Still No U.S. Accountability
The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was a terrible calamity, unleashing disastrous consequences that continue to reverberate across the Middle East. First and foremost, the war resulted in the deaths of an estimated 300,000 Iraqis and the displacement of millions. Saddam Hussein’s regime was brutal, and the legacy of his rule shaped the aftermath of the war in many ways. However, it was the post-invasion era that led to the disintegration of the Iraqi state, creating a vacuum from which rose the likes of ISIS and ISIL that unleashed even more horror across the region. The war also created a context in which malfeasance has flourished, with an estimated $150bn pillaged from Iraq in corrupt deals. Regionally, the invasion has empowered Iran and its proxies, from Iraq and Lebanon to Syria and Yemen, with devastating consequences. Yet those who initiated the war in the U.S., and who sold it to their public and others in the international community, never faced accountability. At least history should remember them for the consequences of their actions.
The War that Shaped the Region
The invasion of Iraq represents a watershed moment for the regional and international order. At the international level, this invasion glaringly illustrated the unilateralism of U.S. foreign policy and power projection. Moreover, the invasion hollowed out international norms and institutions, setting a precedent for other malicious powers to exploit. The fact that current Russian propaganda tries to establish parallels between its invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. invasion of Iraq demonstrates how damaging the episode has been for the international system. Finally, the U.S. attempt to remake the region in its own image, of which Iraq was a major part, spectacularly backfired.
At the regional level, the invasion fundamentally undermined the previous regional status quo. Iraq went from being a relatively major regional actor to a battleground in which other players vied for influence and power. Iran has emerged as the main beneficiary of this flux, establishing a zone of influence from Afghanistan all the way to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. As a result of losing ground, Sunni Arab powers felt insecure and have responded in ways that have sometimes been destabilizing for the region.
Ethno-sectarian politics have dominated the national and regional agenda, while the ideas of democracy and democratization have been tainted by their association with the U.S. narrative regarding the invasion. Stating it differently, sub-state level and transnational communal politics took precedent over national politics. These dynamics bore highly deleterious outcomes for the Arab Spring-era regional politics and overshadowed its processes of change.
The Hubris of the Few Shaped the Lives of Many
The idea to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein sprung from the minds of a small group of policymakers in the Bush administration and their ideological orbit. Motivated by a fetishization of American military power and a vision of using it to remake the Middle East into a friendlier place for the U.S. and Israel, the plan was nothing if not an exercise in hubris.
Taking advantage of the emotionally charged atmosphere after 9/11, the architects envisioned Iraq as the showcase of American hegemony at the dawn of the 21st century, wielding its vastly superior military technology through “shock and awe” to force other “rogue states” in the region to either acquiesce or meet the same fate—while hopefully securing the spoils of war for the military-industrial complex and oil companies, to which some of those policymakers were intimately connected.
Instead, the opposite occurred. Iraq became a quagmire for the U.S. in blood and treasure. The war dealt a major blow to American international prestige and domestic confidence, especially as the official justifications for the invasion were exposed as falsehoods. It also squandered global sympathy and support for the U.S. after 9/11 and exemplified American imperialism for a new generation that had not lived through the Vietnam War. Thus, the real showcase was that American power could be directed to such consequential effect by a group of likeminded policymakers in the right place and time. (If there was a silver lining, it was only that the neo-conservative architects of the invasion were discredited for at least a generation.)
For Iraq and the broader Middle East, the legacy of the invasion is incalculable, felt in the numerous lives taken and upended; in the chaos that ensued, the chronic instability, and the sectarianism that still plagues the region. It is clear that the invasion of Iraq was a pivotal event that shaped everything that came after it, from the Arab Spring protests to the regional rebalancing of power and the ongoing contest to reshape the Middle East.
History Will Judge the Decision to Invade Iraq
The devastation that followed the invasion of Iraq cannot be overstated. Unlike the straightforward military effort to oust Saddam Hussein from power, the aftermath itself was marred with sectarian conflict and a disastrous reconstruction effort that paved the way for a formidable Sunni insurgency; empowered Shiite militia groups backed by Iran; and established the conditions in which terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, thrived. In short, the invasion was a catastrophe, and its violent reverberations continue to be felt in Iraq and the wider region.
However, history will ultimately judge the war and its outcomes. Firstly, the post-2003 domestic order was in many ways pre-determined by the legacy of thirty years of Baathist rule, which oversaw the brutal repression of an uprising against it in 1991, an ethnic genocide of Kurds in the 1980s, and the regime’s sectarian repression of the majority Shiite population. Secondly, the culpability of the post-2003 Iraqi ruling class in the tumult and atrocities that followed the invasion is ignored in the public debate. The Shiite Islamist opposition groups that became the most dominant political class after 2003 marginalized Arab Sunni groups and played a direct role in enabling and empowering extremist Shiite militia groups that were complicit in widespread sectarian atrocities, despite protests from the West. Thirdly, the Iraq war was a liberation for Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Kurdish population had suffered a genocide in the 1980s. Fourthly, it is still a matter of debate whether removing Saddam also removed the cloak of invincibility enjoyed by other regional despots, and ultimately paved the way for the 2011 uprisings. Finally, the far-reaching political implications of the war sapped the international community of its will to intervene in Syria as the regime brutally suppressed the Arab Spring-era uprising; perhaps the international community would have done more in Syria if it were not for the legacy of Iraq.
Two Decades of Sectarian Fallout
From its start, the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq stoked the fires of sectarianism and institutionalized, confessionalist divisions. The mainly American-drafted 2004 Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period, for example, established a federal regime along sectarian lines. This influenced the form of the Iraqi constitution that passed the following year. An interim governing council set up shortly after the 2003 invasion had also been built along sectarian lines. All this placed sectarian considerations at the heart of Iraqi political life, with far-reaching implications, from hobbling the process of state-building to privileging confessional allegiances over national identity.
The disease of political sectarianism has spread throughout the region over the past two decades, taking advantage of state weakness following the Arab Spring to appear in various forms in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. It has thus become the main prism through which the region’s conflicts are viewed, whether they are essentially sectarian or not. Attempts to resolve conflicts also take a sectarian approach, hampering understanding of disputes and complex problems that may in fact relate to these states’ post-colonial origins. Some observers believe that sectarianism is finally on the wane in Iraq. But the country’s experience has shown that foreign intervention brings with it political sectarianism and undermines national identity.
The Iraq War and Trust in the U.S. Government
Trust in government is a precious commodity. Globally, it is an important element of “soft power” and the ability of a given country to persuade others to support its foreign policy goals. Domestically, citizens who trust their ruling institutions are more likely to pay taxes, obey laws, and follow public health guidance. The war in Iraq seriously undermined trust and credibility in the United States along both dimensions.
Internationally, polling by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2003 in the wake of the invasion noted that favorable views of the U.S. had declined in nearly every country surveyed. The authors concluded “the war has widened the rift between Americans and Western Europeans, further inflamed the Muslim world, softened support for the war on terrorism, and significantly weakened global public support for the pillars of the post-World War II era.” Reflecting upon the war in 2011, senior American diplomat Nicholas Burns argued, “when it became clear that the stated reason for our invasion was blatantly and inexcusably wrong, we lost any hope of international support as well as the trust of our own people.”
Domestically, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, over 55% of Americans trusted their government to do the right thing all or most of the time. By 2022, that figure stood at 20% overall and only 9% among Republicans. The greatest drop came between 2003 and 2007 when the war was at its peak.
The Iraq war was not solely responsible for this decline in trust; other factors such as the 2008 financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and increasing polarization have also played a role. Yet Iraq was the first major domino in a chain of events that has eroded the credibility of American institutions to historic lows. Today’s policymakers must now contend with significant headwinds in framing both foreign and domestic policy that did not exist back in 2003. Trust in government is not immutable and could rebound in the future. But both at home and abroad, the baggage from the Iraq war is real and enduring.
The U.S. Invasion of Iraq Undermined Governance Reform
The September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. ignited global interest in the Arab world with political headlines turning quickly to economies and societies. Intellectuals and activists in the region were joined by outside observers in highlighting the region’s development deficits, which they blamed on the failure of governments to implement genuine policy reforms in previous decades. Mounting external pressures together with regional voices helped weaken the traditional resistance to reform by regimes, giving birth to a consensus around the need to transform political and economic governance to improve development outcomes. This growing momentum for reform, however, was soon aborted after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The violent collapse of the Iraqi state, the spread of transnational terrorism, and the emergence of the so-called War on Terror combined to deepen regime insecurity and public mistrust about the ultimate objectives of the U.S. “freedom agenda.” Governments responded opportunistically by invoking national security considerations to close the political space and shelve the reform agenda, often with the tacit acquiescence of Washington. As a result, engagement with governance reform in subsequent years became selective and limited, and the benefits were often captured by regime cronies. Development indicators, public services, and the quality of institutions deteriorated across much of the Arab world. It would take close to another decade and the onset of the Arab Spring protests before the development deficits and reform agenda would take center stage again.
The War Over Words
Language can serve as a weapon in conflicts. The Iraq war is no exception. Beyond the staggering human and material costs, the war wreaked colossal havoc on the truth by way of misnomers. One such misnomer was then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s March 16, 2003, reference to a welcome of the invading soldiers as “liberators.” Other U.S. officials used targeted misinformation to argue for the invasion, with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claiming that Iraq possessed “an active program to acquire and develop nuclear weapons.” These claims were then taken up and proliferated by “embedded journalists” atop Abrams tanks and others in the international media. Perhaps most infamous was the unsubstantiated claim, advanced by then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in February 2003 before the UN Security Council, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The facts on the ground eventually revealed another story, as the war devastated an entire generation of Iraqis despite a lack of evidence that there were ever WMDs. Together, the spread of misinformation by top U.S. officials was ultimately used to mobilize and justify the violence perpetrated by the U.S.-led coalition. The U.S., like all big power players, sought to occupy the moral high ground. For that, it weaponized language. This was the ultimate tool by which to recruit allies, build coalitions, exercise influence, and reduce resistance. Thus, language became an arena of ideological tests and contests in the lead-up to the invasion, providing a false basis for the violence that ensued.
Council Views is an ME Council article series that brings together our experts’ insights on headline issues facing the Middle East and North Africa region.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.