In a column for the Beirut Daily Star, “Iraq Reminds Us Why Accountability Matters,” the Palestinian-Jordanian-American journalist Rami Khouri correctly insists that nations, governments, and individuals should be held accountable for the results of their actions and should feel a sense of responsibility for them. He is also correct to say that doing this honestly and seriously requires putting such matters in historical perspective.
Rami Khouri is a generally thoughtful, intelligent, and humane writer. I agree with him that we need to keep things in historical perspective and avoid the temptations for moral and historical amnesia.
So what history does Khouri think we need to remember about Iraq? He was disturbed to read
a New York Times report from Baghdad quoting senior U.S. and Iraqi officials who expressed, “growing concern that Al-Qaeda’s offshoot here, which just a few years ago waged a debilitating insurgency that plunged the country into a civil war, is poised for a deadly resurgence….U.S. and Iraqi analysts said Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia was shifting its tactics and strategies—like attacking Iraqi security forces in small squads—to exploit gaps left by the departing U.S. troops and to try to reignite sectarian violence.”
What makes this so noteworthy is what was left unwritten in the news story, and is equally ignored in the mainstream of public discussion in the U.S. these days: Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia only came into its own and carried out its deadly attacks and its sectarian terrorism because the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 made it possible for it to do so.
There was no significant Al-Qaeda-style presence in Iraq before 2003.
That last point is quite true, of course.
Before 2003, Iraq was merely under the control of a genocidal fascist regime with a decades-long record of terrifying and sadistic repression, large-scale mass murder and ethnic cleansing, and repeated bouts of catastrophic military adventurism—a regime that, directly or indirectly, caused the deaths of far more Iraqis (not to mention Iranians and Kuwaitis) than the horrifying numbers who have died since 2003, and that almost certainly would have embarked on another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan, just for starters, once the rapidly unraveling sanctions-and-containment system had collapsed. A number of governments in the region and elsewhere, along with substantial portions of Arab and international public opinion, were helping Saddam Hussein and his regime undermine the sanctions-and-containment system and, when push came to shove, supported the option of leaving Iraqis under the control of this regime.
Curiously enough, Khouri’s piece mentions none of these things. But they strike me as adding up to an important part of the actual historical context, and the real dilemmas posed by that context, in the period leading up to the 2003 Iraq war. (One might even say these things were “left unwritten” and “ignored” in Khouri’s piece.)
Of course, none of that wipes away or excuses the spectacular incompetence and almost criminal irresponsibility with which the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gang carried out the post-Saddam occupation and (alleged) reconstruction of Iraq, with consequences that helped produce great and continuing suffering. Responsibility and accountability for those need to be faced up to. But since Khouri is right to emphasize the dangers of a moral and historical perspective that is misleadingly selective and incomplete, I thought it couldn’t hurt to round out the picture a bit. History, morality, and politics are all complicated and often tragic.