20 years after the Iraq invasion: How has the Middle East changed? - analysis

The shift to remake the Middle East was very much part of the ethos of the Iraq war philosophy, seen as a chance at “pre-emption” to destroy a dangerous dictatorship and rebuild it into a democracy.

 US Marine Corps (USMC) Marines assigned to C/Company, 1ST Battalion, 5th Marines, 1ST Marine Division engage the enemy during a firefight with Iraqi Forces near Baghdad, Iraq, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (photo credit: NARA)
US Marine Corps (USMC) Marines assigned to C/Company, 1ST Battalion, 5th Marines, 1ST Marine Division engage the enemy during a firefight with Iraqi Forces near Baghdad, Iraq, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM
(photo credit: NARA)

The 20-year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq has sparked discussion about what is widely considered a major failure, leading to massive Iraqi suffering. The reasons for its failure are long, from the misguided reasons for the invasion to the mismanagement of the occupation to the “shock and awe” of the war itself.

Hindsight on involvement

In the Middle East, the US decision is seen as one of the numerous examples of how it made mistakes in the region and then walked away, leaving the country worse off than before. This lack of responsibility, as well as the perception that the US is shifting away from the region, has led to some hand-wringing about US policy and also a lot of self-congratulatory views in which the US failure is seen as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The reason for the war was relayed as relating to “weapons of mass destruction,” – WMD. These were weapons the Saddam regime was working on in the 1980s, but it was unclear if his nuclear weapons program ever recovered after the 1991 war.

The nuclear program suffered a setback after the Israeli raid in 1981 (Operation Opera) and after the 1991 war, with its sanctions and inspectors, the Iraqi regime was unable to properly succeed with nuclear arms.

The regime had chemical weapons – but those stocks were also decaying. To this day, it remains unclear how dangerous the regime actually was. Other accusations about the regime, such as its support for terrorism, are also complex; it did back some extremists, but it was not part of the major Islamist networks rising at the time.

US soldier leaves Iraq 311 (credit: REUTERS)US soldier leaves Iraq 311 (credit: REUTERS)

The crux of the story of the US invasion had more to do with the Bush administration playing to the time it had on its side, that it had to do “something” after the Afghanistan invasion. The decision to invade Iraq shifted priorities from finding Bin Laden to crushing the Saddam regime, a more complex task. Bin Laden would not be killed by the US until 2011.

The shift to remake the Middle East was very much part of the ethos of the Iraq war philosophy, seen as a chance at “pre-emption” to destroy a dangerous dictatorship and rebuild it into a democracy.

Today this may seem naïve, but in those days the view that took hold was that democracy was blossoming all over the world, and the Middle East was right at the center of it.

If one believed that terrorism thrived under dictatorships, it follows then that democracy would end it.

The hole in this logic was that most countries allied with the West were dictatorships, including Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf monarchies. Yet no one suggested replacing them, instead, the hyper-focus turned to Saddam.

This era could be seen as the height of US arrogance, but it didn’t start that way. The Bush administration came into office circumspect about US power. Donald Rumsfeld former Secretary of Defense under Bush, wanted to reform the bloated Pentagon bureaucracy.

The GOP held criticisms against the Clinton policy of interventions. Some wanted an end to humanitarian intervention, the US being a “world policeman” in the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, Panama and East Timor. The shift to a global war on terror put the US intervention on steroids; the cause of “democracy” replaced the cause of humanitarianism, but the act was the same.

When the US invaded Iraq, it happened on the anniversary of the Halabja poison gas attacks by the Saddam regime, a genocidal act against the Kurdish minority in Iraq. Today, it’s common for political commentators to forget that the Saddam regime was genocidal. It was not a victim of the US; destroying it was a perfectly good outcome of the war. That all changed after 2004.

That year brought the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and security forces in May 2003, and “de-baathification,” set to be modeled on the occupation of Germany and Japan after WWII. In Iraq, this led to chaos, as the state crumbled and Iranian-backed extremist terrorist groups entered the scene.

What followed was a near-decade of sectarian massacres and insurgencies against US forces. The decision to withdraw from Iraq left in power pro-Iranian strongman Nouri al-Maliki.

The rise of Maliki turned Iraq into the diametric opposite of what the US claimed it came to do in the first place. He was a pro-Iranian extremist who helped fuel ISIS. Rather than try to help minorities, secure Iraq and rebuild the country, the US squandered billions and hollowed out the country so much that Iran’s agents could fill it up again.

This was a replacement of one horror – Saddam – with another. The only region that stabilized was the Kurdistan autonomous region, and even that was a near-run because some US diplomats privately said they wished they hadn’t enabled it, in a bizarre belief of resurrecting Iraq as a strong “nationalist” state.

By the time the Bush administration left office, the Iraq war was seen as a disaster, and the Obama administration came into office hoping for a “reset” with Russia and seeking an Iraq deal. This led to support for Maliki and to a US policy on Lebanon that helped hand it to Hezbollah.

Not only did Iran exploit the chaos in Iraq, but the extremists that eventually became ISIS also did. When the Syrian Civil War began in 2011 they jumped at the opportunity. Using old networks along the Euphrates river valley, the extremists jumped into the vacuum in Syria, and within two years they were back in Iraq with an army of black-clad ISIS figures knocking at the doors of Mosul, the second-largest city.

By June, they expelled Christians and other minorities from Mosul, and by August they were committing genocide against the Yazidis. They picked up right where Saddam left off, making Iraq even hellish.

This resulted in Iranian-backed militias being empowered in Iraq to defeat ISIS, leading to the rise of Hashd al-Shaabi, a pro-Iran group of militias. By 2018, they were moving weapons across the border into Syria, and Iran was exploiting this success to threaten Israel from Iraq and Syria.

Removing Saddam was a good thing; his regime was vile.

The removal led to a vacuum and mismanagement that not only empowered Iran but also opened the door to al-Qaeda, the very group the US claimed Saddam had supported – meaning that Iraq became a conduit for extremism after the invasion, not before it.

The pretense of building a democratic Iraq was only partly successful. Iraq is a democracy today, but the decision to empower Maliki harmed the fragile democracy at the time. The chaos of Iraq was fueled by Iran and the Syrian regime, which enabled weapons and IEDs to flow in.

This led to the rise of ISIS out of Iraq, as it took over part of the country, as well as Syria. Its defeat empowered Iran, which led to clashes with the US, the killing of Qasem Soleimani in 2020, and the withdrawal of US forces from many parts of Iraq.

The only area the US seems comfortable in today is the autonomous Kurdistan region. However, the failure to back the Kurds in the 2017 independence referendum led to its weakening. Today, US policy has narrowly focused in Iraq and Syria, solely on working with local partner forces and not conducting counter-insurgency operations. The US has become wary of doing “nation-building” again.

The lesson of Iraq for the region is that chaos will always lead to extremism. The return of the state-led processes, including the recent Saudi-Iran normalization deal and Russia’s backing of Syria, is part of the trend to not allow another chaotic power vacuum.