The French statesman Georges Clemenceau once said: “War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory.” In the case of the invasion of Iraq, however, the war that began 20 years ago started in victory and has ended in a series of catastrophes.
The main US military pullout from Iraq was ultimately completed by 2011, finally answering the question posed by Gen David Petraeus during that first push to Baghdad in 2003: “Tell me, how does this end?” Yet the long shadow of the invasion still looms over the international order, staining the reputation of those who instigated it and the political process itself, and dealing a heavy blow to the self-confidence that the west felt in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
At this distance, on the eve of the twentieth anniversary on 20 March, it seems to matter less whether the war was launched on a deceit, a distortion, a wilful misapprehension, or a sincere false premise. It was a blunder that looks worse with every passing anniversary and memoir. Barack Obama drew one lesson from the episode: “Don’t do stupid shit.”
The question in the title of Baroness Ashton’s new book on diplomacy, And Then What?, was asked by many in relation to Iraq before the invasion. The risky consequences for Iraq were spelt out in memos and meetings at the time by Iraq experts in Britain such as Rosemary Hollis and Toby Dodge and by innumerable US Middle East specialists, including the current CIA chief, Bill Burns, but those who mattered, including the notably incurious George Bush, chose to ignore the warnings.
Dodge, freshly back from Iraq, was even invited to Downing Street to warn Blair that the invasion would be a disaster. He recalls Blair saying to him at the outset: “I know you think I should not do it, but I have to. I know it’s going to be bad. Tell me how bad it’s going to be”. Dodge explained: “In London and Washington, there was no one who had the first idea about Iraq, but they were planning to occupy it and run the place. It was hubris of the highest order.”
The breathtaking mishandling of the biggest attempt at liberal interventionism since Vietnam is now acknowledged by almost all those involved. As looting swept the capital and the institutions of the dictatorship were dismantled by the new occupiers, the US official designated to oversee the ministry of trade, Robin Raphel, walked the streets of Baghdad with an interpreter, asking: “Do you know anybody who is in the ministry of trade?”
The chaos has spawned a vast literature on post-conflict planning, and multi-volume official inquiries, notably the Chilcot inquiry in the UK and a two-volume report by the US army. “We have all over the past 20 years sifted through and tried to read the runes about what was the big mistake. Some things accelerated the collapse, such as the legacy of sanctions or de-Baathification,” Dodge said. “But the big mistake, the original sin, was to invade a country you know nothing about with a bunch of exiles that had not been there for 20 years. It was destined for failure. Full stop.”
The aftermath and aftershocks of the war are so pervasive that the only risk is that a line of causality is drawn from the invasion to almost every major global event in the past 20 years. Disentangling what can be legitimately traced back to the “original sin” of the invasion and what may have other origins is no easy task.
It is largely uncontentious that ending Saddam’s 24 years in power, with no agreed coherent plan for who or what was to replace him, reawakened a sectarian Shia-Sunni competition for supremacy across the Middle East. It prompted first an insurgency by displaced Sunnis within Iraq, the birth of what would become Islamic State, and then in the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the emergence of the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate across Syria and Iraq in 2011.
The war strengthened Iran and its proxies across the Middle East, and then, as the bloodshed continued, created in the west a wariness about military intervention that was to help the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, survive an armed rebellion and give Vladimir Putin an unexpected re-entry ticket to the Middle East.
If other Arab leaders needed a reason to suppress the threat posed by the Arab Spring in 2011, the chaos of democracy in Iraq gave them that excuse. The unilateral US withdrawal from Afghanistan, instigated by Donald Trump and then pursued by his successor, Joe Biden, was born of an exasperation with the failure of nation-building exemplified by Iraq.
The line of causality also extends to the shredding of the developing doctrine that sovereignty should not be considered inviolate when a country is slaughtering its own citizens. The reputation of intelligence agencies is only now recovering. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that the taxpayer bill for post-9/11 US wars reached $8tn, representing a profound diversion from civilian spending. About 400,000 Iraqis died.
Even now, the invasion has a sharp contemporary relevance, with a western wariness about regime change in Tehran, let alone Moscow. “Change to what and by what means?” asked the French president, Emmanuel Macron, at last month’s Munich security conference, knowing the unspoken reference to the succession of corrupt and sectarian governments in Iraq post-2003 was warning enough against inducing regime change in Russia.
When the US rightly denounces Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and extols the sacrosanct virtues of national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the UN charter, it only takes seconds for China and Russia, along with a distrustful global south, to point to the example of Iraq and accuse the US of double standards. “Countries have memories,” Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs chief, recently conceded.
Indeed, Dr Patricia Lewis of the Chatham House thinktank argues that US policy in Iraq has already become such fertile propaganda territory for Russia that it would be better for the US to get out there first with a mea culpa. “Decisions were made on the basis of false information, and it is best to be open about that so the impact of Russian disinformation is minimised,” she said.
The invasion certainly had a profound immediate impact on Vladimir Putin, at the time only three years into his first term as president. American unilateralism in Iraq was critical in convincing Putin, initially an ally in Bush’s war on terror, of what he saw as the irredeemable arrogance of the US.
Blair’s press secretary, Alastair Campbell, in his diaries captures the confrontation between Putin and Blair at a press conference in May 2003, and how it spilled over into the dinner afterwards: “This was someone who felt he ought to be treated as an equal and was not being treated as an equal. He said the whole post-9/11 response was designed to show off American greatness.” The US was demanding that Russia acquiesce to a unipolar world in which it was accountable to no one.
As Blair started his justification, Putin interjected: “Don’t answer. There is no answer. That is the truth. There are bad people in the administration, Tony, and you know it.”
From Putin’s perspective, everything the US did subsequently – including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, misleading him over UN authorisation for the toppling of Gaddafi in Libya, siding with groups that included jihadists against Assad’s Syria and support for Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan protests – were signs of a country that saw no distinction between a “rules-based order” and American hegemony.
The Saudis, the US’s long-term ally in the region, also felt betrayed by the invasion, since it had warned Bush of the risks of suddenly importing democracy to Iraq. Riyadh not only did not favour elections in principle, it especially did not favour them when a Shia majority would mean that any elections would naturally turn out in their favour, as they duly did in 2005. Saud al Faisal, the kingdom’s foreign minister for 40 years, complained afterwards that the US had “effectively handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter”. The Gulf monarchies complained that the west had created a hostile Iranian-Syrian axis, also known as the Hezbollah-Iraq-Syria-Hamas (Hish) alliance, that was later to further tie down the Saudis in Yemen.
Tony Blair returning by helicopter from the green zone back to Baghdad airport in 2007. Photograph: Dan Chung/The Guardian
Iran, delighted to see its old foe Saddam toppled, was quick to exploit the power vacuum in Baghdad and eventually built a whole foreign policy on its success.
Hamidreza Azizi, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, says the 2003 invasion “drastically changed Iran’s threat perception”, where its leaders saw proof of Washington’s desire to embark on a strategy of active interventions. “The most immediate impact was that support for non-state-armed actors came to form a central feature in Iran’s military strategy,” he said. “Since 2003, the main objective of Iran’s security assistance has been to extend the country’s strategic depth through building and protecting this ‘axis of resistance.’”
In Iraq, it gained influence through groups such as Jaish al-Mahdi, the militia affiliated with Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and once the Quds force, the foreign policy arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was established inside Iraq, it built a personal network, often in the process overruling Iran’s ministry of foreign affairs.
The Pentagon was later to claim that more than 600 of the 4,000 US soldiers killed in Iraq were felled by Iranian-backed terror groups. It assessed that within two years of the 2005 elections, Iran proxies effectively controlled two-thirds of the council of representative seats in Iraq.
It is often said that the sectarian violence that engulfed Iraq following the removal of the Sunnis from power was inevitable. It is true that following the ending of the Sunni minority rule, there was an immediate reassertion of Shia identity, symbolised at the end of April 2003 when over 2 million Shias, many crossing over the Iranian border, marched on the holy city of Karbala in a pilgrimage that the Saddam regime had banned. It was also natural when they were given the chance to vote in 2005 that they gravitated to what they knew.
But it was not necessary for Iraq’s government to have behaved in such a sectarian way after the 2005 elections. The US had handpicked Nour al-Maliki to be prime minister in 2006 in the belief that he would not act in a sectarian or excessively pro-Iranian way. Before the fall of Saddam, Maliki had lived in exile in Iran, but he left, objecting to Iranian coercion and a demand that he swear allegiance to Ayatollah Khomenei. Once prime minister, he chose to make Sunni Saudi Arabia the venue for his first official foreign visit in a bid to cement Iraq’s place in the Arab world.
According to A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, a book by the former US intelligence officer and adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University Katherine Harvey, Maliki, encouraged by the US, genuinely wanted a positive relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to pursue a course independent of Iran. But the July 2006 meeting between Maliki and King Abdullah was the only one the two men had, and in her account it was the choice of the Saudi monarch to cut himself off from the Iraqi PM, describing him as “an untrusted Iranian agent”.
Yet as late as spring 2008, Maliki initiated confrontation with Iranian-backed Shia militias in Basra and Baghdad, and the success of these campaigns was seen as a setback for Iran. But as relations with the Saudis slowly deteriorated, and Maliki did not do as well as he hoped in the 2010 elections, he found himself ever more dependent on Tehran to stay in power.
The psychological effect of the rise of a Shia-dominated government with ties to Iran inevitably shook the Saudi royal family, already weakened by the fall out from Saudi citizens’ involvement in 9/11. Obama’s decision to reduce US engagement in the Middle East only made Saudi unease worse.
That American disengagement took many twists and turns, but the decisive point came when the west, haunted by the shadow of the Iraq war, refused to punish Syria in 2013 after Assad used chemical weapons against rebel groups, crossing Obama’s stated red line. First the British parliament, then Angela Merkel and finally the US Congress rejected military action. Obama was determined not to repeat the disastrous overreach of Iraq and pulled back from striking at Assad.
Former French ambassador to Syria Michel Duclos, reflecting French thinking, argues that the Syrian revolution was salvageable at that point. “It would have been a strong signal that would have changed the situation because, at the time, the moderate opposition was still powerful, the jihadists on the sidelines, Iran awaiting the nuclear agreement and Vladimir Putin hesitant,” he said.
But Obama read it differently. He decided that the price of action was higher than inaction.
The effective impunity granted to Assad was a salutary moment for Riyadh. The Saudi ambassador to the UK, Mohammed bin Nawaf, attacked “the west’s excuses for inaction and hesitation”. Riyadh, he said, would have to go it alone, intensifying its proxy war with Iran by arming and trying to coordinate a wider ideological range of Islamist rebels in Syria.
Bush himself was ambivalent about his motives in Iraq, reflecting the administration’s divisions. He initially cast the US response to 9/11 primarily in terms of making America safe from terrorists, and suggested Saddam was arming those terrorists. But by August 2002, Bush signed off a classified document penned by the US national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, suggesting that the US could act as a midwife to a new Iraq whose society would be based on democracy and be a model of good governance for the region. In his new account of the administration’s deliberations on the war, Confronting Saddam, Melvyn P Leffler, emeritus professor of American history at the University of Virginia, argues that the Pentagon and the military had no true interest in this agenda, but democracy promotion became a useful alibi once no WMDs were found.
By the time of his second inaugural address in January 2005, Bush had turned democracy into a major part of the war on terror. “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands […] The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”
Rice pursued the theme in a speech in Cairo in June 2005: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” The Bush government identified civil society organisations, including even briefly the Muslim Brotherhood, and financially supported NGOs through its “democracy promotion” agenda.
But if anything, the Iraq war acted as a brake on the spread of democracy. The Gulf monarchies breathed a sigh of relief that the region’s premier democratic experiment was nobody’s poster child and polls showed that massive majorities in the Middle East opposed the US invasion. As Burns admitted: “The debacle in Iraq, including the miserable images from Abu Ghraib, poisoned America’s image and credibility. If this was how America promotes democracy, few Arabs wanted any part of it.”
When the Arab Spring uprisings occurred in 2011-12, it was little to do with American inspiration and much more to do with youth unemployment, corruption, Qatar’s sponsoring of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of a new media landscape. “Many of the movements were not seeking to replicate a prevalent neoliberal world order, but something different,” argues Iyad el-Baghdadi in The Middle East Crisis Factory. Obama disliked the Gulf monarchies, but when the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian army in 2013, Obama prevaricated before choosing not to describe it as a coup.
The fact that that China and not the US negotiated last week’s Saudi-Iran reconciliation agreement is seen as a further a sign of diminished American influence in the region.
What of Iraq itself? Iraq’s current president, Abdul Latif Rashid, a Kurd, urged the world recently not to see Iraq as a war zone and insisted it was better to have freedom and democracy than repression.
Baghdad-based Marsin Alshamary of the Brookings Institute says there “is now a passionate turn against the sectarian lens that was imposed on Iraq” and reflected in the way the government was structured after 2003. The 2019 Tishreen uprising marked a reconciliation between Shia and Sunni youth, she says, brought together in a revolt against the corruption of the entire ruling class. A key target was the political system built on Muhasasa Ta’ifia, an ethnic-sectarian apportionment of the spoils, developed by Iraqi exiles in the 1990s with the help of the UK Foreign Office. It is seen as a key source of Iraq’s instability by institutionalising sectarianism in politics.
The uprising led to the resignation of the prime minister, some changes to the electoral law giving greater space to independents, and parliamentary elections in 2021, the fifth since 2003. But the changes envisaged in 2019 were not achieved. It took 382 days to form a governing coalition, and the undisputed winners were Iranian-backed parties.
Alshamary warns of a disillusionment and even a nostalgia for a strong state. She points out that most Iraqis were born after Saddam’s fall and their memory of Baathism comes from their families or social media. At the end of the day, Iraqi youth are in the same place as a lot of youth in the Middle East. “They thought democracy would produce socioeconomic rights, and when it failed to do so, their attachment to democracy has loosened.”
It is not the glorious legacy that those who started the invasion envisaged.