Cons of Going to War against Iraq (Cole, Jan. 2003)

By Juan Cole

From a talk I gave at the University of Michigan in late 2002, publised at the beginning of 2003. It is often alleged by hawks that no one saw these things coming. Some of us did.

Costs of War

The regional costs of a US war on Iraq are potentially great: The war will inevitably be seen in the Arab world as a neo-colonial war. It will be depicted as a repeat of the French occupation of Algeria or the British in Egypt-or indeed, the British in Iraq. These were highly unpopular and humiliating episodes. The US, even if it has a quick military victory, is unlikely to win the war diplomatically in the Arab world. Pan-Arabism has been more aspiration than reality in the past century, but this US war against Iraq might well promote the formation of a stronger regional political bloc.

As a result of resentment against this neocolonialism, the likelihood is that al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations will find it easier to recruit angry young men in the region and in Europe for terrorist operations against the US and its interests. The final defeat of the Baath Party will be seen as a defeat of its ideals, which include secularism, improved rights for women and high modernism. Arabs in despair of these projects are likely to turn to radical Islam as an alternative outlet for their frustrations. The Sunnis of Iraq could well turn to groups like al-Qaida, having lost the ideals of the Baath. Iraqi Shi’ites might become easier to recruit into Khomeinism of the Iranian sort, and become a bulwark for the shaky regime in Shi’ite Iran.

A post-war Iraq may well be riven with factionalism that impedes the development of a well-ensconced new government. We have seen this sort of outcome in Afghanistan. Commentators often note the possibility for Sunni-Shi’ite divisions or Arab Kurdish ones. These are very real. If Islamic law is the basis of the new state, that begs the question of whether its Sunni or Shi’ite version will be implemented. It is seldom realized that the Kurds themselves fought a mini-civil war in 1994-1997 between two major political and tribal factions. Likewise the Shi’ites are deeply divided, by tribe, region and political ideology. Many lower-level Baath Party members are Shi’ite, but tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ites are in exile in Iran and want to come back under the banner of ayatollahs.

Internal factionalism is unlikely to reach the level of Yugoslavia after the fall of the communists, since US air power can be invoked to stop mass slaughter. But there could be a good deal of trouble in the country, and as the case of Afghanistan shows, the US cannot always stop faction fighting.

A new government in Iraq raises questions about its relationship to its neighbors. Turkey is strongly opposed to Iraqi Kurdish control of the oil fields of Kirkuk. The Kurds have all but announced that they will try to grab them when fighting breaks out. The Turks have said that in case this happens, Turkey may well invade Iraq to stop it. It is unacceptable to the Turkish government to have well-funded autonomous Kurds on their borders. They fear Kurdish nationalism, which might well tear eastern Turkey away from Ankara. Shi’ite Iran will certainly attempt to increase its influence among Iraqi Shi’ites once the Baath is defeated.

Shi’ite political parties may well turn to Tehran for funding. A US-occupied country where the Iranian ayatollahs have substantial influence is a disaster waiting to happen. An Iraq war may have a negative impact on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. A democratic Iraq, if any such thing emerges from an American occupation, will not necessarily be less opposed to Israeli policies toward Palestinians and the creeping annexation of the West Bank. Iraqi individuals and political organizations, freed from Baath monopoly, might well support the Palestinians, including Palestinian guerrillas, at a higher level than does Saddam.

The chaos of war could allow for an outbreak of major violence between Palestinians and Israelis. The Baath may target Israel with scuds tipped with poison gas, e.g. Israeli retaliation will make the war look even more like a joint colonialist and Zionist effort among Arabs, and further inflame passions against the US in the region.

Those who support an Iraq war argue that the potential negative fall-out consists of improbable scenarios that are no more likely to come to fruition than did the dire forecasts about overthrown Arab regimes in 1990. They argue that if we can get a genuinely democratic, modern Iraq out of the war, its beneficial effects will radiate throughout the region. They may be right. But it is worth remembering that we were promised a democratic Kuwait in 1991 and a democratic, stable Afghanistan in 2002, and have yet to see either.


Related video:

CNN: “Study: 935 False Statements Leading up to the War with Iraq”

12 Responses

  1. Although many people had warned against a war in Iraq and many experts had argued that the claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda were fabrications, and the term “the dodgy dossier” had been already coined for Tony Blair’s shameful file about the Iraqi WMD, yet your article above is a remarkable and extremely perceptive and detailed account of what followed. What has happened in Iraq since the illegal invasion has followed almost word-for-word everything that you had predicted in your lecture and note. These very useful and well-informed comments still continue, and we are very lucky to have access to such detailed and intelligent account of what is really going on in the Middle East. Many thanks for this, and please keep it up.

  2. Brings back memories of when I first discovered you Professor Cole. I seem to recall seeing you on C-Span among other networks back then.

    If you hold Bush’s Iraq mirror to mirror against Obama’s Benghazi the partisan politics could not be clearer. Accountability is certainly missing in American government.

  3. There was a great deal of controversy and opposition, so those who were pro-war are clearly being dishonest about ‘no one could have known’, which is the least of it considering the deliberate fabrications to make the case. However, while a lot of folks called it, just not incredibly as well predicted and detailed as above.

    The Iraq invasion effect on Israel/Palestine unfolded slightly differently, but there certainly was an emboldening effect like the Israel attacks on South Lebanon and Gaza. The promotion of democratic elections being held in Palestinian areas, but hypocritically rejected by the international community with punitive action from Israel leading to a Palestine civil war. And the Iraqi govt, under the US, were somewhat surprisingly open to Israel relations.

    Despite the funding for extremist militants, is Kuwait still not relatively better than most states, government wise?

  4. Spot on, Juan. Notice those that were wrong are the ones being invited to comment now. Even Wolfowitz! We must despair.

  5. I remember this all to well, most unsettling to see the politicians have no recollection, just shrub and Cheney had done, they continue to believe their own lie,,,so much for American exceptional ism , you can’t make a sows ear a silk purse

  6. The shallowness of our discourse is making me nervous. The troubling lack understanding on such issues as the long-standing friction between a nascent Kurdistan and NATO ally Turkey is over our media horizon.

  7. Bert Schlauch

    Historians and political scientists don’t have a media microphone in 21st century USA. They gave the microphone to generals and corporate shrills

  8. A great power decides to overthrow the government of Quebec in 2014 because it has a brutal dictator and WMD and supports the world’s most famous terrorist group – even though the great power formerly supported the brutal dictator and the province does not have WMD and does not support the world’s most famous terrorist group. Experts on the region – those with tenure and those on the tenure track are not consulted. The province is defined along sectarian lines – Francophone, Anglophone and First Nations. Francophones are given power. First Nations get autonomy. Anglophones are excluded. Montreal and Quebec City are razed to the ground. The entire infrastructure of the country is destroyed. There is no planning – the occupying force is breathtakingly incompetent. There is no water or power or health care or security. Law enforcement and Canadian forces are disbanded. Members of the Federalist parties are told they have no place in society, as are public sector workers. Criminal organizations – the various ethnic mafias and Hell’s Angels – take over neighborhoods. Foreign states support militias. Psychotic Anglophones from across Canada flood the province to defend their brethren. Local militias take on the occupying force. The leader of the occupying force declares victory. Prisoners are tortured and abused. Soldiers raid homes. Civil disobedience is met with force. Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec is attacked. A civil war breaks out. The civil war is ending; the Anglophones accept defeat. The leader of the largest militia declares a cease fire. The leader of the occupying force decides that the civil war, which is ending mind you, cannot continue and tasks the Chosen One with resolving the situation. A surge is ordered; troops are increased. The occupying force buys off some militias and hires others to form assassination squads. The Chosen One is declared a genius for ending the civil war. No reconciliation has occurred; Quebec is bitterly divided. 250 000 people have been killed. Anglophones have been ethnically cleansed. The media focuses on the loss of prestige and blood and treasure and blames Quebecers. After 8-years the occupying force leaves.

    Does anyone believe that by the mid-2020s Quebec would be a functioning democracy?

  9. I would hope that the notion that “US airpower can be invoked to stop mass slaughter” has been thoroughly debunked by now. Probably not, for the usual True Believer reasons, forget about what experience has actually shown.

  10. Thank you for posting this (and a HUGE thank you for all of your public work in the last decade plus!).

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