TRISTEN TAYLOR: The dead hand of the Iraq war lies over all our chaos
The US invaded Iraq without a mandate and that was the death of multilateralism
The world is a mess. Gabon had a coup d’état in August, joining a recent string of West African coups: Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso (twice in 2022) and Niger. On the other side of the continent, Ethiopia and Sudan’s civil wars still burn brightly.
Fighting continues in Syria, and North Kivu saw an uptick this month. Myanmar bleeds and survivors of the Rohingya genocide wait in refugee camps. Russians and Ukrainians continue to blow each other up, a grinding industrialised attrition that could go on for years.
There’s just been a total ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh’s 120,000 people that took just eight days at the end of September. No-one did anything but watch, despite Azerbaijan blocking all food and supplies into the enclave from June 15.
Something similar, one fears, might happen in Gaza after Israel’s bombardment in the wake of the October 7 Hamas terror attack.
Murders of crows are feasting upon the carrion of the innocent. There is no geopolitical order any more. According to the Geneva Academy, there are 110 ongoing armed conflicts worldwide.
All the international laws and institutions designed to prevent this chaos have proved utterly useless. No amount of hand-wringing at any of the abbreviations — the UN, AU and so on — has stopped any of these conflicts. In fact, what now comes out of many Group of Seven (G7) and G-variant meetings is yet more warlike rhetoric.
Each permanent member of the UN’s Security Council is either engaged in a war or is providing support to one or more warring parties. The combined total military budgets of the US, China, Russia, France and UK for 2023 is at least $1.3-trillion. They all truck with dictators and repressive regimes.
How did we get here? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were supposed to have learnt. The 20th century was an abject class in bloodbath. Forty-million killed in World War 1 and between 70-million and 85-million in World War 2. Nine genocides, a plethora of mass killings, the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation.
When the Cold War ended in 1991 the approaching 21st century looked like it could be an era of relative peace. Liberal democracy was taking hold, SA’s liberation marked colonialism’s terminus, nuclear war seemed remote and the EU’s core mission was to halt Europe’s long cycle of violence. Human rights were on the agenda. When it came to war and conflict, the general trend was a decline in intensity and casualty rates.
Notable exceptions were the Rwandan genocide (1994), the subsequent second Congo war (1998-2003) and the Bosnian war (1992-95), all of which had their origins in the 20th century’s hell. Yet the gestalt of the time was that interventions should be made in the name of peace. Who was the arbiter of what counted as a just intervention? The UN countries would decide together.
A combination of the UN Protection Force and Nato stepped in to stop the Bosnian war and ethnic cleansing. The Rwandan genocide was a UN implementation failure, not a conscious departure from the abolition of genocide and mass killings. The 1993 and 1995 Oslo peace accords, for all their faults, were an attempt based off UN resolutions to find a lasting peace for both Palestinians and Israelis.
So what happened to our promised future? The 2003 Iraq war. The US rationale for the invasion of a sovereign nation was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), he was prepared to use them, and he was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks in the US. A triad of fiction.
UN weapons inspectors said there weren’t any WMDs, the Iraqis said the same, and millions of ordinary citizens marched screaming it. Saddam would have gleefully executed Al-Qaeda members rather than sit down and have tea.
When the UN security council refused to give a mandate for war, the Americans went ahead anyway — and that was the death of multilateralism. George W Bush and his neoconservative ghouls, wedded to the notion of bombing people into democracy, broke the UN.
The post-invasion period was catastrophically stuffed up, with the result of destabilising the entire Middle East and North Africa. It is now clear that a failed 20-year war on terror — the Taliban is back in power and Hamas is beyond the pale — only further radicalised Islamic fundamentalists.
The invasion also had a terrible lesson. Acquiring nuclear weapons was one of the few guarantees against Western invasion. This is a lesson Iran and North Korea have taken to heart.
The British and the Americans are perplexed as to why the Global South hasn’t joined them in going full out on Russia. When they refused to listen in 2002 and 2003, the West lost the Global South and that was the start of the world’s drift into competing blocs. The disdainful dismissal of the UN Security Council crushed the ideal of one world working together.
A global pandemic, multiple financial crises and climate change have all contributed to today’s uncertainty, an epoch where each conflict opens the door for another. But the original sin was Iraq, and US foreign policy hasn’t changed.
From superconductors to sanctions, the US acts in a unilateral manner, demanding its allies tag along with its policy of forever war. The Russia-Ukraine war proves how dependent EU nations are on the Americans for their security, a dependency that might still drag them into a conflagration over Taiwan.
Without countries sitting together and finding solutions to the conflicts, there’s no hope for a better tomorrow. The chaos will continue. For multilateralism to take hold, the superpower needs to change, and that won’t happen with its current political elite.
To plunder shamelessly from the essayist Gore Vidal, there’s only one party in the US, the war party, and it has two right wings, the Republicans and the Democrats.
The cesspool of American politics matters, and there’s a presidential election coming up. It is high time for the voters to break the war party’s stranglehold. Third-party candidates have been part of US politics since 1788, the best probably being Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party of America. He got 6% of the vote in 1912 and, as a political prisoner, 3.4% in 1920.
The 2024 election will have two third-party candidates in favour of rolling back the American Empire’s militarism: “progressive activist” Cornel West and Robert F Kennedy Jnr, who is only a bit less of a nutjob than Donald Trump.
• Dr Taylor is a freelance journalists and photographer. He is also a research fellow in environmental ethics, Stellenbosch University.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.