SA's opposition to the US invasion of Iraq: Ten years on

Isaac Mogotsi says the stance taken by Mandela, Mbeki, Tutu and others has been completely vindicated

"In the age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." George Orwell, 1984.


A recent interview with John Prescott, the former UK deputy prime minister in Tony Blair's Labour government, should have warmed the cockles of the hearts of all South Africans and made all of us enormously proud of our country's top national leadership echelons.

On 19 March 2013, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, which was supported to the hilt by the UK Labour government of Blair/Prescott leadership duo as a junior war partner, the latter was interviewed by CNN's Christian Amanpour. 

In her blog, Amanpour quoted John Prescott as having said: "I have come to the conclusion the justification for the intervention was wrong. [We] may have got rid of Saddam, but it certainly never brought peace."

With this public statement, one of the key architects and prosecutors of US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, conceded, in all but name, that the SA national leaders in the persons of former presidents Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, (current) President Jacob Zuma, former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, were all correct to have furiously and stridently opposed the invasion of Iraq to get rid of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and effect "regime change" there.

It was also a historic admission that the powerful SA public opinion that coalesced to oppose the planned US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was on the right side of the war and peace divide over Iraq in 2003.

What is more, subsequent sad and very cruel events in post-invasion Iraq have vindicated the SA opposition to US invasion of Iraq.

It has been rather sad to observe recently that in the sea of ink spilled and the forest of wood harvested to commemorate the 10th anniversary of US invasion of Iraq by the global commentariat, next to nothing has been written to pay tribute to the extraordinary moral clarity, intellectual depth and strategic brilliance shown by our five leaders, and SA public opinion generally, in opposing the plans of the former US president George W Bush's administration for the invasion of Iraq, right from the word go.

This regrettable state of affairs may owe much to the world's continuing determination to marginalise Africa and keep her from being at the very centre of narratives about global developments.

In retrospect, it is safe to state today that in the run up to the Iraq war, it is arguably only South Africa, under former President Thabo Mbeki, and France, under former president Jacques Chirac, which provided the world's powerful anti-Iraq war movement and sentiment with leadership, inspiration and a rallying point.

But it was the indignant, courageous and outspoken South African leaders who openly denounced the plans for the US/UK invasion of Iraq in no uncertain terms, and condemned them in some of the strongest ,and sometimes most "undiplomatic" ,language ever employed in international diplomacy. The often raw wrath they articulated caught much of the world by surprise.

Not since former Egyptian nationalist leader Abdel Nasser's opposition to the UK/French/Israeli aggrandizing designs on Egypt's Suez Canal in 1956, had an African country chosen to so vocally and publicly challenge the war designs of Western powers on an Arab Middle East country. What was even more remarkable was that SA was neither Arab, nor part of the Middle East, nor North African. Iraq is geographically as distant from SA as you can get, and was not a major trading partner of SA. After all Iraq had been placed under severe and choking UN sanctions following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iraq was not even of direct geo-strategic importance to SA. Saddam Hussein's Baath Party was never a major supporter of the ANC's freedom struggle, although it was very supportive of the Pan African Congress (PAC) in exile.

With SA hardly ten years as a new post-apartheid democracy in 2003, it is difficult today to fully appreciate the extraordinary risks the SA leaders were taking, and the dangers they faced, in their principled, moral and prophetic opposition to the US/UK war on Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

What is even more, in the period between 2002 and June 2003, it was not clear to all then that the US invasion of Iraq would be the catastrophic and costly failure practically everyone today acknowledges it to be. When our leaders condemned the war plans with righteous indignation, there was no Iraq insurgency to speak of, no deadly Iraqi Sunni-Shiite rivalry, no bitter battles of Fallujah, Basra or Mosul, no suicide bombings and no civil war in Iraq. And there was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq or the Iraqi Sunni Awakening. Iran hardly had any influence in Iraqi domestic affairs at that stage.

All that came much later, in the wake of US/UK invasion of Iraq.

What the world knew at that stage was that NATO, led by former USA president Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, had successfully intervened militarily in the Balkan wars in 1999. So even some of the world's states who were quietly opposed to the USA invasion of Iraq, chose the easy route of least resistance, or chose comfortable course of neutrality or acquiescence to Bush and Blair war-mongering over Iraq, rather than risk alienating the US, or later to being caught on the wrong side of the Iraq war.

And following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US and what seemed like George W Bush's successful campaign to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan,  George W Bush and Tony Blair bestrode the world like colossi and braggarts, striking God's fear in the hearts of leaders of countries around the world, easily turning them into their patsies and wusses with noodle legs, with the slightest arm-twist.

Not so with our SA leaders and the strong anti-Iraq war SA public opinion.

To her ever-lasting glory, at that moment of supreme global danger and enormous risk, South Africa proved to the world that she had a national leadership made of a rare and strong timber, not fearful to contradict the erroneous policies of some of the world's most powerful countries on the basis of shining moral clarity and correct principles.

Rising above George W Bush and Tony Blair's loud and threatening war drum-beat and later the fog of actual Iraq war, our SA leaders, in turn, bestrode the world like moral colossi and global beacons in their uncompromising and fierce opposition to the US/UK invasion of Iraq.

Thus by their anti-Iraq war stance, they pencilled post-apartheid SA's proudest and finest diplomatic hour. This is because the stakes and risks were so high, yet the benefits so little for SA adopting such a courageous anti-war stance in opposition to her major trading partners.

As we head towards the 20th anniversary of SA's freedom and democracy next year, it is important to remind ourselves, albeit briefly, what and how high the stakes and risks were in our leaders' loud and principled opposition to the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, if only for the sake of future generations of African diplomatic leaders.

It is also vital for SA to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the US/UK invasion of Iraq this year, because the innate humility of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and Aziz Pahad prevents them from standing on global pulpits and to publicly beat their chests with pride to say to then very powerful pro-Iraq war lobbies that were led by George W Bush and Tony Leon: "WE TOLD YOU SO!"

Above all, as David Corn, Mother Jane magazine's Washington Bureau Chief,  puts it: "Those who questioned the case for war have won the fight over history." (Article, "Iraq 10 Years later: The Deadly Consequences of Spin", 18 March 2013). But what is actually this history the fight over which SA too must claim victory?


Addressing the International Women's Forum in Johannesburg on 31 January 2003, former SA president Nelson Mandela, then 84 years old, startled and shook the world by saying the following about former USA president George W Bush:

"What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight and who cannot think properly, is now  wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust. He is making the greatest mistake of his life by trying to cause carnage."

Mandela further questioned whether George W Bush and Tony Blair were undermining the UN "...because the secretary general of the United Nations [Ghananian Kofi Annan] is now a black man? They never did this when the secretary generals were white."

In a stinging rebuke of the former UK prime  minister Tony Blair's fervent support for the US invasion of Iraq, Mandela added that Blair "was the US foreign minister...He is no longer the prime minister of Britain."

[Interestingly, much later on, Sir Christopher Meyers, one of the key foreign policy advisers of former prime minister Tony Blair in the run up to the US/Uk invasion of Iraq, was to write that "with his Manichean, black and white view of the world, Mr. Blair was in his way more neo-con than the neo-cons, more evangelical than the American Christian Right."]

In contrast, Nelson Mandela heaped praises on former French President Jacques Chirac for France's equally principled and firm stance in opposition to the US/UK invasion of Iraq. In late June 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, and following Mandela's meeting with the former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, Mandela said:

"Chirac took the correct attitude not to support war. He was in favor of peace." (IOL Online, "Angry Mandela condemns US for Iraq invasion", 27 June 2003).

Another blistering criticism of the US invasion of Iraq was offered by former President Thabo Mbeki. On 08 April 2003 the New York Times carried an article by Ginger Thomson under the title "A Nation  At War: South Africa; Iraq War Sets Bad Precedent, Mbeki Warns." The writer stated that:

"President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa today issued his most stinging evaluation of the war against Iraq, saying that the United States and Britain had unevenly applied standards of democracy, and warning Africans that they could be next victims of what he depicted as international bullying. He compared the invasion of Iraq to force-feeding a person on a hunger strike, and said that real democracy was the product of evolution, not something to be imposed."

Ginger Thomson then quoted Mbeki as having said:

"The prospect facing the people of Iraq should serve as sufficient warning that in the future we, too, might have others descend on us, guns in hand to force-feed us...If the United Nations does not matter," why should "the little countries of Africa think that "we matter and will not be punished if we get out of line."

 For his part, Archbishop Desmond Tutu too was very agitated, vocal and scathing about his opposition to the US/UK invasion of Iraq. In a 2004 interview with Newsweek's Arlene Getz, Archbishop Tutu described the US invasion of Iraq as "immoral" and stated that:

"President Bush and whoever supported the invasion ought at least to have the decency to say [they] went into this war because [they] were given the wrong reasons for going to war."

Much earlier, whilst hosting the former Iraqi deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz in Durban at a gala dinner in early July 2002, former SA deputy president (and current president), Jacob Zuma, described the USA and UK as "bully states", because of their "No-Fly-Zones" over Iraq, the comprehensive sanctions against the country and their drum-beat for "regime-change" war against Saddam Hussein.

In my recent Politicsweb on former SA president (and current deputy president), Kgalema Motlanthe, I wrote about his anti-Iraq war passion let loose at a pro-Iraq solidarity meeting in Lenasia, whilst he was still the ANC's secretary general, where, like Mbeki, he warned that the US may in the future decide to invade SA, because of the abundance of strategic minerals in SA, just as Iraq has lot of oil.

But it was former SA deputy minister of foreign affairs, Aziz Pahad, as former President Thabo Mbeki's point man on the Middle East, who gave operational and policy effect to growing and strong SA government and public opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, through government media releases and press conferences, and through his indefatigable diplomatic tours across the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Russia, US and the UN, to consult and canvass governments and the UN on what was the biggest diplomatic issue at the time.

The six policy planks of SA government position on Iraq that Aziz Pahad was selling and propounding to SA's foreign interlocutors regarding the US invasion of Iraq and its aftermath were:

A) That the actions of the US and UK on Iraq needed to be guided by the UN Security Council resolutions, and not be unilateral and outside the UN framework.

B) That democracy could not be brought into Iraq on a military tank or the back of a war plane, and that Iraqis could notbe "force-fed" democracy.

C) That the UN should be given enough time to assess and verify whether Iraq indeed possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as Bush and Blair were alleging.

D) Folowing the invasion, that the US/UK should not pursue wholesale De-Baathification, and should not pursue wholesale retrenchment of Saddam Hussein's security and juridical apparatus, following their occupation of Iraq..

E) That occupation of Iraq by the US would render Iraq asunder.

F) That Iraq's post-war reconstruction needed to be an all-inclusive process that promoted Iraq's national unity and territorial integrity and cohesion.

The US/UK invaders of Iraq and their many co-occupants of Iraq, constituted in the so-called US-led Coalition of the  Willing, were not prepared to listen to the voices of reason thundering from the southern tip of Africa ad from Chirac's France.

In the first flush of US neocons' emphatic victory over the Afghan Talibans, and still believing they could exploit, for their geo-strategic benefit ,what Condoleeza Rice, George W Bush's former National Security Adviser, called "the unilateral moment" of US's unparalleled global hegemony as the world's sole superpower. Bush and Blair were still too self-assured in their unilateral impulses and ways to care to listen to voices questioning their choice to go to war against Saddam's Iraq under a false pretext, a war which was not a war of necessity

They would later pay a steep and heavy price for their self-induced deafness.

Ten years later, the former US deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, who many believe was the real architect of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, (and the first Bush administration official to allegedly link Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US), was interviewed by UK Sunday Times' Toby Harden on 17 March 2013. The article was entitled "10 Years On, Paul Wolfowitz Admits US Bungled In Iraq."

UK Sunday Times Washington Bureau Chief Toby Harden wrote:

"The former deputy Pentagon chief, Paul Wolfowitz, a driving force behind the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has conceded that a series of blunders by George W. Bush's administration plunged Iraq into a cycle of violence that 'spiral led out of control.'"

Wolfowitz was quoted by the UK Sunday Times as having said that there "should have been Iraqi leadership from the beginning, rather than a 14-month occupation led by an American viceroy and based on 'this idea that we are going to come in like [General Douglas] MacArthur in Japan and write the constitution for them'"

Wolfowitz furthermore conceded that too many Iraqis were excluded by a programme to purge members of the ruling Baath party, that the dissolution of the Iraqi army was botched and that the "biggest hole" in the post-war planning was not to anticipate the possibility of an insurgency.

Wolfowitz said that "the most consequential failure was to understand the tenacity of Saddam's regime."

Like the UK's John Prescott, the US's Paul Wolfowitz practically conceded on all the six planks of SA foreign policy towards Iraq and US invasion of Iraq between 2002-2004, as clearly, publicly and unambiguously articulated by Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma, Desmond Tutu and Aziz Pahad.

This represents an astonishing triumph and a rare public vindication of SA national leadership's long-term strategic thinking and almost unparalleled, nuanced geo-political nous on challenges that faced Iraq and the world at the time. The SA leaders' reading of the international panorama around Iraq around 2002-2003 was amazingly farsighted, accurate and profound.

By any measure of national leadership, this is a very big deal indeed, coming as it did from a middle-sized African country arraigned against the powerful, old and deeply entrenched geo-strategic interests of leading world powers around Iraq and the Middle

How the world views and perceives SA's foreign policy today is greatly influenced by the correct strategic posture SA adopted on the US/UK invasion of Iraq, when what underpins our foreign policy - its national interests abroad, its fixed fundamental principles and values, its conception of the post-Cold War unipolar world, and its intellectual and geo-strategic depth - were revealed to the whole world in all their glory on the question of US invasion of Iraq in 2003.


In his phenomenal article critiquing the American liberal establishment's fervent support for the George W Bush's invasion of Iraq, entitled "Bush's Idiots", Tony Judt, the great American philosopher, wrote about "...the critical intellectual core, the steady moral centre..." (London Review of Books, 21 September 2006).

This is what SA leaders provided to the world on US invasion of Iraq ten year ago - a critical intellectual core and a moral centre in opposition to George W Bush' and Tony Blair's war of choice on Iraq in 2003.

No wonder the USA reaction to SA opposition to the US invasion of Iraq occasionally got very crude, nasty and sometimes outright dirty.

In his interview with Newsweek in 2004, Archbishop Desmond Tutu alluded to this challenge when he said that "[But] I discovered...that when you made an utterance that was remotely contrary to what the White House was saying, then they attacked you."

The former White House spokesman during the George W Bush administration, Ari Fletcher, got the ball rolling by condemning "people more comfortable doing nothing about the growing menace", which he believed Saddam Hussein's Iraq represented.

On 22 July 2003, using FrontPage, penning an article under the title "Where is Mandela's Apology?", Myles Kantor wrote:

"...Writing of Mandela's tyrannical sympathies and claim in January that President Bush seeks "to plunge the world into a holocaust", Christopher Hitchens observes: 'this latest garbage is a very timely caution against our common tendency to make supermen and stars and heroes out of fellow human beings on the right side of history once is no guarantee that the subsequent fall will not be from a very great height."

Joe Scarborough of MSNBC plunged in head first in defence of former US president George W Bush, his former Vice President Dick Cheney and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld regarding their US invasion of Iraq.

Scarborough wrote:

"All three laid out a road map for winning this war. And you know what? In each and every case, they were exactly right. And yet, these three visionaries have been the target of abuse from left-wing stooges on Capitol Hill in Hollywood and of course, at the United Nations." (MSNBC Reports, 09/04/2003).

Imperial hubris ran amok in the US at the time.

The history of Iraq in the last ten years is proof positive that Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma, Aziz Pahad and SA's anti-Iraq war public opinion have been resoundingly vindicated and validated in their erstwhile steadfast opposition to the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Yet, not surprisingly,  recently George W Bush, in an interview with Dallas Morning News, still maintained that, with regard to his wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, he is "comfortable with my legacy on Iraq War...with my decision-making on Iraq...with what I did...with who I am." Bush further said he was not interested in "finger-pointing" and "self-pity." (See Huffington of 15 April 2013, under the title "George W. Bush: I am 'Comfortable' With My Legacy On Iraq War.")

On the other side of the Atlantic, the BBC, ahead of the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, carried Norman Smith's interview with Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, in which Blair said he "regretted how difficult Iraq had been and the loss of life", but he did "not regret the decision to oust Saddam."

Both George W. Bush and Tony Blair stuck by their guns on Iraq, because they are in denial of the great harm they caused to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, to tens of thousands of Americans and to many British people.

In his remarkable work, "Live Not By Lies", the great Soviet and Russian literary icon, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that: "...And the simplest key to liberation is this: personal nonparticipation in lies."

In 2003, the SA national leadership and public opinion showed the world, with regard to the US invasion of Iraq, that Solzhenitsyn's exhortation applies with equal force to inter-state relations in the age of a unipolar world led by a single superpower.

The key to countries' liberation in their diplomatic dealings abroad, as Mbeki's SA and Chirac's France once demonstrated over the US invasion of Iraq, can also be found in their "nonparticipation in lies."

And the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was based on one of history's biggest 'white', Western, Anglo-American lies.

South Africa should thus remain hugely proud of and indebted to Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma and Aziz Pahad, as well as ordinary anti-Iraq war SA peace activists, for having had the courage of their conviction to speak truth to global power during the age of universal deceit around Saddam Hussein's Iraq, when so much of the world had been intimidated into either compliance or acquiescence or silence.

Theirs was a truly great revolutionary and liberating act, to paraphrase George Orwell.

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi is Executive Director, Centre of Economic Diplomacy in Africa (CEDIA). He was the Director in the Middle East Section of the SA Department of Foreign Affairs (dfa) in 2000-2004, responsible for Near Middle East, which included Iraq. He can be reached at [email protected] and can be followed on Twitter @rabokala1.

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