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Iraq, 15 Years on: An Interview with Joel Wing

As part of a series of articles on the 15th anniversary of the Iraq war, we invited Joel Wing to discuss the aftermath of one of the most divisive conflicts of modern times. Joel has been writing the blog Musings on Iraq since 2008.

Readers familiar with Musings on Iraq will know it as an invaluable resource: Joel has tirelessly documented events in different sectors over thousands of blog entries and scores of interviews. If something significant has happened in Iraq or been the subject of debate, Joel has probably written about it. Unsurprisingly, he has also been widely quoted in the media.

IIC: The idea that the war was fought for oil is an enduring one-- there are at least two books written about this. But the basis of this theory is shaky. What's your view?

JW: There are a lot of people who have an economic determinist view of foreign policy, especially for the United States. The basis of this theory is that America only acts in the world for its own economic gain. That led many to believe that the United States was invading Iraq in 2003 to take its oil. There are all kinds of problems with this view.

First, right after the invasion, many pointed to the contracts Halliburton was given. VP Cheney used to work for Halliburton, so therefore many believed this was a kind of conspiracy with the vice president giving his former company deals to exploit Iraq’s petroleum. Halliburton is not an oil company however. It does not produce oil, it’s an oil service company that does things like repair fields, fixes and builds pipelines, etc.

Second, if the American wanted to take Iraq’s oil it had a prime chance to do so under the Coalition Provisional Authority. Steps could have been taken to privatize the industry or give contracts to foreign oil companies, etc. Instead, the CPA’s chief oil official Phil Carroll explicitly said that Iraq’s oil was to remain under Iraqi control. The main agenda under the CPA was to fix the oil fields and ramp up production, which had been halted during the war so that Iraq could start earning money as petroleum was its main source of money.

When Iraq opened its fields to foreign investment, which started during a series of auctions in 2009, it came from a variety of countries including China, Italy, and Russia. Only two American companies won contracts, Exxon Mobil and Occidental. They were also given service contracts instead of production sharing agreements, which did not give the companies as much profit as they otherwise would. Oil sales and marketing also remained under control of the Iraqi state via offices of the Oil Ministry. There was no big privatization move or foreign takeover after 2003.

Every spring brings another anniversary of the 1991 uprising in Iraq. To some, this is the great missed opportunity to get rid of Saddam and avoid the ensuing 25 plus years of crisis. Saddam would have almost certainly crumbled if the Coalition marched to Baghdad in 1991, having lost as much as 75% of Iraq’s military strength. What's your view on this theory?

Several times President Bush asked Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam in 1991. Unfortunately for them, the president was talking about the military launching a coup instead of a popular uprising, as happened. Even then, the U.S. could have stepped in and easily gone to Baghdad. It would have had moral authority saying it was trying to rescue the Iraqis from being slaughtered by their own government, which was what happened in the end.

The White House was having none of that however. The president didn’t think the U.N. charter which authorized its liberation of Kuwait included getting rid of Saddam. There would have been problems holding the coalition together, especially the Arab countries if the U.S. had marched north. The administration was also spooked by reports that Iran was behind the southern revolt.

Finally, the U.S. might have been stuck with the same problem it found itself in 2003 meaning there were no plans for a post-Saddam Iraq and they didn’t know of any Iraqis who could take control. That could have led to a long U.S. occupation with all of the difficulties that would follow. The best course might have been giving aid to the rebels so that they could have marched on Baghdad, and it would have been Iraqis, not the United States that removed the dictator. There are obviously plenty of positives and negatives for both sides of the argument.

What effect did the Iraq war have on Iraq's social, political and economic situation?

This is such a huge question I can’t answer it in that much detail otherwise I would take far too long, so here’s just some brief thoughts.

Economically, there was change and stasis. On the latter, the government and oil still control the economy. On the other hand, many of the reforms the U.S. tried to enforce such as free trade and free markets had a very deleterious affect. Getting rid of many of Iraq’s tariffs for example led to a flood of cheap foreign imports that wiped out a lot of Iraqi businesses. Trying to reform the State Owned Enterprises was also a complete failure and led to a lot of firings at a time when Iraq needed more employment. Overall, Iraq remains a state run economy and is dependent upon oil, with all the negatives that entails. It has never seriously carried out any reforms although it makes plans to do so every year.

Politically, Iraq is now one of the few democracies in the Middle East. Unfortunately, like most of the developing world it is dysfunctional. Politicians, parties and parliament are not responsive to the public. That’s because with an oil economy the state provides most things so the elite think the public should be beholden to them instead of the other way around, which is not what democracy is supposed to be about.

There’s also the ever present problem of corruption. Politicians use it to not only get rich, but to dole out patronage and get votes. Every administration since 2005 has said they would fight this problem, but the institutionalization of graft and how it plays a basic role in how the parties rule Iraq means those efforts will never go anywhere.

Finally, politics is still shaped by ethnosectarian actors. Even with the growth of nationalist rhetoric with the war against the Islamic State, Iraq’s parties don’t really have platforms, and are almost all run by the same personalities that came to power in 2003, which are based upon their families, tribes, and communities.

Socially Iraq has probably changed the most. Under Saddam there was government and self imposed censorship and links to the outside world for average people was very limited. Now Iraq has access to all the latest technology and all the entertainment, knowledge, etc that comes with that. In big cities like Baghdad you have hipsters, motorcycle and car clubs, the rebirth of the arts, etc. People just have a lot more freedom to express themselves and connect than before.

Taking a counterfactual perspective, do you think war in 2003 might have been avoided? Perhaps if Saddam accepted December 1999's UNSCR 1284, rather than the regime taking a harder line and calling it a "criminal resolution?" Notably, UNSCR 1441 of November 2002 has much tougher language regarding what constituted non-compliance with the inspections process (the "final opportunity" threatening "serious consequences.") As late as January 2003, the regime is pushing back against UNMOVIC (albeit less stridently than in previous years) eventually buckling over the issue of U2 overflights (which had been an ongoing issue since 1997) and interviews with nuclear scientists.

Hans Blix warns the regime at the start of 2003 that "it's three minutes to midnight." So, momentum towards war seems unstoppable once the Coalition force build-up gains momentum, but might have been avoidable prior to this time. In other words, where is the point of no return for Saddam, or indeed, for the US and UK?

Given Bush’s and Saddam’s stance I think the war was going to happen no matter what. Saddam had ended his WMD and nuclear programs after the Gulf War, but didn't admit to that because he wanted them to deter Iran and domestic uprisings. Also because of his deception campaign against the United Nations inspectors in the 1990s, the U.S. and U.K. were never going to believe what Iraq said when the U.N. returned.

As one White House officially cynically stated, if Saddam came clean about his WMD programs then he would be guilty about lying about them over the past decade, and if he said he didn’t have any then he was being deceitful. Either way he was guilty and the war would go ahead (See our interview with Zaab Sethna for more on this- ed.)

More importantly, by 2002 it was pretty apparent Bush had decided to remove Saddam, it was just a matter of time and the right circumstance. As the Chilcot inquiry showed, Blair was going to go along with the president no matter what.

During the 1990s, the US explored different ways of removing Saddam, short of full scale war. These include everything from sponsoring a coup d'etat to planning a Kurdish uprising that was supposed to advance south (one plan also envisioned a simultaneous southern uprising) to training a "Free Iraqi Army" to establish an enclave in southern Iraq, with the help of U.S. Special Forces and air strikes. If any of this had succeeded, do you think Iraq might have avoided the chaos that happened after 2003? Or could there have been an even worse scenario?

The problem was none of those ever had a chance. Iraqi intelligence proved too good, and the Kurds and Iraqi opposition parties had no real connections outside of Kurdistan. On the hypothetical front, if any of those plans had worked out it would have been Iraqis overthrowing Saddam, not the U.S. led Coalition. There’s no telling how they would have governed Iraq afterward, but it’s hard to believe they could have done worse than the U.S. did.

What was the greatest miscalculation of the Coalition?

Hubris for one. The Coalition Provisional Authority thought it could change almost everything in Iraq, but knew very little about the country. It made huge mistakes the most famous of which was disbanding the army and deBaathification, but it made plenty more as well. For instance, it started a reconstruction plan based upon western multinationals building huge projects that would take years to complete and were not labor intensive when Iraqis were looking for immediate results and a stake in the new system.

A lot of those programs were undermined by the insurgency. The other major problem was a lack of planning and consistency. The U.S. went through several different phases of postwar planning with each only lasting a few months before it was ended and a new group was created to take over. Plus, there were always several different organizations working on the same things but completely isolated from the other. The final group which was created to actually run post-war Iraq, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, wasn’t started until January 2003, three months before the war. It never had the time, staff, nor money to do much.

Then after the invasion the U.S. went through the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance then the Coalition Provisional Authority to the first U.S. Ambassador Negroponte after Iraq got its sovereignty back in 2005, who only stayed for 9 months. That was a huge turnover and like the postwar period, each came in with different ideas. The U.S. didn't even formulate an official joint political-military plan for Iraq until 2005. That constant turnover in the midst of a war meant chaos.

These problems before and after 2003 were due to poor management and leadership within the White House. First, the administration didn't want any post-war planning to go on because it thought if that became public it would undermine its war plans and public relations campaign. Then when the strategizing finally started there was no one in charge with various agencies and offices all laying claim to it. That continued after 2003 with the Pentagon, the National Security Council, the civilians in charge in Iraq and the U.S. command in the country often competing, and the Joint Chiefs and White House largely being negligent. You actually had times when an official like National Security Adviser Rice would announce a new plan for Iraq like ink spots counterinsurgency, which she had not gone to the Pentagon or military about.

Many people, in arguing that the war was right or wrong, have relied upon data on infant mortality and child nutrition. Arguments have been ongoing since before 2003 about whether the regime tried to manipulate this data to erode sanctions, an allegation that has angered those opposed to both sanctions and regime change. Others have pointed to civilian casualty estimates after 2003--most famously the Lancet study, as evidence that the removal of Saddam was not worth the cost. Does the war carry a lesson regarding how we calculate the justification for intervention?

You can always find plenty of data to support whatever argument you want to make. I think there is actually a larger lesson to be learned.

That’s when it comes to war, we as citizens are largely powerless to stop a determined government. We can come up with whatever studies we want to and go into endless debates, but the state’s ability to dominate the news and debate when it comes to foreign policy completely overshadows that. In the U.S. for example, the typical news coverage of any major event is to give the administration the front page and repeat its message, and then maybe have one outside source like an academic comment on it, and then go into partisan discussions between the Democrats and Republicans. There is little effort given to asking if what the administration says is true or not.

In the U.S., there was little actual debate over whether Iraq had WMD, it was about what should be done about them. Again, given the bully pulpit of the presidency, the White House was able to shape that debate far more than any Democratic opposition, and the public was largely excluded.

Did the war damage the idea of an international community and the importance of the UN Charter? The fact that 1980s UN resolutions on chemical weapons condemn both Iraq and Iran (UNSCR 612, passed after the Halabja attack) and that the P5 could not agree on the nature of the regime in the 1990s (except during the Kuwait invasion, with UNSCRs 678 and 687) points to a basic structural weakness in the UN. Many argue that we see this problem still, in Syria. On the other hand, the US and UK’s justification of the war is at best highly contested, since there was no explicit authorization for military action, unless we take the view that UNSCR 687 was still violated. What’s your view?

Great powers are always going to try to do what they like, and use or ignore international bodies like the U.N. as they please. That’s especially true when it comes to war. That’s seen as a national interest, and they are not going to let any outside force stop them from making that decision. The U.S. and U.K thought they could invade Iraq without an explicit authorization from the U.N. via a second resolution, and went ahead and did so. Then when it came to nation building they turned to that same organization to help them.

The fact that the Bush administration was more unilateralist and thought it could act largely alone actually hurt it because it did not have the widespread international support for postwar Iraq that could have helped it greatly. It also had to turn to the United Nations for help with elections in 2005 after it had just blown off the group over the invasion. The lesson is that the haughtiness of the Bush White House towards the U.N. and other countries cost it. The administration went out of its way to not only say it disagreed with others, but totally dismissed and excluded them from Iraq initially, and that completely backfired.

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