Neither America Nor The Muslim World Have Learned Lessons From The Iraq War

Neither America Nor The Muslim World Have Learned Lessons From The Iraq War
The twentieth anniversary of America’s invasion of Iraq led to many pieces discussing the legacy of the war and the lessons it offers. Writing for The Intercept, Peter Maass was one of the few commentators to discuss the horrendous cost to Iraq’s people and the indifference of most Americans to the suffering inflicted by their military as he noted how so few of these commentaries even bothered to mention the death toll from the war. The Los Angeles TimesNew York Times, and Washington Post all ran human interest pieces that focused on the devastation unleashed against Iraq’s people.

But most chose to ignore this aspect of the war. Though they readily admitted it was “disastrous” or a “tragedy,” they seemed to view it as such primarily because of the negative impact on America. Writing for Foreign Affairs Magazine, Hal Brands described the war as an “American tragedy” that was “born of honorable motives and genuine concerns,” while he lamented that “critiques of the war have become so hyperbolic that it can be difficult to keep the damage in perspective.” The President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, echoed these sentiments as he spent most of his time rationalizing America’s decision to launch what he euphemistically refers to as a “war of choice.”

Let’s get one thing straight about this war. There was no legitimate reason to invade Iraq. War is only ever justified as a means of self-defense or coming to the defense of innocents in extreme situations. Despite having plenty of justification, Iraq never attacked America and it had nothing to do with 9/11. As Mr. Haas so helpfully points out, Ukraine’s war against Russia is a war of necessity born of the need to protect itself from a violent invader. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is another “war of choice.” Despite his attempts to deflect, Mr. Haas’s use of the same phrase to describe both wars is apt because both were illegal and unjust wars of aggression.

As Mr. Brands points out, “no one knows for sure” how many Iraqis were killed as a result of America’s choices, though he estimates between “100,000 and 400,000” died. Mr. Maass, adds that, “millions” were “injured, forced out of their homes, and traumatized for the rest of their lives.” Some estimates place the death toll as high as 2.4 million. Whatever the number, it is too high, and it is abhorrent that anyone would try to whitewash or rationalize the mass murder of anywhere from 100,000 – 2.4 million men, women, and children.

Even the argument that Iraq was believed to possess WMDs fails miserably. America has no right to attack a country for trying to develop the same exact weapons it possesses. Particularly when it is the biggest proliferator of weapons, both conventional and unconventional, in the world. America helped apartheid South Africa build nuclear weapons. It has turned a blind eye to apartheid Israel’s nuclear weapons and sells weapons to dictators all over the world. Arguing that Saddam Hussein’s brutality went beyond the pale, while ignoring Ariel Sharon’s war crimes, or helping Saudi Arabia commit its own in Yemen shows how hypocritical and nonsensical these arguments have always been. But discussing these obvious truths is a waste of time. As the pieces referenced above indicate, most American’s simply do not care about the double standards and hypocrisy of their actions.

Mr. Haas even tried to exonerate those responsible for unleashing this mayhem by arguing they had no ill intent. Another weak argument that ignores the fact that there are some instances where intent is irrelevant. Culpability must sometimes be based purely on the consequences of one’s actions. Most would probably agree that mass murder falls into this category. Whether George Bush and his cohorts intended to deceive is of no consequence. What does matter is that their decisions led to the murder of a lot of innocent civilians. By any sane legal standard, their actions were criminal, and they must all be held legally accountable. Aside from Mr. Maass, not one of the commentators reflecting on this war was willing to suggest as much. Which further proves that America learned absolutely nothing from this war. As Stephen Wertheim eloquently puts it, “the flawed logic that produced the war is alive and well.”

Since America failed to absorb the correct lessons, the victims of this war, and by extension, those who may find themselves in America’s crosshairs next must work that much harder to learn their own lessons.

Doing so requires examining more than just the war in Iraq, which is not the only part of the world that has been subject to such violence. In fact, the 55th anniversary of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam passed just three days before the anniversary that prompted this piece and the 56th anniversary of Israel’s conquest and continuing occupation of the West Bank is just around the corner.

In addition to contemplating the import of all these anniversaries as well as countless others that we simply do not have the space or time to reference, the victims of America’s various attempts to spread freedom and democracy must also weigh the ramifications of its contradictory actions in support of Ukraine and Israel. And they must do so while they consider the refusal of its leaders to spend less than $800 billion on its military or limit its arms shipments to violent regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc.

Thankfully, the lessons gleaned from the cumulative weight of these data points are relatively simple.  First, Iraq will not be the last unprovoked war America or one of its allies starts. That is because we do not live in a “rules based” international system. We live in a world where might equals right and powerful nations can commit mass murder with impunity, unless America decides they should be held accountable. Those nations that do not wish to suffer like Iraq (or Palestine, or Vietnam, etc.) must therefore give serious thought to creating the sort of political, social, and economic institutions that can lead to developing the industrial, technological, and military capabilities needed to protect themselves.

Both China and Japan learned these lessons after their violent interactions with the West. The Muslim world has struggled to do so. Just like America, it has refused to learn the correct lessons from Iraq or the countless other conquests and slaughters that have marred its history over the past several centuries. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper discussed the impact and aftermath of the war as did Al Jazeera. But neither thought to question the systemic issues that made Iraq, a microcosm of the Muslim world, so vulnerable to conquest or consider ways to prevent such violence from ever happening again.

Muslims refuse to admit that the violence perpetrated against them is a direct result of their own weakness. Societies are never conquered by outsiders until they are sufficiently rotten from within. The authoritarian political and social institutions that have strangled Muslim societies for centuries have stunted its technological and economic development, making it impossible to develop adequate military abilities. Until they wholeheartedly implement serious political, legal, educational, and economic reforms to free themselves from the shackles of dictatorship, Muslim nations will continue to suffer from the same pattern of conquest and violence.

Muslim states must also look to each other for their security needs since none of them can compete with the Great Powers on their own. The only way out of this morass is to embrace the type of unity and collective security architecture built by Europe in the aftermath of WW2. Europe’s unity is, in turn, laid upon a foundation of free trade, which means Muslims must begin the process of learning to work together by linking themselves through trade and infrastructure. These ideas may sound outlandish. Some have even compared them to the quest for nuclear fusion. But the most fundamental lesson of the Iraq war is that without serious changes that address the roots of its weakness, the Muslim world will continue to suffer similar tragedies.

The author is an attorney and US Navy veteran who writes about ways to modernize the Muslim world on his blog,