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Iraq Revisited Part II

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My latest at 1945 is on the international fallout from the decision to invade Iraq:

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.

Some further thoughts…

First (and folks will find this troubling) there is a colorable case that the United States won this war. As I put in the linked piece:

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.

If some country other than the United States had waged a war with this outcome, we’d be hard-pressed to call in anything but a victory, although we might be inclined to bring Pyrrhus into the conversation. It’s certainly not as if the Iraqis won this war; the current regime is a US client, dependent on US military protection and host to US military force. The problem, of course, is that the victory came at far greater cost over a far longer period of time with benefits that were trivial compared to what the framers of the conflict promised.

On the broader question of the international impact of the US war, I think it’s undeniable that the decision to invade undercut US political and legal authority worldwide and that it damaged the liberal international order. That said… these are amorphous concepts that are hard to pin down in any kind of concrete sense, so it’s difficult to say with any precision what kinds of outcomes the Iraq War created. I can only offer a note of caution about any specific argument linking international outcomes to the Iraq War. And when I say “note of caution” I should follow that up by granting that there are coherent causal arguments that can be made about everything that follows here, they’re just awfully difficult to demonstrate to any satisfaction. I’m more satisfied with the claim “the invasion of Iraq damaged America’s global position” than I am with almost any of the specific pillars that are oft posited to support that claim.

It’s hard to say how the Iraq War affected Russian foreign policy. Iraq was part of a long series of disruptions in US-Russia relations (including Kosovo, the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, NATO expansion, Georgia, US support for NGOs, Libya, Syria) leading up to the decisive break in 2014. I would be extremely hesitant to assign much causal importance to the Iraq invasion when evaluating Russia’s future behavior, if only because there are so many other steps along that chain. Moreover, there was a lot of optimism regarding the future of US-Russia relations even as late as the first Obama administration (although by that point it may have been wishful thinking). The Iraq War was one of the things that broke relations between Moscow and Washington, but it’s not obvious by any means that it’s the most important thing.

I think it’s probably wrong to think that the invasion had much to do with the trajectory of US-China relations, apart from pushing back for perhaps a decade the onset of serious antagonism between Washington and Beijing. Prior to September 11 the Bush administration was repositioning US foreign policy around great power competition with China (the incident with the P-3 was threatening to accelerate this). After September 11 cooperation on counter-terrorism with Moscow and Beijing became the order of the day and attention to anything but Iraq waned. I certainly don’t think that Iraq can explain a) China’s military buildup, or b) China’s interest in finding a militarized solution to Taiwan.

With respect to non-proliferation, I don’t think it’s at all difficult to make a limited case that the war undercut the global nuclear non-proliferation regime; a nuclear power crushed a non-nuclear foe after that foe had substantially disarmed. But that case comes with important caveats. Iran and North Korea were undoubtedly paying attention… but then they were paying attention to this possibility even before March 2003. The North Korea program was very advanced by the beginning of the war, and it’s not at all obvious that the Kims would have given that program up even if the Iraq invasion had never happened; North Korea began investing in nuclear out of a calculated (and altogether rational) conclusion that the conventional balance was irreversibly tilting in the wrong direction, and Iraq only confirmed the wisdom of that decision. The war undoubtedly benefitted Iran on balance, but its impact on Iranian nuclear decision-making is much harder to assess. Fear of US attack caused some hesitation in the Iranian program immediately after 2003, but Iran eventually concluded that an American attack was unlikely BECAUSE the US was bogged down in Iraq, and that consequently it could resume work on its program. I have no doubt that the invasion of Iraq is often cited in internal Iranian conversations about the nuclear program, but conclusive causal lines are harder to draw.

I suspect that’s going to be awfully unsatisfying to a lot of folks reading this. In parting I’d say this; the United States is a spectacularly wealthy and powerful country, and such countries can make absolutely catastrophic mistakes without suffering catastrophic consequences. The nature of US power and the nature of the international system tends to insulate the US from its most tragic errors. The crime (and I use this in the broad moral sense) of the Iraq War must be measured by its direct consequences; hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, thousands of dead Americans, hundreds of thousands of permanently damaged Americans and Iraqis, untold infrastructure damage, and a generation of wealth flushed down the toilet. “What else could have been done with all that has been wasted?” might be the best question to ask about Iraq, but of course it also will not render any concrete answers.

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