London, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Iraq war was again subject of debate recently at the Royal Geographical Center in London, organized by the Intelligence Squared team and sponsored by British newspaper, The Times. Speakers included the prominent journalist, Simon Jenkins who writes for British newspaper, the Guardian and author, journalist and Asharq Al-Awsat columnist, Amir Taheri, the former debating for the motion that the time to quit Iraq is now, and the latter opposing this proposition. Also arguing in favor of the motion was Dr Rosemary Hollis, Research Director at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Alastair Crooke, founder of Conflicts Forum, a non-profit organization that engages with Islamist elements in order to rectify the general perception of such groups and individuals. Against the motion, Lieutenant Colonel Time Spicer, CEO of a British Private Security Company in Iraq featured alongside William Shawcroft, internationally renowned writer and broadcaster.
The discussion opened as each speaker presented their individual arguments for or against the motion that the time to quit Iraq is now. As highlighted by a number of guest speakers against the proposal however, the motion remained unclear as it represented an ambiguous ‘now’ leading Taheri to question, “Does now mean during the course of this debate, the following week, month, or year?” The answer remained unclear throughout the discussion; nevertheless, guest speakers tackled the main reasons for the exit of foreign forces in Iraq.
Dr Rosemary Hollis stated that there is no better opportunity for coalition forces to leave Iraq than now as she believes “the conflict is about to get dirtier,” and that “British forces should not be part of that.” Hollis claims that the military mission has been completed, thus “an orderly exit” for the end of the year should be prepared. However, who calls for such action, asks the opposition, claiming that this would only benefit “the insurgence, the Saddamites, Al-Qaeda etc,” and that there remains a moral responsibility upon coalition forces to the Iraqi people to ensure that democracy is entrenched firmly. As Taheri says, “The coalition came to Iraq not to impose democracy by force but rather to use force to remove impediments of democracy.” He further underlines that the composition of the coalition forces took three years to establish itself therefore, “winding down that presence may also take months.”
What would be the appropriate point in time for the exit of coalition forces? A conceptual, rather than a calendar-based timetable for withdrawal was the idea represented in a published document called the ‘Strategic Plan’ by the coalition for regional authority, Taheri argues, in which a democratic constitution, judiciary, new government and parliament would be created as well as a new army and police force to defend these institutions against both internal and external dangers. Moreover, as Shawcross highlights, there remains “25,000 NATO troops in Bosnia and Kosovo, ten and six years respectively after the end of the wars so why do we ask U.S and British troops to leave Iraq after only three short years?”
The proposed counter argument suggests that the longer foreign forces remain in Iraq, the worse the situation will become. This was put forward by both Dr Rosemary Hollis and Alastair Crooke, the latter of whom argues, “the more we stay to build security forces, the more we entrench the already flawed security structure based on sectarianism and are likely to make the conflict that pursues more prolonged and more intense.” In other words, an atmosphere of civil war in Iraq is largely created by the US and occupying forces. Simon Jenkins, also for the motion, however, disputed the likelihood of a civil war saying, “I do not think there will be a civil war as civil war is this kind of traditional imperialist thesis that whenever we leave the peasants to themselves, there will be civil war!”
The debate represented a small but varied range of opinions concerning the intricate political situation of Iraq. Jenkins and Hollis both alluded to the disproportionate level of finance that is spent predominantly defending the coalition forces in another country for an operation that Jenkins believes no longer holds “a realistic ambition” of providing “stability, democracy, security and a beacon of secular power in the region.” Moreover, as Hollis asserted, British efforts should be switched to helping the Iraqi civilian sector and specifically the education sector. Hollis states, “The urgent need for a long term approach in the education sector with Iraqis getting the training, the support, the supplies, the information, the documents, the libraries, and the inspiration that they need from others outside who want to see the education system revamped and put back into place to give young Iraqis a chance. Make that Britain’s legacy.” Thus, Britain should exit Iraq militarily.
On the other hand, nevertheless, a military exit from Iraq by foreign forces is what Shawcross described as both “frivolous and dangerous.” Those in opposition to the motion voiced their concerns regarding Iraq’s predatory neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Turkey, as Taheri reiterates, “Iraq cannot defend itself if left alone.” In addition, Taheri underlines the importance of what he calls the liberation of Iraq to the region. He argues that quitting Iraq now would, “discourage the democratic forces that are beginning to raise their heads in the Middle East which would allow the region to remain the only part of the world not affected by democratization that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Crooke, however, expressed his bewilderment at attempts of the west to manage different problems of the Middle East, yet “refuses to speak to Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood.” He further suggests, “If we are serious about trying to deal with these problems, we return to what Dean Acheson said in 1948 when he said that the United States was ready to go anywhere and talk to anyone in the interests of peace.”
With the departure of foreign forces from Iraq, so too will the stigma of the existence of a collaborationist government recede, argue the defendants of the motion. Jenkins, highlighting a somewhat popular argument, says, “The essence of this venture, if there was any essence to it at all, was to establish some sort of legitimate government and if that government once established is regarded as a puppet of the west, then it will not take root and will not be secure. The Iraqi army will never be able to operate alone and will certainly not be able to operate as long as the west is present.” Thus, there is the conviction that the sooner foreign forces leave Iraq, the less undermined the new Iraqi government will be and the more legitimacy it will acquire.
The Intelligence Squared debate, presenting the motion that the time to quit Iraq is now, represented various opinions concerning foreign presence in Iraq, not only between the conflicting teams, but also amongst each side. Embodying public opinion throughout the world, the debate was divided by the benefits of the Iraq war (the deposing of Saddam Hussein) and the damages (human cost and the breeding of terrorism) caused by the conflict, further emphasizing that the presence or departure of coalition forces will cause the situation to deteriorate. Nevertheless, the discussion addressed a number of key questions that remain. When will the foreign presence in Iraq decrease? Is an atmosphere of civil war in reality brewing in Iraq? Will democracy really take hold in this politically problematic region? Will the government establish and maintain legitimacy once foreign presence has withdrawn? Should foreign forces decrease their presence for the sake of the state’s future and furthermore, is this what Iraqis want? These issues were tackled powerfully by guest speakers of the debate however, it was apparent as the discussion closed that the majority of participants disagreed with the motion as 431 to 272 voted that now is not the time to quit Iraq. The general impression, one can conclude with the words of Lieutenant Colonel Spicer, was that “Foreign forces should leave Iraq but today is not the time as for democracy to take hold, it needs a strong and stable environment ultimately provided by the Iraqis themselves, but they are not yet ready.”