It started, we were told, with “shock and awe” as hundreds of cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad, lighting up the night sky. But the US-led invasion of Iraq, launched 20 years ago today, will be remembered for the two decades’ (and counting) of violence, destruction and misery it unleashed afterwards.
We are all paying the price for America’s greatest post-war foreign policy blunder today. It has made the world a more dangerous place.
Former US president George W Bush, who gave the order in 2003, was asked in the 2021 BBC documentary 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room if he thought his actions after 9/11, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, had made the world safer.
The ex-president skirted the question. “There weren’t any other attacks on America,” he said. “We’ll let all the historians sort it out. Let me just say this. I’m comfortable with decisions I made.”
The survivors and the bereaved from countless terror attacks in London, Paris, Mumbai and elsewhere might not agree.
Elisa Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5 during the invasion, subsequently told the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s role in Iraq: “Our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people – not a whole generation, a few among a generation – who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack upon Islam.”
But more important are the views of people in the two countries destroyed by the calamitous invasion: Iraq, whose dictator Saddam Hussein the US had decided to remove. And its neighbour Syria, reduced to a charnel house by the terror groups nurtured during America’s great misadventure.
The Iraqi author Sinan Antoon told the Washington Post in 2021: “No matter what — and I say this as someone who was opposed to Saddam’s regime since childhood and wrote his first novel about life under dictatorship — had the regime remained in power, tens of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive today, and children in Fallujah [where the US used white phosphorous against Iraq insurgents] would not be born with congenital defects every day.”
Brown University in the US estimates up to 300,000 Iraqis have perished in violence since 2003.
American security experts are damning of the invasion. “Not only did we waste tremendous amounts of political capital and military capital, not only did we empower Iran, which was presumably the opposite of what we wanted to do geopolitically in the region. Not only did we realign everything to damage our long-term interests, as well as our short-term interests, we spent a trillion dollars,” says William Alberque, the Berlin-based director of strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Thousands of Americans were killed and tens of thousands of Iraqis for no good reason. We created a vacuum for organisations like Isis to grow in. It is one of the biggest own goals in world history.”
Islamic extremism existed before the Iraq invasion. There was Al Qaeda, whose attack on the World Trade Centre, prompted America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, where the terror group had its base.
But US claims of the brutal but secular regime of Saddam fomenting Islamic extremism were a fallacy. The 2003 invasion invited Islamic extremism into Iraq, and in this giant petri dish of blood and sectarian chaos, Isis was nurtured.
Very few people today would dispute that removing Saddam, without properly thinking about or planning for the consequences, ignited a sectarian Sunni vs Shia conflict across the region. Displaced Iraqi Sunnis gave rise to Isis, whose “caliphate” ravaged Iraq and Syria. Over 23 million Iraqis and Syrians have fled their homes – many are now refugees.
Isis is currently down but not out. This international death cult’s tendrils are now spreading through the Sahel region in Africa. Most ironically for Washington, its 2003 invasion of Iraq ultimately gifted new power and influence in the Middle East to its greatest nemeses Russia and Iran.
Given the scale of the disaster, it’s not surprising that Western countries lost their appetite for reckless invasions based on non-existence threats regarding weapons of mass destruction.
But the aftermath may have led to – possibly dangerous – introspection and hesitancy.
In the US and UK – less so in France and Germany, which were more circumspect about the justification for the invasion – public confidence in intelligence agencies crumbled.
“For me, that is the biggest long-term risk from the Iraq invasion, that we’re going to be too insular and not be aware of what’s happening around the world,” says Anand Menon a professor of foreign affairs at King’s College London. People say that Western interventions have all gone horribly wrong and will lump Sierra Leone and Kosovo in with Iraq, although clearly this is not fair.
President Barack Obama had little appetite to order attacks against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad in 2014, despite it crossing the “red line” of using chemical weapons against his own people (as Saddam had in the late 1980s) in the country’s civil war. Russia stepped in to fill the vacuum and prop up Assad.
US president Donald Trump personified the move away from interventionism. He was elected in 2016 on a ticket of extricating America from foreign wars and avoiding its involvement in new ones.
His successor, Joe Biden, a more orthodox US president, felt obliged to intervene when in February last year Russia moved to wipe Ukraine off the map. But Trump, a Putin apologist, and his chief Republican rival Ron DeSantis are both scathing of the US money spent on defending Kyiv. On Monday night, DeSantis declared that if he entered the Oval Office Ukraine would be left to fend for itself. Either could be in the White House in January 2024.
It’s hard to deny that the West – and America in particular – ceded much of the high moral ground, in Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq itself, when the world saw Iraqi captives in hoods being tortured by US soldiers.
And it’s a grim reflection on the post-Trump state of American politics that George W Bush is now seen as something of a Republican elder statesman. In May last year, the gaffe-prone former president produced probably his greatest Freudian slip when condemned Vladimir Putin for his war on Ukraine, castigating “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.”
South Africa, India and other non-aligned countries can say, with some justification, they’re unhappy to take moral lectures from the West over their position on Ukraine, given the West’s record over the past two decades.
It all raises the vexed issue of Britain’s involvement and why allowed us to be dragged into a dubious conflict in which 179 British soldiers died.
This week Tony Blair told the BBC he tried to avoid military action “right until the last moment”. He said President Bush, fearing Blair would lose a vote in parliament on the eve of war, did offer him in a video call the opportunity to back out of the invasion and only be involved in the aftermath, but the prime minister turned it down.
Blair defended his decision both as a matter of principle in terms of the need to deal with Saddam Hussein, but also because of the need to maintain the UK’s relationship with the US.
“I think there was a sort of madness in the air after 9/11, which sort of infected everyone,” says Menon.
Some commentators have speculated that despite all the vitriol aimed at Blair for doing America’s bidding, no mainstream post-war British prime minister of either party would have rejected the US call to join it militarily in the invasion.
Menon disagrees, though. “We took the difficult decision of not joining in the Vietnam War, so I don’t think you can say no post-War prime minister would have said ‘no’ to the Americans in these circumstances,” he says.
Given the paucity of evidence that Saddam was a danger to the West, why did America launch its catastrophic invasion in 2003? Probably because it could. By the start of this century, the US had spent decades building up the mightiest military machine the world had ever seen: a smorgasbord of sophisticated killing devices. High-ups in the Pentagon were itching to use them.
The Pentagon toy shop expanded when Donald Rumsfeld, the prince of neo-cons, became US defence secretary in 2001. He shifted the Pentagon, in the words of experts, from “threat-based budgeting” to “capabilities-based budgeting”. This meant the Pentagon bought weapons according to their propensity for hi-tech death and destruction, regardless of whether they were actually needed.
Egged on by arms firms, the US Invaded Iraq. It tested the new weapons, unleashed hell in the Middle East and then bought lots more.
US construction and security firms also filled their boots. KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton, once run by Rumsfeld’s fellow neo-con, Dick Cheney (vice president to George W Bush), won over $39bn (£22bn) in federal contracts related to the Iraq war, between 2003 to 2013.
The astonishing lack of contrition and continues belligerence on the part of the war’s architects, such as Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton, who went on to become Donald Trump’s national security adviser, continues to this day.
The official reason for the invasion was to protect the world from the claimed stockpiles of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
By incompetence or by design, the Blair government prompted groundless and hysterical headlines suggesting Saddam not only had weapons of mass destruction, but that Britons in Europe were in the firing line. In September 2002, Britain’s biggest-selling paper The Sun splashed with “Brits 45 mins from doom”. Even when the invasion was launched on 19 March 2003, there was still no sign of them.
In one of the few upsides of the conflict – other than the removal of a murderous dictator – security experts credit the invasion and its aftermath for having spurred the creation of the open-source intelligence (OSINT) community. It began to use available information in everything from Google Earth, and Maxar to PhD theses on the plasticity of rocks at very high temperatures (which indicate the presence of weapons tests), to examine the West’s intelligence claims as it continued – and often blundered – through – 20 years’ of conflict in the Middle East.
“What we now have in terms of the open-source community, are capabilities that the CIA would have killed for 1990 in terms of satellite and signals, Intel and all that kind of stuff,” says Alberque.
If we had had these surveillance techniques at our disposal 20 years ago, would Western government have been making those claims about weapons of mass destruction in the Iraqi desert that were used to justify the invasion?
“The short answer is absolutely not,” says Alberque. “The UN told us roughly where the supposed facilities were, so you would have had every surveillance expert and computer nerd out there typing those coordinates into Maxar satellite technology, or Google Earth or whatever, and getting the latest satellite images and declaring: ‘that’s a fucking parking lot. That’s not a bioweapons lab.”
If only…coulda, woulda, shoulda…. but we didn’t have that tech then. There is no time machine. There was no stopping America and its sidekicks. And the West has been permanently diminished. Worse, countless millions perished who would otherwise be alive.
Patricia Lewis, the director of Chatham House’s International Security Programme thinks that Britain’s more honourable and clear-cut role in Ukraine, and Nato’s transparency with the military and surveillance data it has used aiding Kyiv might help restore some confidence in our intelligence services. She notes, too, that most of the intel is being verified – or even produced by OSINT. And this could have immediate benefits. “I think that Putin’s aware of this distrust over Western WMD claims post-Iraq and he encourages his trolls to put out propaganda citing this as a recent not to believe any Western claims,” she says.
She suggests, however, there is another – and more worrying ramification of the American’s disastrous simultaneous military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. “When things started going badly in Afghanistan, it became clear that the US was not able to fight wars there and Iraq at the same time.” The chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly showed how effective insurgencies can be against invading powers.
“How is it going to take on Russia in Ukraine and then deal with Taiwan if China decides to invade?” she says.
To which there is no simple answer. Apart from, perhaps, that rather than fight wars, it’s better to avoid them, if at all possible, in the first place.
This week David Frum, George Bush’s former speech writer, who in 2003 supported the invasion of Iraq conceded in The Atlantic: “Iraq was an optional war. Options need to be examined, their potential costs measured. That did not happen in the period from 2002 to 2003.”
But what of the country that we – the US and the UK – invaded? Iraqis note that most of their compatriots don’t have the luxury – or even inclination – to dwell on the past.
Marsin Alshamary of the Brookings Institute says that most Iraqi alive today are born after 2003; their main concern is earning a living in a country mired in corruption, poverty and sectarian violence, even if this ruinous situation can be traced back to the invasion.
“Discussing 2003 is more important for Westerners than it is for Iraqis,” she told BBC’s Newsnight on Friday. “They’ve been through so many tragedies since then.”