Peter van Buren’s 2011 book We Meant Well sums up a common theme when Americans look back about the Iraq War: The country went into it with good intentions but didn’t understand the country being invaded and was thus unable to make any sort of positive change. Perhaps there was ill intent within the Bush administration, but the effort itself as carried out by the U.S. military and the foreign policy bureaucracy was a noble but tragic one. The United States got rid of a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, but made things worse as the government clumsily fumbled its way through an occupation or liberation, depending on your preferred term. At the very least, the war did not make things better. Van Buren asks how we ended up “accomplishing so little when we meant well?” His book, a well-written account of his time working to stabilize Iraq for the State Department, attempts to answer that question in between anecdotes of all the things that went terribly wrong. It also reveals, unintentionally, the massive gap in how Americans perceive the intentions behind the war and how Iraqis perceive those intentions.
Van Buren was not alone in his assessment of the war as one of good intentions gone awry. The war enjoyed widespread public support, with 72 percent approving of the decision to invade in the first few weeks after the invasion. Support waned significantly as the war dragged on, but the initial reasons for going to war were convincing to the American public. As the war’s failure became apparent, many continued to insist that the initial intent had been good. John Agresto, an academic adviser in the country after the invasion, wrote a book called Mugged By Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions. Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institute, writing in 2008 in the New York Times, said that “if we leave behind a raging civil war in which the Iraqi people are incomprehensibly worse off than they had been under Saddam Hussein and the Middle East more threatened by the chaos spilling over from Iraq than they ever were by the dictator’s arms, then no one will care how well-intentioned our motives.”
However, this perception of the Iraq War as one of good intentions gone wrong is the most common point of contention I find between Iraqi narratives of the war versus American narratives. By and large, Iraqis I talk to do not believe the United States had good intentions when they removed Saddam in 2003, and this opinion is shared by those who believe removing Saddam was a good thing and those who do not. A poll of Baghdad residents in 2003 showed that just 5 percent of Baghdadis thought the United States’ main intention during the 2003 invasion was to help the people of Iraq, while 43 percent believed the primary intent was to take Iraq’s oil reserves.
A good example of Iraqi perceptions of the war, by no means unique, is a book called Baghdad Melodies [maqamat baghdadiyya] published in Arabic in 2006 by Sahar Taha, an Iraqi musician who passed away of cancer in 2018. Taha was a famous player of the oud, a stringed musical instrument from the Middle East, and she was a regular on Arabic television during her career. Iraqi by birth, she married a Lebanese man and made her career in Lebanon, ultimately gaining Lebanese citizenship as well. Shortly before the U.S. invasion of March 2003, she visited her family in Baghdad, then continued to write a diary of sorts about the war from Lebanon, where she watched events unfold on TV and in phone conversations—when possible—with family still in Iraq. She later published this diary as a book with Riyad el-Rayyes, one of the most prominent Arabic-language publishing houses.
To take an example of the gap in perception, one of the widely acknowledged mistakes of the early days of the war was the United States’ inability to prevent the looting of Iraqi governmental institutions in the first days after the fall of the Iraqi government. In the American telling of the issue, soldiers were not given proper orders to become the country’s police force, and the confusion led to a breakdown in law and order. Soldiers blamed the looting on a desire for revenge among Iraqis against their oppressive government, but they were unable to intervene. As then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it, “Freedom's untidy. Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things.” This was not how many Iraqis saw it. In her book, Taha recalls watching the looting on TV, and quotes a bystander interviewed in Basra: “They could simply impose order. There’s no explanation for them just standing by neutrally unless they mean for this to happen.” Taha agrees, wondering: “Is the destruction, theft, and burning of the official institutions of the government and ministries a coincidence?” She also wonders about the disappearance of thousands of pieces from the national museum overnight: “A museum with thousands of pieces is emptied overnight? That is what they want us to simply and naively believe? Is there a rational person who would believe that this is the result of general chaos, and merely theft? Or was it planned and trained for months before the invasion…?” As I’ve heard from countless other Iraqis, Taha saw a plan in the chaos.
Equally important is the question of why the United States suddenly opposed Saddam despite previous support for him. Even in the United States, much was made of the sharp turn in American engagement with Iraq between the Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War. Within a few short years, the United States went from supporting Saddam against Iran to fighting a war against Iraq in Kuwait. A decade later, the United States removed Saddam from power. Iraqis like Taha were skeptical of America’s intentions in “liberating” the country, given the American relationship with Saddam in the days when he was still a brutal dictator but less of a nuisance regionally. “Most Iraqis are convinced today that Iraq has been afflicted with wars that were programmed from the time that Iraq was reaching the height of its power,” Taha wrote. “The result was that Saddam was put in power, by the Americans themselves, so that they could eventually reach this exact point.” It would be hard to find an American to make this claim and be taken seriously, but it is not a rare opinion in the Middle East, where America is generally considered capable of planning decades in advance and carrying out its plans to the letter, with intended effect.
Indeed, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait revealed much about Arab feelings towards the United States. For example, Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh was in the al-Muslimiyah prison in Aleppo at the time (he was a political prisoner from 1980 to 1996). Prisoners “were divided sharply over the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait,” he wrote in his 2012 book about Syrian prisons. “In the beginning it looked to all of us that this invasion was a step beyond the countless other repugnant transgressions between Arab countries engrained in the memory of our generation.” However, as the Americans moved against Saddam, public opinion also began to shift among the prisoners towards tacit sympathy with Iraq.
The decisive factor in my position was my opposition to the Americans, and to the Syrian regime, which had participated in the international coalition [against Saddam]. It was necessary to turn a blind eye to the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Meanwhile, the motivating factor in the opposing position was opposition to the Iraqi regime, which also necessitated a degree of overlooking the view of Americans and the international coalition. As for Kuwait itself, it took a secondary position in forming all of our opinions.
Note the tone here towards the Americans: Even those opposed to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait supported the war against Saddam despite the American involvement, not because of it. America’s participation did little to improve its image among those who supported ending Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait.
Barely a decade later in 2003, Taha had no doubt that the Americans were invading Iraq to benefit from its economic resources. She laments that the average Iraqi has little access to information about the actual value of their country’s resources. All-knowing America, however, must know in detail what resources exist in Iraq, and that explains their interest in the country. As always in the Arab understanding of the United States, the American government is omniscient: “There is no doubt that America must be watering at the mouth because of the vast and indisputable evidence [of economic resources], given that they are suffering from a real economic crisis.” America’s war, in other words, was intended to boost America’s economy by invading Iraq and stealing its resources. No matter the massive increase to America’s national debt and the several trillion dollars spent on the war effort, many Iraqis remain convinced that the United States benefited greatly from the Iraq War.