I have an ongoing decade long dispute with my step-mother. She thinks the invasion of Iraq was a bad thing and that the Iraqis should have been left alone to sort out their own problems. Perhaps, the theory goes, they would have found a peaceful way to overthrow Saddam. Such a peaceful overthrow would have been better than war.
Her argument suggests that Syrians should now be given the chance to prove the possibility of freeing themselves without foreign intervention. More likely though, Syria now provides the terrible alternative that would have befallen Iraqis should Saddam have stayed in power.
We had the same disagreement when a little over 10 years ago, on the eve of the Iraq war, I wrote of the moral dilemma around Iraq in the pages of the Fairfax Press (see here). I argued that there were no good options leaving the west to choose between the ‘least bad’ of bad options. I wrote:
“To say “continue with diplomacy” is to say “continue with rape, murder and torture”. To say “it is not our problem” is to say “continue with rape, murder and torture”. To say “the US is a global imperialist that just wants to control the oil” is to say “continue with rape, murder and torture”. Anything except regime change is to say “continue with rape, murder and torture”.
Like Iraq of a decade ago, today’s constant re-examinations of movable ‘red lines’, searches for diplomatic solutions and consequent inaction over Syria allows the continuation of rape, murder, torture. Unlike Iraq, where there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction stockpiles found, more evidence of real WMD usage in Syria is being seen with chemicals similar to those Saddam used against the Kurds in Fallujah.
Even with the horror we see on today’s TV screens, how do we take the lesson Iraq gives us? Is it a warning of why the west should not intervene despite the mounting Syrian death toll? Conventional wisdom says Iraq is still a basket case after a botched US occupation that was clearly unjustifiable in hindsight? Recently I visited Iraq (see my travel blog here and the video below) and have seen that far from being black and white, Iraq today is as complicated as ever. It is still a moral dilemma and does not lend itself to definitive statements that the war was either definitively right, or definitively wrong. While one can point to areas around Baghdad as being enormously insecure, great swathes of northern Iraqi Kurdistan, into which thousands Syrian Kurd’s today seek asylum, is safe, secure and growingly prosperous.
The Kurds fell into a decade long civil war after the first Iraq invasion of the 1990s. Kurdish peace was established in the early 2000’s and autonomy was recognised in the Iraqi Constitution. Today the Kurds have their own parliament, their own president, their own armed forces and their own passport control that issues their own visas.
On a spring day the central square of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil is a bustling place of small coffee shops, hookah-pipes bubbling the sweet scent of apple, families, children and fountains. Friendly and engaging locals seek to engage foreigners in a part Arabic, part English, part Kurdish discussion on geopolitics, the state of the region and the present day Iraq.
The Kurds will tell you that they may not be fans of George W Bush, but they will remind you of the brutal repression by Hussein. Discussions are held in the certain knowledge that without the western intervention Kurds would have neither freedom nor security to discuss anything with anyone.
There are winners as well as losers from the Iraq conflict. The winners were not just oil companies. Many of the winners are normal, innocent people like you and me, in this case the Kurds. But the flip side to the current Kurdish freedom is the huge expense to people elsewhere in the country.
The dilemma, balance and ‘grey’ is the real lesson of Iraq when thinking about Syria.
War has costs and benefits that can be measured in human lives and livelihoods that planners must balance. In discussions planners and observers must weigh up perceived costs and benefits of both action and inaction, even if both alternatives seem unpalatable. At the end of the day a choice between competing bad options must be made.
While Iraqi Kurdistan shows us the benefit to some of the last war, Iraq also shows us cost. The anti-war group ‘Iraqi Body Count’ have worked to get as accurate data as possible and claim in the range of 112,000-123,000 needless deaths in the decade long war and aftermath.
Who’s side to we take in looking at the intervention in Iraq, the Kurdish beneficiaries, or those that paid the price?
If it is decided decide that war costs too much, can we walk away with clean hands? What about the cost of ‘no war’? Does Iraq provide guidance there?
In the decade before the war Hussein was estimated by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to have killed somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people. What would Saddam have done if he stayed in power? Could we assume a personality change? Could we assume a peaceful transition to a democratic government?
Perhaps it would it be safer to assume a continuation of that which went before: mass murder on an industrial scale. Could the cost of ‘no intervention’ have been an additional 500,000 Iraqis killed by Hussein? We will never know for sure but absent a major change in the Hussein regime, reasonable hypothecation points to one heck of a moral dilemma if non-intervention kills more innocent people than intervention.
The world has experienced this before. The world saw hundreds of thousands of needless death in Bosnia through non-intervention. The world saw up to a million dead through non-intervention in Rwanda, even when the genocide plans were known to the Security Council in advance.
The same dilemma now exists with Syria. Would there be a huge toll if we were to have another international intervention? Undoubtedly yes. Intervention would be a bad option.
But what of non-intervention? President Assad is already the second of his line to rule that country having been anointed by his father. For how much longer would he and his offspring rule?
As with Iraq in 2002 there is no way of either accurately predicting the toll of an intervention or the toll of a non-intervention and choices need to be made on best guesses. This generation clearly remembers Iraq and the cost of the intervention. This generation’s memory of Rwanda and Bosnia has faded as the cost of non-intervention drifts into history books.
The only thing we know for sure is that the moral dilemma continues. Are we happy for Syria to be our new Bosnia for fear of it being another Iraq?
Andrew Macleod was an International Red Cross Delegate in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s and a senior humanitarian official for the United Nations in the 2000’s. He is the author of ‘A Life Half Lived’ by New Holland Press and can be followed on twitter @andrewmacleod.
More discussion like this is in: