As a means of understanding its effect on America, Iraq has frequently been described as the new Vietnam. It’s not. There are enormous differences between the two. Vietnam was played out against the all pervasive ideological landscape of Cold War politics. It ended with America leaving in real disarray, images of helicopters last minute airlifting refugees off the US embassy in Saigon, the enemy at the gates - signs of the American dream beginning to hit the wall. Iraq was different. It saw an initial enemy destroyed, and while, as we know, its management of post-war Iraq was worse than awful, Iraq is a sovereign state, and the Americans withdrew roughly as planned.
However, comparisons remain valid. Bar neo-conservative think tanks, super right wing lobbyists, etcetera, it would be hard to find anyone in America who thinks of Iraq as anything other than a giant mistake. The American taxpayer has shouldered – and shoulders – a bill of some $ 1 trillion. Nearly 4,500 American soldiers were killed or died on active duty in Iraq - almost 32,000 were wounded in action. A round up of America’s achievements in Iraq makes for poor reading: Saddam Hussein toppled; no weapons of mass destruction discovered; insurgencies intermittently rife; Al Qaeda alive and almost well; a barely cobbled together infrastructure; a relatively poor American oil company interest in the country’s major asset; Iran exercising significant control over Iraq’s administration; an impossible to pay final bill.
Which is why – or partly why - drilling down into what’s going on in Iraq isn’t easy. Iraq remains close to partisan hearts. The psychological effects of a war considered by many an abject failure makes clear eyed reporting, political or economic, hard to find, the well informed commentator a hen's tooth. Given all this, we are, then, most fortunate this week to have tracked down Joel Wing, author of the influential blog Musings on Iraq. A relentless researcher, commentator and writer, Wing’s interest in Iraq was first sparked by the 9/11 attacks, when Saddam Hussein was (too easily) lumped in with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Afghanistan and became a primary focus in America’s so-called war on terror. Wing’s understanding of the nuances of Iraqi affairs has attracted the attention of some the most respected voices in American international affairs, his thoughts on the motivations for war, on the oil industry, the insurgencies and on Iraq’s future a lesson in evidence based reporting.
ThemePark: You’ve spent the last decade thinking and writing about Iraq. Your blog Musings on Iraq has the attention of the likes of the New York Times, the Guardian and the Long War Journal. You are as respected in Iraq as you are at home. Being an impartial and extremely well informed commentator on Iraq is something you have to fit around a full time teaching job. How and why did you begin to think, write and speak out about Iraq?
Joel Wing: I had some interest in Iraq during the 1990s with the invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War, but I really got interested in the country on 9/11. The day of the attacks, former CIA Director James Woolsey was being interviewed on TV, and said that even if Iraq was not connected to the terrorists the United States should strike Saddam Hussein. I was surprised by the comment, and then when more and more people started talking about it I decided to start looking into it. That led me to researching and writing about Iraq in 2002, and I finally started my blog in 2008.
ThemePark: Very interested in your take on the reasons why America and her allies went to war in 2003. Many have suggested that behind the Bush cabinet’s posturing (the ideology, the talk of weapons of mass destruction, the connecting of Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein) lay the fact of Iraq’s untapped oil potential. Last week we posted an article suggesting as much. You disagree?
Wing: The Middle East is obviously important, because it contains oil. However, for the Bush administration there were a number of different individuals and groups within the White House who were pushing for war with Iraq for a variety of reasons. Most important was President Bush’s view that Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator who had been left in power after the 1991 Gulf War. Bush felt like something needed to be done about him. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saw Iraq as a threat to the Persian Gulf, because Saddam was still in power, and believed he had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Vice President Dick Cheney thought about transforming the Middle East if Saddam were removed.
I know there are talks about Cheney’s meeting with oil executives who discussed the Middle East, but one meeting amongst hundreds that took place within the administration doesn’t really translate into the cause of the invasion to me. There was never one meeting within the administration where the decision was made to go to war, but the overriding sentiment seemed to be that Iraq was a troubled spot, and something needed to be done about it.
ThemePark: Recent news with regards to Iraq has concentrated on a raft of international oil companies (IOCs) signing Production Share Agreements with semi-autonomous Kurdistan, much to Baghdad’s chagrin. We know that Baghdad controls the means of export, and that Kurdistan’s tentative courting of Turkey could have serious repercussions for the area as a whole, so what, in your opinion, do you think the various parties are up to?
Wing: Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani would definitely like independence, and therefore has been pushing the oil industry and his ties with Turkey in the hopes of achieving that. If Ankara were to agree to a direct pipeline between it and Kurdistan it would provide the region with an autonomous means of earning money, and could therefore lead to eventual independence. There are two problems with these plans. First, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani who runs the other ruling party in Kurdistan is weary of President Barzani’s moves, believing that he is trying to grab too much power.
Second, Turkey is still worried about its own Kurds, and what an independent Kurdistan might mean for them. Barzani has been trying to assuage these fears by claiming that he can tame the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is a separatist movement in Turkey, but I don’t think he can really pull it off. I think it could go either way, but it won’t be any time soon despite all the press reports about Kurdish independence coming any day now. Without the pipeline Kurdistan remains dependent upon Baghdad, which provides 90% of the region’s budget.
ThemePark: Let’s turn to something else. When American forces took Baghdad in 2003, we were given to think (certainly as evidenced in the rapturous scenes on our TV screens) that they were welcomed as liberators. Within months they were living behind barbed wire. What went wrong?
Wing: There were definitely some Iraqis who were glad to see the Americans come. The problem was that the U.S. had no plans for what to do the day after the invasion. That led to a long period of chaos and anarchy with the looting, revenge killings, etc. that swept many of the major cities.
Even then, there was a chance for the U.S. to empower Iraqis in their own country after years of dictatorship. The problem was the arrival of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which was intent upon transforming Iraq. It disbanded the military and instituted deBaathification, which created a large number of out of work and very mad Iraqis. Not only that, but the CPA wanted to run everything, and gave no real place for the Iraqis in its plans.
Things were up in the air all the way to 2004, and could have gone any number of ways. By 2004 however, those opposed to the American presence had pretty much decided that the U.S. was not going to leave, and went the path of armed resistance.
ThemePark: Today, the governance of Iraq, the decisions made by key figures, the manner in which the reconstruction has taken place, has been and remains compromised by ethnic loyalties. Corruption, the slow pace of reform, a semi-functioning infrastructure and Iraq’s policy on Syria are, to some extent, the result of the government’s inability to settle ethnic differences. Is this a fair assessment? If so, is there anyone, any charismatic figure, you think capable of healing wounds and formulating and following through with a political agenda that deals with it?
Wing: There are definitely ethno-sectarian divisions in Iraq, but I think that often obscures the strong political divisions that exist as well. For instance, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq Hashemi was widely reported as a Shiite attack upon a Sunni politician. However Maliki was perfectly willing to work with other members of Hashemi’s Iraqiya party.
The problems with Iraqi politics are many. First, everyone thinks that they are victims, the Shiites and Kurds, because of Saddam, and the Sunnis because of their disenfranchisement by the Americans after the invasion. Second, many of the leading personalities have deep rivalries dating back decades, and are not willing to move past them. At the same time, all of the ruling parties have an understanding that once they get into power they will all divide the spoils by giving their followers positions in the government through patronage networks, as well as pocket as much money as they can get. All together that makes a pretty dysfunctional government.
Unfortunately, I think it will take a generation for Iraq to really change after this era of leaders pass. The problem then will be if the newer politicians will be able to change the system that they’re left with.
ThemePark: Iraq remains a focus of world interest – especially Asia. What do you think / hope will happen to Iraq in the next decade?
Wing: Iraq is going through a very difficult transition after years of dictatorship, sanctions, an invasion, and civil war. On the negative side, there will be continued government deadlock. On the positive side, there should be large economic growth, because the country is relatively poor, but now has a ton of oil money on its hands to spend. There is a lot of pent up demand amongst the public for all kinds of goods and services. Even that has a drawback however, because Iraq still has a state-run, command economy that is completely dependent upon petroleum. I’m not sure whether Iraq can escape the oil curse, and be able to diversify its economy, but there will definitely be a lot of spending in the next couple years.
ThemePark: Finally, the arts and sciences. I’m not sure whether this is your area, but is there any opportunity, given structural and funding difficulties, to make art, for design and research projects, for cultural, scientific and aesthetic interests beyond the economics of day-to-day living?
Wing: Yes, what the press fails to capture these days is that most Iraqis are going back to their normal lives. Violence is very limited, and doesn’t affect that many people anymore. That means people can go to school, work, as well as concentrate upon artistic endeavours. There have been book and art fairs for example in many Iraqi cities throughout this year. Because there are hardly any Western reporters in Iraq anymore, all that tends to be reported on is the latest bombing or oil contract that’s signed. Everything else gets left by the wayside unless you check Iraqi sources.