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He swiftly corrected himself, saying “the Ukraine” with a shake of the head, and appealed to his septuagenarian status. Light chuckles swept through the sympathetic crowd. But there are many others who weren’t laughing. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, which occurred 20 years ago this week, was seen at the time by critics as both “wholly unjustified” and potentially “brutal” — views that have only become more widespread in the years that followed.
The Bush administration sold a false bill of goods to justify its “preemptive” intervention against the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Its hunt for Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction proved futile and built on bad intelligence. Its insistence that regime change would bring greater stability to the Middle East proved exactly the opposite, sowing a legacy of instability that would lead to the rise of extremist organizations like the Islamic State and the growing regional influence of Washington nemesis Iran. Its vision for stamping liberal democracy on Iraq proved illusory, with the country consumed by years of political upheaval, parliamentary paralysis and corruption.
Iraqis have their own diverse views on the legacy of the U.S. invasion, but some baseline realities are inescapable: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed in the wake of Hussein’s ouster, their deaths at least indirectly linked to the chaos unleased by the United States. The American conduct of the war also has numerous grim chapters, from the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib to the near destruction of the city of Fallujah.
The Iraqi author Sinan Antoon told me this in 2021: “No matter what — and I say this as someone who was opposed to Saddam’s regime since childhood and wrote his first novel about life under dictatorship — had the regime remained in power, tens of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive today, and children in Fallujah would not be born with congenital defects every day.”
What does this have to do with Ukraine? For months, U.S. and European officials have cast the conflict in Ukraine in stark moral terms. If Putin can succeed with a war of aggression across his borders, the argument has gone, then a dark agenda of territorial conquest and might making right wins out. President Biden has framed the contest as a clash between “all democracies” and Putin’s authoritarian project. Last November, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described the collective efforts of Ukraine’s Western allies as a reflection of “how much countries around the world value and respect the rules-based international order.”
The legacy of Iraq undermines this rhetoric. For many people in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Global South, the U.S. invasion is the most glaring recent episode in a long history of Western meddling and U.S. hypocrisy on the world stage. For officials in China and Russia, de facto adversaries of the United States, the Iraq War is an easy precedent to put forward to shoot down Washington’s talking points, no matter how self-serving and cynical that may be.
“U.S. officials frequently invoke [the rules-based order] when criticizing or making demands of China,” noted Paul Pillar, a veteran former U.S. intelligence officer. “In no way can the offensive war against Iraq be seen as consistent with respect for a rules-based international order, or else the rules involved are strange rules.”
“No one in the Biden administration today cares that [the Iraq War] ruined what credibility America had as a pillar of international order in the global south and gave Putin cover for his own atrocity,” wrote Juan Cole, a historian of the Middle East at the University of Michigan. “Who remembers anymore that, in 2003, we were Vladimir Putin?”
Many prominent U.S. figures who once supported the invasion of Iraq now say it was a costly mistake. David Frum, a staff writer at the Atlantic who served as a Bush speechwriter and was a cheerleader for the war, admits as much in a recent essay, but still makes the case that Iraq’s dictator was not the victim of “unprovoked” aggression, pointing to a decade’s worth of tensions between his regime and the United States over arms inspections and perceived violations of earlier cease-fire agreements. As some other members of the Washington establishment also contend, Frum worries that the hangover of the Iraq War has harmfully impeded and undercut effective U.S. policy in the years since.
“What unfortunately that misadventure did do … was leave the U.S. too shellshocked to act decisively against other aggressors elsewhere — and to inspire in potential aggressors a new confidence that America was too divided and weak to stop them,” Frum wrote.
The uncomfortable reality is that the Iraq War emerged in large part out of the nationalistic fervor and desire for retribution that gripped the United States in the wake of the epochal shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even though the Iraqi regime had little connection to al-Qaeda’s plots, a significant portion of the American public believed it did. While the invasion had a degree of international support from smaller countries mostly dragooned into line by Washington, it was a unilateral act carried out by a government that could not be restrained by the international system, nor by any checks at home. The Bush administration faced minimal opposition in Congress and received little meaningful pushback from the mainstream media.
U.S. policy elites weren’t exactly appealing to the rules-based order, then, either. Two months after the invasion, liberal New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman went on television and cheered the war, describing it as a blunt statement of force to Islamist extremists everywhere: “Well, suck on this,” Friedman said on “The Charlie Rose Show,” in what was his rendition of the message delivered by U.S. troops on the ground. “That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. … We could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.”
Henry Kissinger, the elder statesman of the American foreign policy community, is said to have justified the Iraq War to a Bush administration official with the argument that “Afghanistan was not enough” — that is, toppling the fundamentalist but ragtag Taliban, who had given al-Qaeda sanctuary, didn’t fully scratch the itch for revenge.
According to this account from journalist Mark Danner, Kissinger said Islamist extremists wanted to humiliate the United States and, so, instead, “we need to humiliate them.” Might, in the Washington establishment’s view in 2003, certainly made right. But the Washington establishment was wrong. The difficult question now is what lessons can still be learned.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a criminal act of great recklessness. So too was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003,” wrote Andrew Bacevich, chairman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, this week. “Biden appears to believe that the Ukraine war provides a venue whereby the United States can overcome the legacy of Iraq, enabling him to make good on his repeated assertion that ‘America is back.’”
Bacevich, though, is skeptical about the redemptive power of war, the implicit belief in Washington that the American defense of Ukraine can, in a certain sense, heal “the wounds that afflict our nation.” Twenty years later, we are still picking at the scabs.