"My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger." That announcement from U.S. President George W. Bush at 10:16 p.m. EST on March 19, 2003, marked the beginning of the Iraq invasion. Twenty years later, it is clear that despite U.S. promises of liberation and democracy, the invasion resulted in massive death, destruction and ongoing political instability in Iraq.
The Center for Middle East Studies (CMES) at Brown University and the Costs of War project, jointly with the Watson Institute, will examine the complicated legacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in a March 21 webinar. CMES is also co-sponsoring and participating in a series of events to mark the 20th anniversary of the invasion.
The organizers plan to focus on the actual impact of the war on the people of Iraq and its enormous human, economic and environmental toll, which includes over 300,000 who have died from direct war violence, according to the Costs of War project. CMES director Nadje Al-Ali noted that there is a large gap between the rhetoric of liberation used by Bush and others who pushed for war under the false pretenses that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and what actually happened, especially as it pertains to women and increased sectarian divisions.
Much of professor Al-Ali’s research has focused on "trying to document the impact of the invasion and the occupation on women and gender relations and society in general in Iraq." Al-Ali said it is a mistake to think of Iraq as "just another Muslim country where women are oppressed." While this perception of Muslim societies in and of itself is a misleading stereotype, she noted that "historically, women have played an important role in Iraqi society." Far from experiencing the kind of liberation promised by the U.S. architects of the invasion, Al-Ali argued that "if anything, women were the biggest victims of the invasion of Iraq because gender-based violence increased as there was a shift towards greater conservatism, chaos and lawlessness."
Al-Ali said that while it is important to "stress the devastating impact of the invasion and the occupation on Iraq," we should be careful about "falling into the trap of portraying Iraqis as passive victims." She continued, "some of the negative transformations and horrible things we've seen in terms of violence, lawlessness and corruption are linked to the invasion and the occupation, but they cannot be reduced to it." "Corrupt Iraqi militia leaders and politicians with sectarian ideas have played an active role in the country’s struggles. They're not just puppets," she said. Likewise, Al-Ali cautioned against viewing Iraqi women as passive victims of male, religious oppression who need to be liberated by an "enlightened" West. Iraqi women have been resourceful, resisting and mobilizing despite extremely challenging circumstances.
Al-Ali generally views the invasion and its aftermath as an unmitigated disaster. "I'm not suggesting that there is a good way to invade a country," she said, "but everything that could have been done wrong in the aftermath of the invasion was done wrong." For example, there were many experts in both the U.S. and Iraq who cautioned against disbanding the army. "[Disbanding the army] was not going to work because then you have a million people with arms and no jobs on the street, and what are they going to do? They're going to form militias," she said. The occasion of the 20th anniversary of the invasion should be a time for "Americans to think about the impact of this military operation that was supported by many in the name of human rights and democracy," she said.
Despite the dark legacy of the U.S. invasion, Al-Ali sees reason for hope. Recent events in the country have sparked optimism. "Lately, there have been street protests by Iraqi youth who want to take control of their own destinies. I think that is really important, and looking back 20 years from today, that may be the story we are telling," she said.
Wednesday, March 8: "Iraqi Women Speak: Promoting Women, Peace, and Security." Sponsored by Keough School of Public Affairs at Notre Dame University. Includes a talk by Nadje Al-Ali.
Thursday, March 16: "Iraq 20 Years On - Iraqi Voices." Sponsored by Peace News. Conversation with Nadje Al-Ali and Maysoon Pachachi, a London-based filmmaker of Iraqi origin.
Tuesday, March 21: "Twenty Years of War in Iraq: The Costs and Consequences." Webinar co-hosted by CMES and the Costs of War project. Scholars from the Iraqi diaspora reflect on the broad consequences of war in Iraq, in particular in relation to gender, culture, displacement, the environment and health.
Wednesday, March 29 - Friday, March 31: "Iraq Twenty Years After the US Invasion: Memory Politics, Governance and Protests." International conference at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, Germany, co-sponsored by CMES. Nadje Al-Ali will deliver the conference keynote address.