Dr. Azmi Bishara, General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, gave the opening remarks at the Center's conference commemorating the first ten years since the invasion of Iraq (April 10 and 11, 2013). Bishara began by describing the Anglo-American invasion as a "pivotal incident which changed the course of history" in the region. According to Bishara, the invasion and occupation of Iraq left an indelible mark on the Arabs' understanding of global politics. He further stressed that the invasion did more than any other event to push back the advancement of democracy in the Arab Levant, by creating hysterical fear of change amongst the population.
The English translation of Dr. Bishara's speech follows below:
We have every right to view the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq during 2003, which came on the heels of a decade-old punitive blockade, as a pivotal event that changed the course of history. It was an even which impacted our understanding of global politics as a whole. American and European intellectuals, meanwhile, have their own right to see the Iraq war through from own perspective. This they can do through a critique of the multiplicity of narratives explaining the war. Or through the critique of a media and political discourse which is now powerful enough to use surreptitious excuses to manipulate public opinion on military intervention in a country thousands of miles away. It is this same media establishment which now, years later and heaving under the weight of the dead soldiers who were sent to fight on spurious grounds, finds itself putting paid to lies which it had itself spread. Crucially, the media, having first peddled the lies and then falsified them, has not held itself to account. Nor has the political system made politicians responsible for the war crimes they committed. Crimes which might be repeated. Indeed, beginning with the Nuremburg trials, only the vanquished have been held accountable for war crimes. Even the formation of the International Criminal Court did not change this reality.
As for the Arab scholars gathered here, we have a right to put forward two questions with some urgency. Firstly, would any of us have been concerned about the lies peddled had the Iraqi people not resisted? If the plans which policy-makers had put in place and deluded themselves into believing succeeded? A second point is to define which act was more truly a crime. Was misleading public opinion in Europe and the US the real crime? Or was it, rather, the destruction of a country and interference in its social and national fabric? The imposition of a regime which entrenched that destruction? A constitution which puts that destruction into a legal framework, thereby making the retrieval of national bonds more difficult?
As Arab peoples united in a single nation, there is also a third question which we are obliged to ask of ourselves. How can we honestly demand that those accused of crimes carried out in one Arab country, in this case Iraq, be brought to justice while the very same criminals are received with open arms in other Arab countries? Not only are they welcomed, they receive large sums in return for lecturing self-proclaimed economic and social elites who deem themselves ‘urbane' by dint of not bothering with the poor of their own countries. They think it civilized to share a table with the likes of Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dennis Ross and Cheney, all of whom are guilty of crimes against the Arabs. Ironically, some of these war criminals are now mediators between us and the people occupying Arab land in Palestine. What is doubly ironic is that Blair, whom enlightened sections of the British body politic want to bring to trial, was the Quartet's peace envoy and has been appointed a consultant to several Arab governments including the previous regime in Libya. This after he had suggested to Bush that Libya, and not Iraq, should follow Afghanistan on the warpath.
Paradoxes like this come to mind today, when we commemorate an event with profound, indelible consequences on our consciousness: the entry by American forces into Haroun Al Rasheed's Baghdad. In a bygone, gilded age, that city had been the Arabs' capital.
In invading Iraq, the US aimed both to heal itself of the Viet Nam syndrome, and to make use of the new, unipolar world by furthering interests it held jointly with Israel in one fell swoop. The US wanted to test out new technologies and the ability which these gave it to maintain a simultaneous presence in as many locations across the globe as possible. The weapons technologies-made possible by the world's largest economy, and a military budget which surpasses that of any other, by far-found their use in the reduction in the number of troops on the ground. As befits an empire, and as Rumsfeld had thought possible, all of this was to be carried out using a minimum of troops. As well as allowing for the rapid transfer of those soldiers from one theater of war to the next, and for immensely powerful destruction by remote control. The aggressor's losses were minimized, but without regard for the number of victims amongst the population under attack.
What came of all this?
In the end, the Arabs destroyed Rumsfeld's fantasies, and proved that the days when Britain could rely on only two naval brigades to rule the Indian subcontinent for years were long gone. Novel forms of resistance were created. These included asymmetric warfare and the use of small groups whose command and control structures could not be stricken, for the simple reason that these did not exist. The Iraqi resistance overcame the technical disparity between the two sides through the sheer intensity of sacrifices in attacks which, depending on one's point of view, were called either "suicide" or "martyrdom". The Iraq Syndrome replaced the Viet Nam syndrome, and Hollywood turned from making films about Indochina to making films set in Mesopotamia. The entire arsenal of Orientalist and Imperialist clichés was dragged out to paint pictures of violent, terrorist Muslim Arabs.
In the past, American conservatives would avoid sailing the waves to intervene in the affairs of other countries. US interventions in Latin America and the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century and even later in Viet Nam gave rise to sharp debates within the American establishment. They preferred to rely on the often traditionalist allies already in power in existing countries. It was more in keeping with the traditional British approach to imperialism than the French approach of intervening in colonized countries. It was an imperialist reformulation of the idea of exporting the values of the French Revolution.
The latterly ascendant Neoconservatives remained committed to conservative values in terms of what they regarded to be the "American way of life", but they were convinced that the demise of the Soviet Union meant that they had to restructure the social and political structures of the countries to which they were allied. The defining characteristic of the Neoconservatives was their furtherance of a conservative agenda, but without the typical caution typical of conservative politics. Indeed, Neoconservative politics combined a radical tyranny and folly in an admixture which brought together chicanery and stupidity.
The failure of the Neoconservatives' plans, which had been given the grandiose title of "Democracy and Nation-building", gave rise to American liberal opponents of foreign intervention. This latter group adopted the originally conservative approach to imperialism, rooted as it was in extant realities. This was true whether the allies in question were traditionalist rulers or regimes that replaced such traditionalist leaders through revolution. As can be witnessed in the Arab countries today, the Americans do not intervene in these, either.
This next observation is only seldom made by informed analysts of American affairs. It is that the newly ascendant liberals in the US, who rose to power on the back of disenchantment with George W. Bush and the Iraq experience, simultaneously adopt liberal policies at home and conservative policies abroad. Their foreign policies rely on alliances with whichever forces serve their interests, and their strategic relations come at the expense of civil and human rights.
The Neoconservatives had trumpeted the notion of "exporting democracy", but in fact the invasion of Iraq was the single biggest setback to the progress of democracy in the Arab Levant. The invasion created a fear of change and the sectarian strife which such change might bring. It gave rise to a revulsion of the elites who had allied with the occupiers. The intensity of feeling is such that wide sections of the public within the Arab Levant fear change and avoid it.
Speaking from an Arab perspective, it would be difficult to express the significance of the invasion of Iraq in a single keynote address or even in an entire conference. It will take a long time merely to account for the mistakes in the political decision-making process which drive us into conflicts where loss was a foregone conclusion. Such flaws in the political decision-making process are ideologically neutral, in the sense that they result from the structures of Arab political regimes in general, affecting reactionary and radical regimes alike. At the time, this reality brought me to contemplate on the positive side of decision-making in democracies.
At an academic meeting such as this one, I find myself duty-bound to point out that the crime which was visited upon the Iraqi people, which in fact was a crime against humanity, has not received its fair share of scholarship. This applies both to the facts and realities which have yet to be revealed and documented, and the methodologies appropriate to study this event. Beyond agreeing on some basic truths, we will all need to arrive at a disciplined academic methodology which can produce reliable scholarly sources for the study of the grave crime which continues to unravel in Iraq today. The Iraqi people are entitled to this.
To move on to the matters which come to mind on this specific occasion. To begin with, the invasion reminded us all of something which we always knew, but which, for some reason of romantic attachment, never ceases to amazed us: so far as the Arab regimes which were in place at the time of the invasion were concerned, Arab solidarity was a hollow phrase. Those regimes waxed lyrical about Arabism when it suited them, and mocked it when it was out of fashion. They would go so far as to conspire with the US against a fellow Arab country. If the need arose, they were prepared to collude with Israel against a sister Arab state, after the leaders had greeted each other with kisses and fanfare at Arab League Summits. A second point which is brought to mind is that the Arab peoples are united in their opposition to the foreign occupation of Arab lands. All other political differences between them notwithstanding, the Arab peoples differ starkly from their regimes in their acute awareness of issues of foreign occupation, and of Palestine.
A third point is that corruption is not the exclusive and necessary preserve of tyranny. Indeed, corruption may indeed fester amongst the opponents of tyranny, should these latter not accept democracy and the rule, and should their political ethics be dominated by foreign concerns. A fourth point is that the methodical attack on the Arab identity of the peoples of the Arab Levant are an affront on the social cohesion of our societies. While the populations of the Arab Levant are pluralist in terms of their sectarian and ethnic composition, they all interact within the frame set by the Arabic language, and Arab culture.
It is true that Arab nationalist regimes have sinned against the non-Arab populations, who refused to be straitjacketed into Arabism, but recognizing the rights of non-Arabs in the region is now a moot point. The real problem now is the refusal to acknowledge the existence of Arabs, which has been a problem since a group of Zionist, or Zionist-aligned, Orientalists adopted an Israeli/colonialist prism through which to view our region. Through this perspective, Israel is set against not Arabs but a series of tribes, sects ethnic groups and other traditional forms of association.
The most heinous form which Arab complicity with Zionism and imperialism has taken is the willingness to act as political sects, and the politicization of confessional identity. I need to emphasize this structural feature without regard to the intentions of the people responsible.
Recognizing the national rights of, for example, the Kurds is no longer the issue; the issue is the desire to fracture the Arab people into a group of sects. The situation created by this will see all of the Arab countries dominated united by the fact that the only nationalism left standing in any Arab country is a non-Arab nationalism. By the same token, the Arabs will be left not as a national group or a people, but rather a collection of sects.
We can see clearly how this translates into a region in the North of Iraq which is defined by its national characteristics, while the majority of the population, in the rest of the country, is divided along sectarian lines. Nobody discusses the Arab identity which binds this majority together-although they, like the Kurds, are equally citizens of Iraq. Instead, they are pushed apart by the politicization of confessional diversity which is enshrined in a constitution set down by American consultants. Here, foreign intervention exacerbates the situation. Some states which reserve the right to define themselves as national groups continue to treat Arabs as a group of pliant sects. While Iran assumes the right to control one group, another group of Arabs-who have never before regarded themselves as a sect-have sought the help of Turkey. Turkey becomes, in this group's eyes, not the nation-state it defines itself as, but as a Sunni power.
I can only describe this as an attempt to turn back the clock of history. I have no doubt that something similar is being done to Syria, and that the situation needs to be rectified before the contagion takes over not only Syria, but spreads to the rest of the Arab Levant.
To speak of "rectifying the problem" is not to prescribe nationalism as an ideological remedy. My treatment of nationalism is not as an ideology, but as a cultural identity necessary for the social cohesion of the majority of the Arab Levant. Nationalism can prevent this majority's fragmentation into politicized sects, turning the entire region into a sort of confessional corporatism, a guild of sects and identity groups. Such a situation should not be confused with the pluralism inherent in a representative democracy, but rather is a one-way street to civil war.
All of us here today, my brothers and sisters, are in the midst of a transformational process. It is a process which grips those Arab countries which went through a revolution, and those which did not. It is a move towards democracy which may take ten or more years to complete. That ultimate democracy is founded on the equality of all citizens, bound together by a national identity, without regard to their religion or ethnicity. Democracy binds together Arabs and Kurds, Muslims and Christians, and Sunnis and Shias.
Yet this shared citizenship does not diminish either the majority's nor the minority's right to a cultural identity. In fact, a shared Arab identity provides a bulwark for social cohesion in the midst of political pluralism. When Arab states shake off this common identity, and place sectarian affiliation as the bond which ties citizens to the state, they are paving the way for a guild of sects. This is a form of coexistence, but one that is liable to turn into conflict. The Iraqi experience has taught all of us very much in this respect, and the hope is that Syria might learn from Iraq's experience.
To combat the consequences of the US invasion of Iraq is to acknowledge the existence of our shared citizenship on which national loyalty, and a rejection of sectarian loyalty to foreign powers, is based. It also means the acknowledgment of the majority's Arab identity which binds the entire country to the surrounding environment. It also means a refusal of the sectarian system and a simultaneous acceptance of the religious and confessional pluralism in Arab societies.