The false narratives surrounding the US’ invasion of Iraq continue to haunt the world nearly two decades later.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a brisk day on February 15 2003, just over a month before the United States caused one of the worst global political disasters in modern history by leading an illegal invasion of Iraq. My entire family and almost everyone we knew had set out from cities and towns up and down the United Kingdom and congregated in London to attend the largest protest event in British history, with the BBC reporting a million people demonstrating in the capital.
But it was not just in Britain that people demonstrated against the impending war. Demonstrations around the globe broke records as the biggest protest in global history, with three million descending on the streets of Rome. If democracy is about respecting the will of the people, then most of the world’s democratic nations who took part in the invasion showed that there were limits to their political ideology after all.
While the global show of support for the Iraqi people was encouraging to us, what has since deflated us is how many have continued to abuse our misery, 19 years on, to justify letting people die elsewhere.
Lies broke the public’s trust
The reason why it is so important to highlight just how large these global demonstrations against the war were—and how widespread they were across advanced democracies—is because the people’s understanding of democracy and the people’s will is often fundamentally different from those in government.
To most people—and I exclude informed segments of society who interface with or study government from this—living in a democracy means that your voice will be heard. It stands to reason, then, that if everyone’s voice comes together to state an emphatic “no,” one would expect their elected governments to listen.
Of course, that does not happen unless there is an official referendum or some other electoral mechanism. But most people do not care to make such a distinction as it is obvious what the will of the people was when millions of people descend on global capitals—no war.
When the US launched its invasion of Iraq and democracies around the world joined, despite their constituents making their feelings about it clear, the resulting mistrust in governments was entirely predictable and had reverberating effects on how people viewed their relationship with and influence over the political class.
Making matters worse and exacerbating the mistrust between governments and the publics they were supposed to serve was the fact that the reasons for the invasion turned out to be complete lies. The US failed to find any evidence of any alleged weapons of mass destruction under the rubble of Baghdad, let alone any evidence of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s so-called “dodgy dossier” that claimed Saddam Hussein could launch a WMD strike within 45 minutes.
The fact these premises were shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be lies, shattered the public’s trust in their elected representatives and contributed to the disconnect we see today between government narratives regarding anything from humanitarian interventions to Coronavirus vaccinations.
Effects on ‘whataboutery’
The Arab Spring came about almost eight years after the invasion of Iraq, and dictators like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar al Assad started slaughtering their people to beat them back into submission. When this happened, leftist politicians, in particular, began to latch onto the justifiable negative feelings engendered by the war in Iraq and the sense that even humanitarian interventions had some kind of hidden imperialist agenda. This led to the modern “anti-imperialist” camp backed by Russia that criticises actions by the West while staying silent on the actions of Moscow and its allies.
In Syria’s case, the Kremlin conducted a propaganda and disinformation campaign that has rarely been paralleled in modern conflict and managed to convince masses of people that even humanitarian civil defence groups such as the White Helmets—whose sole purpose was to rescue people from the Assad regime’s bombs—were, in fact, terrorists.
It was not uncommon to read comments online from perhaps well-meaning people that, “If the West lied about Iraq, then what about Syria?”
This war for the truth and the total obfuscation of reality had predictably catastrophic results. Over time, references to the trauma of the Iraq war on the Western conscience were used as a cynical tool to sidestep responsibility for doing anything about Syrians being massacred in their hundreds of thousands and displaced in their millions.
Politicians such as American leftist icon and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders even referred to Iraq in an attempt to dissuade the public from supporting the US being “dragged into another war” in Syria.
Even as principled politicians such as the late Jo Cox, who was later murdered by a right-wing fascist, attempted to persuade the British parliament to enforce a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians fleeing the war, she was being thwarted by politicians associated with the anti-imperialist camp who argued that the United Nations was a better venue to settle the Syrian crisis. This is the same UN that was at the mercy of Russia’s veto on the Security Council, which it had repeatedly used in favour of its ally Assad, guaranteeing that his assault on Syrians would continue unabated.
In all this blood, the shadow of the Iraq war looms ever large. Not only has the narrative used by the US and its allies in Iraq now been repurposed by Russia in its attack on Ukraine, but the unpunished crime of the Iraq war has been used to effectively silence any attempt to ease suffering in some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. This is morally indefensible and is an insult to all those Iraqis who have suffered and continue to suffer in the most horrific manner in what is left of the ruins of their country.
As an Iraqi, as one of the millions who stood against the invasion in 2003, and as the famous anti-war protest refrain at the time went, I say to those seeking to stop action to prevent suffering elsewhere by pointing to our misery: “Not in our name.”
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