The United States, supported by the United Kingdom, launched a full-scale invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. The justification for the invasion was based on three premises: that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD); that it was developing more of them to aid terrorist groups; and that creating a “friendly and democratic” Iraq would serve as an example for the region. However, two decades after Operation Iraqi Freedom, the question of whether the invasion was the result of willful deception, wrongful intelligence, or strategic calculation remains a matter of debate. What is clear is that the Iraq war has had long-lasting effects on US foreign policy.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), told the US Senate on January 29, 2004, “Let me begin by saying, we were almost all wrong, and I certainly include myself here.” The ISG, a fact-finding mission set up by the multinational force to find and disable Iraq’s purported WMDs, was ultimately unable to find substantial evidence that Hussein had an active weapons development program. The Bush administration had presented this as a certainty before the invasion.
In a speech in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 7, 2002, President George W. Bush declared that Iraq “possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons.” He then concluded that Hussein had to be stopped. “The Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons,” Bush said.
Then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair had said the same thing on September 24, 2002, as he presented a British intelligence dossier affirming that Hussein could activate chemical and biological weapons “within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population.”
When the ISG presented its findings, one of the war’s main arguments crumbled. “We’ve got evidence that they certainly could have produced small amounts [of WMD], but we’ve not discovered evidence of the stockpiles,” Kay said in his testimony.
According to Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at Chatham House, the decision to invade Iraq was a “huge violation of international law,” and the real objective of the Bush administration was a broader transformational effect in the region. “We know that the intelligence was manufactured and that [Hussein] didn’t have the weapons,” Vakil told Al Jazeera.
While campaigning for the presidency, Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy. However, the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, dragged the US into a global counterterrorism military campaign it dubbed the “War on Terror.” In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, Bush stated that the US would combat “terrorist groups” or any country deemed to be training, equipping, or supporting “terrorism.”
“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, aiming to threaten the peace of the world,” he said. The speech went on to identify Iraq as a pillar in the so-called “axis of evil.” “Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror,” Bush said. “This is a regime that agreed to international inspections – then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.”
A year later, on January 30, 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney drew a link between Hussein’s government and the group deemed to be behind 9/11, stating that Iraq “aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda.” Hussein was known to have supported various groups deemed “terrorist” by some states, including the Iranian dissident group Mujahedin-e-Khalq, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and several Palestinian splinter groups. Still, evidence of ties to al-Qaeda has never been found.
According to Melvyn Leffler, author of Confronting Saddam Hussein, Bush never believed in a direct link between Hussein and al-Qaeda. However, he believed that sanctions against Iraq were breaking down and containment was failing. As soon as sanctions were lifted, Hussein would restart his WMD program and “blackmail the United States in the future.”
In a speech on October 14, 2002, Bush said that the US was “a friend to the people of Iraq.” He added that “our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens us … The long captivity of Iraq will end, and an era of new hope will begin.” A few months later, he added that “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region” and “begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace.”
Ultimately, the attempt to turn Iraq into a “bulwark for democracy” largely backfired. There is little evidence of a strengthening of democracy in the wider region. “Since the war in Iraq, there has been not only a persistent threat from al-Qaeda but also the emergence of ISIS [ISIL] and the growth of the Iranian state as a regional power, which has been profoundly destabilizing in the region,” Vakil said.
The far-reaching decision by the US to ban the ruling Baath Party and disband the Iraqi Army were early mistakes of the Bush administration. In 2005, under US occupation and with strong input from American-supplied experts, Iraq hastily formulated a new constitution establishing a parliamentary system. While not written in the constitution, it became common practice for the president to be a Kurd, the speaker a Sunni, and the prime minister a Shia.
According to Marina Ottaway, Middle East fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the US invasion “created a system dependent on divergent sectarian interests” that is “too bogged down in balancing factions to address policies that would improve the lives of Iraqis.” The analyst added that “the Iraqi constitution was essentially an American product; it was never a negotiated agreement among Iraqis, which is what a successful constitution is.”