Note from the Editor: This article is part of The Fletcher Forum’s “Iraq War Special Series” commemorating the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.
In the early days of the Bush administration, Robert Jervis, then president of the American Political Science Association, observed that “In the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the United States,” reiterating a similar warning by Samuel Huntington shortly before. As if to prove the point, Bush and associates soon joined with Britain to invade Iraq, a textbook case of aggression—“the supreme international crime,” in the familiar words of the Nuremberg Tribunal, “differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” This conclusion about the Iraq War would hold even if the fanciful pretexts had not quickly collapsed.
Iraq had already been devastated by the U.S.-UK sanctions, administered via the UN and condemned as “genocidal” by the two distinguished international diplomats, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who directed the sanctions’ “humanitarian” components and successively resigned in protest. Von Sponeck’s valuable study, A Different Kind of War, provides extensive details. He writes that “the per capita value/day of humanitarian goods actually benefitting Iraqis amounted to 51 U.S. cents—a shameful reality for which the U.S. and UK governments were largely responsible.” The sanctions strengthened the tyrant and compelled the population to rely on him for survival, perhaps saving him from the fate of others like him who were overthrown from within.
Then came the war, and the “accumulated evil” that followed: hundreds of thousands of corpses, millions of refugees, torture and humiliation, murderous ethnic conflict that has since inflamed the region, destruction of cultural treasures and of the intellectual and professional classes so severe that many Iraqis compare the outcome to the Mongol invasions. In 2005, the UN determined that eighty-four percent of Iraq’s educational institutions had been looted, burnt or destroyed. Before the sanctions were imposed, Iraq had the highest educational standards in the Arab world, approaching those of developed societies. Today, its illiteracy rates are some of the highest in the region, reflecting the devastation of the culture and the society by sanctions and war.
Iraq’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (2011) reports that some 4.5 million Iraqi children have lost their parents—seventy percent of them since the invasion—with many now living in the streets or the few orphanages that exist, something new in Iraq.
Intelligence agencies had predicted that the invasion would increase terror. So it did, far beyond what had been anticipated. A study by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank on the “Iraq effect” found that war “generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks.” The former head of Britain’s MI5 informed the Chilcot Commission investigating the war that “the invasion radicalised part of a generation of Muslims and increased the terrorist threat to Britain.” Much the same has happened elsewhere.
Correspondents who have kept a close eye on developments throughout have summarized the “Iraq effect” on the tenth anniversary. In the London Independent, Patrick Cockburn writes that “The U.S. and the UK have sought to play down overwhelming evidence that their invasion and occupation has produced one of the most dysfunctional and crooked governments in the world.” David Gardner extends the observation in the Financial Times: “The bigger impact of the invasion was to catapult the Shia minority within Islam (a majority in Iraq) to power in an Arab heartland nation for the first time since the fall of the Fatimid caliphate in 1171. As well as leading to a sectarian bloodbath in Iraq, this reignited with a millenarian spin the simmering conflict between Sunni and Shia, from the Levant to the Gulf and across to the Indian subcontinent.”
The United States suffered a major defeat, not only because of the enormous cost of the war and the abandonment of all war aims. The defeat for Iraq and much of the region is far worse. But there have been some victors. The main one, of course, is Iran—and another, at least temporarily, is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
A fitting tribute to the brilliance of those who instructed the world that “we create our own reality” while lesser mortals can only observe in wonder. So they did.