Iraq: The West's Worst Business

The US and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 to bring democracy to the Middle East.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 March 2023 Saturday 23:29
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Iraq: The West's Worst Business

The US and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003 to bring democracy to the Middle East. Instead, they wreaked havoc and buried their prestige there. Twenty years later, it is China that has filled that gap and is trying to stabilize the area.

"Five days, five weeks or five months, but it won't last longer than that," US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told CBS Radio on November 14, 2002. In the end the war lasted nine years. And in the deserts of Iraq, the United States and its allies buried the prestige and self-esteem of the West as the organizing force of the world order. They went to overthrow Saddam Hussein and build the first Arab democracy. Instead, they wreaked havoc on a region that has yet to recover from it.

When Washington decided to invade Iraq, the United States was at the height of its hegemony. It was a power doped by the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union. US military supremacy had gone through moments that were not very glorious (Korean War 1950-53) or disastrous (Vietnam 1955-1975). But the end of communism made them feel like the day after World War II. The masters of the world.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton had been limited to running a hyper-vitamin world economy. He only resorted to the marines to ensure the smooth running of business and if he acted for "humanitarian" reasons (as in Bosnia) he did so dragging his feet. The Islamist attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York were the opportunity that a group of senior officials critical of Democratic realpolitik had been waiting for. They had identified the enemy in the arenas of Afghanistan and Iraq and were already thinking about the war against terror.

For that group of neoconservatives (Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle or Paul Bremer), the empire had to intervene motivated not only by business but essentially by a mission: to export a model of democracy that they believed to be exceptional. They convinced Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (Vice President), and President George W. Bush, a Christian convert, enthusiastically embraced that vision.

The intellectual alibi was provided by Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. For both, Iraq was fertile ground for a democracy that would reverberate throughout the region. The first, a British historian specializing in the Middle East, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "regime change can be dangerous, but sometimes the dangers of inaction are greater than those of action." For Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-American from the Hoover Institution, "after liberation, the streets of Basra and Baghdad will burst with joy in the same way that the crowds in Kabul greeted the Americans."

Some and others lacked the excuse. They looked for it in the (non-existent) relations between Al Qaeda and Saddam. And they found it in the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Even if they had to falsify the evidence to do so.

There is no worse blind than the one who does not want to see. In 1961, the intelligence services in Washington informed the White House that the Cuban masses were waiting for a signal to rebel against Fidel Castro. The next step was to send more than a thousand mercenaries to the Bay of Pigs to establish a bridgehead. There were no masses waiting, but the Cuban militiamen were, who arrested them all. John F. Kennedy was quick to perceive the deception and backed down. He left the anti-Castroists in the lurch (the decision perhaps explains his death). But he spared the US a war.

In Iraq that did not happen. In Iraq the Americans (and the British and the rest of the allies) were trapped like flies in a country of which they knew nothing, guided only by the reports of four Iraqis who had been in exile for twenty years. George W. Bush admitted the mistake three years later. Tony Blair took until 2015 to apologize.

But it wasn't just a mistake. It was a lousy deal for the West, the shadow of which still lingers today. Saddam was overthrown without a replacement plan. Instead of “building democracy”, they reactivated sectarian violence, which tore the country apart. They relied on the Shiite factions to run the day-to-day, but that bolstered Iran and its franchises in the Middle East. The Sunnis, distanced from the power they had held, fueled the insurgency that gave rise to the Islamic State. The chaos spread to Syria and that opened the door to the Caliphate.

The chain of events did not leave a cultural imprint on Western countries (unlike what had happened in Vietnam). Only an immense shame and modesty that prevented intervention in 2013 to stop Bashar el Assad when he began to gas his subjects with chemical weapons. And the conviction that the United States has double standards when he talks about the territorial sovereignty of countries. Iraq is not the same as Ukraine, as Vladimir Putin has tired of repeating in recent months.

Perhaps to show that the shadow of the Iraq war is long, China has facilitated in recent days the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two regional powers in the area (Sunni and Shiite) who have not spoken for seven years. Xi Jingping had been personally involved in the operation.

China has important reasons for promoting this pact and trying to stabilize the area. It is from the Middle East that more than half of the oil that feeds the great Asian power comes from. But it is still highly symbolic that it is China that is filling the void left by the US march on Iraq (and later Afghanistan). And that it is his policy of non-interference in the governance of countries that tries to heal the wounds of the Middle East.

Iraq was definitely the pinnacle of American power. But also a big mistake and a warning that the first power had to get used to a world in which it was no longer alone.