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The war in Iraq

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith. And joining me today is Dr. Ben Isakhan. He's a research associate with the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University. Thank you for joining me, Ben.

Ben Isakhan:

Thank you very much for having me, Matt.

Matt Smith:

Now, you're here today to talk to me about the future of the Iraqi political situation and what is being called the end of the war in Iraq. Barack Obama declared the end of the war on August 19 in 2010. What do you think of this? Do you think that this was the end of the war?

Ben Isakhan:

It's the end of the war, probably as far as the withdrawal of US combat troops goes, part of what's called the Status of Forces Agreement, which is an agreement between the Iraqi government and the US government that was decided during the Bush era actually in 2008. And into that program was the date of the end of August 2010 for all US combat troops to be out of Iraq.

What they have left behind is a force of 50,000 troops, which is the smallest number since the 2003 invasion. But these troops are under a new kind of mandate or different rules of engagement, if you like. They call it advise and assist. So, they're capable of doing military operations. But their primary role, as it indicates, is to advise and assist the operations of the existing Iraqi army, not to do operations independently, and really to engage in as little combat as possible, just when it's absolutely crucial or needed. As far as I'm aware, they have not really been involved in much since the August.

In terms of what Barack Obama has said, with the end of the Iraq war, I guess what he's referring to is that kind of combat face, whether or not in broader historical terms, what we're really seeing is the end of the Iraq war, however you wanted to find that, is another question. I mean, certainly, we could be in for years of civil strife and unrest. We could be in for all kinds of regional issues and other militaries getting involved. Who knows what the future holds. There may be a need for further US engagement there in the future. I don't think it would be popular both at home or in Iraq. But certainly, if the situation there descends to such a point, they may well feel responsible for what they leave behind in Iraq. And that's a major issue, I think.

Matt Smith:

Well, as it is, the Iraqi war was never really popular after the initial push and the initial success. Nobody really anticipated to how long it would last. It seems like it had the world's longest hangover.

Ben Isakhan:

Absolutely. I mean, it wasn't popular even before it began. We saw that the world's largest protests were against the Iraq war. It was unpopular from the moment the idea began. People were very cynical from the very beginning about weapons of mass destruction, links to Al Qaeda and, in particular, on what basis do you justify invading Iraq and how would you manage it going forward, the lack of the kind of plan to manage Iraq. The war began on the 9th of April 2003. And about six weeks later, Bush, of course, had that mission accomplished moment with the famous banner on board the USS Lincoln, if I'm not mistaken.

And you're right. I think it was hoped in many circles that that would ring true, that things would settle down, that a government would be formed and that the US could basically say that it was over. And it has been the world's longest hangover. And it has made it increasingly unpopular, both within Iraq and across the world. The US efforts have been remarkably unpopular at home as much as anywhere else.

Matt Smith:

Bush had the banner Mission Accomplished. What did he define as the mission? Was it just toppling Saddam's regime?

Ben Isakhan:

That's exactly right. He never sort of explicitly said mission accomplished. It was just that there was a banner under which he delivered a case speech. And the banner read, "Mission Accomplished". The idea was to frame it as if this was the end of the battle face of the war. And I think as far as that goes, the mission I guess in purely military terms is to invade the country, to overthrow the government and its army and so on, defeat them resolutely in lightning speed, I mean, we have to be honest on how effectively the US beat the Iraqis, and to then conquer and control Baghdad, the capital.

Now, if you take those just as military goals, which basically they were, then the mission was accomplished. The fact that Iraq had suffered years of sanctions and was crippled right across its civil infrastructure, let alone its military, it was kind of kicking a country while it's down. And there was all these beat-ups in the lead up to the war about how that was sort of battle-hardened, bloodthirsty Republican guard who had fought the Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 war and that that would be very difficult to overthrow. Their intelligence, if it didn't point to weapons of mass destruction, should have been telling them this will be a walk-over.

Nonetheless, going back to your question, I think that that's what that mission accomplished was about, those sort of military goals rather than the broader kind of idealistic goals of creating a stable society, creating a robust economy, creating a democratic stage that was a beacon to the region and so on and so on. None of those goals were achieved then. And you may say they're not achieved now.

Matt Smith:

Well, actually, that's my next question. Do you think that a democratic Iraq will stick? How effective do you think it has been to force an ideology like democracy on Iraq?

Ben Isakhan:

In some ways, the projected democratize, if you like, or bringing democracy to Iraq, has been remarkably successful. In 2003, after the invasion, Iraq went from having five newspapers tightly controlled by the state that were essentially propaganda machines to over 200 newspapers almost overnight.

And if you take media freedom as just one indicator of a state's democracy, it became one of the freest media landscapes on Earth. If you talk about writing a constitution, if you talk about holding successful nationwide elections in 2005, in January and in December, there were two nationwide elections that were very broadly attended, the first not so well attended by the Sunni but the second attended across with no religious sectarian divides.

And again, if you take attendance at elections or the ability of a nation to write and then hold a referendum on their own constitution, 2005 showed remarkably democratic tendencies and movements towards democracy. And the kind of wholehearted endorsement of these democratic process by many quarters of the Iraqi population.

And we should also remember, I think it's very important to point out that when we talk about democracy, particularly in a country like Iraq, there are enormous risks in going to the polls. We don't face those here. We had a recent election a couple of months ago here in Australia. No reports of violence. No reports of bombings. No reports of people being hunted down after the election because of an accuse to voting a particular way. Iraqis do face these. Going to the polls is a very brave show of solidarity and belief in the democratic process and its ability to carry the country forward.

Now, I'll temper that by saying that more recent developments, the fallout from the March 2010 elections, do not bode well for their story of democracy. While it's my opinion that democracy has gathered considerable momentum and the idea of democracy has gathered considerable momentum amongst the people, amongst the ruling elite of various factions, they remain quite distant from the ideal of what a democratic leadership should be, in fact, increasingly. So, it seems that the game of democracy was very much a game that they did to please the Bush demonstration, perhaps, because they had little choice in the matter. And now that that era is over and it's quite clear that Obama wants to get out, why play democracy anymore?

In the existing literature on these things, there's something called Semi-authoritarianism. This is by someone called Marina Ottaway. She put forward this idea. And I think it's an interesting one because it gives us particular insight here and that is, that semi-authoritarianism is the idea that you can use the mechanisms of democracy like voting or having a parliament or whatever. And you can also use the discourse of democracy, that is, talking about individual rights and human rights and social inclusion and all these kinds of things, right?

But you use them in order to maintain your own incumbency. So, you use them to further gain your authoritarianism. And it seems to me that the Malaki government is very much following this line, which is a line that is followed elsewhere in the Middle East, where you use democracy because democracy is the popular thing to say that you're doing. You hold elections but really, they're all just routine event, a mass public display that is very much designed just to keep the incumbent in power.

Matt Smith:

What role do you think the media has played in the war in Iraq? Do you think it has been a help or hindrance?

Ben Isakhan:

In terms of the battle face of the war, I don't think that the Western media was a hindrance or a help. It had very little chance to do anything. I mean, it was tightly controlled and held on a leash by the US government. Since then, things have changed. And the Western media has played many different roles. And it depends on how you define the media, I mean, if you go as far as defining the media as things like WikiLeaks or even the reporting of WikiLeaks more recently, the WikiLeaks scandal. And Abu Ghraib is another example where the Western media has played a fantastic role in terms of exposing what the US has been doing and some of the major kind of problems that they've created and documenting those in a very timely and important way.

There are, of course, other criticisms. The Western media has not provided a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of Iraqi society. And it seems to be quite reductionist. It reduces things down to monolithic kind of ideas. So, Shia Islam and everything that it represents becomes a monolith, which is antagonistic to Sunni Islam, which we must then call another monolith. And then, Kurds, well, they are separate again and they are another monolith. In fact, the reality of Iraqi society has always been and is still today a remarkably complex nuance society in which such monolithic interpretations and such sort of reductionist ways of interpreting events that just really are quite unrealistic.

Matt Smith:

One thing that has really struck me is that the Iraqi war was kind of sold on the fact that it has been done for the good of the Iraqi people. I would like to know what do you know of the perception of the Iraqi people as to the outcome of the war? It's hard to say, are they happy with the outcome of the war? I'm sure they would rather that there was no war to begin with. Are they happy and do they have a good perception of the West at all?

Ben Isakhan:

It's interesting you should ask this because, of course, George W. Bush's book "Decision Points", he says, "I was very annoyed that there were no weapons of mass destruction. But I stand by my decision to go into Iraq because it's better off." So, that has some relevance, I think, to your question.

In terms of how the Iraqi people feel about it, I think we can refer to sort of what I was saying just a moment ago, that it really isn't a monolithic opinion. If you were to walk the streets of Baghdad or any other Iraqi city today and ask a thousand people that question, you would get a thousand different responses.

There are certainly some who look back at the time of the Ba'ath, particularly through the '70s and into the early '80s. Iraq had lots of oil wealth. It had a great education system. It had a good healthcare. It was a very robust and egalitarian society. It was the place to be. Arab intellectuals and artists and so on would come to Iraq. It's very different to the picture we have of Iraq now. But Iraq was kind of the cultural, political, intellectual hub of the Middle East.

And so, that early Ba'athist epoch is looked back on why particular segments of the Iraqi population has a very good idea. So, there were certainly some people in Iraq today who would look back on parts of the Ba'athist era and lament the falling of Saddam. There are particular quarters who would have exactly the opposite opinion in the extreme, as in they're very glad that Saddam was overthrown. This may be true, for example, in some Shia and some Kurdish quarters. Freer, better opportunities in some places and in some instances, they remain hopeful that the country will move forward with an increased Kurdish and/or Shia influence.

And then, I think for the vast majority of people, there's some story in the middle. So many people in Iraq now have lost a relative or a friend since the war, I mean. And so, of course, they're pained by that suffering and wish that America had never come for that reason. So many have lost jobs. The infrastructure is terrible. Iraq suffers a very, very hard summer. And the electricity for air conditioning this summer has caused protests and riots and everything.

So, there's all kinds of infrastructure problems as well that people are grappling with. And they're often discounted alongside, for example, the political problem or the military one or the security ones, for that matter. There's these deep-seated political problems. There's a lack of security. There's all kinds of ethno-sectarian problems, no matter where someone stands on that scale.

They also have poor access to drinking water. They also have very little electricity. They also have all kinds of infrastructure problems. I mean, schools often don't open. Universities often don't open. Hospitals are way overstretched. All kinds of infrastructure things like postal services and so on and so on, if they're functioning, are functioning very poorly and usually aren't functioning.

That brings a kind of tension into the society, I think. I think it brings a day-to-day stress that burdens people quite substantially. And certainly, one of the big ones is electricity because of the major heat waves that Iraq suffers. I mean, we're talking about repressive heat. And there were some significant protests and riots ensued because of that.

I mean, this is another kind of major measure of the US time there. They have been there for seven years. And they still cannot get electricity with the trillions that they've spent, with all the kinds of promises. I mean, how can you build all these kinds of idealistic things about democracy and a free economy when you can't even restore electricity. How do you expect the people to have faith in this project? How do you expect people to move towards this project? I mean, how can you have a robust economy without electricity?

Matt Smith:

There is a movement, though, to get that sorted out. Any new buildings that have to go up need to have solar panels on. Isn't that correct?

Ben Isakhan:

There are things like that. There are a number of initiatives of the Iraqi government and the US have undertaken. Overwhelmingly, it has been unsuccessful. I mean, it's an abject failure. There's absolutely no other way to describe it. Given the kind of resources that they had at their fingertips and given the time that they've had to do them, the things that they have failed to do are a real measure of the occupation. If we're not to talk about body bags, if we're not to talk about any other kind of way that we would measure the US time there, just think about things like electricity. And it becomes remarkably clear that they haven't done their job, you know. They haven't fulfilled their responsibility.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University Podcast today. If you have any questions about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr. Ben Isakhan, thank you for your time today.

Ben Isakhan:

Thank you very much.

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