[Here is an alternative history of Iraq that we posted 4 years ago, revised in light of recent events.]
Historians would later record how Secretary of State Colin Powell prevailed in a key Cabinet meeting in early 2003, when he refused to go before the United Nations because he lacked proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “What if the U.N. inspections have actually worked, Mr. President?” he asked. “It would be a disaster if we invade and then can’t find anything.”
A hesitant George W. Bush agreed, resisting the militaristic braying of his neo-conservative advisers, and ignoring war-mongering columnists like Thomas Friedman. Even certain writers at the normally moderate New Yorker continued to call for war, but Bush held firm.
The U.S. president maintained the no-fly zones and other pressure but postponed the invasion. Saddam Hussein kept his crowing to a minimum, recognizing his narrow escape. What’s more, he had other problems….
Unrest among the Shi’a majority continued to grow, despite the repression, and there were even grumblings from the Sunni. Saddam’s regime had always depended on huge amounts of oil money to pay off the people with public works and populist health and education spending, and to also finance a giant network of informers.
But Iraq’s oil earnings were way down, due partly to deteriorating infrastructure and a stubbornly low world price. Saddam had invaded Kuwait in 1990 mainly for financial reasons, but that gambit failed. Iraq was cheating on the U.N.’s oil-for-food program, but he still was not getting enough income to maintain his system.
So in late 2003, when the first uprisings broke out in the south, the Iraqi army, with aging equipment and low morale, was slow to respond. The revolt spread to Saddam City right in Baghdad itself, which the Shi’a majority there had already started called Sadr City in honor of one of their martyrs. Hundreds were killed, but just as in the uprisings against the hated Shah in nearby Iran a quarter-century earlier, the deaths only inspired even more resistance.
After 6 months or so, the Sunni tribal sheikhs northwest of Baghdad recognized Saddam was losing control, which jeopardized their privileged position within the system. Their efforts to persuade him to leave peacefully failed, in part because no country could be found to accept him and his family into exile. So eventually, some of the Sunni generals staged a coup, killing him and many of his immediate entourage.
Yet violence continued. Armed militias formed from various religious and tribal groupings and waged a horrible civil war, characterized by torture and murder. The violence looked anarchic, or atavistically religious, but there was actually a grim and understandable logic to it. At bottom, the armed groups were partly fighting over access to Iraq’s oil wealth.
As the death toll climbed, commentators in the shocked outside world deplored “the flaws within Arab and Muslim culture“ and cited passages from the Koran they said explained the violence. But genuine scholars reminded the public that 620,000 people had died in the American Civil War itself, and that after the war was over white people in the U.S. south had lynched thousands more, most of them black, to restore and maintain white political control. Others added that Europe in the 20th century also had plenty to answer for with respect to war and mass murder.
At least there were no American occupation troops in Iraq to make the violence even worse. General David Petraeus, a brainy but little known lecturer at the National War College, pointed out in an Op-Ed piece:
“Foreign soldiers can become a big part of the problem. Most of the local people reject their presence, and some start to attack them. The armed factions try and manipulate the occupiers into taking sides, which inflames and prolongs the conflict. Money from outside is also an incentive to keep fighting – just imagine if we had flooded Iraq with billions of dollars! We Americans are lucky our far-sighted president kept us out.”
Without the complication of foreign troops and financial support, it only took the Iraqis a couple of years of fighting to realize they had to compromise. The warfare had cut off just about all oil exports, and the leaders of the various factions understood that they needed peace to get back to business. The negotiations were painful. Certain new injustices, such as the increased Sunni-Shi’a residential segregation in Baghdad, were ratified, at least provisionally, over the heated objection of Iraqi human rights groups.
By the middle of 2006, a working coalition government was in power in Baghdad. Rising world oil prices convinced even the most intransigent Iraqis that their future lay in peace. General Petraeus went into quiet and obscure retirement.
Many years later, in 2014, Petraeus published another opinion piece, entitled “Who Remembers Iraq?” He pointed with contentment to the years of calm.
“Few may believe it now, but an American invasion was once a very real possibility,” he wrote. “If America had gone in there, the violence would have continued — even possibly to the present day. Hard as that may be to imagine.”