‘His decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president’.
Professor Jean Edward Smith, eminent US presidential biographer, on George W. Bush.
The other day the Sydney Morning Herald had a cartoon showing John Howard in a military uniform and holding a pop gun. Behind him were the symbolic tombstones of the tens of thousands of Iraqis, mainly ‘innocents’, who’ve died since the 2003 invasion. Howard is depicted a shrugging and saying ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time…’ That, crudely, summed up the rationale for the invasion.
Since then, there has been endless debate of why Bush, Tony Blair and Howard went to war and their justification for it. The main conclusion was flawed intelligence. But there has been little discussion about whether any thought had been given to the likely consequences of such an action and, if not, why not. After all, the greatest catastrophe was not the immediate casualties of the invasion, as bad as they were, but what has happened after Bush proudly proclaimed ‘Mission Accomplished’ six weeks later.
Just for starters, it apparently never occurred to the Christian trio that Iraq’s large Christian population might not to be too pleased at such an intervention. For they had Saddam Hussein, as tyrannical as he was, to thank for protecting them as he did. As soon as he was toppled, they knew what the intelligence agencies had failed to recognise: their days in Iraq were numbered because Islamic sectarianism would rush in to fight for the spoils in the power vacuum. The fate of the Christian minority would be an irrelevance.
One thousand years on, the brutality of the Christian Crusades as the word of the prophet Muhammad was spreading still festers in the Arab world. If asked, most scholars of the Arab world would have warned Bush, Blair and Howard that they were asking for unimaginable trouble. The casualties since the invasion run into tens of thousands of dead, just as many injured, hundreds of thousands displaced and goodness knows how many traumatised or seething with thirst for vengeance.
The 2004 report by former diplomat Philip Flood into Australia’s role said Australia’s intelligence agencies devoted little attention to the strategic costs of going to war, the issues involved afterwards or the ‘impact of military action on the safety of Australia and Australians’. In an editorial headlined ‘The Shame of Iraq’, the Spectator says ‘What we didn’t know then was the calamitous lack of a plan for what would follow. These were difficulties that, as the (recent) Chilcot report says, could have been foreseen’. But no one has been held to account. Canberra’s Office of National Assessments, which was found wanting in its advice, was actually rewarded with a near doubling of its budget and staff numbers.
Figures vary about the number of Christians who fled Iraq itself or were displaced. It may well be as high as one million or two thirds of the country’s Christian population. Some went into foreign exile, many sought refuge in the north of Iraq only to be chased out or brutally subjugated by the Daesh forces and others are now refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey with little likelihood of returning as the Islamic presence asserts itself.
The former British MP, David Alton, has a long interest in anti-Christian persecution. He described what happened in Iraq – as well as subsequently in Syria – as ‘a genocide that dares not speak its name’. He blamed it on ‘deep-rooted religious hatred, a hatred of difference’ and a desire to ‘systematically destroy all history and culture that is not their own’. In a recent ABC interview about pre-invasion discussions, John Howard said: ‘To say that absolutely nobody at any stage said that there might be some chaos afterwards, I can’t say that. Of course, there would have been some people who would have argued that. But the burden of the advice we received was not to that effect’. Tony Blair in May admitted that he ‘underestimated profoundly’ the subsequent destabilisation. The British ambassador to Iraq at the time concluded that that preparations ‘were abject: wrong analysis, wrong people’.
One would have thought the recent Balkans example might have served as a reminder to Bush & Co. When President Tito died in 1980, the Yugoslav states he had kept firmly in line – just as Saddam Hussein had with the different Iraqi interest groups – wasted no time in reviving their single-minded interests and old feuds. This eventually led to fighting, bloodshed, upheaval, atrocities, NATO bombing and deployment of troops and the total disintegration of Yugoslavia. A prominent participant was none other than the new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
In short, the invaders got their man, but in the process created a catastrophe affecting millions of others. Daesh emerged from the smoke and rubble to stalk the North Iraqi landscape and create a reign of terror aimed mainly at Christian infidels and the West.
So was the invasion worth it in retrospect? The three interlopers prefer to reiterate that, if based on the same information they had at the time, they would do it all over again. Somehow the ongoing consequences do not seem to register despite the ghastly statistics or even the fact their forces are still involved with Iraq 13 years later. Perhaps the cartoon did have a point. Just shrug it off.
FOOTNOTE. Most of the Iraqi Christians are known as Assyrians. They were the first non-Jewish tribe to adopt Christianity and can trace their history back to the time of Jesus. Saddam Hussein’s long-time foreign minister, the late Tariq Aziz, was a Christian, who could sing Onward Christian Soldiers in ancient Aramaic. Christians have been an important part of the social fabric of the Arab world, particularly in the fields of education, medicine, science and engineering. Alas, no longer and possibly never again.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.