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What Would the World Be Like if We'd Never Invaded Iraq?

No Arab spring? Fewer jihadists? Less climate change? No economic collapse?

by Simon Childs, Illustrations: Cei Willis
03 April 2013, 7:00am

Last month, Tony Blair told the world that, despite the gargantuan human toll, he didn't regret the invasion of Iraq. After a decade of burying his guilty conscience so deep that his stomach is clearly rejecting it and trying to force it back out of his mouth, Tone has apparently justified the invasion to himself by claiming that, had Saddam Hussein been left in power, the Iraqi people would have risen against their tyrant and been mercilessly slaughtered. The result of this, he said, would have been “a lot worse than Syria”.

I've been riled by a lot of Blair's face-saving bullshit over the years, but that statement might have been the first to actually make me stop and think, rather than puke up indignation bile all over my keyboard. Sure, Blair and Bush might be able to paint the walls of their second, third and fourth homes with Iraqi blood, but who's to say what might have happened had they never invaded? Would Iraq really just have become another nation of people sweeping up cartilage and brain matter? And what implications would that have had for the rest of the region and the world beyond it?

Even though Blair's statement was disingenuous – suggesting that the pretext for war was spreading democracy, not ridding Saddam of his big, scary, made-up weapons – I still thought the question of what would happen if we never invaded Iraq was one worth mulling. Obviously, without the invasion, I'd have bought less NOFX records, but what would the world beyond my CD collection have been like? I figured I should ask some people who might actually know what they were talking about.

First of all, it’s of course not even clear that the Iraqis would have risen up against Saddam. John Tirman, the Executive Director for the MIT Centre for International Studies, pointed out that, “Saddam had a much stronger grip than even Assad had, as well as a record of the kind of ruthlessness that tends to discourage people from protesting.”

Also, given that Hans Blix's weapons inspection didn't uncover any weapons of mass distruction in Iraq, it would have been hard to continue imposing the sanctions of the first Gulf War that ended up impoverishing the country. Meaning, if he'd have just been left alone, Saddam may have been able to convince his people not to oust him by slowly beginning to stroke them with a newly sanction-free, economically-growing velvet glove, in-between assaulting them with his not inconsiderably weighty iron fist.      

According to Tirman, “Before 1991, even during the Iran/Iraq war, Iraqis had a higher standard of living, higher rates of education and higher levels of health care than people in many Arab states. If that had been rejuvenated in some way, which is possible but not a certainty, then maybe people wouldn't have felt the need to rebel on a mass scale.”

So, had Iraq spent the past ten years recouping some of its economic losses rather than dodging bombs, we could have potentially been looking at a 75-year-old Saddam presiding over a country where the excellent free dental care kept much of the populous sedate. Save for the few dissidents, of course, who would end up keeping schtum for fear that a member of the secret police would bash their teeth out with a titanium-plated wrench, using only a burning desire for freedom as an anaesthetic.

Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired US Army colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Since his retirement, he's gone rogue, lambasting many aspects of the Iraq war, including his own preparation of Powell's presentation to the UN. When he spoke to me, he predicted that the tension between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims will boil over into a full-blown civil war within the next three to five years.

“It’s already started,” he told me. But in a world where the invasion hadn’t happened? “I think we would have a rough balance of power,” he answered. “Saddam Hussein would perhaps be restarting his weapons of mass destruction programme – not to attack the United States, but to defend himself. We could have monitored that process and kept an eye on it. And as long as he continued to balance Iran and keep a rough balance of power in the Gulf, who cares?”

The Iraqi people, however, may have taken a slightly less disinteresed view of their position as the subjects of a tyrant than a US Army colonel. So what would have happened if they had risen up? According to Max Rodenbeck – the Economist's chief correspondent in the Middle East – in this scenario, Blair's comparison with Syria is still "silly, frankly".

“One of the reasons for the endurance of the regime in Syria is the way that Russia have decided to behave, backing Assad," he told me. "It might not have behaved like that in Iraq. It’s also likely that Iran would have intervened to get rid of Saddam – that they would have accelerated the process, whereas, in Syria, they're defending the regime.” This theory led Rodenbeck to speculate that an Iraqi spring would probably have looked more like what happened in Libya: a bloody civil war, perhaps, but not such a protracted one as in Syria.

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel, a London-based Kurdish political analyst, reckons that any such war would have been messy. Kurds, he told me, “felt a fear of being attacked and past atrocities repeating themselves. Saddam's chemical bombing of Halabja was always on people's minds because if he did it once, why couldn't he do it twice?"

This perspective, as well as the fact that the flourishing of Kurdistan is one of the few success stories since the invasion, makes Bashdar the only person I spoke to who was actually upbeat about the effect that the war had on Iraq. “What was achieved in the ten years after Saddam, in my opinion, would not have been achieved in 40, 50 years with Saddam still in power,” he told me.

It’s likely that the Arab Spring would have happened regardless of the war in Iraq – without it, the Middle East would still be largely populated by young people pissed off about living in poverty with little freedom to combat the boredom of their shitty situation. If it had still happened, it’s possible that the West could have avoided finding itself in the awkward position of being pals with the tyrants whose presidential palace gates were being charged.

“In Egypt, we missed the fact that our man Mubarak was going to be thrown out," says Lawrence Wilkerson, alluding to the fact that the ousted President was a US ally. "We're still trying to pick up the pieces and we need to back away from these dictators. Is that going to happen? No, probably not. We've seen the mess we've made in Iraq and we don’t want to take any more risks.”

We could also have avoided making the West’s least favourite power, Iran, simultaneously much more powerful and much more paranoid. Wilkerson thinks that our actions in Iraq have, “put Iran in the catbird seat”. This, along with a destabilisation of the region in general, has made Israel less safe. “I would not want to be Israel right now," Wilkerson asserted. "Iran's power hardens Israel’s political structure and puts the right-wing in place. It means that there is no prospect for a two-state solution.”

So, without the Iraq war, Palestinians might have not spent quite as much time ducking for cover from Israeli air strikes or lamenting the misappropriation of their land by settlers, and maybe – and, admittedly, that's a huge maybe – we'd be in a situation where the two sides had stopped continuously trying to kill each other.

It’s also possible that fewer people would be articulating their howls of disaffection through the language of jihadist terrorism, because, as Max Rodenbeck told me, the war “provided the audiovisual advertising – Abu Ghraib and so on, as well as advertising of jihadists blowing up Americans – all over the internet”. As Wilkerson put it, “We have created this whole phenomenon of terrorists with a global reach and global capabilities. We're actually creating people out there who we have to send armed forces after to get. Without the Iraq war and this general strategy, we'd be a lot closer to a more peaceful world without terrorism and without Western intervention in other countries. I think we could have dealt a considerable blow to global terrorism. The world would be in a hell of a better place.”

Eyes may have not been taken quite so disastrously off the ball in Afghanistan, also – there either would have been enough military resources to secure the country properly, or enough thought given to the situation to realise we should have pulled out much sooner.

But what about the black slime that so many people believed that the war was all about in the first place?

Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, explained to me that, although one of the war’s aims was to keep oil prices low, the resultant instability pushed up the price of petrol in the short term. Ironically, while this may have made you more likely to take a walk over the last few years, it's not been the best news for the environment overall because it made oil companies ramp up their search for what Greg called, “unconventional sources, in particular Canadian Tar Sands, but also increasingly US shale oil”. In other words, the sources of oil that make eco-warriors cry even more than all the other ones.

In fact, the war has double-fucked Mother Earth because, in the long term, access to Iraqi oil reserves will stop prices rising and aid our unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels. “Many, many decades of affordable oil is not good news for climate change,” says Greg. So, without the war, a shortage of oil may have given us the financial incentive we need to stop global warming. Because apparently being on a planet that doesn't slowly cook itself into a mess of overheating and flooding until we all die isn’t enough of an incentive to change our ways.

That said, oil is pretty fundamental to the economy, so perhaps we can console ourselves by considering that the financial mess the world has been in for the last few years would somehow be even worse if we hadn’t propped it up by murdering Iraqis. Max Rodenbeck helped to destroy that illusion: “The war is indirectly responsible, in many ways, for the economic crash in 2007. The money had to come from somewhere, so you had this US government debt bubble. At the same time, to keep the economy going there was an encouragement of consumer debt as well. What funded all this debt? Borrowing from places like China. It really is completely catastrophic and stupid.”

Another way of looking at it would be to speculate how big a dent in global poverty we could have made if we'd have spent that money on helping the poorer parts of the world rather than on blowing innocent people up. But contemplating that thought is just making me want to cry.

Rodenbeck then went on to sum up the war: “It’s flabbergasting, insane, just completely nuts. There really is no reason for it at all. It was completely disastrous; totally counterproductive in every way you can possibly imagine. It has achieved nothing at incredible costs. It’s really unbelievable.” Of course, it's also flabbergasting to think what could have happened without the invasion.

The world is a messy place and there’s no guarantee that our governments wouldn’t have found various other ways to ruin things for everyone, but it sure makes you think about what humanity can achieve when it’s not expending a lot of time and effort destroying itself. And as for Tony Blair – well, I guess if you're responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people it's nice to assume that they would have died anyway, but it sets a pretty dodgy precedent for public morality, not to mention that, on the evidence, he's just plain wrong.

Follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonChilds13

Illustrations by Cei Willis.

In reality, the Iraq War did happen. Find out some stuff about it here:

In Saddam's Shaddow

Shredded by War

How the 2003 Anti-Iraq War March Changed British Democracy Forever