The fiction of weapons of mass destruction and "shock and awe." The facts of American occupation—of looting and lawlessness and Abu Ghraib.
It all started 20 years ago, when the war in Iraq began with massive U.S. airstrikes over Baghdad—what George W. Bush infamously called, in his televised address from the Oval Office, "the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger." It sounded like a neoconservative fantasy, and it was.
Twenty years later, after the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands of Iraqis—perhaps more than a million according to some credible estimates—and nearly 5,000 American soldiers, the war's legacy is a seemingly never-ending debate about the folly of American power and the failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Much has been written and said about lessons supposedly learned from the war, although the war's very architects and cheerleaders have studiously avoided any reckoning and accountability—and gotten away with it.
To understand and spotlight perspectives from the Middle East, rather than the usual suspects in Washington, Democracy in Exile reached out to Iraqis and additional voices in the region, along with other regional experts and observers, with a question on this anniversary. What is one lesson that still has not been learned from the war in Iraq, 20 years after the invasion?
It is near impossible to achieve an honest outcome from a dishonest objective. The U.S. war against Iraq was based on an act of dishonesty.
- Zaid al-Ali
An Enduring Act of Dishonesty
The one lesson that has not been learned is that it is near impossible to achieve an honest outcome from a dishonest objective. The U.S. war against Iraq was based on an act of dishonesty: There were no weapons of mass destruction, which was obvious to me before the war took place and was obvious to anyone who cared to think about it carefully enough. The U.S. was a dishonest actor, and attracted like-minded Iraqi allies—individuals who lied about their real intentions. They claimed to want to bring democracy to Iraq but ended up establishing a kleptocracy. They now occupy all the most senior positions in state, which they use to milk the state and enrich themselves.
The other question, which has not yet been resolved, is how does one remedy this situation? Since at least 2008, observers have been saying that without a complete change in approach to governance in Iraq, there will be a popular uprising that will be uncontrollable and possibly revolutionary. Fifteen years later, that hasn't happened yet, and there is no momentum toward that outcome. The same is true in Lebanon. The same parties have been bankrupting the country and no one appears to have any clear ideas about how to move past this situation. In the meantime, Iraqis who want to live their lives to the fullest have been leaving the country. This is a conundrum of America's making but that Iraqis have to live with, with no real perspective of a solution any time soon.
—Zaid Al-Ali is a senior adviser on constitution-building at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and the author of The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy.
Ignoring the Agency of Iraqi Citizens
The United States continues to politicize democracy, particularly in the Middle East. A lesson that has not been learned from the invasion of Iraq is that a democratic state in the Middle East will not necessarily be a staunch American ally. Iraq's ongoing experiment with democratization has demonstrated that citizens and their representatives have widely differing views on international politics, oftentimes resulting in internal polarization. Even those who are sympathetic to the West are still influenced by regional politics and ideologies, due to shared borders, histories and cultures. This has neither been understood nor appreciated by American policymakers who pushed for the invasion of Iraq and who continue to judge Iraq's success or failure based on how closely it follows American foreign policy—particularly toward Iran—and not by the state of its democratic institutions, like competitive and regular elections, and the freedoms of speech and assembly. As a result, the United States has ironically become more accepting of non-democratic individuals and practices in Iraqi politics, so long as they are "bulwarks" against Iran. This displays a lack of respect for the agency of Iraqi citizens, for whose rights the entire invasion and occupation was supposedly premised.
—Hamzeh Hadad, a researcher and political analyst based in Baghdad, is an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
No Reckoning, and No Accountability
The answer, to put it simply: accountability.
We admit that Iraq's invasion was illegal. Some argue that if we had known that Saddam Hussein didn't possess or develop weapons of mass destruction, then we would have not invaded Iraq. So, how do we hold people accountable for the chaos and the violence unleashed, not only in Iraq, but in the region as a result of the 2003 invasion? In an interview with the BBC in 2004, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said unequivocally of the invasion, "I have indicated it was not in conformity with the U.N. Charter from our point of view, from the Charter point of view, it was illegal." But condemning the illegality of war is not sufficient without actual action toward people who were responsible. After all, George W. Bush admitted in an interview in 2010 about the war, after he left office, "I was responsible… the commander-in-chief was responsible. And, you know, I wish we had found weapons of mass destruction. However, that doesn't make the cause a lost cause." There has been no reckoning with the decision to wage war with Iraq and the policymakers who risked the "wholly unjustified and brutal invasion" of Iraq, which will tarnish America and its allies forever.
—Noor Ghazi is an international peace activist and Arabic translator. She was born and raised in Baghdad, and after a time in Syria, immigrated to the United States as a refugee in 2008. Ghazi is a visiting research scholar and Arabic lecturer at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
Democracy Cannot Be Established Without Democrats
I strongly believe that both the U.S. and Iraqi leaderships have not learned any lessons from the disastrous 2003 invasion, and this has been made clear by their continued playing of the same old classical games of politics centering on their own narrow interests. Despite this, it is even more concerning that the world at large seems to have also failed to grasp the lessons from the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions. We see how Russia's war on Ukraine, on a daily basis, reminds us of the traumas the U.S. invasion left in Iraq, yet no one seems to have learned from these past mistakes.
One crucial lesson that I must stress, and which seems to have been completely ignored—and here I want to twist a quote by Germany's first elected president, Social Democratic leader Friedrich Ebert—is that democracy cannot be established without democrats. The U.S. invaded Iraq with the lofty goal of bringing democracy to the country; however, instead, it ended up working with irresponsible, undemocratic leaders that turned Iraq into a kleptocracy. The economy became a rentier economy, and the society became sectarian and clientelist, making it intolerant to change. It is evident that no democracies will ever be established with undemocratic leaders, and to help democratic leaders emerge, the U.S. needs to shift its traditional policy from prioritizing "stability" to prioritizing democracy. The dysfunctional policy of prioritizing stability has only helped undemocratic leaders become despotic autocrats, as we have seen in Iraq and the entire Middle East.
The story of the Iraq invasion does not end there. It is tragic to see that many Iraqis still expect the U.S. to establish democracy for them, despite 20 years of failure from both the U.S. as a country and Iraq as a state and society. It is high time for the U.S. to acknowledge this failure and change its policies for a more democratic approach, as only then can we begin to see true progress toward democracy and stability in the Middle East.
—Kamal Chomani is a journalist and analyst from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and a co-founder of the Kurdistan Times.
The Lasting Consequences of U.S. Interventionism
Twenty years ago, I was in Baghdad when the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began. Two decades later, I look back and wonder, what lessons have we learned from this disastrous war? As someone who has spent a significant portion of my life working on Middle East issues, I can say that one lesson still has not been learned: U.S. interventionism and support for abusive governments in the region must end.
For too long, the U.S. has intervened in the Middle East under the guise of spreading democracy and human rights. Yet, we continue to support authoritarian regimes that violate the very values we claim to champion. We have turned a blind eye to the abuses of our allies in the region, from Israel to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, all in the name of "stability."
The savior complex of human rights groups in DC has also contributed to the problem. Many groups often work to promote U.S. policy objectives, rather than the interests of those they claim to represent. In the case of Iraq, many of these groups supported the war and helped justify the invasion to the American public.
But the war in Iraq was a failure, and its consequences are still felt today. Much of the rise of sectarianism and the destabilization of the region can be traced back to the U.S. invasion. We must recognize that our actions have real and lasting consequences, and we must take responsibility for them.
So, what can we do now? We can start by ending our support for authoritarian and apartheid regimes in the region and working to promote genuine democracy and human rights. We can listen to the voices of people on the ground, rather than relying on self-interested elites and special-interest lobbyists. And we can acknowledge that our interventions in the region have often made things worse, not better.
It's time to learn from our mistakes and chart a new course in the Middle East and North Africa. One that is based on respect for the sovereignty of nations, support for genuine democracy and human rights, and a commitment to peace and stability for all.
—Raed Jarrar is the advocacy director at DAWN.
The U.S. invaded Iraq with the lofty goal of bringing democracy to the country; however, instead, it ended up working with irresponsible, undemocratic leaders who turned Iraq into a kleptocracy.
- Kamal Chomani
Holding the United Nations Accountable
Much has already been said about the role of the United States and the United Kingdom in their devastating invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the role of the United Nations in the atrocities Iraqis suffered during the 1990s sanctions regime also demands attention. Through U.N. Security Council resolutions, a corrupt U.N.-administered oil-for-food program, and a massive failure on the part of the U.N. to address its own role in the unraveling of Iraqi society, the U.N. served to perpetrate—and not simply facilitate—the destruction of Iraq and Iraqis.
The U.N.-endorsed economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s created generations of downtrodden Iraqis, setting the stage for the illegal, U.S.-led invasion to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The anniversary of the invasion gives the false impression that Iraq's unraveling began 20 years ago, when in fact the deprivation and starvation of Iraqis through 13 years of sanctions that preceded 2003 played a major role in the Iraq we see today.
The deadly and destructive sanctions reversed the progress Iraq had made in education and health services and destroyed the lives of innocent Iraqi children, women and men. The miserable conditions caused by these sanctions ensured that any post-Saddam government would be decided not by Iraqis, but by a U.S.-led foreign intervention that, despite its illegality, managed to flourish on the backs of a population that was already too crushed to shape its future.
While there is no doubt that there must be an end to the impunity that the U.S. and the U.K. continue to enjoy as a result of their actions against Iraqis, it is time that the institution that is tasked with saving us from the scourge of war—the United Nations—is also held to account for its role in the devastation of Iraq.
—Noha Aboueldahab is an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Qatar, and a senior non-resident fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.
Ignorance of Iraq's Religious Landscape
Twenty years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Washington continues to fail to recognize the important role religion and religious identity play in Arab societies. Much has been written over two decades of the predictions of a "Cakewalk in Iraq"—the headline of an op-ed penned in 2002 by Kenneth Adelman, a former national security official in the Reagan administration—and Dick Cheney's forecast that Americans would be "greeted as liberators." There were also musing from the Orientalist scholars Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, who had their own interests at heart, and who talked about parades awaiting U.S. soldiers with honey and flowers.
These predictions were based on the assumption that Iraqis preferred any power over Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, and inherent in this assumption was that Iraq's majority Shia population, who were repressed under Saddam, would be loyal to the United States as payback. But who were the Shia as a religious majority of the population? What were their beliefs? What was the role of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme religious authority for the Shia in Iraq and beyond, in a post-invasion Iraq? These questions were not raised.
When Washington woke up to at least a working definition of Shiism, the question then became, were they a threat? Had they become a subsidiary of Iran? And, will they lead a Shia revolution involving other Shia in countries where the United States has military interests, such as Bahrain?
Since then, successive Shia-dominated governments in Iraq have shown that sect and religion matter, and have an influence in domestic and foreign policy matters. Shia Islamist parties have dominated the political landscape, even at times to their own detriment. Shiism has influenced Iraq's diplomatic relations with its neighbors, such as Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, which Baghdad shunned until recently. Iran has maintained heavy influence in Iraqi politics, and the current Iraqi government is said to be the most pro-Iran to date. And Ayatollah Sistani has been a key influencer in everything from Iraq's ability to combat ISIS to who the prime minister should be.
Much like Afghanistan, Washington has for the most part pulled out of Iraq. Now, it is time for the locals to clean up the mess. But a religious scholar without an agenda could have given far better advice to the Bush administration 20 years ago than the so-called defense experts and hawks in Congress.
—Geneive Abdo is a fellow at the Wilson Center. She is the author of four books on the Middle East, including The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide.
America's Pliant, Uncritical Media
Perhaps the most important unlearned lesson from Bush's war on Iraq is that America's news-for-profit corporations are not very good at informing the public in a reasoned and critical way. Apparently, in the business world, it is considered uncouth to oppose a president's scheme to take the country to war. In February 2003, MSNBC, then owned jointly by Bill Gates' Microsoft and NBC/Dow Jones Industrial, fired commentator Phil Donohue, who opposed the war, because his show "wasn't good for business." MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield was demoted and sidelined after she gave a speech in the spring of 2003 against "cable news operators who wrap themselves in the American flag and go after a certain target demographic." Jessica Yellin later explained that the corporations for which she worked in 2003 (MSNBC and then Disney's ABC) pressured her to "put on positive stories about the president," and she said that her superiors edited her reports to put that spin on them. Knight Ridder reporters, among the few who were allowed to exercise critical reasoning and avoid stenography, found that many newspapers would not carry their articles on the war and the Bush administration, even newspapers owned by Knight Ridder. Even The New York Times fell for rank propaganda and declined to consult experts on ridiculous claims about Iraq's supposed nuclear capability. The International Atomic Energy Agency's director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, was able to conclude that the charges were false when he finally saw the evidence, just before Bush rushed into Iraq.
No one who spends much time with today's even more right-wing cable news channels or the much-diminished print news corporations can be sanguine it would not happen again.
—Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, and a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
A Never-Ending Cycle of Failures on Repeat
There is a near-universal consensus about the epic failure of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The U.S.-led war was first and foremost catastrophic for the Iraqi people, capping off decades of dictatorship, war and sanctions that had already decimated the country's civil society. The coup de grâce was destroying their system of governance, including the civil institutions vital to the functioning of any state. There's also broad recognition that the 2003 war was one of the greatest U.S. foreign policy failures of all time, achieving none of its stated goals and quashing neoconservative fantasies about remaking the Middle East to their design.
But, in the absence of any accountability for American officials who led the unlawful invasion of Iraq based on lies and naked criminality, the U.S. foreign policy community has avoided any serious reckoning for this failure to reexamine the problematic precepts on which our policies continue to be based: U.S. primacy, hubris and hegemony. This is why the U.S. has continued to swing from war to war, recklessly intervening in the broader Middle East directly or via its well-armed proxies, from Afghanistan to Libya, from Syria to Yemen, from Palestine to Iran, to suit misplaced interests. The result has been a never-ending cycle of failures on repeat, for the peoples of both the region and our country.
—Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director of DAWN.
A Legacy of Incompetence
America was responsible for many crimes and misdeeds in Iraq. U.S. foreign policy has failed to account for much of its troubling record in Iraq, and I've written elsewhere about war crimes, militarism and impunity. However, on one score, Americans have hardly even begun a conversation, much less a reckoning: the tragic record of U.S. incompetence in Iraq.
Every stage of the Iraq debacle carried a massive human cost and was marked by an epic lack of capability and competence. In some cases, like the failure to send enough troops or provide them with adequate safety equipment, the incompetence seemed callous and bungling. In other cases, the incompetence appears more sinister, a matter of malfeasance rather than neglect—like the refusal of American occupation authorities to do their homework and consider the complexities of their terrible, lethal decisions to dismantle the Iraqi military, turn the de-Baathification process over to political hacks, and set up a sectarian power-sharing system run by exiles.
In Iraq, America deservedly earned a reputation for incompetence and inability—a hit in standing that harmed not only Iraqis but the U.S. government's ability to make smart decisions and lead on a cascade of other strategic matters.
America's illegal and inhumane invasion of Iraq didn't cause Russia to invade Ukraine or China to set up concentration camps for its Muslim minority. But America's rogue and lawless behavior made the world a safer place for militarized nations that want to invade and gobble up their neighbors.
The incompetence abroad killed hundreds of thousands and consigned Iraq to a long, uphill climb if it is ever to achieve stability and good governance. But that incompetence in Iraq had consequences for America as well.
Even when they don't speak openly about it, Americans have internalized the many illustrations of incapacity that were so painfully demonstrated in Iraq, from the overruling of intelligence and military professionals to the cowardice of leaders who knew they were dispatching their subordinates on impossible missions. U.S. institutions simply didn't make the grade, unable to fulfill their basic missions. Americans, as a result, understandably doubt not only the integrity of their political leaders, but the ability of their government and state to perform its most basic roles of providing for Americans and keeping them safe.
—Thanassis Cambanis is an author, journalist and the director of Century International. His work focuses on U.S. foreign policy, Arab politics and social movements in the Middle East.
A Lesson in Humility
The U.S. military intervention in Iraq—initiated under fear, hubris and, for some, greed—sapped American prestige and credibility abroad. It undermined Americans' faith in their own government and support for foreign engagements.
The United States entered the Iraq War with at least a pretense of forming a more inclusive government. It worked with Iraqi exiles to bring neglected constituencies into the process, formalized as religious and ethnic communities: Shia, Kurds, tribal leaders. Yet it birthed years of ethnic strife, exacted a horrific toll in Iraqi lives, and embedded a system of patronage and corruption implacable to reform.
I still believe in the American project at home—its greater social inclusiveness over time, a political system that can, though imperfectly, offer a degree of accountability and political correction. But while positive elements of that history and practice have inspired democratic reformers abroad, the U.S. government no longer commands the same respect, and the international institutions that embody the liberal democratic consensus are weakening.
A lesson for Americans from the Iraq War? Humility. Yet in a world increasingly under the sway of techno-authoritarian governments and populist movements, voices for individual rights and essential political freedoms are needed more than ever.
—Kristin Diwan is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Baathist Political Tyranny Also Destroyed Iraq
There is a major problem with the claim that the 2003 American-Anglo invasion destroyed Iraq—period, full stop, end of story.
First, this presupposes that prior to this moment, Iraq was relatively stable and it had a functioning society and a bright future. If only George Bush and Tony Blair had not invaded, the argument goes, Iraqis would be prospering today.
Second, this claim perpetuates the misguided idea that all of Iraq's current problems—and by extension those of the Arab world—can be attributed to the machinations of outside political forces. This factually inaccurate analysis ignores the agency of local actors and ruling elites.
Iraq's post-colonial experience, prior to 2003, has been deeply and adversely shaped by despotic rule. Arguably, Iraq's has been the worst experience in the Arab world, with Syria under the House of Assad, and Libya under the House of Qaddafi coming in a close second and third. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was both a torture state and a genocidal one, where Kurds and Shia Muslims were disproportionately targeted. Saddam Hussein's Iraq repeatedly ranked No. 1 in the world in terms of forced state-sanctioned disappearances
One important lesson to remember about Iraq 20 years after the invasion is that the legacy of political despotism significantly contributed to the demise of Iraqi society. In truth, the rot had set in long before the American invasion. Bush's intervention grossly aggravated and substantially deepened pre-existing trends of destruction. The roots of Iraqi social disintegration, however, must be located in the policies of the ruling Baath party and in the legacy of totalitarian rule.
Sadly, this form of despotic rule has now come to dominate the Arab world and broader Middle East, with its concomitant destabilizing effects.
—Nader Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is also a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
A Dangerous and Abiding Precedent
The debacle of the Iraq War is still with us, in the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the trillions of dollars squandered, and America's global reputation tarnished. But the sense of self-righteousness that imbued the architects of the war unfortunately also remains.
There has yet to be proper accountability for those who peddled false information, made outlandish promises of "democracy promotion" and ignored the negative strategic consequences for the Middle East and beyond. Some architects of the war, like the consummate con artist Ahmed Chalabi, have died. Others continue to have a platform in elite foreign policy circles. Longtime Republican national security hawk John Bolton still has frequent columns in The Washington Post and advocates attacking yet another U.S. Middle Eastern adversary, Iran—ironically, the country that most benefited from the Iraq War. Paul Bremer, the first U.S. proconsul in post-Saddam Iraq; Paul Wolfowitz, the neoconservative former deputy defense secretary who long advocated for the invasion; former Vice President Dick Cheney; Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser-turned-secretary of state—they all have yet to apologize for their many misjudgments.
Most significantly, former President George W. Bush has not atoned for what in the end was his final decision. While Bush may seem admirable in other respects compared to Donald Trump, the enormous costs of the Iraq War were a major factor in Trump's rise and growing U.S. neo-isolationism. The Iraq War also set an unfortunate precedent that Russian President Vladimir Putin has used to try to justify his regime-change aggression in Ukraine—and that also appears to have influenced China's ambitions to project power. The leaders in Moscow and Beijing look at Iraq and think: If the Bush administration could violate international law by invading a sovereign country 6,000 miles from its shores, why should we restrain ourselves in coveting land far closer to home?
—Barbara Slavin is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington and a lecturer in international affairs at George Washington University.