General Michael Flynn, the former head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, has said that removing Saddam Hussein “was a huge error. As brutal as Saddam Hussein was, it was a mistake to just eliminate him. The same is true for Muammar Gaddafi and for Libya, which is now a failed state. The historic lesson is that it was a strategic failure to get into Iraq. History will not be and should not be kind to that decision.” - General Flynn does have a point regarding Libya but going into Iraq was not where America failed exactly.
The war in Iraq was a very controversial one. It was done based on the existence of a WMD programme that many (I included) claimed to have been false; however recent reports stated that WMDs had been found after all by American and Iraqi forces, during their ground operations. Then, to add insult to injury, we received information that Saddam's WMDs were most probably moved into Syria before the US invasion. Having said this, we should recognise that perhaps the US intel wasn't entirely wrong about Saddam's WMD programme but failed to present a complete picture of the situation on the ground and to anticipate Saddam's pre-emptive moves to protect his existing weapons.
War on Iraq based on just cause
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a State-Sponsor of Terrorism: it “provided headquarters, operating bases, training camps, and other support to terrorist groups” (source). Iraq harboured Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the founder of ISIS) which ultimately establishes the link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda (having, inclusively, several AQ operatives sought refuge in Northern parts of Iraq). Moreover, Saddam Hussein sponsored Palestinian terrorism (he was extremely active during the Second Intifada, by paying thousands of dollars to the families of suicide bombers, for instance) and since we know that Israel has been the testing ground for global terror, it makes sense to think that Saddam may have contributed to several terror attacks around the world till his demise.
Iraq, under Saddam, was a threat to international security, so it made perfect sense to attack the country (after the 9/11), specially when Al-Qaeda had free space of manoeuvre in that territory. Adding this to the suspicion that Saddam Hussein was building a WMD programme that had the potential to fall into the hands of Bin Laden's followers, we have to agree that the danger was bigger than it was presented to us at the time.
So, I must disagree with Gen. Michael Flynn: the war in Iraq was not a strategic failure, but the programme of nation building and the liberal democratic ambition was.
Forcing liberal democracy upon a country that had never before met democracy, in the true sense of the word, was ill calculated. This bad calculation has been central to the US foreign policy for decades, and America is resisting the reality that liberal democracy is not suited for all countries in the world. After the Iraqi example, America must come to terms with the fact that some countries just do better under either illiberal democracies or military dictatorships.
What's more expedient: to have a stable illiberal democratic nation, or even a military dictatorship, where human development is high; or to have a liberal democracy where corruption is widespread and human development is immorally low?
The West's main failure in Iraq was not to think about the Iraqi people's welfare but to think about an Iraq that the West could mould to its own image. In the process, it pushed Saddam's people to form insurgency groups and to make improbable alliances with groups like Al-Qaeda (NB: today, we know that Saddam Hussein's number 2 was behind the rise, training and funding of ISIS) instead of negotiating with those who controlled the very foundations of the country.
Syria: Avoid the Same Mistake
Iraq fell under Iran's control and is now being shredded into pieces by ISIS. Libya lost Muammar Gaddafi and is now a failed state progressively falling under ISIS' command as well. Syria has been in a civil war for almost five years and the West wishes to make the same mistake as before, in the name of liberal democracy. That objective must be thoroughly questioned.
The US has been insisting that al-Assad must go (and it has allied itself with Erdogan to see it through, despite the evidence that Turkey has been sponsoring ISIS). The United Kingdom has slightly diverted from this objective and prefers to focus on countering ISIS, as do France and Russia. So, this is the present scenario: Bashar al-Assad is not politically savoury, we all agree on that; however, deposing him in the name of democracy is not the solution right now, nor wise.
Do we want to stop the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe and the West (as a whole)? Then engage with wealthy Arab nations to take them in - diplomatically remind them of their role in the creation of the problem. Ousting Bashar al-Assad will not solve the migrant crisis, it will only worsen the situation once people start fleeing ISIS, al-Nusra and all the other Jihadist groups vying for Syria.
The Syrian Arab Republic must be stabilised. In order to do this, we need to support anti-Jihad forces: right now, the only guaranteed anti-Jihad forces we have are Assad's forces (with Russian and Iranian support), the Kurds in the North and the Druze fighters, in the south. After these forces defeat all the Jihadi forces and Syria is secure; only then can we start talking about a political transition. This transition must be planned and approved by Syrians (of all factions), with international mediation (NB: mediation, not imposition of democratic values or any other western paradigm) and financial support (note that if the Arab League offers financial support, there's the risk of funds being channelled to their respective Islamic denominations and more tensions could be fostered).
So, speaking of ousting Bashar al-Assad – a secular leader – is counter-productive. Let's focus on the present common enemy first.
(Image: The Navy in Baghdad - Donald Maxwell)