Five days, five weeks or five months, but it won't last longer," US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on 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 an organizing force in the world order. They went there to overthrow Saddam Hussein and build the first Arab democracy. Instead, chaos reigned in a region that has not yet recovered.
When Washington decided to invade Iraq, the United States was at the height of its hegemony. It was a power boosted by the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The military supremacy of the United States had experienced moments that were not glorious (Korean War 1950-1953) 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 nineties, Bill Clinton had limited himself to managing a hypervitaminized 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 of 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 on terror.
For that group of neoconservatives (Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle and Paul Bremer), the empire had to intervene not only for business, but essentially for 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 this view.
The intellectual alibi was put up by Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. For both, Iraq was fertile ground for a democracy that had to 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, an American of Lebanese origin at the Hoover Institution, "after the liberation, the streets of Basra and Baghdad will erupt 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-Qaida and Saddam. And they found it in the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Even if for that they had to falsify the evidence.
There is no worse blind than the one who does not want to see. In 1961 Washington's intelligence services 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 Bahía de Cochinos to establish a bridgehead there. There were no masses waiting, but there were Cuban militiamen, who arrested them all. John F. Kennedy perceived the deception quickly and backed off. He left the anti-Castroists in the lurch (the decision perhaps explains his death). But he avoided a war in the US.
In Iraq, this did not happen. In Iraq, the Americans (and the British and other allies) were stuck like flies in a country they knew nothing about, guided only by the reports of four Iraqis who had been in the country for twenty years. exile George W. Bush admitted the mistake three years later. It took Tony Blair until 2015 to apologise.
But it wasn't just a mistake. It was a lousy business for the West, whose shadow lingers even today. They toppled Saddam without a relief plan. Instead of "building democracy", they reactivated sectarian violence, which tore the country apart. They got the support of the Shia factions to run it on a day-to-day basis, but this strengthened Iran and its franchises in the Middle East. The Sunnis, removed from the power they had held for many years, fueled the insurgency that gave rise to the Islamic State. Chaos spread to Syria and this 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 a stench prevented him from intervening in 2013 to stop Baixar al-Assad when he started gassing his subjects with chemical weapons. And the conviction that the United States has a double whammy when it 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 demonstrate that the shadow of the war in Iraq is prolonged, China has facilitated in recent days the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two regional powers in the area (Sunni and Shia), that they had not spoken to each other for seven years. Xi Jingping was personally involved in the operation.
China has important reasons to encourage this pact and try 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 China is filling the void left by the United States' withdrawal from Iraq (and then 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 peak of US 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.