The undemocratic invasion for democracy, and some pushback against Iraq victory meme

Returned from Baghdad today, so apologies for the absence of posts. I blame travel–you would, too, had you spent 11 hours yesterday on a Turkish Airways flight wedged into between two rather portly and vocal Russian speakers who just couldn’t figure out how to work their in-flight video screens yet demanded, every fifteen or so minutes, your humble correspondent show them. Brutal. Which reminds me: if you are ever tempted to stay in the Istanbul Airport Hotel at the Attaturk International Airport….Don’t…. Stay away. Take the cab to the nearby Renaissance if you must, but don’t get sucked into the overpriced and inconvenient purgatory that is that hotel. I could go on at length, so perhaps more on this later, in a new review section of the blog, called “Overpriced Luxury Hotels That Have Scarred My Soul and Taken Years Off My Life.” Or something.

David Corn has a great piece today, pushing back against the recent eczema like rash of revisionist columns on how we won the war, after all. I have to say, this desire to tell ourselves that Iraq turned out to be a great victory still seems to me rather delusional, but whatever.

Corn suggests that before we throw out elbows out patting ourselves on the back, we should take a moment to think about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and millions of refugees who aren’t going to be able to enjoy this particular success story.(What a liberal!)

But, of course, the ultimate outcome of the Iraq war — whatever the results of the latest election — remains unknown. And we can continue to debate whether Bush was justified in launching the war, whether he bamboozled the public about the threat Saddam Hussein supposedly posed, and whether Bush’s late surge did help nudge Iraq in a better (or less worse) direction. (It does take chutzpah to hail the Bush administration for the surge, after this crew spent years screwing up in Iraq.) Yet what is galling is the frequent absence from these discussions of a central fact: Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Iraqis are dead because of the war, and millions have been displaced, driven out of their homes and out of their country. (Another colleague, Jill Lawrence, has not forgotten this.)

Corn makes another important point: our chosen method to bring democracy has always been undemocratic, which has made us look basically like hypocrites and liars to those we had hoped to convince of the righteousness of our cause.

The Iraqi civilians who were killed or who lost relatives or homes were not asked their consent for the invasion. Bush and Cheney decided their fate. Yes, Iraqis were living within a repressive state. But, no doubt, many of them had made their accommodations and were not willing to sacrifice a family member for possible regime change. Most citizens of tyrannical states manage to get by. (Ask the Chinese.) At times, populations do rise up, and in these instances, people knowingly assume risks and make sacrifices. (See Iran.) Yet in one of the most anti-democratic actions imaginable, Bush decided that he knew what was best for the Iraqi people — and more than a hundred thousand perished.


To claim that the war is a success because we established something that looks like democracy is an interesting one to make. First, it presupposes that an establishment of democratic principles in the region is an actual goal of American foreign policy. This is clearly not true, as seen by our relationship with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and the Gulf States–we don’t pressure those folks too much about their democratic principles. Secondly, it presupposes that the only(or certainly the most effective) way to bring democracy to the Middle East was to invade Iraq. This, I think, is a claim that should be subject to debate, and the winning argument should be pretty obvious. Perhaps we could have used our economic leverage with our above mentioned allies to push them towards democracy first, and maybe then that would have the “democratic domino” effect on Iraq, all while avoiding a war!

The point I’m making is that we should never forget how truly unwise and silly the arguments to support the war to spread democracy really were, and how lame they still sound to justify what will always be, no matter how many columnists tell you otherwise, a catastrophic foreign policy blunder.


About michaelhastings

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5 Responses to The undemocratic invasion for democracy, and some pushback against Iraq victory meme

  1. Michael Roston says:

    Is the Israel crack really necessary? The country often overplays its hand where the Palestinians are concerned, but it’s not on the same plane as Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

    • Coates Bateman says:

      I’m struggling to find the ‘crack’ here. Could you explain what you mean by ‘overplays its hand’?

      • Michael Roston says:

        I think inserting Israel in a list of Arab autocracies is a bit flip. And I agree with what Michael says below – America has a poorly constructed policy toward Israel in many ways. But it’s not a bird of a feather with Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

    • Michael Hastings says:

      Hi Michael, didn’t mean it as a crack. Israel is certainly a special case, and perhaps I should have separated it out from the other examples. I think Israel proper is a legit democracy of course, but our commitment to democracy in Gaza and the West Bank has been spotty(ie, we support democracy as long you don’t vote for people we don’t like a la Hamas.)

      The larger point I’m trying to get at is that we have/had many other foreign policy options to promote democratic principles in the Middle East besides the invasion/occupation route that we chose. War revisionists like to claim that we had to start somewhere to spread the seeds of democracy–Thomas Friedman recently writing that George Bush was right because Iraqis “crave democracy” is an example of this. They say these kinds of things as if there was no other way to bring democracy to the region except by invading Iraq and removing Saddam. I think this is a somewhat flimsy argument–it’s not argument as much as a narrow belief. But the fact that this idea caught traction among the foreign policy elites to help sell the war is troubling enough; to see it get trotted out again seven years later is even more disturbing. If we wanted to promote democracy, we started at the wrong country and we used the wrong method.

  2. rbrander says:

    Let me offer a cost-benefit engineer’s definition of “victory” for you. (I’m the guy who asked a while back if the lights were YET back on in Baghdad – you know, 7×24 like a civilized industrial nation.)

    Eventually (one hopes) the death rate in Iraq will fall below what it was during Saddam’s time. Human Rights Watch believes that Saddam was killing about 1000-2000 of his countrymen before the war (many, many more in the 80’s of course, but by 2003, just 1000-2000).

    He was also letting people die by providing poor services in some areas, certainly to the Shiite end of the country; and I’ll even spot Mr. Bush a point and lay at Saddam’s feet, not “The West”, those people dying from poor medicine, water treatment, and other services resulting from western boycotts over WMD. That could easily bump up the number to 100,000 per year.

    Eventually, it will fall below that, and the Iraqi people will be better off than they were in 2002. Count all the deaths “not happening” compared to 2002 at that point, as “lives saved”.

    When those lives saved exceed a closely estimated (Not “to the nearest couple of hundred thousand” as we have now) count of the lives lost arising from the war, you can declare victory. I won’t even charge interest the way I would with a cost-benefit calculation for money.

    And, sorry, “arising from the war” includes all Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence in excess of the crime levels of 2002. The Geneva conventions explicitly make security and protective services the responsibility of the occupier.

    I’m hoping the line from “worse than 2002” to “better than 2002” can be crossed in a matter of years, not decades. 2015, even. With “victory” by my standards, declared by 2025.

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