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Was the Iraq War Worth It? Ask the Public

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There are two major events this week in London marking the tenth anniversary of the biggest demonstration in British history when some two million people marched against the prospect of a war in Iraq.

The first is a The Huffington Post debate at Goldsmiths, University of London featuring pro- and anti-war voices including the former shadow defence secretary Bernard Jenkin MP and the former cabinet minister Clare Short, journalists David Aaronovitch and Owen Jones and Iraqi activist Haifa Zangana and commentator Ali Latif. The overall question is whether the war was 'worth it.'

The second is a conference hosted by the Stop the War Coalition, who organized the original protest in 2003, and features a stellar cast of anti-war activists including Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Tony Benn, Jemima Khan, Seamus Milne, Salma Yaqoob and Lindsey German. Here the focus is very much on learning lessons from Iraq in order more effectively to oppose both present and future wars.

This is a crucial task. The 'war on terror' may have been rebranded as 'overseas contingency operations' and US and UK troops may have left Iraq and are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan but the threat of military action from Syria to Sub-Saharan Africa remains very much alive.

In this context it is worth reminding ourselves of some of warnings posed by the marchers back in 2003. Chris Nineham's excellent new book, The People v. Tony Blair, captures the febrile atmosphere of the demonstrations that took place around the world on 15 February where anywhere between eight and 30 million people marched in 600 cities demanding that George Bush and Tony Blair call off their plans for an invasion and occupation of Iraq. In the UK, many marchers held placards simply saying 'NO' while many others insisted that any war would be 'NOT IN MY NAME'. Protestors made it clear that they did not believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that a US/UK onslaught would lead to the deaths of huge numbers of Iraqis and increased instability throughout the Middle East.

Ten years on, we meet to ask 'was it worth it?'

Presumably not for the many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed in the conflict. The figures may vary (Iraq Body Count put the number at around 120,000 while the Lancet counted upwards of 600,000) but the story is one of devastation nonetheless.

Presumably not for the 4400 US soldiers killed in combat and presumably not also for anyone seeking peace, security and democracy in a region whose tensions and rivalries have been intensified by the occupation.

Presumably not for former prime minister Tony Blair whose reputation was utterly tarnished following the war and who continues to be met with cries of 'war criminal' whenever he appears in public in the UK.

Yet some did rather well out of the war. The US company Halliburton won contracts from government agencies worth $17.2 billion from 2003-6 to construct and maintain military bases, repair oil fields and other infrastructural projects in Iraq. The private equity firm, Veritas Capital, through its DynCorp subsidiary, earned $1.44 billion by training the new Iraqi police force before selling the company to another fund, Cerberus Capital Management in 2010.

None of this would have been a surprise to the millions marching to stop the assault on Iraq. One of the most popular slogans was 'No Blood for Oil' reflecting a widely-held view that the war was about securing Western strategic interests rather than about humanitarian motives.

What is so impressive is that despite news coverage that, with some honourable exceptions like the Daily Mirror, reproduced an official narrative that Iraq presented an imminent danger to the West, by and large ordinary citizens failed to buy into this. Polls showed that, while in 2003 the UK and US publics were each split in their attitude towards a war in Iraq, their opposition to the war hardened quite quickly. The last poll in the UK that showed a majority in favour of the war was in May 2004 and the picture has remained the same ever since.

There is a similar pattern in the US where, less than a month ago, a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 59% of Americans said Iraq war wasn't worth it. This followed a Pew survey from 2011 which showed that a similar number of Iraq veterans argued that the war was not worth fighting. Indeed, a majority of the US public still do not believe that the Iraq War was 'morally justified' and think that sending troops to Iraq was a 'dumb thing to do.' Most continue to believe that the US government deliberately misled the US public about the existence of WMDs.

Polls in Iraq also demonstrated a substantial majority of the public opposed to the US occupation with some 78% of those questioned in a 2006 poll stating that the presence of foreign troops was 'provoking more conflict than it was preventing'.

Of course, opinion polls are far from the most reliable expression of the 'truth' of any situation and are often the product of highly selective questions as well as providing a static and potentially misleading picture of individual beliefs on a particular issue. This is why the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu railed against what he saw as 'manufactured opinion... mobilised around a system of explicitly formulated interests.' Public opinion, as a tangible and meaningful phenomenon, 'does not exist.'

But 15 February 2003 shows that Bourdieu may have miscalculated. What the New York Times called the 'second superpower', world public opinion, took to the streets to demonstrate its firm opposition to the war in previously unheard of numbers and, in the UK at least, came within a whisper of making it impossible for Tony Blair to secure a parliamentary mandate for joining the US in attacking Iraq.

With British troops set to have some presence in Syria and a new 'Scramble for Africa', Tony Blair once again calling for a generation-long fight against al-Qaida and with President Hollande looking to restore the flawed philosophy of 'humanitarian intervention' by sending troops into Mali, these debates matter- not least to remind ourselves of the importance of calling our governments to account and of the need to re-awaken the 'second superpower.'

The Huffington Post UK with Goldsmiths, University of London event 'The Great Iraq War Debate: Was It Worth It? Iraq, Ten Years On' takes place on 7 February 18:30 - 21:00 (19:00 start).

Venue: Great Hall, Richard Hoggart Building, Goldsmiths, University of London, SE14 6NW
Price: Free, but reserve your place at www.amiando.com/iraqdebate

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