On Thursday 21st February 2013, the journalist David Aaronovitch wrote an opinion piece in The Times entitled “Now we know why it was right to invade Iraq; Ten years after the war began, the country is more secure and democratic. The alternative was Syria on steroids”.
Outraged by the blatant dishonesty of this piece, I contacted Aaronovitch on Twitter and said that I would never understand the thought process and motivation of him and others like him who seek to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Aaronovitch responded to my comment by asking whether it had ever occurred to me that “those you disagree with are as passionate and sincere as you are?” I replied that it had, but argued that I failed to see how his stance vis-à-vis Iraq was at all sincere, and if somehow it was that he must be fatally deluded. Aaronovitch replied “I think the same about you. But I don’t doubt your sincerity.”
Such a polite and seemingly reasonable response disguises Aaronovitch’s shameful distortion of the facts to suit his argument and allows him to portray those that criticise him (such as myself) as passionate and sincere but misguided – and ultimately wrong – whilst presenting himself as level-headed and rational. Not feeling able to express in 140 characters (the limit of a Twitter message) just how awful and disingenuous his argument is, I decided to write something longer.
Aaronovtich’s article is relatively short, but it is so littered with misleading assertions and illogical arguments that it is hard to know where to begin to deconstruct it. Perhaps a good place to start is where Aaronovitch argues that the notion that Tony Blair lied about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq is one of what he calls the ‘public mythologies’ that now surround the war. This claim is particularly galling if one refers back to an article entitled “Those weapons had better be there” that Aaronovitch himself wrote in April 2003. In the article, Aaronovitch states “If nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again. And, more to the point, neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.” Yet, fast forward a decade and with no trace of irony or embarrassment (let alone, remorse or shame) Aaronovitch now argues that the war was ‘right’ and claims that the assertion that Tony Blair lied is a ‘myth’. Unless, the general consensus on this matter is incorrect and Aaronovitch was somehow provided with evidence that WMDs were in fact found in Iraq, I would be keen to see what self-righteous fallacies he would construct in order to justify this change of heart and explain why he still believes anything that he is told by our government or the US (and why anyone else should).
According to Aaronovitch, since there “has been no such finding by any relevant court”, describing the invasion of Iraq as ‘illegal’ is another one of the ‘myths’ associated with the war by the public. Whether through ignorance or intentional obfuscation, this claim ignores the findings of a Dutch inquiry in The Hague that in 2010 concluded that the war had “no basis in international law”. Aaronovitch’s use of the word ‘relevant’ in this context of course enables him to dismiss any court decision that goes against his argument as ‘irrelevant’, but the Dutch inquiry is far from alone in its assertion that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. In 2010, Sir Michael Wood, the most senior legal adviser at the UK Foreign Office at the time of the invasion stated that he believed “the use of force against Iraq in March 2003 was contrary to international law”. Earlier, in 2004, Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the UN, stated that the invasion was an illegal act that contravened the charter of the UN and Hans Blix, the UN’s former Chief Weapons Inspector in Iraq, has also argued that the invasion was illegal (in 2010). Of course, Aaronovitch could rightly point out that Annan and Blix are not judicial figures, yet their opinions remain important and should not be so easily dismissed. For obvious political reasons, the likelihood of the war ever being declared illegal by a court Aaronovitch would consider ‘relevant’ is extremely low. However, to argue that this makes the labelling of the war illegal a ‘myth’ is naive at best.
Presumably it was Aaronovitch’s sincerity and passion that enabled him to state that by “the most trustworthy estimates, 180,000 Iraqis” died in the war. Making this claim, Aaronovitch completely ignores a well-known study carried out in early 2006 by John Hopkins University and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad (in co-operation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). This study, published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, The Lancet, found that approximately 600,000 people were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 – more than three times the figure Aaronovitch states. Apparently, some of the most respected academic institutions in the world and a globally recognised medical journal are not sufficiently ‘trustworthy’ for Aaronovitch to listen to. Even if we take Aaronovitch’s figure of 180,000 individuals, this is an enormous, almost unimaginable loss of life. Also, Aaronovitch does not sufficiently take in to account the greater numbers of Iraqis who were injured and forced to flee their homes, as well as the incalculable material, cultural, historical, and psychological damage inflicted upon Iraq and its population. Given the devastation that the invasion and subsequent occupation caused, it is disgraceful that Aaronovitch has the audacity to state in his piece – in the context of Western interventions – that “Iraq, I think, exhausted us”, as if the invaders are somehow the victims.
His argument that the country is now more democratic and secure is also highly problematic. In recent years, numerous experts on Iraq have commented upon the growing authoritarian character of the post-Saddam Iraqi government, a government that has been described as “a new oligarchy that maintains itself by a mixture of violence and co-optation”. In particular, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, has been accused of corruption and criticised for rampant human rights abuses committed by internal security services controlled by him. For example, Human Rights Watch has documented the wide-spread use of illegal secret prisons by his security services. Al Maliki is certainly not yet comparable to Saddam Hussein but he is undoubtedly showing increasing dictatorial tendencies. Indeed, in December 2012, a wave of popular protests swept across the country calling for his downfall. As a Guardian editorial observed in September 2012, “Nouri al-Maliki’s has some way to go before he matches Saddam Hussein’s terror – but the charge sheet is growing”. Aaronovitch conveniently obscures this complicated reality in his argument. A decade on from the trauma of the invasion, at best, Iraq is now a dysfunctional, messy and unstable democracy and it is not at all clear how the country will develop from this point.
On a security level, it is undeniable that Iraq has become more stable over the past few years. Iraqis are no longer being killed in the numbers that they were during the initial US onslaught and the subsequent insurgency and civil war period. However, as the frequent deadly bomb attacks clearly demonstrate, it would be highly misleading to imply that the country as a whole is now secure. Aaronovitch does acknowledge the fact that Iraq’s death rate remains extremely high in comparison to other countries but then attempts to distract from this by observing that the rate in Venezuela – “a country of comparable size and ironically much loved by some of those who so hate Mr Blair” is much worse. This incongruous comparison is merely an attempt to obscure the reality that thousands of Iraqis are still being killed every year and perhaps to make a cheap dig at supporters of Chavez in Venezuela.
The manner in which Aaronovitch draws parallels between Iraq and Syria is simplistic, and in a discussion of the rights or wrongs of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, is irrelevant. Like many other journalists now reporting on and analysing events in Syria, Aaronovitch is clearly not an expert on its history and politics. In this context, he is merely using the tragedy unfolding in the country in a cynical way in order to make a point and support his own flawed argument.
As if deep down Aaronovitch knows the spurious nature and weakness of his argument, he bizarrely states that “when historians judge the Iraq war they also have to deal with the counter-factual. What would have happened if the 2003 invasion had never taken place? Would that have been better or worse? And by how much?” Here, Aaronovitch appears to be single-handedly trying to re-invent the role of the historian. In his view, not only should historians analyse and interpret actual historical events, but they must also speculate on unknowns and quantify by ‘how much’ things would have been ‘better’ or ‘worse’ if historical events had not occurred. This is absurd reasoning that no serious historian would engage in – first and foremost, historians must judge the war for the impact that it had in reality not by speculating on guessed outcomes of scenarios that do not exist. Even if they were to, I am certain that genuine Iraq experts would not come to the conclusions Aaronovitch desires. One such expert, Professor Charles Tripp of SOAS, recently wrote a piece entitled ‘Three costly lessons from the invasion’ that looks back at the invasion and the decade that followed it. Tripp’s powerful and balanced article is everything that Aaronvitch’s is not. I highly recommend it to anyone who is desirous to read sober, informed and rational analysis of the war and its impact. In fact, I highly recommend it to David Aaronovitch, he might learn something.
Louis Allday 21/02/2013
 The KRG region is significantly more secure than the rest of Iraq and is somewhat of a separate case.