Before the US-led coalition’s occupation of Iraq starting in March 2003, there was at least one subject upon which certain advocates and opponents of the war agreed: that the invasion was imperialistic. Both sides weaponised the historical role western imperialism played in the Middle East in an equally pragmatic and impressionistic fashion. But they did so through opposite interpretations of the past.

Fouad Ajami, a prominent historian of the Middle East who died in 2014, reportedly advised the George W. Bush administration in favour of intervention. Ajami argued that the British empire’s moment in Iraq had come after the first world war. But it was economically exhausted, and therefore failed. It was now the US’s time. Its driving motivation, he said – the “imperial burden” – should be “modernising the Arab world”, above and beyond toppling Saddam Hussein.

Three years into the war – with Hussein toppled – Ajami maintained that the war was a legitimate “imperial mission”, a “foreigner’s gift” to Iraqis. It was a “noble war” the outcome of which would “determine whether it is a noble success or a noble failure”.

Benevolent empires

Ajami’s discussion of benevolent empire chimed with a strand of scholarly work on imperial history that had emerged in the 1990s, some of it sympathetic towards classical imperialism. But in July 2002, the literary theorist and historian of Orientalism, Edward Said, anxiously complained that this revisionist scholarship, emphasising “the modernising advantages the empires brought” as well as “the security and order they maintained” failed to answer the question of “who decides when (and if) the influence of imperialism ends”.

The accounts of benevolent empire had to be unravelled because they were obscuring the relationship between the role western empires played in the Middle East and the ongoing disorders and violence there. Benevolent empire was being used as a dangerous instrument to validate another war in Iraq in 2003.

A couple of months after the war broke out and weeks before he passed away, Said warned that every empire would tell itself and the world that “it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate”. Empires were sustained by means of that imperial perspective – “seeing its people as subjects whose fate can be decided by what distant administrators think is best for them”. The same perspective was imposed upon the world by the US/UK coalition’s propaganda and policy apparatus with “woefully inadequate” sources of information about the Middle East.

After the war

The Bush administration disregarded detailed security and intelligence reports on the post-invasion policy of the coalition. Their eyes were trained exclusively on the campaign’s military success. Though it is said that there was a game plan for the aftermath of the invasion, its priorities were mismatched to realities on the ground. Local needs and wants were hardly taken into account. The result was a failure, which was anything but noble.

Three years after the war, Iraq descended into a devastating civil strife. Chaos lingered, spawning the horrors of first al-Qaida and then the Islamic State in Iraq. Since 2003, the war and the ensuing violence have claimed more than 200,000 civilian lives.

Between 2008 and 2021, around 5.7 million Iraqis were displaced. Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, one of the pretexts for the invasion, were never found.

Prior to the war, the Iraqi government had acted as swing producer, disrupting the free flow of oil from the Gulf to the world, thus holding the strings of global oil prices and antagonising Big Oil. The 2003 invasion enabled multinational companies to once again exploit Iraqi oil and adjust its flow to world markets again, ensuring western energy security.

History has it

This is not simply to say that Ajami was profoundly mistaken or Said spot on in their respective accounts of the influence of western imperialism in the Middle East. Much of the suffering in the region – including the 2003 war and the human misery it has since prompted – was a result of global imperial and local factors. No one ought to whitewash the role of western or Ottoman imperialism nor welcome an over-simplistic attribution of guilt to western imperial powers as the only malign actors.

The 2003 invasion was the rule, not the exception, in nearly two centuries of western interventionism in the Middle East. Since the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, these interventions were repeatedly framed as a service, favour or a gift to the local inhabitants, with several subsidiary objectives.

Time and again, in the name of humanity, civilisation and more recently “freedom” and “democracy”, empires intimidated, perpetrated violence, pillaged and partitioned a region that the imperial strategists came to call the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century. They went to great lengths to redraw its borders in the 1920s, without ever fully understanding, or respecting, the fiendishly complex realities on the ground.

Political and strategic considerations aside, dire economic and financial greed and anxieties surrounding the supply of commodities (grains, cotton and silk) also prompted armed interventionism in the Middle East in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the first three decades of the 20th century, a handful of American, British, Dutch and French companies came to control Middle Eastern oil, which proved to be vital for western economic recovery after the second world war.

Even then, with certain exceptions, such as the current settler colonialism in Palestine, local groups have been among the prime agents of many of the problems in the region: authoritarianism, violence and instability – even genocides. There have always been pull factors, even open invitations by local elites for western armed interventions. But imperial interventions deepened existing divisions in regional social systems, more often than not escalating them and intensifying violence.

That imperial burden

Empires are not selfless saviours – they have never been and possibly never will be. The problem with imperial armed interventions is the prioritisation of the (rival) interests of the intervening powers, even humanitarian aid actors in certain cases, in a hierarchical world order. It is the neglect of the broad wellbeing of local populations – as has been the case in Iraq in the past 20 years.

It might be true that the relationship between western imperialism and the Middle East has been one of an everlasting burden. But empires have not simply carried that “imperial burden”, as Ajami claimed. History tells us that they have usually imposed it on the Middle East.

Ozan Ozavci is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University

This article was originally published in The Conversation