Iraq Stands As A Warning Against Foreign Intervention

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq and you’d think the only issue was whether John Howard “lied”.

Howard, you might recall, happened to be prime minister of Australia (in Canberra) when the president of the United States (in Washington DC) decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The idea that Howard had any control over George Bush’s decision is ludicrous – almost as ludicrous as the idea his government would decline to support Australia’s closest ally 18 months after September 11.

So this interminable debate – which intelligence officer said what to who about weapons of mass destruction – is an indulgent smokescreen. It’s being used to obscure the significance of the Iraq War.

Iraq was an intellectual crisis for both left and right. In 2002, the academic Samantha Power influentially described foreign genocide as a “problem from hell” – surely we are morally obliged to prevent it, but how? Her answer was liberal interventionism: a call from the left to use the US military to protect human rights around the globe.

This was not an obscure doctrine. Liberal interventionism was intellectually prominent when the Clinton administration was trying to deal with Kosovo and Rwanda. Power has become an adviser to Barack Obama and urged him to act on Libya.

Bush’s plans for Iraq were a dilemma for liberal interventionists. Power opposed the war, but reluctantly: in her view the ideas were sound, but the Bush administration had squandered too much international political capital to make it work. Others on the left were supportive – Tony Blair, for one. This interesting 2008 piece by Blair’s former chief of staff tries to keep the liberal interventionist case alive.

Neoconservatism was liberal interventionism’s right-wing relative. It was more messianic and more ambitious. Rather than merely stopping genocide as it occurred, neoconservatives thought America could prevent such crimes; the US could actively create liberty abroad. Think of Christopher Hitchens as a crossover between these two camps.

Both these philosophies of foreign policy rejected the amoral calculations of national interest that had led America to tolerate, even support, dictatorships.

There was even an open debate among libertarians at the time about the justness of military intervention to expand individual liberty and human rights. In retrospect that seems bizarre. Government small enough to drown in a bathtub but big enough to invade, liberate and rebuild faraway countries? For what it’s worth, I supported the war at the time. This was a mistake, but we’ve forgotten how live those debates were.

The claim that Bush – or Howard – went to war in Iraq simply because of weapons of mass destruction is complete historical revision. Rightly or wrongly, they saw it as a moral cause. Ba’athist Iraq was one of the worst tyrannies on the planet, and the Iraqi people some of the least free. In 2003, it seemed like something could be done about that.

The great cause collapsed for two reasons. The first was money. American house prices peaked two years after the invasion of Iraq. It was all downhill from there. The richest country in the world discovered that moral causes were out of its price range.

The second was more critical. The United States simply does not have the intellectual or administrative capacity to construct free and prosperous democracies out of ruins of tyranny and war. Nobody does.

“The curious task of economics,” said Friedrich Hayek, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Hayek was talking about how hard it is to regulate an economy. Rebuilding a free country from ruins is much, much harder again. There is no evidence to suggest that the Coalition of the Willing, or the Department of Defense, or the White House, had thought in any great detail about the institutions that make a free and stable country.

Confusion set in from the start. The Coalition Provisional Authority took over the government of Iraq one month after American tanks entered Baghdad. But what actually was the CPA? Who was it responsible to? It wasn’t a sovereign nation. Was it a federal agency of the United States? Or a body of the United Nations? Was the CPA part of the US military’s chain of command or a civilian agency reporting to the Department of Defence? This damning 2005paper by the Congressional Research Service could come up with no clear answer.

That confusion wasn’t academic. Administrative arrangements matter, even in a war-zone. The worst decision made in the wake of the invasion was the disbanding of the Iraqi army, which threw hundreds of thousands of frustrated armed men out of work. That decision was made unilaterally by CPA chief Paul Bremer. It was apparently contrary to the pre-war planning. Yet if there was an authority that could have overrode Bremer, nobody was clear who it was.

So blaming all problems after the invasion onto a failure to adequately plan for reconstruction doesn’t really capture the problem. Rehabilitating entire countries is not just a question of careful planning. There is no check-box list or OECD best-practice guidelines.

Supporters of the Iraq war said the successful reconstitution of Japan and Germany show this formidable task can be done. But Japan and Germany are just two data-points in a long history of failed and unfree states. Why the confidence those successes could be easily replicated?

It was easy for neoconservatives and liberal interventionists to imagine great moral causes for the American military power. To lots of people, government looks like a perfect tool for problem-solving.

But in 2013, Iraq has some of the most endemic corruption on the planet: the Corruption Perception Index ranks it 169 out of 174. It has one of the lowest levels of economic freedom; it is one of the least free Arab nations, which also makes it one of the least free in the world. It’s 150 out of 179 on Reporters without Borders’ index of Press Freedom.

And 50 Iraqis were killed overnight in dozens of bombings and attacks. Iraq goes to the polls on Saturday. Fourteen election candidates have already been murdered.

Freedom House’s omnibus Freedom in the World index categorises Iraq simply as Not Free.

Saddam Hussein is dead, and that’s great. But Iraqis were promised more.