Our scholarly correspondent gives a probing analysis of the invasion, occupation, and future of Iraq.

Back from his sojourn in Kurdistan as a constitutional advisor [“Expert Opinion,” March/April; “Gazetteer,” May/June and July/ August], Dr. Brendan O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science and director of Penn’s Solomon Asch Center for Ethnopolitical Conflict, responds to the ever-looming questions about Iraq.


By Brendan O’Leary

When I returned from Kurdistan this summer, many friends interrogated me. My attempts to respond prompted memories of a poem by W.H. Auden: “To ask the hard questions is simple, but the answers are hard, and hard to remember.”i

Three questions are always posed. 1) Was the U.S.-led coalition right to invade and occupy Iraq? 2) How could the occupation of Iraq have been better organized? (Not even devotees of Fox News think it was well organized.) 3) Can Iraq work now that the Coalition Provisional Authority has gone?

Answer 1. An appalling regime was removed, but for the wrong reasons.

Saddam’s regime was genocidal, both before and after 1991. It committed “the following acts … with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting … conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (e) forcibly transferring the children of the group to another group.”ii Member-states of the United Nations are obliged to “prevent and punish”iii genocide, but this was not the key basis for the intervention by the coalition.

The B‘athists ran a regime of mass destruction, intermittently exterminating Kurds, Shi‘a, Marsh Arabs, Yezidis, and small Christian communities, deporting populations of villages and towns—and razing them. They were politicidal; opponents of the regime were killed, systematically tortured, as well as jailediv. They became misogynist: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented organized rapes, ritualized beheading of women defamed as prostitutes, and the re legalization of “honor killings.” Saddam was a present danger to the majority of his subject peoples and their neighbors. He had twice initiated failed wars of conquest. His regime was unlikely to collapse, either through sanctions or reform. B‘athists had taken KGB counsel on preventing coups. The state, military, police, and party had their own bureaucracies, and respective intelligence agencies; each watched the other, and reported separately to the dictator, who ran a clan tyranny (of his Tikrit lineage), an ethnic tyranny (of Arabs over Kurds), and a religious tyranny (favoring Sunni over Shi‘a, and Muslims over non-Muslims).

But these facts were not the principal justifications given for the enforced regime-change.

The official case was threefold. The first premise was that Saddam had not complied with the U.N. treaty imposed after the Gulf War. This claim had merit, but its potency was de-fanged by subsequent U.N. resolutions. It is, mildly put, controversial whether prior U.N. resolutions gave the U.S. and its allies the authority to enforce resolutions that Saddam had sought to avoid. The legal case was at best casuistic.

The second premise was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that were imminent threats to international security. The WMD premise was thought true (even by many who opposed the war), although the intelligence on which it rested was challenged, most effectively by France at the U.N. We all now know that the WMD theory was false.

The third premise, asserted, implied, and insinuated, was that meaningful —or potential—linkage existed between Saddam’s WMD regime and al-Qaeda. The linkage theory involved deliberately inflated and misleading extrapolations. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report treats this issue soberly: it recalls that Usama bin Ladin sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Kurdistan (those who formed Ansar al-Islam)v, and suggests that al-Qaedavi had more substantive links to Iran.

Enforcing resolutions that the U.N. was unwilling to enforce, WMDs, and the linkage claim provided the public rationale for war-planners in Washington. After the invasion of Iraq, coalition leaders had an embarrassing difficulty. The U.N.’s weapons-inspectors had done their job. Between 1991 and 1997-98 they decommissioned Saddam’s WMD program, and also contained its re-developmentvii. Most of the key intelligence services of the U.S. and the U.K. have been officially declared wrong in their assessments of Saddam’s WMD capabilities in 2002-03. The coalition’s political leaders now appear either as awkward liars or, just as embarrassing, as the dupes of their intelligence agencies—themselves duped by their informants, overly susceptible to pleasing their political masters, or just incompetent. The invasion itself has generated linkage, but through a self-fulfilling prophecy or “blowback”viii: al-Qaeda and its allies and overthrown B‘athists now collaborate.

Kenneth Pollack, the author of the best book in favor of the intervention (The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq), has argued that the sanctions imposed on Saddam for non-compliance with U.N. resolutions were eroding, and that Saddam wanted to re-arm.ix But “smart sanctions”—smarter than the general sanctions that led to the deaths of children and mass-smuggling—had recently been approved by the U.N. They had only been given a short time to work. While Pollack is right that Saddam would have liked nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, the retrospectively astonishing question is: Why did Saddam hide the fact that he was bereft of WMDs? Why permit an invasion to begin on what he could have shown to be a false claim? Perhaps he thought the belief that he had WMDs acted as a deterrent. Perhaps he was misled by his intelligence agencies, who may have messed up their assessments of U.S. intentions as badly as their Western counterparts failed in their tasks. Perhaps his personal security and that of his (past) weapons program were so interlocked that he dared not “come clean.” It is a subject for the historians.

My first uneasy answer, therefore, is that an awful regime was overthrown that could have been overthrown lawfully, because it was genocidal, but was in fact overthrown in unlawful violation of orthodox international law, on premises that have been shown to have been false and misleading. The results have not only damaged the U.S.’s standing, but also made the reconstruction of Iraq more difficult. The U.S. needs to lead the U.N. in interventions against genocide and gross human-rights violations, but by making such a bad case for invading Iraq it has lost much of the legitimacy it so desperately needs.

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© 2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/27/04

FEATURE: Hard Questions, Uneasy Answers
By Brendan O'Leary
Illustration by Anastasia Vasilakis

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i Paraphrasing W.H. Auden, Selected Poems edited Edward Mendelson (Faber & Faber, 1979), p. 17.

ii Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (United Nations, 9 December 1948), Article II. Three hundred thousand dead from genocide is the figure publicized in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Director of Human Rights, Sandy Hodgkinson, CBS News 2003, Powell ‘88 Attack Proves War Case. Halabja, 16 September. <http://www.cbnsnews.com/stories/2003/09/17/iraq/printable 573667.shtml> accessed 1 April 2004). The remains of many of these victims are yet to be scientifically exhumed and properly documented—an indictment of the CPA.

iii Convention, op. cit. Article I.

iv Samir al-Khalil (Kanan Makiya), Republic of Fear: Saddam’s Iraq (Hutchinson Radius, 1991).

v The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (W.H. Norton, 2004), p. 61, and n. 53.

vi Ibid., chapters 2 and 7, passim.

vii Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (Pantheon, 2004), and see George A. Lopez and David Cortright, ‘Containing Iraq: Sanctions Worked’, Foreign Affairs, 83, 4 (July/August), 90-103. The latter’s lucid article goes too far in claiming ‘smart sanctions’ had destroyed Saddam’s war machine (p.97), and is too uncritical of the ‘oil for food program’ in Arab Iraq.

viii Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Owl Books, 2001).

ix Kenneth Pollack, ‘Spies, Lies and Weapons: What went Wrong’, Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2004. He made the same argument in The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq (Random House, 2002), especially ‘The Case for an Invasion’; 335ff. Pollack was not guilty of bad counsel on post-occupation planning. Albeit briefly, he argued for a much larger troop deployment to ensure security, and for a principled ‘reconstruction’úrather than a ‘pragmatic’ approach ­ see ‘Rebuilding Iraq’, 387-424. The neo-conservative pro-war case was made by Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol, The War over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission (Encounter Books, 2003). For a calmly worded review of differences among American conservatives on the war see Martin Durham, ‘The American Right and The Iraq War’, Political Quarterly, 2004, 75: 3, 257-65