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Monday, March 4, 2024

Smith: THE LONG SHADOW OF THE IRAQ WAR

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Twenty years ago, the United States invaded Iraq under the pretense that it had “weapons of mass destruction”. Then-President George W. Bush said that such weapons could be used against us. Given the lack of evidence, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice infamously admonished: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”.

Hans Blix led the United Nations team that investigated alleged Iraqi WMDs. After roughly 700 inspections, he issued his report on Valentine’s Day 2003.

His team found no evidence of WMDs. Some, though not all, of our intelligence agencies drew the opposite conclusion. (Sadly, the intelligence community has not completely rehabilitated its reputation.) The UN abruptly recalled Blix and his team from Iraq roughly a month later, on March 18th. Our invasion began on March 20th. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney said on Meet the Press that “we will be greeted as liberators”. We weren’t.

The fact is that we should not have invaded Iraq even if Saddam Hussein had WMDs. He was evil, but he didn’t pose a serious threat. He saber-rattled his neighbors – especially archenemy Iran – whom he wanted to think that he had such weapons. Further, if WMDs were the real issue, we would have attacked nations that (1) we knew actually had them and (2) actually meant us harm.

Indeed, if we genuinely had wanted to neutralize our most dangerous enemies, we could have launched a “preemptive” strike against… our most dangerous enemies. Instead, we attacked Iraq. One immediate effect of that decision was to handicap our (at the time) successful war in Afghanistan.

We all know that the war became a debacle, especially for the Iraqi people. Even the majority of U.S. veterans of the war agree with that sentiment. Then-President Obama “officially” ended the war on December 15, 2011. Yet, the geopolitical fallout of that ill-fated conflict remains. As Vivian Yee and Alissa Rubin argue in The New York Times, Iran is “the big winner” of our Iraqi campaign. A state-sponsor of terrorism, Iran now has extensive influence in Iraq – a process that began as soon as Saddam Hussein hastily abandoned his office.

Additionally, our two most dangerous foes – Russia and China – are making inroads in the Middle East. Both nations seek to disrupt America’s role as the key foreign mediator in the region. Our completely volitional entanglement in Iraq led countries to question our judgement, to fear our intentions, and to loathe our presence. Ultimately, this gave an opening to Russia and China. This is not a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”; it is a case of “the enemy of my friend is my friend”.

Beyond damaging our moral authority, the war undercut the perception of democracy in the world. As we witness the increasing march of authoritarianism (and even proto-fascism) in Europe and elsewhere, democracy and the post World War II world order are in peril. (And we won’t even get into the threat to democracy domestically.)

Is there a straight line between Iraq and, say, the rise of right-wing popularism in Hungary, Israel, Brazil, Italy, or France? No. Further, those nations are a far cry from China, Russia, Myanmar, or North Korea. Yet, our ill-conceived invasion of a sovereign nation inadvertently, but inexorably, exposed the fragility of the democratic ideal.

Then there is Vladimir Putin. As immoral as his incursions into neighboring Georgia and Ukraine have been over the last 15 years, his justification for doing so is substantially more legitimate than was ours for invading Iraq – a fact that he has frequently raised. And, at some point, China could well use our Iraqi adventurism as a pretext to invade Taiwan.

To be clear, our attacking Iraq would not justify such an action, but it does provide a patina of legitimacy given Taiwan’s historical ties to mainland China.

Understandably, most Americans are weary of war. I was born during the latter stages of the Vietnam Era. I’ve lived through everything from small conflagrations such as our invasion of Grenada, to more serious incursions such as our invasion of Panama, to major military interventions in the first Gulf War and the Bosnian conflict.

America has had several legitimate military campaigns – and many missteps – in the 20th and 21st centuries. On balance, we have rightly intervened to protect democracy. Today we are doing so by fighting a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine – as we should.

Those of us who believe in the American experiment must ensure that we are neither arrogant nor condescending. Indeed, lost on our leaders in 2003 was the tragic irony of imposing democracy at the tip of a spear. Let us close our fist when there is no other option. Otherwise, let us extend our hand.

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