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20 years after the US invasion of Iraq

March 24, 2023 at 3:56 pm

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani (R) meets the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) Antonio Guterres (L) during an official visit in Baghdad, Iraq on March 01, 2023 [Iraqi Prime Ministry Press Office – Anadolu Agency]

What are the consequences of the war in Iraq for the US?

The US’s international credibility was seriously damaged because the invasion was carried out on the pretext of Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) program, which turned out to be non-existent (as many contemporary observers knew and predicted, similar to the blind sage, Tiresias, in a futile attempt to warn the American Oedipus Rex). The invasion’s subsequent horrors, such as the massive numbers of civilian deaths, torture in Abu Ghraib Prison, or the continuing political and social disorder that the US proved unable to remedy, further undermined the US’ international standing. Ultimately, the US lost its moral high ground while teaching others how to carry out modern media campaigns aimed at building public support for military action against foreign societies. US officials were not ever held accountable for the invasion, but some soldiers were held accountable for atrocities.

Domestically, the most direct consequence for the US was thousands of dead soldiers and hundreds of thousands of injured or permanently traumatised veterans. Despite the broad consensus emerging in the past twenty years that the invasion was a disastrous mistake, many US policymakers and pundits have either not understood the mistake or have drawn erroneous conclusions while attempting to avoid the same situation or win short-term political gains by appealing to traditional American isolationism. Beyond the military and political costs, the US also expended trillions of dollars on the invasion and its aftermath while many US citizens continued to suffer from poverty, inadequate education and health care and decaying infrastructure.

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How did it shape the Middle East politically and geographically?

All regional countries were affected in some way by the invasion’s results, rippling outwards as refugee populations, or as political and economic turbulence. Some countries, such as Turkiye, experienced both. General disgust with the Iraq invasion and the behaviour of US officials, soldiers and “contractors” entrenched anti-American sentiment across the region.

The most important single result was Iran’s new-found influence in post-Saddam Iraq, which gave Tehran a direct land link to Syria and enhanced stature for the entire region’s Shia and Alawite populations. However, the George W. Bush Administration’s democratisation rhetoric, which rolled out as an ex post facto justification once the WMDs did not appear, also provided a long-term impetus to democratic sentiments in many Arab societies. This is an additional factor that helped trigger the Arab Spring movements and the resulting socio-political developments.

Iran’s greater profile and activity intensified its regional rivalries with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, which eventually resulted in Yemen’s political collapse and Israel’s various asymmetrical attacks against multiple Iranian targets, both in Iran and in Syria. The US’s post-invasion policy mistakes paved the way for extremist groups’ emergence, such as Daesh.

The eventual American realisation that invading Iraq was an error induced the Obama Administration not to take on greater burdens in Syria which, in turn, opened the door to direct Russian involvement there. Subsequently, Russia step-by-step broadened its partnership with the Iranian regime, became the true decision-maker in Syria and, for the first time, opened a southern front against Turkiye, a NATO member. The Obama Administration’s same preference also resulted in the US-PKK partnership’s formation (under the “Syrian Democratic Forces” guise).

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What does the future hold?

Even though Iraq is now somewhat politically and economically stable, democracy, functioning governmental institutions, and internal political cohesion are still only distant mirages. Because some international actors, such as the Arab League, are slowly rehabilitating the Damascus regime, Iran’s ability to influence events across Iraq and Syria will continue to be an important element in regional political calculations. Similarly, the Chinese-backed initiative to re-establish relations between Riyadh and Tehran, if it proves workable, will confirm Iran as the most lasting beneficiary of the George W. Bush Administration’s premier policy catastrophe. Expanded Iranian stature also implies that Russia’s regional footprint will remain large.

Fifty years from now, the US’s Iraq invasion will most likely appear to historians as the decision that marked the permanent decline of the US’s stature and ability to influence events in the Eastern Mediterranean. Frankly, the appearance of US political leadership that might display the capability, policy acumen and will to resurrect US influence there seems remote and unrealistic. Many US officials and pundits are still blind to the realities, but the growth in Iran and Russia’s regional prestige, and now China’s entrance as a regional conflict resolution manager are developments that can be traced back to the George W. Bush Administration’s hubristic decision to invade Iraq on false pretences.

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Finally, the US invasion of Iraq had profound and long-lasting effects on the US-Turkish relations. Many related incidents can be mentioned, but the formation of the US-PKK partnership, another profound mistake that has its roots in the US’s Iraq invasion, will continue to blight relations between the two states until US officials end their insistence on cooperating with an organisation that US law designates as terrorist.

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