Seven Myths About the Iraq War: How BBC Newsnight failed journalism on the 10 year anniversary of the invasion.
February 27th 2013
Author: Dr Nafeez Ahmed
An abridged version of this article appears at the HUFFINGTON POST
As a participant in BBC Newsnight special, “Iraq – 10 Years On”, I found myself feeling slightly miffed at the lack of real debate on the crucial issues.
On the one hand, Newsnight presented a number of narratives of the war and its aftermath as ‘fact’, which are deeply questionable. On the other, there were no serious, factually-grounded criticisms of the war, despite a diverse panel which included people who did not support it.
As author of a major book on the war and its historical context, Behind the War on Terror: Western Secret Strategy and the Struggle for Iraq, as well as co-author of a new report, Executive Decisions: How British Intelligence was Hijacked for the Iraq War, I consider myself to be reasonably informed. Yet BBC Newsnight failed almost entirely to bring any of these issues to light.
What follows is my Newsnight-inspired Iraq War Myth-Busting exercise, based on what was, and wasn’t, discussed on the show.
MYTH 1. Sectarian violence has increased in postwar Iraq because sectarianism has always existed in Iraq, and the removal of Saddam allowed it to erupt
One of the first Newsnight bloopers started with a short introductory clip from John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor. Amongst other things, Simpson talked about the rise of sectarian Sunni-Shi’a violence in postwar Iraq, and argued that while Saddam’s regime had clamped down on sectarian divisions, regime change effectively unleashed those previously suppressed divisions and allowed them to worsen.
This was the first of many oversimplifications about the escalation of sectarian violence in Iraq. The reality, as pointed out on the show by my colleague in the audience, anthropologist Professor Nadje al-Ali, is that prior to the war, generic sectarian antagonism was unheard of in Iraqi society. Although Saddam’s regime was unequivocally sectarian in its own violence against Shi’as and Kurds, as a mechanism of shoring up the Ba’athist regime, Iraqis did not largely identify in sectarian terms. As one Iraqi blogger living in Baghdad noted:
“I always hear the Iraqi pro-war crowd interviewed on television from foreign capitals (they can only appear on television from the safety of foreign capitals because I defy anyone to be publicly pro-war in Iraq)… They go on and on about Iraq’s history and how Sunnis and Shia were always in conflict and I hate that. I hate that a handful of expats who haven’t been to the country in decades pretend to know more about it than people actually living there. I remember Baghdad before the war- one could live anywhere. We didn’t know what our neighbors were- we didn’t care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with what was considered a trivial topic: are you Sunni or Shia? You only asked something like that if you were uncouth and backward. Our lives revolve around it now. Our existence depends on hiding it or highlighting it- depending on the group of masked men who stop you or raid your home in the middle of the night.”
Missing from the BBC Newsnight discussion was the fact that the Bush administration planned from the outset to dominate Iraq by pursuing the de facto ethnic partition of the country into three autonomous cantons. The private US intelligence firm, Stratfor, reported that the US was “working on a plan to merge Iraq and Jordan into a unitary kingdom to be ruled by the Hashemite dynasty headed by King Abdullah of Jordan.” The plan was “authored by US Vice President Dick Cheney” as well as “Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz”, and was first discussed at “an unusual meeting between Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan and pro-US Iraqi Sunni opposition members in London in July” 2002. Under this plan, the central and largest part of Iraq populated largely by Sunnis would be joined with Jordan, and would include Baghdad, which would no longer be the capital. The Kurdish region of northern and northwestern Iraq, including Mosul and the vast Kirkuk oilfields, would become its own autonomous state. The Shi’a region in southwestern Iraq, including Basra, would make up the third canton, or more likely it would be joined with Kuwait.
Ultimately, of course, the specific detail of this plan did not come to fruition – but the ‘divide-and-rule’ imperial thinking behind the plan was implemented. As one US Joint Special Operations University report documented, “US elite forces in Iraq turned to fostering infighting among their Iraqi adversaries on the tactical and operational level.” This included disseminating and propagating al-Qaeda jihadi activities by “US psychological warfare (PSYOP) specialists” to fuel “factional fighting” and “to set insurgents battling insurgents.”
Pakistani defence sources thus reported in early 2005 that the Pentagon had “resolved to arm small militias backed by US troops and entrenched in the population,” consisting of “former members of the Ba’ath Party” – linked up with al-Qaeda insurgents – to “head off” the threat of a “Shi’ite clergy-driven religious movement.” Almost simultaneously, the Pentagon began preparing its ‘Salvador option’ to sponsor Shi’ite death squads to “target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers” – a policy developed under the interim government of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Ironically, the same Allawi also made an appearance on Newsnight via Baghdad, rightly criticising the current government for failing to incorporate an inclusive, non-sectarian political process. But Newsnight didn’t bother to ask him about his role in engendering the very sectarian violence he now criticises by sponsoring death squads.
MYTH 2. We went to war in Iraq based on a legitimate parliamentary process, even if lots of people demonstrated against it – most Brits approved the war according to polls
When an audience member asked why the British government still went to war despite the millions of people who protested against it, Independent columnist John Rentoul argued that the war was in fact an example of proper democratic process – because ultimately the MPs voted for it. He pointed out that we don’t run democracies based on “mob rule” – i.e. just because people protesting in the street don’t want something – but on the basis of consensual parliamentary procedures. To this, host Kirsty Wark added that 54% supported the war according to opinion polls at the time.
In mid-March, before the war, “just 26% of the public was saying in mid-March that they approved of British involvement without a ‘smoking gun’ and a second UN vote, while 63% disapproved.” It was only once the bombs began to drop that public opinion drifted slightly in favour of the war. Where did Kirsty Wark’s 54% figure come from?
Disingenuously, it comes from an ICM poll which “found a persistent majority against the war, reaching a low point of 29% support (and 52% oppose) in February. Support then rose to 38% in the final pre-invasion poll (14-16 March, the same weekend as MORI’s) and jumped to 54% just a week later, with the war only a few days old.”
Kirsty’s 54% claim applies after the war – before the war, the majority of the British public was overwhelmingly opposed to the invasion, a fact which was not reflected in the parliamentary process.
And of course, since then, opposition to the war continued to grow dramatically.
MYTH 3: The Iraq War was, at worst, a colossal cock-up, simply because we didn’t have good intel on the ground about WMDs etc. So we didn’t really go to war on the basis of a lie, we went to war because our intel was wrong.
As I tried to point out in my brief intervention on the show, this whole debate about whether the public approved the war or not to some extent misses the point – which is that the Iraq War was ignited on the basis of false claims about Saddam’s WMD. Those false claims were promulgated by senior American and British officials precisely to manipulate public opinion, and pressurise the political system into a pre-made decision to go to war, irrespective of the UN, irrespective of international law, and irrespective of whether WMD really existed.
It’s this fact which ultimately brings to light the extent to which our political system, certainly when it comes to foreign policy decisions, is broken, and has yet to be repaired. The historical record confirms that all the intelligence available to British and American security services, including information passed on through the UN weapons inspections process throughout the 1990s, confirmed unequivocally that Saddam had no functioning WMDs of any kind.
Amongst the intelligence available to the allies was the testimony of defector General Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s son-in-law and head of Iraq’s WMD programmes. He provided crates of documents to UN weapons inspectors, as well as authoritative testimony on the precise nature of the WMD programmes that Saddam had embarked on in preceding years. He was even cited by senior officials as the key witness on the threat posed by Saddam’s WMD’s. What these same officials conveniently omitted to mention is that Gen. Kamel had also confirmed to UN inspectors in 1995 that Iraq had destroyed its entire stockpile of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and banned missiles, in 1991, shortly before the Gulf War – exactly as Saddam had claimed. Yet such intelligence was ignored and suppressed.
MYTH 4: The decision to go to war was based on a legitimate parliamentary process, legal advice from the Attorney General, as well as consultations with the UN.
In reality, the decision to go to war was made jointly by senior American and British officials prior to any democratic process, behind closed doors, and irrespective of evidence or international law. This is confirmed by a range of declassified official documents.
A leaked policy options paper drafted by officials in the Cabinet Office’s Overseas and Defence Secretariat (8th March 2002), records that:
“The only certain means to remove Saddam is to invade and impose a new government… [No legal justification] currently exists. This makes moving quickly to invade legally very difficult. We should therefore consider a staged approach.”
Two “policy options” are considered in the paper: “a toughening of the existing containment policy, facilitated by 11 September” and “regime change by military means.” Under the heading, ”Toughening Containment’, a plan is set out to “put real pressure on Saddam…to lash out”, and “to make clear (without overtly exposing regime change) [the] view that Iraq would be better off without Saddam.” A strategy is described as follows:
“Our aim would be to tell Saddam to admit inspectors or face the risk of military action… If they found significant evidence of WMD, were expelled or, in face of an ultimatum, not re-admitted in the first place… this could provide legal justification for large scale military action.”
The document notes the imperative “to first consider what sort of Iraq we want” – namely “a pro-Western regime”. The paper then concludes that: “The use of overriding force in a ground campaign is the only option.” Iraq’s “refusal to admit UN weapons inspectors, or their submission and likely frustration” would provide the “justification for military action.”
The paper thus effectively outlines a ‘staged approach’ to achieving a pre-determined policy of regime change.
In this context, the focus is not on meaningful diplomacy to achieve a real peaceful resolution, but to manufacture a crisis by tripping up Saddam. In an email dated 18th March 2002, Christopher Meyer, British Ambassador to Washington, reassured the British Foreign Policy Adviser that when he’d met with US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, “I stuck closely to the script you used with Condi Rice last week…I went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and the UNSCR’s.”
Peter Ricketts, the Political Director of the Foreign Office wrote to Jack Straw on 22nd March:
“To get public and Parliamentary support for military operations, we have to be convincing… ‘regime change’, does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam. Much better, as you have suggested, to make the objective ending the threat to the international community from Iraqi WMD…This is at once easier to justify in terms of international law.”
The memorandum of a meeting on the 23rd July 2002 between key members of the Cabinet, the Prime Minister and the heads of MI6 and the JIC, amongst others – the notorious Downing Street memo – concludes by urging those present to “work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action.”
The “UN route” was, in other words, conceptualised as a public relations tool to drum up support for a war that had already been decided. But the decision to go to war had nothing to do with the evidence available. In leaked UK government memoranda between March and July 2002, references are repeatedly made to “poor” intelligence about WMD, and the “thin” case for war that it presented. Indeed, the head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, confirms that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of regime change, “justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.”
Senior intelligence officers in MI6 and the CIA also confirmed that intelligence was being deliberately politicised to support “the opposite conclusion from the one they have drawn.” One MI6 officer says: “You cannot just cherry-pick evidence that suits your case and ignore the rest. It is a cardinal rule of intelligence. Yet that is what the PM is doing.” A CIA official concurs: “We’ve gone from a zero position, where presidents refused to cite detailed intel as a source, to the point now where partisan material is being officially attributed to these agencies.”
It should not come as a surprise then, either, that the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith also came under immense political pressure to change his original legal advice that the Iraq War would be illegal without UN Security Council approval – while Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was simultaneously trying to ignore the advice of FCO lawyers to the same effect. The eventually successful pressure on Goldsmith to give “unequivocal” advice that would support the legality of the invasion was used to hammer out the chorus of legal opinion from Whitehall’s own lawyers that the war would be illegal – and to drum up parliamentary and public support.
MYTH 5: Even if the WMD issue was not really the issue, we went to war to get rid of a brutal dictator who had killed tens of thousands of people with chemical weapons.
During the show, Tony Blair talked about how, personally, he went to war in Iraq because he wanted to rid the world of a brutal dictator who was a threat to regional peace, stability, and democracy. He even cited the gassings of the Kurds, and the Iran-Iraq War in the 70s, as examples of his brutality. Great that he’s now being a little bit more honest about his motives for dragging the UK into this war – that WMD’s were never really the issue, but merely a way of manufacturing consent for a pre-made decision.
Disregarding this, though, Blair’s imperial hubris overlooked the fact that Saddam was installed and supported by the CIA and MI6; and his genocidal campaigns against the Kurds and Shi’as were pursued with the support of the British and Americans, who supplied hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons – including chemical and biological weapons – to the dictator. As one Reagan administration official put it, “Saddam Hussein is a bastard. But he’s our bastard.”
So why did we go to war in Iraq in 2003? According to the infamous Project for a New American Century document endorsed by senior Bush administration officials as far back as 1997, “While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification” for the US “to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security,” “the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”
So Saddam’s WMD was not really the issue – and neither was Saddam himself.
The real issue is candidly described in a 2001 report on “energy security” – commissioned by then US Vice-President Dick Cheney – published by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James Baker Institute for Public Policy. It warned of an impending global energy crisis that would increase “US and global vulnerability to disruption”, and leave the US facing “unprecedented energy price volatility.” The main source of disruption is “Middle East tension”, in particular, the threat posed by Iraq. In 2000, Iraq had “effectively become a swing producer, turning its taps on and off when it has felt such action was in its strategic interest to do so.” There is a “possibility that Saddam Hussein may remove Iraqi oil from the market for an extended period of time” in order to damage prices.
“Iraq remains a destabilising influence to… the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East. Saddam Hussein has also demonstrated a willingness to threaten to use the oil weapon and to use his own export programme to manipulate oil markets. This would display his personal power, enhance his image as a pan-Arab leader… and pressure others for a lifting of economic sanctions against his regime. The United States should conduct an immediate policy review toward Iraq including military, energy, economic and political/diplomatic assessments. The United States should then develop an integrated strategy with key allies in Europe and Asia, and with key countries in the Middle East, to restate goals with respect to Iraqi policy and to restore a cohesive coalition of key allies.”
The Iraq War was only partly, however, about big profits for Anglo-American oil conglomerates – that would be a bonus (one which in the end has largely failed to materialise – not for want of trying though). The real goal, as investigative journalist Greg Muttitt has documented citing declassified Foreign Office files from 2003 on wards, was stabilising global energy supplies as a whole by ensuring the free flow of Iraqi oil to world markets – benefits to US and UK companies were a secondary goal:
“The most important strategic interest lay in expanding global energy supplies, through foreign investment, in some of the world’s largest oil reserves – in particular Iraq. This meshed neatly with the secondary aim of securing contracts for their companies. Note that the strategy documents released here tend to refer to ‘British and global energy supplies.’ British energy security is to be obtained by there being ample global supplies – it is not about the specific flow.”
This primary goal – mobilising Iraqi oil production to sustain global oil flows and moderate global oil prices has, so far, been fairly successful according to the International Energy Agency – though obstacles remain (not least due to ongoing instability and internal terrorism).
MYTH 6: We didn’t plan for the aftermath of the Iraq War because of hubris, incompetence and general stupidity
Toward the end of the show, we heard from Colonel Tim Collins as well as various BBC personalities that the British and Americans did not plan for what would happen after the war -a grave and regrettable mistake that has cost Iraqi lives, but which was entirely unintended.
This is only partly true. The reality is that the British and American governments planned extensively for the aftermath of the war – it just so happens that those plans did not consider the humanitarian and societal connotations of the invasion to be of any significance. In fact, extensive and detailed plans were drawn-up for postwar reconstruction, all of which were focused overwhelmingly on maintaining the authoritarian structures of Saddam’s brutal regime after his removal, while upgrading Iraq’s oil infrastructure to benefit foreign investors.
“Outraged Iraqi exiles report that there won’t be any equivalent of postwar de-Nazification, in which accomplices of the defeated regime were purged from public life”, reported the New York Times. “Instead the Bush administration intends to preserve most of the current regime: Saddam Hussein and a few top officials will be replaced with Americans, but the rest will stay. You don’t have to be an Iraq expert to realize that many very nasty people will therefore remain in power.”
Furthermore, why didn’t Newsnight draw on the evidence of its own previous reporter, US investigative journalist Greg Palast? Palast obtained a February 2003 State Department document, “Moving the Iraqi Economy from Recovery to Growth,” which in 101-pages, detailed plans for a complete rewrite of Iraq’s “policies, laws and regulations”, based on low taxes on big business, and quick sales of Iraq’s banks and bridges, “all state enterprises” to foreign investors. The document also stipulated that Iraq would “privatize” its “oil and supporting industries”, and set out “a strict 360-day schedule for the free-market makeover of Iraq.”
In fact, a series of news reports confirmed how the State Department had set up 17 separate working groups to work out the post-war plan. “Britain and America have been working for months on detailed proposals on how to rebuild Iraq after President Saddam”, reported The Independent. “In the initial aftermath of any war, Iraq would be governed by a senior US military officer… with a civilian administrator”, which would “initially impose martial law,” while Iraqis would be relegated to the sidelines as “advisers” to the US administration. The Washington Post pointed to extensive “blueprints for Iraq’s future… outlin[ing] a broad and protracted American role in managing the reconstruction of the country”, particularly control of Iraq’s oil reserves. US officials said that foreign troops would “likely would remain at full strength in Iraq for months after a war ended, with a continued role for thousands of US troops there for years to come”, in “defence of the country’s oil fields.”
Myth 7: The number of people who died as a consequence of the war is disputed, and will always be disputed – could be anything from a hundred thousand to over half a million – but who knows?
Kirsty Wark characterised the number of Iraq War civilian casualties as an inherently “disputed” matter with no real resolution in sight. But this just isn’t true.
There are serious, scientific, peer-reviewed estimates of the death toll tending toward higher numbers- and then there are speculative estimates which are invariably lower – such as those produced by the Iraqi Ministry of Health, or even worse, the Iraq Body Count project, which are based on trying to cross-reference media reports alone.
The most rigorous epidemiological study of the Iraqi civilian death toll was published in the leading peer-reviewed British medical journal Lancet, and undertaken by John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. It estimated 655,000 excess Iraqi civilian deaths due to the war, employing standard statistical methods widely used in the scientific community.
According to the BBC itself, the Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific adviser described the survey’s methods as “close to best practice” and its results “robust”; and advised ministers henceforth not to criticise the study in public. So the MoD has privately endorsed the 655,000 figure – but BBC Newsnight wants to pretend the lower figures are still valid.
Indeed, Lancet’s figures have been empirically verified. The British polling agency, Opinion Business Research (ORB), which has tracked public opinion in Iraq since 2005, visited several locations in Iraq at random and discovered local reports of 4 to 5 times more deaths than those conventionally acknowledged . Working with an Iraqi fieldwork agency, ORB conducted face-to-face interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,720 adults aged 18 plus. Interviewees were asked how many members of their household had died as a result of the Iraq conflict since 2003. The ORB poll found that the Iraqi civilian death toll since the invasion was 1.2 million.
That figure, of course, wasn’t even mentioned on Newsnight as a possibility.
Throughout, Newsnight ignored the now well-documented fact that the war was conceived for a set of narrow strategic goals which did not genuinely have the interests of the Iraqi people at heart.
What we should have been discussing on Newsnight is the implications of having an intelligence system that was so easily politicised, such that fraudulent ‘intel’ was cherry-picked to justify an illegal war. Resultantly, Whitehall was co-opted and manipulated by a narrow political class for a pre-conceived military agenda.
Despite the facts being widely and easily available in the public record, Newsnight’s programme on the 10 year anniversary of the war obfuscated them to such an extent that the real, serious questions were largely overlooked.
Ten years on, we need to be thinking about how British democratic institutions were hijacked for a self-serving geopolitical strategy invented by a tiny group of American neoconservative politicians; and how, therefore, we might ensure that appropriate reforms of our political, parliamentary and intelligence processes can prevent such a situation from re-occurring.
Instead, Newsnight’s Iraq War special devolved into a banal non-debate, skirting around the real issues, and failing to even acknowledge the critical facts already brought to light by decent US and British journalism.
But then, given all the recent hullabaloo at the BBC, should we be surprised?