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Monday, April 28, 2003

Mixed marks for the Iraq war

LONDON -- The removal of the evil despotism of Saddam Hussein in Iraq is an important benefit for the peoples of Iraq and the world in general. The ending of his regime will be welcomed by some neighboring countries that felt threatened by Iraq. It should in the long run be beneficial to the Arabs as a whole, but there have been serious costs for Iraq and for the world.

These costs are not just the financial costs of waging the war. Significant though these have been in terms of expenditure by the United States and Britain, the biggest cost has been in human lives and misery. The military casualties on the allied side were relatively light although no one should forget that each death in combat leaves a bereaved family for whom knowing that the cause was a just one may be small consolation.

We do not yet know the extent of casualties on the Iraqi side. Significant numbers of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards were almost certainly eliminated (we need not mourn these greatly) as well as some conscripts who were forced against their will to fight for a dictator. Some missiles went inevitably astray and innocent civilians were killed or injured.

Some of these casualties were probably unavoidable, but the allied forces must accept responsibility for those that could have been avoided. Some U.S. soldiers were understandably nervous and trigger happy. Armchair strategists suggest that the commanding officers of such forces should have given firmer orders and held back their forces while checks were made. When someone is not in the thick of battle it is easy to ask "wouldn't it have been better if . . .?" The fact remains, however, that the images of maimed and badly burned children are seriously damaging to the reputation of the allies.

It is useless for arrogant people like U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to blame the media and pass off these images with the comment that these injuries are all the fault of Hussein. It would probably be much better if those responsible admitted that mistakes might have been made.

The failure, especially of the American forces in Baghdad to prevent or stop the lawlessness and looting that followed the fall of the regime, has also tarnished the American image. Once again it is easy for the armchair strategist to criticize, and no doubt difficult for the man on the spot to cope with, such lawlessness. But if anarchy was not anticipated, it should have been.

Why could not the U.S. forces in Baghdad have been reinforced quickly via the captured airport and guards at least placed at hospitals and cultural sites such as the National Museum? Most civilized people must have been appalled by the looting of hospitals and of the museum. An American tank crew was near the museum and could surely have stopped the looting if its commander had permitted or ordered it.

Again it is easy to criticize and perhaps difficult to achieve, but the occupying powers have a duty under the Geneva Conventions to ensure the maintenance of law and order and of essential services. Top priority should have been given to supplies of drugs and equipment for hospitals.

The Americans (and the British) have all along asserted that Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps they did and the stocks of chemical and biological weapons will be found. Hans Blix, the chief U.N. Weapons inspector, is, however, skeptical. The accusations against the Iraqi regime were one of the justifications for the war and need to be proved soon if such accusations are to be believed in the future.

It is now imperative, if the new regime in Iraq is to achieve legitimacy, that the United Nations becomes closely involved with the reconstruction of Iraq and the establishment of a legitimate democratic regime. A flow of Iraqi oil should start soon and the proceeds used for the benefit of the Iraqi people. Reconstruction projects should be open to bidders from around the world and not granted solely to U.S. firms.

None of this will be easy to achieve. The American authorities remain suspicious of the U.N. especially of the Security Council and seem determined to maintain control. In the short term this is unavoidable, but Iraqi opposition to continued U.S. occupation of Baghdad and any U.S. attempt to impose a new regime of America's choosing may cause the Americans to be more flexible over U.N. involvement.

While British leaders actively seek the cooperation of the Syrian authorities over Iraq and, in particular, hope that the Syrians will not give asylum or succor to the leaders of Hussein's regime, the British public is skeptical of American accusations that Syria has developed chemical weapons. They ask why -- if the Americans have evidence of this -- they did not reveal this evidence before now.

The main British and European concern is to achieve progress in settling the future of Israel and Palestine. There is increasing frustration at the failure of the Americans to allow publication of the "road map" for a settlement. The suspicion is that the Israelis are being allowed to dictate the timing and possibly the contents. This is damaging to American (and Western) relations with the Arabs.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of the Iraq war has been the rift not only in trans-Atlantic relations but also in relations within Europe. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is anxious to rebuild bridges, but his efforts are not helped by either French or American attitudes. Many people in Britain accuse French President Jacques Chirac of having encouraged Iraq intransigence by his refusal "under any circumstances" to back a further U.N. resolution on Iraq. His absolutist and arrogant attitude may have reflected French and some European opinion, but he should have had the common sense to accept that it is never wise to say "never."

Chirac, in the eyes of some people, has boxed himself and his allies into an untenable position of trying to forge a European counterforce to the one hyper-power. But some Americans with a childish desire to retaliate by boycotts and other silly anti-French measures simply exacerbate the situation.

All in all, the balance from the war, despite the welcome overthrow of an evil dictator, is not a simple plus for the forces of good. Herein may lie the basic problem. The present American administration suffers from the delusions that he who is not clearly for it is against it and that black and white never combine to form gray.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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