Conference Review: Iraq 10 Years On: Intervention, Occupation, Withdrawal and Beyond

“Iraq 10 Years On: Intervention, Occupation, Withdrawal and Beyond”

Wael Elhabrouk and Benjamin Isakhan

To mark the tenth anniversary of the US-led war in Iraq, the Centre for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, hosted the symposium “Iraq 10 Years On: Intervention, Occupation, Withdrawal and Beyond” from 14–15 March 2013. The symposium was convened by Dr. Benjamin Isakhan and sponsored by the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, and the Australian Middle East Research Forum at Deakin University. The event provided a valuable opportunity to engage with diplomatic staff, politicians, academics, business leaders, policy-makers, Iraqi expatriates, media, and NGOs concerned with the Iraq War. As is detailed below, the two days of the symposium covered distinct aspects of the Iraq war with Day 1 focusing on Australia’s role in the war and Day 2 focused on the legacy of the war for Iraq today.

Day 1 – Australia’s Role in Iraq

Following an official welcome and introduction from Dr. Isakhan, the “Iraq 10 Years On” symposium got underway with a presentation from Her Excellency Ms. Lyndall Sachs, Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Iraq in Baghdad. Ms. Sachs gave some insightful comments on the developments in Australian-Iraqi relations following the fall of Saddam Hussein. She also talked about expected future co-operation between Australia and Iraq and her aim to see Australian-Iraqi relations strengthened over the coming decade. The Ambassador also reiterated the Australian government’s commitment to supporting Iraq’s national development and the country’s progress towards strengthening its democratic institutions.

Dr. Benjamin Isakhan welcomes the crowd in his introduction (Credit: Deakin University).

Her Excellency Ms. Lyndall Sachs, Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Iraq in Baghdad addressing the crowd (Credit: Deakin University).

Following Ms. Sachs’ statement, the late morning presentations brought the themes of human rights, social justice, and national responsibility, with regard to the intervention in Iraq, to the fore. These presentations also tended to highlight Australia’s role in the Iraq War. For example, the infamous case of the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison was addressed by human rights and social justice advocate Ms. Aloysia Brooks (University of Sydney). During her presentation, Ms. Brooks argued that little has been publicised about the alleged involvement of Australian personnel in attempts to cover-up what happened in Abu Ghraib. She argued that evidence had emerged linking Australian personnel to attempts of hindering investigations conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The presentation constituted, through its topic, an exploration of the need for accountability and recognition of mistakes made during the occupation, particularly on Australia’s behalf.

Ms. Aloysia Brooks (University of Sydney) addressing the crowd (Credit: Deakin University).

Ms. Aloysia Brooks (University of Sydney) addressing the crowd (Credit: Deakin University).

A highlight presentation on the first day of the conference was presented by Mr. Paul Barrat, President of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry and former Secretary of the Department of Defence and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Following the theme of Australia’s role in the Iraq War, Mr. Barrat’s presentation focused on the need for a better understanding of how and why the Australian government chose to back the U.S. in its invasion and later occupation of Iraq. Ten years after the Iraq War it is apparent that as a consequence of the Iraq War and its aftermath many of the countries that had been militarily engaged in Iraq are forced to reflect upon the mechanisms used to enable the war to happen in the first place. Such reflections are of course essential in order to apply past lessons to future scenarios involving military intervention abroad. Mr. Barrat’s objective is to shed light on the state of the decision-making process within the Australian government and to promote measures to help make this process more inclusive of the Australian public.

Day 2 – The Legacy of the Iraq War

The second day of the conference saw a change in focus with our distinguished international speakers addressing less the role of Australia in the war and more the current situation in Iraq. The day began with a keynote presentation by Professor Liam Anderson (Wright State University) on the contentious topic of Iraq’s constitutional gridlock and power-based politics. Professor Anderson drew on the issue of Kurdish autonomy as a key example of contentious political disputes in Iraq worsened by the absence of effective judicial authority and key institutions. The Kurds, who were instrumental in drafting Iraq’s 2005 constitution, are seeking a state where the federal government is weak relative to regional authorities. It is such a system, which Professor Anderson argues is depicted by the Iraqi constitution, that consequently places the management of oil and gas resources in the hands of regional governments. The issue, as noted in the presentation, is the fact that a significant number of Arab (Sunni and Shi’a) nationalists prefer “a unitary system of government with a strong central government, and national control over the exploitation of oil and gas reserves.” Consequently, Professor Anderson argues for the need for an Iraqi “constitutional settlement that respects Kurdish autonomy while facilitating Arab (Sunni/Shi’a) reconciliation.”

Professor Liam Anderson (Wright State University) addressing the crowd (Credit: Deakin University).

In the afternoon, three papers were presented by some of the most well-respected senior academics within the field of Arab and Middle East political studies, Professor Michael C. Hudson (Director, Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore), Professor Peter Sluglett (MEI, NUS) and Professor Amin Saikal (Director, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University). In his address, Professor Hudson touched on both the history and future of Iraqi-U.S. relations. Professor Hudson’s paper laid the historical groundwork by reviewing American attempts at helping Iraq during the Iran–Iraq war and how this changed dramatically following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. The presentation also addressed how neo-conservatism influenced the White House’s decision to seek regime change in Iraq following 9/11. Finally, Professor Hudson’s paper explored some of the questions which arose more recently with regard to the impact of the Iraq War: Did Bush’s “freedom agenda” inspire the eruption of the Arab Spring? Was Iran’s influence in the Persian Gulf strengthened by the U.S.’s intervention in Iraq? The presentation concluded with an argument from Professor Hudson asserting that the U.S.’s strategic blunder in Iraq cost it much influence both in the region and globally and only contributed to hastening its decline as a global superpower.

Professor Liam Anderson (Wright State University) addressing the crowd (Credit: Deakin University).

Professor Michael C. Hudson (National University of Singapore) addressing the crowd (Credit: Deakin University).

Continuing with the theme of American miscalculations and strategic blunders when it comes to Iraq, Professor Sluglett explored the failure of U.S. policy towards Iraq. Professor Sluglett pointed out how misconceptions contributed to the development of inadequate U.S. policy towards Iraq both in the period “preceding and immediately following the invasion.” The presentation insightfully drew the attention of the audience to the realities of change that Iraqi society witnessed during Saddam Hussein’s final decade in power. The issue for the U.S. and its allies, argued Professor Sluglett, was that these changes were misconceived and misunderstood. Consequently, the U.S. and its allies, going into Iraq, were unaware of the overwhelming monopoly of ‘religious politics’ within Iraqi political discourse and interactions. Evidently, as Professor Sluglett noted, this caught many by surprise not least amongst them U.S. policy-makers as well as long-time Iraqi exiles who backed the invasion.

Finally, Professor Saikal, explored the chasm that exists between advocates of self-democratisation and proponents of induced democratisation. Professor Saikal rightly pointed out the strong support that exists for both views; does democratisation effectively succeed only when it is a product of “indigenous processes”? Or, is outside intervention (both military and otherwise) a valid, and possibly necessary, form of inducing democratisation in an authoritative state? Prof Saikal’s presentation evaluated the case of Iraq in the context of the aforementioned wider debate in order to shed light on where Iraq is located along the democratising spectrum and whether “interventionist democratisation has worked.”

Professor Amin Saikal (Australian National University) addressing the crowd (Credit: Deakin University).

Overall, the conference allowed a number of key figures in the field to address some pressing and contentious questions and debates surrounding the military intervention in Iraq and its aftermath. Inevitably however, many more questions were also raised throughout the course of the two-day long conference. Chief amongst those were: What is next for Iraq? And, what steps ought to be taken by both Iraqis and Western power to ensure Iraq’s development towards stability, unity, and democracy. Likely, only with time will such questions be conclusively addressed. Nonetheless, the conference provided a valuable opportunity for those interested in the events witnessed in Iraq over the past decade to engage with the experts and review the past while contemplating some of the possibilities for the future.