The New York Times op-ed author has hitched a ride on the well-worn narrative that ascribes every failure in the Arab world to someone else, that is, someone other than Arabs.
“Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed My Country.”
When I spied this op-ed in the New York Times, I couldn’t resist reading it.1 Whose country had we destroyed? And why?
The op-ed, by Iraqi expatriate Sinan Antoon, is a screed against the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Shortly prior to the invasion, Anton, now a US resident, had joined a small group of other Iraqi expatriates in arguing against the proposed invasion of Iraq. They “were against a ‘war that would cause more death and suffering’ for innocent Iraqis and one that threatened to push the entire region into violent chaos.”
Not content to blame the US merely for the chaos and violence in his home country, Antoon faults the US for supporting dictators throughout the Arab world. According to Antoon, while the US disingenuously claimed to promote democracy in the Arab world, “the actual objectives of war were always camouflaged by well-designed lies that exploit collective fear and perpetuate national myths.”
The true purpose of the American invasion, Antoon continues, was to dismantle “the Iraqi state and its institutions.” In the end, the Iraqi state was replaced with “a dysfunctional and corrupt semi-state.” The US did this by creating a Governing Council of “unsavory characters” who would serve as US puppets. They succeeded in looting the country and transforming it into one of the most corrupt governments in the world. The end result, according to Antoon, was the worsening of existing ethnic and sectarian tensions that unleashed a horror of instability and violence.
Antoon never gets around to explaining why the US would want to do this.
The Blame Game
Antoon’s motives are all too clear. He has hitched a ride on the well-worn narrative that ascribes every failure in the Arab world to someone else, that is, someone other than Arabs.
When Iraq came under British rule after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, Iraqis blamed the British for problems that were endemic to authoritarian and clannish Iraqi society. After British rule, they blamed the Iraqi Jewish community for Iraq’s ills. This culminated in the massive 1941 anti-Jewish pogrom known as the Farhud. In 1949, with the humiliating defeat of Iraqi forces by the fledgling Israeli state, the ancient Jewish community of Iraq came under fire again. Jews were forced to pay Jew-only taxes; they were attacked and threatened; the state confiscated their property and revoked their citizenship. Virtually the entire Jewish community fled or was forced out.
In the same vein, Antoon has blamed the US for Iraqi failures.
Before and After the US Invasion
The US invasion of Iraq may have been a blunder. Saddam Hussein may or may not have had an active chemical weapons program. And there is no doubt that the Bush administration failed miserably in its goal of establishing a pro-US democracy in the country.
But Antoon’s screed is built on the lie that pre-invasion Iraq was a better place than its successor. Pre-invasion Iraq was no paradise.
Under harsh authoritarian rule, Saddam enabled a Sunni minority to suppress and exploit the majority Shiite population, depriving it of economic opportunities and a political voice. Dissent was brutally repressed, as illustrated by the foolish Iraqi who dared to criticize Saddam publicly. Saddam’s goons used a knife to relieve the fellow of his tongue.
Antoon would have us believe that the Americans created Iraqi corruption by installing unscrupulous leaders. In reality, Iraq and all Arab states are, and have always been, kleptocracies. Corruption is a fixed feature of Arab rule, reinforced and maintained by authoritarianism, absence of democratic institutions, clan and sectarian rivalries and nepotism.
Saddam oversaw a ghoulish death machine. Passenger buses ran regularly between Iraq’s cities and the countryside. The buses transported thousands of dissenters to country fields, where they were summarily shot and buried in mass graves. By the end of Saddam’s reign of terror, perhaps 300,000 Iraqis had lost their lives. After Saddam’s fall, searching the countryside for these mass graves became a national pastime. Grieving relatives often unearthed the bones of their loved ones. Many families will never find the remains of their disappeared loved ones, meaning they will never find peace.
In 1980, Saddam invaded Iran. The war ended eight years later in a draw. But in the process, one million people lost their lives. No gain. Just pain for the Iraqi and Iranian people.
The US-aided overthrow of Saddam Hussein unleashed ethnic and tribal violence that had been suppressed by Saddam’s police state. But it also stopped the endless killings of the Saddam regime. Antoon never acknowledges this.
Antoon also fails to acknowledge that the US withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011, although US troops were later sent to help the Iraqi government fight ISIS. Today a small force of about 9,000 US troops remains. Despite the minimal presence of US forces, Antoon does not hesitate to blame the Americans for Iraq’s continuing instability. The model for this blame game was set long ago by Arab and African dictators, who, decades after the end of European colonialism, found it convenient to blame the erstwhile occupiers for their own failed states, their corruption, suppression of freedoms, and failed policies.
Antoon also fails to identify one of the most important sources of ethnic violence in Iraq today: the failure of Iraq’s newly empowered Shiite political class to share power and resources with the former Sunni establishment. That is not something the US did to Iraq. Iraq did that to itself.
Indeed, much that is wrong with Iraq today is the same as what is wrong with most of the Arab world. These failures of Arab governance have been outlined in a series of United Nations Arab Human Development Reports. For example, the 2016 Report cites the following factors impeding development in Arab countries: scant suitable work opportunities; weak political participation; poor quality public services in health and education; mismanagement of social diversity; prevalence of concepts and practices that hinder gender equality; prolonged conflicts that undermine the gains of development; religion, identity and violent extremism.
None of these factors can be pinned on the US invasion of Iraq.
The US as Safe Haven
In his screed, Antoon tells us that he left Iraq in 1991 shortly after the First Gulf War. He attended graduate school in the US and has remained a US resident since then, returning to Iraq only for brief stints. After his US schooling, he became a documentary filmmaker.
I don’t blame Antoon for becoming a permanent US resident. In the US he has gotten a top-notch education and he has been able to work freely as a journalist, something he could not do in Iraq or any Arab country today. He lives in freedom and security.
But he never shows a hint of appreciation for the gifts he has acquired from the Americans.
I guess it is easier to blame the Americans for the ills he left behind in his home country.
The day after I wrote this post, an article appeared in the Atlantic that echoed some of the points I made here.2
According to the Atlantic’s Senior Editor, Krishnadev Calamur:
But 15 years later, Iraq has yet to fully rebuild after the American-led invasion, a civil war, and the ISIS takeover of large parts of the country, and has never been able to fund a substantial portion of the reconstruction itself……[Iraq’s oil industry] should be generating about $264 million in revenues for the country each day. If all of Iraq’s oil-export revenues were spent on reconstruction, the country could rebuild completely, even after all that, in a relatively short period. But things aren’t quite that simple.
For one, the UN estimates that 99 percent of Iraq’s revenue comes from oil. That essentially means that oil has to pay for everything from salaries for government workers to infrastructure projects and defense spending. And given the amount lost to corruption, there is little money left over [to] do anything else.
This is despite the fact that Iraq’s oil industry has been one of the relative success stories following the war….. But while there is much to be optimistic about in the country, Iraq remains riven by factionalism; its neighbors have an outsized influence in its domestic politics; and terrorist groups, though weakened, can still pull off attacks—even with the lingering presence of U.S. troops. All of these factors remain hurdles standing between Iraq, its oil-production targets, and its goal of becoming a stable country after years of war.
- Antoon, S. Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed my Country. New York Times, March 19, 2018. Retrieved March 19, 2018 from:
2. Calamur, K. Oil Was Supposed to Rebuild Iraq: Conflict and Politics Got in the Way. The Atlantic. March 19, 2018. Retrieved March 21, 2018 from: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/iraq-oil/555827/