Monday, March 15, 2004

Iraq: was it worth it?

It's been a year since the US invaded Iraq. In that year, the official justification for the war has changed almost daily, from WMD to "overthrowing a tyrant" to "building a democracy" to "fighting terrorism". None of those reasons has been convincing. Enthusiastic supporters of the US position have also sought to justify the war on utilitarian grounds, claiming that anything is better than Saddam or that Iraqis are better off without him. My answer has always been to ask "yeah, but is it five thousand dead civilians better?" After a year, and seeing that five grow to a ten, I think it's time to ask the question again. Can the advocates of the occupation seriously claim that the progress that has been made since the war justifies the human cost? I don't think so.

Sure, Saddam is gone, but the occupation has simply taken his place, moving into his palaces and his prisons. Iraqis can now run their own newspapers (and there has been an enormous explosion of them) - but are still forbidden to criticise the government. Those who disobey are no longer fed into plastic shredders - but are still taken in the middle of the night at gunpoint, beaten and tortured, or simply murdered by private death-squads. Organised state oppression has been replaced by occupier or private oppression. The new boss is looking much like the old boss.

Iraq now has an interim constitution, but the chances of its promises of freedom and human rights actually being implemented are looking remote. Neither the IGC or the CPA actually want elections - too much danger of the people making the "wrong" decision - and so they have colluded to prevent them. So when "sovereignty" (of the sort where the occupier still calls all the shots) is transferred on June 30th, it will be to an unelected council, rather than to a democratically elected body. Is this really what people meant when they said that we would bring democracy to Iraq?

Iraqis' standard of living has plummeted since the war. Little has been done to restore basic services such as electricity and water. Lawlessness is rampant. 70% of the population are still unemployed, and the dismantling of the distribution system established under the oil-for-food program threatens them with starvation. Women's rights - which were guaranteed by the secular former regime - are being undermined by the IGC, and in any case legal rights mean nothing when you cannot leave the house without an armed escort.

Looking back, the Iraq war has not lived up to any of its promises. It has not removed tyranny, only replaced it with a new face. It has failed to bring democracy or a better life to Iraqis. All it has done is replace one despotic tyrannical regime with another that is mildly better in some ways, and much worse in others. Overall, I do think Iraqis are better off, in that now they have a chance to build something better - but it's hardly an inspiring achievement or enormous qualitative change. If we buy into the utilitarian thinking (and I don't), then I don't see anything here to get excited about. It wasn't worth it. The answer to the question "is this ten thousand dead civilians better" has to be a resounding "no".