A flurry of diplomatic activity has overtaken the Senate debate on the use of force by the United States against Syria as punishment for/deterrence against the use of chemical weapons. The world awaits the next meeting, the next announcement, the next slip-of-the-tongue, or the first bomb.
The interregnum is a good time to note that the president has been blaming the Iraq war for American reticence on war in Syria. "I'm not sure that we're ever going to get a majority of the American people -- after over a decade of war, after what happened in Iraq," he told PBS. What, exactly does the president think, "happened in Iraq" and why does he think the war was only "a decade" long?
The Iraq War began in 1990 with the invasion of Kuwait and as a direct outgrowth of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, in which the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein. President George H.W. Bush said of the occupation of Kuwait, "This aggression will not stand," and indeed it did not. But when Kuwait was liberated, the U.S.-led coalition made a decision not to invade Iraq and not to depose Saddam, but according to Gen. Colin Powell's memoirs, "our practical intention to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to an Iran that remained bitterly hostile toward the United States." A ceasefire, then, and political accommodation with a properly chastened Saddam. UN Security Council Resolution 687 was duly approved on 3 April 1991, including the following clauses:
Political/military events then evolved along two related axes:
First, in April 1991, President Bush (41) encouraged the uprising of the Iraqi people against their government -- much the way Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did to the Syrian people in 2012. The Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south of Iraq responded, and the result was horrific slaughter; tens of thousands of people were massacred by Saddam's forces. To protect the civilians, a "no fly zone" was instituted in both parts of the country, managed under UN auspices by the U.S., Britain, and France. It was only supposed to operate until Saddam met the terms of the ceasefire, including those related to WMD, and the ceasefire became a permanent peace agreement.
Eleven years later, the U.S. and Britain were still flying over Iraq from Saudi territory (irritating a younger Osama Bin Laden) and the French had pulled out. In the meantime, the UN instituted the Oil for Food program to ensure that the most vulnerable of Iraq's citizens received food and medicine. The Economist rightly called the program, administered out of the UN Secretariat and administered by the Security Council, "Oil for Fraud." Senior UN officials as well as French and Russian politicians were feeding at the trough -- making it hard to get their honest attention in 2002. (Investigative journalist Claudia Rosett provides the details.)
At the same time -- or because he was paying off the right UN functionaries -- Saddam had changed the terms of reference on the weapons inspectors.The diplomatic dance continued because Saddam, far from declaring "the locations, amounts and types of all items specified in paragraph 8," had the UN inspectors "weapons hunting" in various parts of the country to try to find what he claimed was there but didn't hand over. In 1998, Saddam expelled the inspectors, beginning a drawn-out process of reinserting them and determining where they would/could go. "Diplomacy" was given wide preference over additional military action.
Much of this was ignored for a decade or so --President Obama might almost be forgiven for thinking there was no war until 2003. There was no draft in the U.S. to put pressure on the government over the deployment of U.S. troops, and oil flowed; the Kurds and the southern Shiites were reasonably (most of the time) protected, and oil flowed; the Saudis weren't complaining, and oil flowed; the American public didn't seem to notice, and oil flowed.
After September 11, 2001 however, the United States turned its attention to the region with a vengeance, so to speak. Being bogged down in Iraq was suddenly a problem in the larger scheme of things, but there were only two ways to get out from under the UN Security Council ceasefire resolution of 1991:
The UN debate was really about how to end the war that began in 1990.
So, as the Obama Administration tries to salvage a diplomatic deal, Iraq should indeed be uppermost in the president's mind --Â not as a metaphor for a failed attempt at "nation building," but as the driver of questions about the failures of inspections, sanctions, and international control regimes. And greed. Questions might include:
Only if and when the administration can answer those questions to the satisfaction of Congress and the American people will the diplomatic option have a chance for greater success than it had in Iraq.
Comment on this item