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TERM 2 –Identify and analyse critically why the strategic approaches adopted by the United States were unable to achieve a peaceful resolution to the crisis with Iraq between 1991 and 2003
Approaches to the Iraq War: Political and Military Dynamics
The Iraq War that started with the military intervention by the USA-led coalition forces in 2003 has been a complex phenomenon both at military and political levels raising a range of questions. At political level, the questions of efficacy and need for military intervention have been at the heart of the debate. For example, whether the USA and other coalitions partners intervened for politically sufficient reasons or not. The question has become more complex for the simple reason that the initial reason that was cited was to destroy the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) but they were later on not found. This raised morality of the action more so because of the supposed “failure” to establish democracy and peace in Iraq. Secondly, the action was supposed to be swift and was to get over within a time frame to accomplish its objectives. But it has protracted so long which raises a range of questions both at tactical and strategic levels. Finally, the less discussed are the questions of domestic dynamics within Iraq society that have played a major role in shaping the overall trajectory of the war since 2003 though the dynamics of domestic society have deeper roots in the previous era when Saddam ruled the country for more than three decades. In this context, the paper explores various dimensions of the Iraq war both at military and political levels within the lager context of long-term trends and dynamics of domestic society in Iraq. In this pursuit, it aims to lay down major dimensions and arguments to understand the war in holistic manner in light of studies published in recent years.
Dynamics of International Politics, US Foreign Policy and the Iraq War
At larger level, the Iraq war and the USA policies are to be understood within the changing dynamics of international politics after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1980s. The end of the Cold war put the USA at the helm of affairs in international politics which claimed to create a “new world order” as President Bush proclaimed in his famous 1992 speech rather more triumphantly. It is the rise of the USA as the sole “global superpower” that shaped the contours of its foreign policy which was characterized by unilateral actions, promotion of democracy, regime change and humanitarian interventions in a series of cases like in eastern Europe and later in middle East. The 9/11 or the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon gave rise to the identity politics within USA foreign policy that also shaped its foreign policy towards Iraq and other countries after 2001. This larger context of the emerging dynamics of international politics is important to place the arguments and rationale that the USA and other allied forces provided to intervene in Iraq. But at the same time, the complexity of the war and its origins and consequences are complex than what the USA foreign policy wanted to achieve. That is why the role of other countries, the United Nations and the domestic society had been important dimensions that had shaped and were shaped by the USA actions in Iraq.
The USA action against the Saddam regime was a result of complex interactions among a range of factors. The 9/11 terror attacks were only immediate trigger which led the Bush administration to drum up support for its actions in Iraq. The first set of argument that were presented to rationalize its actions was the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Iraq’s support for terrorist groups like the Al-Qaida in the Middle East region. But in the hindsight, the claim came out to be false as there has not been any evidence of such weapons found. In this respect, Cramer and others argue that the existence of weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s support for terrorist groups were used to rationalize policy that had its roots in the weapon industry in the USA. As they argue that “the Iraq Lobby” under the guidance of Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to re-establish the unconstrained use of U.S. military power after the defeat of Vietnam” (Cramer et al Introduction). In this context, they explore the dynamics of the USA foreign policy making and different ideological and material interest groups that vied for their voice to be heard. Vice-President Cheney and Rumsfeld represented the group of politicians and policy makers who argued to establish “American primacy” in military affairs which was hurt by its disastrous results of the Vietnam War in mid-1970s. On the other hand, the neo-conservative group of people in the policy circles. Thus, their argument which seems rational for it wanted to establish the geopolitical control over a strategically important country, Iraq, in the face of the latter’s opposition to the USA foreign policies in the regions. That is why they border on to argue and seem to be consistent with those who argue that the primary objective of the action was to change regime so that the USA could have its say in the region without any resistance or opposition.
Thus, the USA and its partners’ flipflop over the existence of WMD when it came out to be non-existent made the humanitarian intervention argument to justify their action less palatable morally as well as politically. Humanitarian intervention emerged in the Post-Cold era into an important moral justification and principle to “save” people and citizens within the territory of other sovereign states. There are a range of questions that arise with respect to humanitarian intervention. For example, one major objection to it has been that the principle has been used by the USA and other allies to further their own geopolitical interests which make it a problematic policy. This argument has substance for the reasons that there have been genuine cases where these powers should have intervened the prime example being the Congo where millions of people were massacred in early 1990s. But the USA or any other country did not feel compulsion based on humanitarian intervention principle to intervene. Secondly, its support for authoritarian regimes within the Middle East region itself like that of the Saudi Arabia also testifies that humanitarian principle has been used for political reasons. But this does not negate the fact that the Saddam Era Iraqi society faced repression for long time. It was the minority communities like the Kurds who suffered political repression and marginalization. The human development index was low compared to other countries on similar development stage making it one of the closed and repressed society in which minorities, women and other sections suffered economically, politically and personally at the hands of the Saddam regime. It was the same reasons why there was a mass support for the American action among different sections of the Iraqi society for the obvious reasons. But did the military action achieve what they intended at least rhetorically on this front? But the USA and others sought to legitimize their actions in a changed context in international politics. As Wheeler has argued that the normative foundations of humanitarian interventions changed with the collapse of the Cold War binaries and the great power geopolitical rivalries. That is why the arguments supporting humanitarian intervention could be justified more so because of the changed geopolitical context with the USA at the help of affairs in the post-1990 period.
Recent studies have shown that the American foreign policy towards Iraq in 1990s also had contributed to the socio-economic problems in the domestic affairs of Iraq. For the USA had been in confrontation mode since the late 1980s itself and fought a short-term war on behalf on Kuwait when Iraq attacked the latter. But the policies and policy tools that it engaged to force the Saddam regime to toe its line had serious negative impacts on the socio-economic conditions of Iraqi people. As Sponeck explores the impacts and efficacy of the sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s and questions the rationale of the UN sanctions that were largely recommended by the USA and its allies. He argues that the sanctions as happened with other cases around the world did not and could not achieve their goals of forcing the authoritarian regimes to treat their people equally and stopping suppression. As the cases of Iran, Iraq during Saddam and North Korea among many cases show that economic sanctions have limited impact as far as its objectives to force authoritarian regime to change their policies. Rather, these regimes use these sanctions as ideological tool to consolidate their own position by drumming up support from people. That is why Sponeck really questions the benefits of the sanctions imposed on Iraq through the UN and the USA’s own policies. The sanctions led the alternative policies to go into oblivion and less effective for they had negative impact on Iraqi society in general while the ruling elite were not affected. In that sense, they harmed the morality of its actions for in the face of evidence of their impact, it really turns out that it caused more harm than it achieved the stated goals.
This points towards the primary role of geopolitical and geo-economic interests of the USA which sought to be achieved in the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention and the promotion of democracy. As Robert Bringham in his work based on primary documents explore the complex ways in which the USA foreign policy had been centred on Iraq even during the Cold War in which the geopolitical interests because of Iraq’s geostrategic location and resources was prominent. It is therefore the continuity in the USA foreign policy in terms of its geopolitical interests and search for primacy within the Middle East region that led to the military action.
As far as the question of Iraq’s support for terrorist groups in the region are concerned, the argument to support its military intervention is weak. For the simple fact that there had been many countries that had tacitly supported terrorist groups in the region like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia among others. In addition to that, its own policies in Afghanistan in the context of the Soviet occupation that led to rise of proxy groups which later on turned against its policies in the region. That is why as Brigham argued that “Over the decades Iraq has represented many things to American geopolitical strategy: a bulwark against Soviet incursions into the Middle East; a counter to the formation of the Islamic Republic; a locus of American petroleum interests; an arena in which America could flex its military might to preserve its foreign interests; and, ultimately a lesson that twentieth-century models of nation-building were outmoded and unsuitable to the unyielding polities of both neoconservatism and neoliberalism.”
In addition to that, the complex nature of Iraqi society was disregarded for the primacy of geopolitical goals. For the dynamics of domestic society and different sects that gave rise to a complex post-conflict scenario which the political approach geared to achieve geopolitical goals could not handle appropriately.
Thus, at political and moral level, the military intervention in Iraq raised more questions than the number of problems it solved. Rather it would not be exaggeration to state that it created more problems that it tried to solve. For the issues of identity, social and economic dynamics within Iraq society, its own policies towards Iraq that created more problems for later transition to a democratic society for it complicated the problem of economic and social inequality through economic sanction. In addition to that, it lost the narrative of morality of the action based on humanitarian intervention for the reason that it became clear that the action was targeted to achieve its own geopolitical interests rather than caring about the society of Iraq per se. Secondly, many of its allies like that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan among others were worst performers on the same scale like democracy within domestic society and rights of their own people making its arguments of democracy and humanitarian intervention look like mere rhetoric only.
Military Dynamics and Strategy
The military actions in Iraq also raised question at tactical as well as strategic level. It has lingered on for longer than it was expected and therefore it has become a matter of debate in terms of efficacy of military tactics at the ground and long-term strategy. But military strategy at the ground level cannot be detached from larger political context and the domestic dynamics which was an important factor.
In other words, the military strategy which planned three-pronged strategy viz political, economic and military could not implement it thoroughly or rather it lacked a holistic approach initially which as Senator McCain called it “whack a mole”. In the initial period, it focused on using heavy military force so that they could supress the resistance and tried to kill or capture resistance forces and insurgents. This actually did not yield long-term results as a large number of civilians had to suffer in the process for it did not focus on nurturing support among common people and protecting civilians and communities. The fallout of the approach was that though the military action could put out the resistance by supressing the Iraqi army, the large-scale civilian casualties and brutalities led to feelings of alienation and oppression of communities leading them to engage in resistance movement partly because the extremist forces within the erstwhile army could mobilize such feelings easily.
These are some of the radical questions that have emerged in this context of “failure” of the military intervention in terms of its consequences and objectives to establish a democratic state run by the Iraqi people. For, sectarian violence as well as radicalization can be attributed to the flawed strategy that did not take into account the complexities of Iraqi society divided into different communities based on sects and religious practices. In addition to that, the failure to engage different sections of society from the beginning led to a lack of option once the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussain fell. In this respect, the strategy seems to have lacked long-term vision based on step-by step transition. Because the engagement of people from all sections of society without any feeling of left-out and alienation is a necessary condition for establishment of a democratic state. Secondly, the inter-sect relations, between the Shias and the Sunnis were not handled delicately for the reason that sectarian conflicts had been one of the major fault lines and cleavage that gives rise to conflicts in the region.
For instance, there emerged a number of groups who were raised and mobilized by the former army officers from the Iraqi military because the post-conflict phase did not take into account the grievances and interests of every section. Thus, on the one hand, as Bringham argued that there was a mismatch between what the policy makers planned in Washington and what actually happened at ground in Iraq (Bringham chapter 4). This complicated the situation as the USA forces could not handle the transition from turning into a civil war and insurgency. For the lack of coordination and long-term vision before intervention led to problems that local militias were raised and sectarian violence started. Many scholars attribute the rise of Islamic State to the years just after the fall of Saddam Hussain and the mishandling of the transition period policies and processes.
But at the tactical level, the military strategy was successful relatively. One, it did not stick to one rigid plan probably learning from the Vietnam debacle and thus the military changed strategy at tactical level by involving deception, manoeuvre and indirection which bore results tactically. Secondly, it involved various kinds of forces like air, and ground level which made the action swiftly more so because of the limited resources of the Iraqi army. But the major problem that was faced during the ‘Operation Freedom’ as the military action was called rhetorically was related to the intelligence failures which caused a major problem at tactical level. Though, the allied forces faced very few casualties at the beginning, but the intelligence failures made it difficult to made its headway which only could be compensated by unmatched military forces and resources that they commanded.
Thus, while it made a range of strategic mistakes that complicated the problem by providing avenues for the insurgents and extremists to mobilize those people who felt insecure and were alienated. The USA changed its strategy later on but it seemed to have missed the train because situation was complicated as soon as the operation achieved its immediate success in the form of the fall of the regime. The intelligence failures was a major roadblock at tactical level which made it difficult to achieve swift success and made the operation linger on for longer than it was expected.
The military action in Iraq by the USA and its allies was embedded in larger processes and structure of international politics when the fall of the Soviet Union led to the USA as the sole superpower of the world. The ‘invasion’ or military intervention in Iraq raises a range of questions both at political and moral level as well as military strategy and tactical level. In a sense, the military action left the box open as it led to a serious debate about the humanitarian intervention and its geopolitical usage as well as the efficacy of military intervention itself. For the precise reasons that it could not achieve the objective of a democratic and stable state until now. It has had moral implications of a political actions and the principles of humanitarian intervention. Secondly, it achieved a relative high success at the tactical level because of the use of high-end technology and flexible military strategy at the ground.
- Brigham, Robert K. The United States and Iraq since 1990 – A Brief History with Documents; London: Wiley Blackwelll.2014
- Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press, 2007
- Rayburn, Joel. Iraq After America – Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance. Stamford, CA: Stamford University Press, 2014.
- Sponeck, H.C. von. A different kind of War: The UN Sanctions Regime in Iraq; New York: Berghahn Books.
Jeffries, Leon M. (ed.) Iraq: Issues, Historical Background, Bibliography. Nova Publishers 2003.
Wheeler, Nicholas. Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society. Oxford University Press. 2000.
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