From an international perspective, the Iraq War represents one of the great “own goals” of 21st century foreign policy, sharing the stage with Brexit and with Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.
That the United States has managed to weather this humiliation is a testament to its wealth and power, not to the wisdom of the policy. The war gutted the moral authority that the United States enjoyed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, poisoning US relations with wide swaths of the world and of course inflicting catastrophic damage upon Iraq, the target of America’s rage.
US rhetoric in the run up to the war was quite aggressive as the Bush administration tried to make the case to both domestic and international audiences that the war was worth it. “You are with us, or you are with the terrorists” was the order of the day, giving the international audience to the war little option for disengagement.
The war was intended to showcase the United States as a power for global justice, but instead undercut American power and prestige for at least a generation.
Middle East and Islamic World
It’s important to remember that the decision to invade Iraq was controversial in the Middle East, strongly opposed by some and yet supported by others. As the war went ugly, however, the supporters of the US policy ran for cover and left the US on its own.
Iran, originally terrified of being next, rapidly pivoted to exploiting US misfortune to its own advantage. On balance, the war weakened US friends in the region and empowered its enemies.
In particular, the invasion of Iraq badly damaged the US relationship with Turkey. Ankara regarded itself as having a special role in the Middle East, and particularly regarded Kurdish national aspirations as representing a critical national security threat. The US invasion wounded Turkey’s foreign policy prerogatives in both of these areas, causing problems in the relationship that endure today.
For its part, the war has left deep scars on Iraq, both in terms of physical destruction and political culture. The country is formally democratic, and indeed in many ways it has become the most democratic country in the Middle East apart from Israel. However, Iraq is today regarded as the object of influence rather than the subject; Iraq’s neighbors continue to conduct a low-grade proxy war for influence rather than worry about Baghdad as an independent actor. Iraqi society is divided, with immense tension enduring between Sunni and Shia and the virtual independence of the Kurdish north. Two decades later there remains no obvious path to resolving these tensions and turning Iraq into a “normal” country.
There is no question that the decision to invade Iraq affected the US relationship with Russia. Russia reacted to September 11 with a sense of solidarity against the threat of Islamic extremism around the world, a threat that Moscow took quite seriously in the midst of its wars in Chechnya.
And while it is surely overstating the case to blame Russia’s later behavior on the American example in Iraq, the US decision to invade in March 2003 undoubtedly indicated to Moscow that Russian preferences would simply not be taken seriously in the US vision of liberal international order. US behavior in Libya and Syria would only reinforce this conclusion.
China did not display the same kind of indignation about the Iraq War, making clear its opposition but not suggesting that the invasion represented some kind of critical betrayal of American principle.
But arguably the decision to invade Iraq contributed to a decade-long delay in the American reckoning with Chinese power. Most assumed after the election of George W. Bush that relations between Washington and Beijing would deteriorate as a result of Bush’s public interest in great power competition. Instead, the Washington set Pacific priorities aside in order to pursue its adventure in the Middle East, allowing China to develop unimpeded.
As Washington and the collected governments of NATO have discovered to their chagrin in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much of the Global South does not share the West’s shock, dismay, and indignance with respect to Moscow’s behavior.
The Iraq War isn’t the only reason for this; the legacies of colonialism and semi-colonial imperial spheres of interest are long and dark, and likely would have affected the reaction in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in any case. But Iraq surely didn’t help. Washington’s denunciation of Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine is harder to sustain in light of Washington’s illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq.
That said, many of the countries that opposed US intervention in Iraq both at a political level (in particular France, Germany and Canada) and a popular level (pretty much everywhere other than Australia and the United Kingdom) have been nearly unified in support of Ukraine. Iraq did not induce NATO to collapse, and Iraq did not even collapse the NATO mission in Afghanistan, although it surely undercut the political efficacy of that mission and helped ensure the collapse of the Kabul government in 2021.
What the Iraq War Actually Did Accomplish
Ironically, the Iraq War accomplished many of its key objectives, including the demonstration of the nearly profound extent of US power. The US armed forces rapidly destroyed the government of Saddam Hussein and replaced that government with a client regime.
Over the course of several years, it then waged a counter-insurgency campaign that effectively defeated the opponents of that regime, then destroyed yet another set of regime opponents in a campaign that spanned both Iraq and Syria.
And yet the United States does not seem to have earned a reputation for power or for resolve or for justness. The US paid an immense price and (more importantly) inflicted an immense price upon Iraq, and now seems to have virtually nothing to show for it. Only the brute fact of American power remains to mediate the damage inflicted by the decision to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003.
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.