you, but I’d like to clarify the context of my earlier comment.

    Ikonoclast recommended that ‘the West … disengage from the Middle East’ leaving the locals ‘to sort our their own region’.

    I may have misunderstood, but I took this to mean not only no military intervention but no intervention of any kind, and I was responding with that in mind. When I referred to people in the Middle East soliciting external intervention I had in mind non-military forms of intervention, not just military ones.

    I think that if the bar is set high for justifications of military intervention, perhaps it should be set not as high for justifications of non-military intervention, or at least some forms of it.

  26. @J-D

    Oh yes. I can agree with that. It seems to me that if one believes that a given regime is guilty either of malice towards its citizens or dangerous incompetence then one ought to offer the aggrieved citizens resettlement (assuming one can’t talk the regime into doing better) either in one’s own country, or perhaps a sponsored resettlement in a willing host country.

  27. Oops … Forgot to edit the naughty words …

    JD

    Oh yes. I can agree with that. It seems to me that if one believes that a given regime is guilty either of m@lice towards its citizens or dangerous incompetence then one ought to offer the aggrieved citizens resettlement (assuming one can’t talk the regime into doing better) either in one’s own country, or perhaps a sponsored resettlement in a willing host country.

  28. W.A. was almost a separate country to Australia . The government over there didnt want to join the proposed Commonwealth of Australia .There were lots of miners from the Eastern states over there for the gold boom who were going to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum to join, so the WA govt gave women the vote (some kind of first ). Their thinking was that as there were almost no women on the gold fields that would skew the result toward the urban population and give the ‘no’ vote a win. It didnt work and so we are the only continent country .

  29. @Ikonoclast

    A new study from Harvard puts all to date and future costs of the Iraq and Afghan wars at US$ 6 trillion or US$ 75,000 for every household in the USA.
    See the telegraph UK site.

    I remember Rumsfeld describing how the operation in Afghanistan was run, they just parachuted operatives with bundles of cash in saying ‘join us’ and ‘have some money’. It was that easy!

  30. @John Brookes

    It was the same with NSW and Qld.

    No wonder they had to invent ‘State of Origin’, otherwise nobody would have noticed.

    There was some minor wrangling about a miscalculation somewhere up in the Border Ranges National Park which amounted to a few hundred metres one way or the other.

    Luckily it was sorted out in a rather more boring fashion than killing lots of people pointlessly – which is the US preferred method.

    Sure we sent drones, but so did NSW.

    That’s just the way the Parliament in Canberra works these days.

  31. @J-D
    sorry if i gave the impression i was alluding to the post-ww1 settlement, i wasn’t. i was referring to the 1890s, see “the durand line agreement “in wikipedia for a start. talk about an arbitrary line in the sand drawn by imperialists.

    it was precisely in mixed areas that plebiscites were used. in order to determine in an area divided more or less evenly between two nationalities, which which of two possible countries they wanted to be part of. they were not used in areas where they was a clear majority of one nationality, like alsace or lorraine. -a.v.

  32. @alfred venison

    You referred to territory being taken from Persia, in response to my observing that the victors of the First World War had no legal power to interfere with Persia’s borders. The Durand Line agreement involved no interference with the borders of Persia.

  33. @Fran Barlow #78

    Unfortunately some regimes would welcome this as an ethnic cleansing policy subbed out to humanitarian countries eg Myanmar and the Rohingya. Postwar resettlement is perhaps different: the 200,000 Vietnamese re-settled in the West arguably was constructive to both sides, reducing the incidence of retribution from the winners. But it does allow less constrained majoritarianism aka dictatorship. In the Albert Hirschman framing of the choice, when is exit better than voice?

  34. @kevin1

    Unfortunately some regimes would welcome this as an ethnic cleansing policy subbed out to humanitarian countries eg Myanmar and the Rohingya.

    I’m more concerned with achieving human dignity on a reasonable timeline than worrying how putative ethnic cleansers might make of the policy.

    In a somewhat better world, enabling flight and resettlement would rarely be needed, but we must take the world as we find it, and do the best we can for others when it stands to count. In many places, that would be the most cost-effective and timely solution, and would allow those who remained to work out what they wanted to do. It might also prevent the dominant ethnic/political group from scapegoating the minority/”deviant” group and force it to confront its own capacity for coherence or lack thereof.

    Had for example, an Afghan diaspora been created, it’s likely that over time, some of the ancient hatreds would have been broken down. Remissions can also be a very effective form of aid since the transaction costs tend to be quite low.

  35. @J-D

    The word you’re looking for is ‘remittances’. ‘Remission’ and ‘remittance’ are not synonyms

    Indeed. Post in haste, repent at leisure. 😉

  36. @Fran Barlow

    The Rohingya don’t have citizenship rights despite generations of residency and the Myanmar president in 2012 suggested getting rid of the 800,000 Rohingya to a third country via the UNHCR , who sidestepped it as they are not “refugees” until they have left the country. The UNHCR report that 500 of the 13,000 who fled Myanmar by boat last year died at sea.

    Who would take them anyway? In their Guardian article last Thursday, longtime observers Peter Mares and Peter Brown reminded us of the regional resettlement recommendation from the Houston report of a couple of years ago. Neglected is using the leverage of trade concessions to get resettlement commitments from countries such as ROK and Japan who take virtually no refugees at all; a missed Abbott opportunity.

    There are other things that could be done, such as pressuring persecutor governments to change their policies and allow greater scrutiny, as Human Rights Watch advocated in their report on “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar last year. However, at the same time the EU was lifting trade and economic sanctions and the International Crisis Group was awarding a peace prize to the Myanmar President. More recently Medecin Sans Frontieres has been banned from the country.

    Perhaps the Des Ball option of skilling up and giving support to the victimed group is a self-defense option of wider relevance.

  37. @kevin1

    It very much depends on what is politically feasible. Plainly, if the regime is willing to move away from repression and discrimination in the direction of respect for human rights and is willing to accept guidance from other states and assistance from NGOs then that is likely to be preferable.

    On the other hand, if that is not the case then resettling them elsewhere with state support may be the best option.

  38. Today the High Court decided that the ALP’s designation of Manus was constitutionally valid and that the Minister, Chris Bowen at the time, need only “think” that the “national interest” is served when designating a place as an off-shore detention centre/refugee concentration camp.

    Under the Migration Act (as amended by the ALP with the LNP vote – to “fix” the problem with the ‘Malaysia Solution’ decision) the minister only needs an “assurance” from a designated country before he/she can send refugees there indefinitely for torture, suffering, death and anything else that might “deter” people from seeking asylum here.

    The only way we can stop this is by changing our legislature, the only way we can do that is by destroying BOTH the establishment parties at the ballot box.

  39. One point to be made about the lines on the map of the Middle East drawn up after World War I under Anglo-French auspices is that they bear a striking resemblance to the boundaries of he Roman Empire’s Eastern Provinces. That other regional and proto-national identities might have developed in the region in the 1300 years between the establishment of the Caliphate and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire seems not to have occurred to decision-makers.

  40. @Megan
    The only way both establishment parties can be destroyed at the ballot box is by people voting for other parties instead. This would indeed change the legislature, but there’s no guarantee it would change it for the better; it could easily change it for the worse. Everything would hinge on which parties won the votes and dominated the legislature as a result. Would it be the Palmer United Party and Katter’s Australian Party? or the Greens and the Australian Sex Party? or Family First and the Christian Democratic Party?

  41. @Paul Norton
    I’ve just looked at some of the maps of Roman provincial boundaries that can be found online, and I don’t see the striking resemblances with modern Middle Eastern boundaries that you suggest.

    The most striking resemblance I find between Roman provincial boundaries and modern ones is that the ancient Roman boundary between Gallia and Hispania is practically identical with the modern boundary between France and Spain. But that isn’t because the modern boundary was drawn by slavishly copying the classical one without considering changes that have taken place in the meantime; it’s because the Pyrenees form just as natural and logical a border now as they did then. If there are resemblances between Roman boundaries and modern ones elsewhere, I don’t see why they shouldn’t have the same sort of natural explanation.

  42. @J-D

    Against my better judgement I will engage with you on this:

    This would indeed change the legislature, but there’s no guarantee it would change it for the better; it could easily change it for the worse.

    How specifically, do you imagine, could the legislature easily be changed “for the worse” in the event of any of those – or in fact ANY non ALP/LNP – mixtures being elected in numbers sufficient to legislatively outweigh the duopoly?

  43. J-D @95, on pp.30-31 of Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower (Phoenix Paperback: London, 2010), there is a map of the Roman Empire in the late 2nd century. The map shows boundaries for the provinces of Syria Coele, Syria Phoenice, Syria Palaestina, Arabia and Aegyptus that closely resemble the current borders of Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan and Egypt respectively. It also suggests a fairly close fit between what would have been the province of Mesopotamia in Trajan’s time and the current borders of Iraq. That is the basis of my comment @93.

  44. @Megan

    I have my doubts about whether you will in fact engage with me, as you say you will, but I have no objection to answering your question.

    Australia could easily be changed for the worse if people were detained without charge for criticising the government. If the Australian Parliament was controlled by parties that supported that policy, it would be worse than having the Australian Parliament controlled by Labor and the Coalition.

    That’s just one example, of course. I could go through the declared policies of the specific parties I mentioned and find polices that would, if implemented, make Australia a worse place, but perhaps you would evaluate those particular policies differently from the way I would, so I’ve used instead an example where I’m reasonably confident that you’ll agree with my evaluation. However, if you can examine the declared policies of all those parties and say that you can’t find any that would make Australia a worse place, I will be mildly surprised.

  45. @J-D

    Australia could easily be changed for the worse if people were detained without charge

    “Scott Parkin” and “Mohammed Haneef” spring immediately to mind, and they didn’t do ANYTHING let alone criticise the Government. The G20 anti-protest laws for Brisbane this year, the special zones for APEC in Sydney in 2007 and the Terrrsm Laws provide further examples.

  46. Megan :
    @J-D

    Australia could easily be changed for the worse if people were detained without charge

    “Scott Parkin” and “Mohammed Haneef” spring immediately to mind, and they didn’t do ANYTHING let alone criticise the Government. The G20 anti-protest laws for Brisbane this year, the special zones for APEC in Sydney in 2007 and the Terrrsm Laws provide further examples.

    And do you think that’s got as bad as it could possibly get? that there’s no way it could possibly get any worse? if ten times as many people were detained without charge, for ten times as long? if they were detained incommunicado and unacknowledged, with no possibility of reference to the court system?

    Going beyond that, do you think conditions generally in Australia are as bad as any government could possibly make them? Do you think there’s no other country and no other period in history in which a government made conditions worse for people than recent governments in Australia have made them here and now? If you were writing a dystopian fiction and had to imagine the worst possible circumstances a government could create for people, would there be nothing you could imagine worse than Australia now?

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