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Think back to 2003. . . the year the U.S. didn’t invade Iraq

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David Petraeus in 2007, from Wikipedia

David Petraeus in 2007, from Wikipedia

[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.”


James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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25 Responses

  1. just on June 14, 2014, 9:48 am

    You have to go back further. 1990 and Gulf War 1 (I know you mentioned it)

    Before that, the arming of Saddam against Iran in the 1980’s.

  2. Nevada Ned on June 14, 2014, 10:32 am

    James North:

    Your essay asks, “What would have happened if the US hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003”, and your answer is “nothing too terrible”.

    Consider asking a different questions: “Since the official justification for the 2003 US invasion was a bunch of lies, what was the real reason?”

    Noam Chomsky supplies an answer: in 2003, the international coalition (of countries that supported the US occupation of Iraq) was falling apart. The coalition provided a smokescreen, allowing the US to disguise its own interest – in controlling the oil of the Persian Gulf – as the will of “the international community”. Country after country pulled out its troops. In 2003, the “multinational force” became “the mono-national force”. The “coalition” in the Second Persian Gulf War was really just for show from the beginning, because (apart from the US) only Britain supplied a militarily significant (45,000) number of troops. Third place was Australia (2000 troops) and fourth place was Poland with 192 troops (!!).

    Compare that with the First Persian Gulf war, in which GHW Bush strong-armed lots of countries (including Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia) to supply lots of troops to the US “coalition”.

    So really the choice facing George W Bush in 2003 was to watch the coalition collapse completely, or to escalate and launch another invasion of Iraq. Under the influence of the neoconservatives, he chose war.

  3. aiman on June 14, 2014, 12:10 pm

    Good article, but it leaves out the scope of critique that is not at all dependent on the invasion. As the Takfiridom of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf lackeys bankroll terrorism and Takfiri zombies in Iraq and Syria today, the US refuses to criticise or even identify these carriers of sectarian deaths and hatred. It began long before Iraq, in Afghanistan actually, in league with Saudi Arabia and the other devil Pakistan: bringing the curse of the Taliban and providing al Qaeda with a tribal sanctuary. Egypt had long cursed and chased out Al Zawahiri. What is disgusting, as Robert Fisk notes, is that this fact of Saudi involvement in so much of the mayhem is unmentionable. I hope the House of Saud and all the sectarian henchmen are marched to The Hague in chains one day for crimes against humanity.

    • just on June 14, 2014, 3:34 pm

      ” It began long before Iraq, in Afghanistan actually, in league with Saudi Arabia and the other devil Pakistan: bringing the curse of the Taliban and providing al Qaeda with a tribal sanctuary.”

      True. And there are other “actors”– those who, apparently, are still not to be named.

  4. wondering jew on June 14, 2014, 1:45 pm

    This alternate history includes the coup against Saddam Hussein. I’m not buying that at all. An alternate history that includes a “surprising” event like this coup against Saddam Hussein is weak. The primary change that an alternate history wishes to include is the main alternate: in this case, the US doesn’t go to war. Maybe the propaganda against Saddam was too intense and I buy into his Stalin like character, which would have survived until old age at the helm of Iraq, but that is my belief what would have happened if Saddam had not been captured.

    The war was not worth it. Neoconservatives conceived the war. Neoconservatives brought into the white house by the Bush victory (rather than election) of 2000 were the main causes of the war. (Thomas Friedman went along with the ride and was a cheerleader. Featuring him in this alternate history shows a particular animus towards Friedman for he did not think up this war. But he did lead the cheers.)

  5. W.Jones on June 14, 2014, 1:55 pm

    First, Colin Powell would have been replaced if he went against the war. The president and Cheney were interested in war. There was a whole political-economic force behind them, of the same kind that had invaded Latin American countries in the past.

  6. Walid on June 14, 2014, 4:19 pm

    On a more serious note, ISIS just revealed its updated map of what considers as the borders of its self-declared state. It includes new additions Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, which of course means Israel.

    Kuwait arrested one of its politicians that had been asking for ISIS to come take over Kuwait. Fatwas have been flying back and forth to fight ISIS from Cairo’s al-Azhar, Qatar’s Qaradawi, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani, but still no word from the Arab League.

    Strange happenings with ISIS; a couple of weeks back it was getting its ass kicked in Syria and today, it has suddenly picked up tons of arms, vehicles and $400 million in cash from the Iraqi Central Bank and it has control over a third of Iraq’s territory. Hard to believe that there’s no foreign master plan behind this sudden change of luck for ISIS.

    • just on June 14, 2014, 4:30 pm

      “Hard to believe that there’s no foreign master plan behind this sudden change of luck for ISIS.”

      Cui bono?

      Not Cuba nor Jamaica. Probably not The Galápagos Islands, either. Sorry to be cynical, but they certainly didn’t come from nowhere. Really, who benefits from this destabilization and violence? I hate to put that “hat” on again…

      • Walid on June 14, 2014, 5:15 pm

        Time will tell, just. It’s not just the Kurds that have a long standing claim on Mosul, Turkey has always believed it to be part of Turkey; some rumours going around that Turkey may have paved the way for ISIS’ entrance in Mosul and the that the story on the kidnapped Turks is a decoy. For a Turkey supposedly distressed by ISIS, it still hasn’t closed its borders to it in both Iraq and Syria and its currently buying Syrian oil from it. From Wiki:

        The Mosul Question was a territorial dispute in the early 20th century between Turkey and the United Kingdom (later Iraq) over the possession of the former Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul.
        The Mosul Vilayet was part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, when it was occupied by Britain. After the Turkish War of Independence, the new Turkish Republic considered Mosul one of the crucial issues determined in the National Pact. Despite constant resistance, Britain managed to bring the issue into the international arena, scaling it down to a frontier problem between Turkey and Iraq.
        The League of Nations Council appointed an investigative commission that recommended that Iraq should retain Mosul, and Turkey reluctantly assented to the decision by signing the Frontier Treaty with the Iraqi government in 1926. Iraq agreed to give a 10 percent royalty on Mosul’s oil deposits to Turkey for 25 years.

      • Walid on June 15, 2014, 3:12 am

        A little more insight on what’s happening in Mosul with ISIS and the Turkish involvement with ISIS people, from Tony Cartalucci:

        13.06.2014 Author: Tony Cartalucci
        NATO’s Terror Hordes in Iraq a Pretext for Syria Invasion

        All roads lead to Baghdad and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is following them all, north from Syria and Turkey to south. Reading Western headlines, two fact-deficient narratives have begun gaining traction. The first is that this constitutes a “failure” of US policy in the Middle East, an alibi as to how the US and its NATO partners should in no way be seen as complicit in the current coordinated, massive, immensely funded and heavily armed terror blitzkrieg toward Baghdad. The second is how ISIS appears to have “sprung” from the sand dunes and date trees as a nearly professional military traveling in convoys of matching Toyota trucks without explanation.

        In actuality, ISIS is the product of a joint NATO-GCC conspiracy stretching back as far as 2007 where US-Saudi policymakers sought to ignite a region-wide sectarian war to purge the Middle East of Iran’s arch of influence stretching from its borders, across Syria and Iraq, and as far west as Lebanon and the coast of the Mediterranean. ISIS has been harbored, trained, armed, and extensively funded by a coalition of NATO and Persian Gulf states within Turkey’s (NATO territory) borders and has launched invasions into northern Syria with, at times, both Turkish artillery and air cover. The most recent example of this was the cross-border invasion by Al Qaeda into Kasab village, Latikia province in northwest Syria.

        … The alleged territorial holdings of ISIS cross over both Syrian and Iraqi borders meaning that any campaign to eradicate them from Iraqi territory can easily spill over into Syria’s borders. And that is exactly the point. With ISIS having ravaged Mosul, Iraq near the Turkish border and moving south in a terror blitzkrieg now threatening the Iraqi capital of Baghdad itself, the Iraqi government is allegedly considering calling for US and/or NATO assistance to break the terror wave. Adding to the pretext, ISIS, defying any sound tactical or strategic thinking, has seized a Turkish consulate in Mosul, taking over 80 Turkish hostages – serendipitous giving Turkey not only a new pretext to invade northern Iraq as it has done many times in pursuit of alleged Kurdish militants, but to invade Syrian territory where ISIS is also based.

        Turkey Has Already Attempted to Use Al Qaeda False Flag Attacks to Justify Invading Syria

        … Banks Robbed After Invasion Funded the Invasion? Western Media Puts Cart Before the Horse

        Tales of ISIS looting armories, vehicle depots, and banks are being carefully planted throughout the Western media in an attempt to portray the invasion as a terrorist uprising, sustaining itself on plundered supplies, weapons, and cash. In reality, ISIS already possessed all that it needed before beginning its campaign from Syrian and Turkish territory.

        … This cover story is the latest in a long propaganda campaign designed to cover up the extensively documented state sponsorship of ISIS and other Al Qaeda franchises by the United States, NATO, and the Persian Gulf monarchies. Previous attempts to explain why alleged “moderates” being funded billions by the West were being displaced by Al Qaeda in Syria have included claims that “Twitter donations” were eclipsing the combined aid provided by the US, EU, NATO, and Persian Gulf states.

        The US, NATO, and Persian Gulf States are Behind ISIS…

  7. DICKERSON3870 on June 14, 2014, 5:10 pm

    RE: “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… A hesitant George W. Bush agreed, resisting the militaristic braying of his neo-conservative advisers, and ignoring war-mongering columnists like Thomas Friedman. ~ James North

    Golden oldies: Tom Friedman at start of Iraq war telling Arabs to ‘suck on this’ [VIDEO, 02:44] –

  8. anthonybellchambers on June 14, 2014, 5:45 pm

    Israel left looking isolated, weak and inconsequential

    As the rapprochement between the United States and Iran deepens in their mutual support for the the Iraqi government, Israel is left looking isolated, weak and inconsequential.

    At a stroke, Netanyahu’s influence in Washington has all but disappeared as he becomes a virtual irrelevance in a conflict that is vastly more important to the international community than his illegal settlements. As are also his threats to attack Iran, the most stable state in the Middle East.

    The real question, now, is what influence, if any, did the Israeli government have in persuading discredited former US President, George W Bush, to attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in 2003 – a move that has now given birth to the dangerous current instability that threatens the entire region – not to mention global oil supplies?

    And the second question is: for how much longer will the US congress continue to vote billions of American tax-dollars to a state that is alleged to have been complicit in the Bush-Blair tragic fiasco that is alleged to have cost over 100,000 Iraqi, American and British lives when the so-called coalition of ‘shock and awe’ went to war without a mandate?

    • Mayhem on June 15, 2014, 12:41 am

      @anthonybellchambers, it would pay before you go on wild speculations to read something to sober you up to the fact that “Iraq was a war for American interests as perceived by those who have the power to make those decisions. It was not a ‘war for Israel'” at
      Just because there are no noises at the moment about Israel has nothing to do with weakness, it is because for a change there is a focus on international events that do REALLY matter. Israelis would be relieved that there is some respite from the incessant, irrational barrage of biased, disproportionate behavior that is constantly levelled at it.

      • annie on June 15, 2014, 12:48 am

        Israelis would be relieved that there is some respite from the ….barrage of biased, disproportionate behavior that is constantly levelled at it.

        and don’t we know israel would like us to look elsewhere. israel gets a lot of mileage off the world being distracted. when we invaded iraq in 03 settlement expansion went on speed dial. and look at all the mileage they got out of syra syria syria. no worries tho, were focused. this is the longest running refugee disaster on the planet so we won’t be dropping the ball, especially not now when the world is finally getting a true picture of the occupation, thanks to social media. after decades the crimes arebeing exposed. no amount of chaos in the surrounding area will distract us from freeing palestine.

      • Mayhem on June 15, 2014, 6:23 am

        As long as the Palestinians have amongst them the kinds of people who will kidnap and threaten to kill innocent teenagers (refer
        then their cause will never succeed. The world will never tolerate this kind of barbaric behaviour that sits at the core of Palestinian society. The world sees what Islamists are doing everywhere and knows that a Palestine would ultimately just be another undemocratic Islamic hotbed.
        The reason that the conflict has gone on for so long is because of the total unwillingness of Muslims to accept the presence of a Jewish sovereign state or homeland in the Middle East. This has nothing to do with settlements or ‘occupation’ as Ari Shavit has pointed out. Since the Zionists started arriving in Palestine a fundamental animosity was stirred up against them by Arab leaders, which culminated in sectarian violence like the 1920 Jerusalem riots, that are the roots of the current conflict. The OIC has held the world to ransom over the I/P conflict.

      • Mayhem on June 16, 2014, 12:44 am

        No doubt the blind naysayers will complain that I am not on the topic. However what choice do I have when nobody at Mondoweiss says a jot about the three Jewish teenagers who have kidnapped in the West Bank?
        By there being no response to my last post where I mentioned this event can I assume that nobody has anything to say, that nobody here cares? Does the fate of three innocent teenagers not matter because they happen to belong to settler families?
        Tell me that what I have said is not validated by this cartoon that has appeared on Fatah’s Facebook page

      • Woody Tanaka on June 16, 2014, 7:08 am

        “No doubt the blind naysayers will complain that I am not on the topic. However what choice do I have when nobody at Mondoweiss says a jot about the three Jewish teenagers who have kidnapped in the West Bank?”

        Well, they’ve only themselves, their families and Israel to blame for their predicament. And since Israelis don’t give a damn about the hundreds and thousands of Palestinian people who are regularly abducted and kidnapped by the IOF, I will these two teens and this 19 year old the same disinterest you Zionists have given Palestinian rights for 65 years.

      • geokat62 on June 15, 2014, 1:44 pm

        “Iraq was a war for American interests as perceived by those who have the power to make those decisions. It was not a ‘war for Israel’”

        This lie was dispelled by Profs. Mearsheimer and Walt (see The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy). As you and most hasbarists well know Bush and Cheney supported the Wolfowitz Doctrine of remaking the Middle East (by draining the swamp to rid the ME of “terrorists”) to make the jungle a little safer for the villa…. Bush because of his religious beliefs (to hasten the Second Coming) and Cheney because of his shares in Haliburton (which obtained the sole source contract to rebuild the ME after the US military destroyed it by shock and awe). Since its birth, Israel has been threatened with being “swept into the Sea” by the Arabs. They also have been living with the constant threat of Palestinian suicide bombers blowing themselves up on buses, cafes or in nightclubs. To survive in a region with over 100 million Muslims, Israel has been attempting to secure peace agreements with some of its Arab neighbours (Egypt and Jordan), economic and military agreements with others (Turkey), and US assistance in dealing with those Arab nations that refuse to abandon the Palestinians in their struggle to end the occupation (Iran, Iraq, and Syria). Saddam was on Israel’s hit list because he had dropped 27 scud missiles on Israel during the first Gulf War and was underwriting the family members of suicide bombers to the tune of $25,000. So Iraq and Afghanistan was Part 1, which strengthened Iran. Part 2 is the “Sunni turn” which will pit the Sunnis against Shia crescent. The idea is to create perpetual strife among Israel’s Muslim neighbours while they eat the rest of the Palestinian pie. That’s why the strategy is referred to as The Clean Break. So which explanation is more compelling, oil or enhancing Israel’s security?

  9. Feathers on June 14, 2014, 6:34 pm

    James North, your alternative history is built on the unchallenged underlying assumption that there was a good and necessary reason for the US to remove Saddam Hussein.

    He was the USA’s bff through Iraq’s war with Iran, to the extent that US supplied him with intelligence to use poison gas against Iranian civilians and military (US corporations supplied the gas — see Amy Smithson, Sr. Fellow, Center for Nonproliferation Studies ).

    You note that Saddam’s conflict with Kuwait was over financial concerns. Jack O’Connell, advisor to Jordan’s King Hussein, had helped the king work out a deal that Saddam had agreed to, but the G H W Bush administration had another agenda and a peaceful negotiation would have interfered with those plans.

    According to Bush library historian Jeffrey Engel, Saddam’s conflict with Kuwait provided the pretext for the senior Bush administration to initiate a plan that, according to Engel, was the fulfillment of the “promise to those who fought in World War II” — that they would be empowered to create a “new world order”; to “make the world a better place.” The toehold in the Middle East provided an opportunity and a starting point to fill the vacuum left by the fall of the Berlin wall.

    Bush 41’s advisors were “99% certain” that the Iraqi people would rise up and overthrow Saddam in the 1990-91 US invasion of Iraq. Further, says Engel, “if they had to do it again, they would proceed with the same certainty,” which is roughly what George the Latter later did.

    Thus, James North, the underlying assumption that your alternative history fails to challenge is that the US is somehow entitled or empowered to overthrow Saddam. Your scenario reinforces that assumption and carries it out, albeit by different means.

    It is also noteworthy that your alternate history does not acknowledge the deaths of a million Iraqis, half of them children; and it apparently maintains in place the sanctions that killed them and the no-fly zone that tormented them.

    A REAL alternative history would consider what the region would look like today if Jordan’s King Hussein had been able to bring his negotiation to fruition.

    • just on June 14, 2014, 7:51 pm

      “A REAL alternative history would consider what the region would look like today if Jordan’s King Hussein had been able to bring his negotiation to fruition.”

      quite true, feathers. I appreciate the points you made in your post as well. It’s funny how we forget/never knew history…….or geography…..or other cultures…..

      p.s. does anyone know where april glaspie is?

      • Citizen on June 14, 2014, 8:27 pm

        Odd conflicting stuff on Glaspie meeting with Saddam:

      • Feathers on June 14, 2014, 9:33 pm

        It’s useful to compare the evolution of George H W Bush’s thinking on the situation in Iraq in light of the fall of the Berlin wall, the vacuum created by the end of Cold War and the vanquishing of US’s enemy, which initiated the USA’s “unipolar moment” — no longer could USSR hold US power in check– with the various versions of Glaspie’s statements to Saddam.

        Bush took several days to clarify his own thinking and response to Saddam’s incursions into Kuwait, and even when the decision was made to use military force to dislodge Iraq, the Bush team was absolutely clear: their purpose was NOT to save/protect Kuwait, it was NOT to defend democratic principles or territory or anything of that kind: The USA invasion of Iraq was the first, deliberate step in US’s imperial pivot.

  10. mja on June 14, 2014, 8:26 pm

    A great alternative that has been very feasible would have been to pursue, maintain, and support a real democracy in Iraq right after Saddam’s fall. This should have been achieved by allowing a government of technocrats to form in Iraq. That was the hope of millions of Iraqis that was painfully dissipated, given that Iraq has plenty of highly educated and smart people who believe in democracy and social justice, and who could have led a competent government that would not descend into a sectarian quagmire . The calamity was for the US to hand Iraq over to the clergymen!!! expecting a democracy to emerge from under a middle-ages theocracy!! Wasn’t that insane or what? and the other joke was that the US knew very well that those clergymen who took over have been nurtured in Iran and are loyal to its regime !! How on earth then, the US government expected that its goals in Iraq were not going to be jeopardized?? not to mention the American blind eyes given to the atrocities against the Iraqis committed by the Saudis and the other gulf states, which kept exporting terrorism from day one to this moment and became the main reason for sectarian polarization, and that is exactly why we are in a huge mess today.

    • just on June 14, 2014, 9:21 pm

      We screwed up from the beginning– even before the beginning of the bloodbath we unleashed.

      I have to say that the Iraqis have paid/are paying an enormous price, and are living in the “huge mess” that others created for them…

      (your calligraphy is, quite simply, stunning!)

  11. mja on June 14, 2014, 9:55 pm

    Thank you Just, I appreciate your understanding of the politics, and admiration of my art.

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