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Two decades after the ‘liberal’ invasion of Iraq, what have we learned?

March 22, 2023 at 3:27 pm

George W Bush

On 20 March 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq, a tragic event which has had a lasting impact on the country and the region. The invasion was launched just one and a half years after the 9/11 attacks at a time when the United States was the world’s undisputed superpower. The invasion was considered part of a broader “emancipatory strategy” in US foreign policy, which had garnered popularity within neoconservative circles, keen champions of interventionism in the post-Cold War era.

US President George W Bush promised to bring “freedom” to the Iraqi people and expected a domino effect leading to the toppling of authoritarian leaders and replacing them with democrats. This idealistic vision of top-down democratic change led US foreign policy towards risky and ill-fated endeavours like the war on Iraq. In addition to the extremely high humanitarian toll and growing instability that followed the invasion, US troops were constantly endangered.

The chessboard of world politics is full of lessons learned and then forgotten. Twenty years on, many experts agree that the root causes of the disastrous Iraq war are notions like pre-emptive war and the export of democracy.

This resembles a Crusader’s approach, employing force to disseminate and impose beliefs. Bush actually used the word “crusade” in one of his speeches. Intriguingly, the primary impetus behind this agenda since 9/11 has been the preponderance of progressive liberalism, according to John J Mearsheimer, someone known for his grim and pessimistic analysis of global politics.

While a superpower is supposed to devise a foreign policy ostensibly grounded in human rights, peace, freedom and democracy, a neocon-led White House exhibited acute intolerance and zeal for enforcing conformity in a unipolar world where it has to be in charge.

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Viewed from another angle, this situation is nothing but a mirage. Let us not dismiss it as a mere abstract proposition, though. What we have here is a liberal mirage, an acute illusion which can unabashedly champion the imperative of regime change while being ignorant of the sociocultural complexities of Afghanistan, Iraq and other victims of the Bush Doctrine. Eventually, this illusion begets the falsity of its validation. Perhaps nothing captures this mirage more aptly than the official commission report published two years after the invasion: “We conclude that the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure.”

The deception of liberal ideals can be an enticing trap that ensnares even the most astute among us. This situation was exemplified by the insidious falsehoods propagated by Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton and Bush’s vice president, who claimed baselessly that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had a ten-year relationship with Al-Qaeda.

Analysing the root causes of a foreign policy agenda that espouses interventionism under the guise of liberal ideals is fraught with self-contradictions. Barbara Lee, the sole US Congressional dissenter of the Authorisation for Use of Military Force Act of 2001, feared that it would provide the military with an essentially limitless blank cheque for myriad foreign interventions post-9/11. She received numerous death threats against herself and her family for her dissent, and was accused of being anti-American and was basically ostracised in society.

Further confirming the contraction of the public sphere, the Patriot Act, awash with ethnic and religious profiling, effectively infringed on civil freedoms under the pretext of national security. Above all, the 9/11-centric counter-terrorist notion is disconnected from cause-and-effect relationships and concrete proofs while reinforcing the practice of othering. The illiberal repercussions of these liberal illusions are countless, despite the unsubstantiated claim of promoting freedom.

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It is evident that today’s US foreign policy does not view past decisions, such as the expensive and unpopular “liberal” invasion of Iraq that cost nearly a trillion dollars, as a gain on its balance sheet. The American public views the military action in Iraq with disdain. As such, Washington’s recent efforts to revise its strategies reflect that reality. US actions to contain China or reform NATO display a departure from this “liberal dream”.

In retrospect, it is apparent that the decision-makers who spearheaded the invasion of Iraq under the guise of liberal tenets did not truly have faith in the foreign policy they espoused, neither then, nor now. This situation serves as a prime example of what is referred to as the liberal illusion, a path filled with ambiguity and expense that, despite being recognised as false, is still pursued with deceitful intent. Shakespeare summed this up nicely in Sonnet 138: “When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies.” Two decades after the ‘liberal’ invasion of Iraq, what have we learned?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.