The first Westerner to invade and occupy Iraq has been respected and admired by its people ever since. I refer, of course, to Alexander the Great, known in Arabic as Dhu Al–Qurnain.
Even the British, when they took over the administration of the country a hundred years ago, won the respect of some of its people. During my time in Iraq in 2005 to 2006, I met a sheikh called “Al-Aruns,” after Lawrence of Arabia.
I do not think that future generations of Iraqis will name their children after Tony Blair or George Bush. Why was the West’s intervention in Iraq in 2003 so much less successful than those earlier interventions?
There are several reasons, but one stands out. It is a presumptuous thing to suppose that one can rule a country that is not one’s own. It is still more presumptuous to think that one can do it without properly understanding that country or learning its language and customs. It seems that the West thought that running Arab countries effectively is an easy thing to do. I hope we have learned otherwise.
I regard the 2003 invasion as an unjust war because it was not conducted in self–defense, but even unjust wars can have good consequences. There was probably a path that the United States and its allies could have followed after invading Iraq that would have led to a better result for its people.
To find that path, we would need to have asked the advice of the Iraqis themselves—a great number of them, rather than just one or two individuals who were embedded within the Washington elite. This was not done. In our subsequent decisions, we all too often acted in order to impress domestic opinion in America, Britain and the rest of Europe, and not with a view to having the right effect within Iraq itself.
Most obviously, we should have been worrying at an early stage about how to maintain security and provide justice—the two basic functions of government, which were missing in the aftermath of the war. The atmosphere of anarchy that followed set the scene for sectarian divisions, which continue to plague Iraq.
Instead, the American-led coalition made the cardinal error of imposing Westerners as rulers of Iraq—something that even famous British Consul-General Lord Cromer did not attempt in Egypt, preferring instead to operate behind the scenes. This misguided approach continued to some extent even after the departure of Paul Bremer and the election of an Iraqi government. When the Iraqi Constitution was being drafted, all too often the person who appeared in front of the cameras to discuss the process was the American ambassador.
Disbanding the Iraqi military was another serious error. I believe that without Saddam in charge, the military—and even many senior Ba’ath members—could have been won over to a peaceful post-war settlement. This was not seriously attempted.
Reforming the military should have gone hand in hand with a dialogue with the topmost religious authorities in Iraq. Some clergy were more responsible and less sectarian than the politicians, but not enough was done to engage them. Few Western diplomats understood the role of religion in Iraq.
This is not surprising, because few of us knew how to talk to Iraqis. In 2003, I attended a meeting of the Basra provincial council and was struck by the misunderstandings that I was hearing thanks to bad interpretation. When the British brigadier said that he had come “in good faith,” it was translated for the councilors as “I have brought you a good religion.” How many such misunderstandings were there, both linguistic and cultural? The decision to invade Iraq was wrong, but more shocking is the lack of effort put into understanding the Iraqis both before and after the war. Dhu Al–Qurnain would not have made that mistake.