The 20th anniversary of the United States-led aggression in Iraq generated a Great Debate around what was achieved, squandered and why the US intervened in the first place. This particular anniversary of a crime against peace is especially poignant because of the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the West’s stance on Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
The debate over Iraq is further fuelled by the fact that after two decades, the world is characterised by ‘messy’ multipolarity, stark domestic inequalities and political polarisation, refugee crises, shifting global power dynamics with the rise of China, the growth of the BRICS+ powers and new regional configurations. The US and its Western partners are no longer the only game in town. Along with shifts in power, there has been a redistribution of self-confidence and rekindling of postcolonial resentment as re-emerging powers demand status and position in world affairs. In waging an illegal war in Iraq, the United States ended up losing face, losing ground geopolitically to its arch-enemy, Iran, alienating Turkey, paving the way for the quiet rise of China and likely encouraging Russia to invade Ukraine two decades later.
In this very different, transitional and volatile world, the US no longer occupies a credible position of moral authority, nor a virtually unassailable position in the Liberal International Order, being more wedded to America Firstism than multilateralism. The COVID-19 global pandemic demonstrated through “vaccine nationalism” – the hoarding by the powerful West of the bulk of life-saving medical supplies and patents – who runs the world and for whom. And the illegal freezing and seizure of Russian financial assets in the West – totalling around $300 billion – after the outbreak of the Ukraine war sent a signal to the ‘rest’: Look after your own interests as the world’s western superpower protects and extends its own.
Iraq was not a limited war, a small war in a far-off place with no impact on the region or world, let alone the US body politic. It turned out to be the fundamental inflection point of US global primacy and credibility – exposing certain basics of US imperial power, paranoia and hubris, administering a shock to the world that triggered what may be an irreversible power dynamic – the rise of new regional and global powers – and, most worryingly the redundancy of international law. Add in the global financial crisis of 2008, and the disasters in Libya and Syria, and we begin to appreciate the basic crises of legitimacy that lie at the core of global and US dynamics today.
Why did the war really take place?
According to the Bush administration, war was inevitable because Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), was connected to Al Qaeda and terrorism, and posed a security threat.
This ‘security school’ of thought is supplemented with liberal variants which suggest that the Iraq threat was exaggerated or that a war would be counter-productive even if promoting democracy was in itself appropriate. Liberals also suggest the war was poorly-conceived and largely unplanned, riddled with errors, although motivated by good intentions.
Both variants of the security school compete principally with the ‘hegemonic school’ which argues that the Bush elite used security and terrorism to justify the US goal of regional and global hegemony.
This dominant mainstream debate, while important, is ripe for challenge in different ways. We largely reject the security school’s arguments, but while we support the hegemonic explanation in broad terms, it’s also clear that neither school pays enough attention to the details of the Iraq war – from its conception, to decisions on the ground and, most importantly, the war’s repercussions and legacies. For such a voluble proponent of democracy and the rule of law on the global stage, America’s conceptions and conduct in Iraq offer a terrible lesson in imperial hubris and culture.
Not a mistake but an elite strategy
It is clear that America’s ‘best and brightest’ took the big decisions that led to the Iraq war, its subsequent occupation, civil war, and its current near-failed state condition. Therefore, given how thorough, astute and shrewd this group of US elites were, it is unconvincing to accept the security school argument that US foreign policy decision making could be reduced to ‘accidents’, ‘mistakes’, or the result of ‘poor planning’.
The US elites who took key decisions in regard to the Iraq war and occupation were embedded in and driven by state-corporate interests. The majority of the decision-makers – prior to their positions in the Bush elite – were major state-corporate players. Moreover, members of the Bush elite were connected to each other through numerous elite organisations and networks. Those elite networks facilitated the flows of ideas and people between the American state and the corporate community to such an important extent that it is hard to draw a line between them – truly a state-private network of power. It is in this rarefied and exclusive world of transnational corporations, with their funded elite think tanks and foundations, that the world-views of US state elites are shaped and crystallised.
For Iraq’s future, these exclusive networks enabled the widely-condemned ideas contained in a now-leaked document – Defence Planning Guidance 1992 – to morph into the blueprint of the neoconservative Project for a New American Century before evolving into the post-9-11 consensus in the White House’s National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2002. The NSS would cause its own mass destruction on a hoped-for road to unrivalled US military power and primacy through regime change in Iraq.
Even if one implausibly argues that the US had the right ideas for Iraq in 2003, its approach and the audacity of it – the heavy bombing campaign, marginalisation of Iraqis, the corruption by the occupation authorities, un-democratic co-optation of Iraqi elites, the violation of international law, zero-bid contracts to corporations where US decision-makers had interests (and to Bush election campaign donors) – alongside a clear disregard for the will, interests and security of ordinary Iraqis, contributed to a deadly anti-US insurgency.
Destroy Iraq and let friends and loyalists rebuild
State-corporate elites making decisions in Iraq meant that the financial incentives of the war would be prioritised, starting with the bombing campaign. While in the 1991 Gulf War, the US fired around 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles in a five-week period, in 2003, over 380 were launched every day from March 20, 2003 through to May 2, totalling over 20,000 missiles. This was 70% of the total stock of such missiles.
With destruction comes re-building, and zero-bid contracts were handed out to American companies including in which Bush administration officials owned shares. The biggest recipient of contracts was Haliburton, which received $39.5 billion, and in which US Vice President Dick Cheney had continued to hold shares despite being in public office. Though the US was advertising its promise of freedom to Iraqis in pre- and wartime broadcasts, the real freedom was for US corporations, whose path to riches was paved by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), led by Paul Bremer (who had attended the same preparatory school as George W. Bush).
Bremer, a privatisation expert, imposed over 100 laws devised in Washington, DC, to replace Iraq’s ‘Baa’thist constitution’ which historically prevented foreign ownership and was part of a system that placed tariffs on foreign imports. This meant contracts were awarded with little oversight, foreign firms operated without restraint, and a torrent of money flowed back to the US.
It is no wonder that The Economist published a piece less than six months into the occupation with the title ‘Let’s all go to the yard sale, if it all works out, Iraq will be a capitalist’s dream’. Some of the highlights include Bechtel – whose board members had close ties to the Bush administration – which received £2.3 billion in contracts, the second largest after Haliburton, to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, especially its electricity supplies which had been destroyed by US bombing. The-then CEO of Bechtel, multi-billionaire, Riley Bechtel, was a member of Bush’s Export Council which advised on how to create overseas markets for US corporations. Meanwhile, the senior vice president of Bechtel at the time, Jack Sheehan, was simultaneously a member of the Defense Policy Board, a government group that advised the Pentagon on the Iraq War. Bechtel’s former CEO, George Shultz, also an informal advisor to President Bush, had penned op-eds to promote the war and then later to ‘rebuild’ the nation.
Every element of the privatisation agenda was outsourced. A Netherlands-based offshoot of KPMG, BearingPoint, was tasked with creating Iraq’s private market-based economy, for a fee of $240 million. BearingPoint employees had contributed $117,000 in donations for both the 2000 and 2004 Bush election campaigns. “Democracy-building” was outsourced to the North Carolina-based Research Triangle Institute for the figure of $466 million. Its CEO, James Mayfield, expected Iraqis to erect a statue of him as Iraq’s ‘founder of democracy’.
One of the 100 US laws imposed on Iraq, in violation of the laws of military occupation – CPA Order 17 – gave full impunity from prosecution to US contractors from both Iraqi and international law. Hence, Custer Battles and Blackwater Security got away with corruption and murderous war crimes, not to mention the fact that Iraq’s electricity grid was left worse off after Bechtel failed to deliver on its contractual obligations.
It gets worse: US elites install corrupt, unrepresentative elites, call it democracy
The real problem, however, was bigger and more consequential than lucrative contracts. It was that having pillaged the land, US corporate elites re-engineered Iraq’s political system. The US occupiers used divide-and-conquer strategies in the Iraqi constitution-making process in a country so intricately sensitive to division. Iraq’s future political system in practice would be decided by groups of Iraqi elites that the US has previously trained and supported, in a power-sharing settlement that was corrupt and anti-democratic to its core.
Unrepresentative Iraqi political elites have since looted the nation’s resources, with millions of people bereft of prospects. As the majority of people have struggled with existential crises, Iraqi elites have continued to govern through the ‘muhasassa’ (the US-introduced quota-based political system) and ‘wasta’ (nepotism) systems. Despite divides along ethnic and sectarian lines creating disagreement between competing sects, there is an inter-elite unity that transcends these divisions when it comes to forming post-election political coalitions in government. Iraqi elections don’t decide political outcomes; they create the conditions for deal brokering and sharing of the spoils.
These political formations, aimed at creating a governing majority bloc, are centred on sharing out large-budget oil-funded ministries, which control various regional institutions. Consequently, post-election government formation is interminable, with the most recent election period being the longest in Iraq’s history, beating the 290-day record set in 2010. These institutions control a massive number of jobs in a system in which voters vote for the political parties that control the ministries they are employed by. It was therefore no surprise that in the last – October 2021– election, the nine million Iraqis who voted were almost equal to the number of people on the public sector payroll.
Underlining the anti-popular character of the Iraqi state, dominant political blocs are also connected to – and influenced by – foreign actors, constituting a revolving door for external influence into the Iraqi state. The many competing global and regional actors inside Iraq range from the US and Turkey to Iran, Saudi Arabia and China.
When ISIS rose, Iran came to the rescue – but at what price?
An Iraqi government so focused on sharing out ministries based on ethno-sectarian quotas, and channelling budgets for salaries to loyalists, meant that Iraq lacked a unifying national identity. This proved costly when Iraq’s national security was challenged by ISIS, which used its barbaric and criminal ideologies to penetrate a weak and divided Iraqi state and army. Iraq, post-2005, was too divided to secure its own borders and national security, its army divided between different sects and political parties. Eventually and in desperation, Iraq reached out to Iran to provide assistance.
As the US failed, Iran emerged as a helpful yet opportunistic power in Iraq. Despite being under the historically heaviest set of US sanctions, Iran flew through a window of opportunity to promote its own foreign policy, whilst utilising Iraq’s corrupt cash-based economy to fund its ventures. Enabling the region’s Shiites in a Sunni-dominated Middle East remained ambitious yet achievable, with Iraq being the central pivot point economically and militarily.
Tehran’s sophisticated approach means that Iranian influence in Iraq is multi-faceted, embedded and effectively maintained, whereby the economic and security aims of Tehran are pursued through Baghdad. For example, Tehran plays an active role in influencing the selection of the prime minister, cabinet members and other ministers, whilst also supporting (advising, funding and arming) political parties and individual candidates.
Iran’s strategy is all-encompassing, based on a willingness to work with all political parties inside Iraq in a tailored, interest-based and effective way, drawing on various commonalities. Naturally this enables influence in impacting national strategy, spreading ideologies and using leverage in other areas (especially militias) for political bargaining. Simultaneously, there are consistent – direct and indirect – attempts at embedding pro-Iranian sentiments and anti-US and anti-Saudi Arabia ideology in political parties, universities, religious venues, TV, radio and various other means.
Given that Iraq has a massive internal consumer market of around 40 million, Iran dominates commercial activities. This ranges from food, construction materials, and pharmaceuticals through to services; from security to construction and even garbage removal services. When it comes to Iraq’s national security, well known Iranian state-sponsored and connected militias and proxies are embedded into Iraq’s military and security services. The militias were made a permanent fixture in Iraq’s security forces thanks to the Iraqi parliament in 2016.
Since 2011, protests and popular movements that challenged elite dominance or questioned the government – or their domination by Iran – have been violently repressed. The presence of Iran in the heart of Iraqi politics has been fortified by a Shiite-dominated government that depends on the Iranian Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) to maintain order in Iraq, with many reports of the use of snipers by Iranian-backed militias in anti-government protests since 2019. Geographically, Iranian-backed proxies hold key strategic roles and locations throughout Iraq which are often also used to advance other interests separate to Iraq’s national and security aims (for example many militia groups carry their own flags, have their own ideologies and have been officially recorded in their targeting of Sunni and Kurdish groups indiscriminately, forcing many internal displacements).
Despite the Obama administration’s attempts at keeping Iran in check through a vigorous sanctions programme – labelled as ‘the most extensive sanctions ever’ by Iran’s President at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – Iran’s strategy of overcoming economic restrictions depended on dominating Iraq. By 2017, all markets in Iraq were filled with Iranian produce, TV channels were dominated by pro-Iran broadcasts, illegal drugs were being shipped in, and even the bricks and cement for construction came from across the border. Iraq literally depends on Iran for almost everything except oil.
The desperate US position in the Middle-East – as an immediate result of the illegal war – focused on countering Iran’s presence in Iraq and the region. By 2021, Iran’s presence in the region had expanded beyond the strongholds of Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, and into Syria and Yemen, with activities and influence in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
China’s quiet yet significant emergence in the region
Interestingly, the distraction of Iran took the focus away from China which capitalised on US failures in the Middle-East from as early as 2006. The region’s states viewed China as a trusted power that would do business with them without imposing ideologies, whilst appreciating partnerships as opposed to insulting the region’s values or traditions.
China’s influence has redesigned the regional landscape, moving beyond energy and into deeper economic, geopolitical and strategic spheres. Because China’s approach is respectful and non-interventionist, deals with Beijing are welcome. As the US has openly shifted its strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific, China is emerging as a key Middle East player. Noteworthy trends include China’s regional economic activities with numerous memoranda of understanding as well as strategic partnerships, including with regional organisations – the China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Strategic Dialogue of 2010.
In 2022, China held its first China-Arab States summit and its first China-GCC Summit, broadcasting its commitment to more strategic partnerships focused on diversifying economic development beyond oil. China even replaced the European Union as the GCC’s biggest trading partner through bilateral trade, whilst in 2023, it became the biggest non-trading partner of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
All this is without mentioning the ground-breaking influence of the famous ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) which is the centrepiece of Beijing’s foreign policy towards the Middle East, where the majority of its investments are targeted. Iraq has been a major beneficiary of China’s investment through the BRI, receiving $10.5 billion in construction contracts in 2021, whilst the Autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq is set to receive $10 billion of infrastructure projects.
Most worrying for the US is the Iran-China “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreement, with 10% of China’s total BRI budget at a staggering $400 billion. It is no surprise that 155 countries are signed up, including the key regional players of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Malaysia. Even long-term US ally, Saudi Arabia, has secured one of the highest value BRI projects (worth $195.7 billion) with well over a hundred commissioned developments.
Even if one somehow down-plays China’s increasing economic and strategic role in the region, ignoring its diplomatic role is impossible. The way China presents itself as neutral and non-aligned has enabled it to promote peace, mediate where needed in the high-profile Syria and Yemen conflicts, and the peace negotiations in Afghanistan, not to mention the JCPOA process. However, the most significant and tangible example of the important and influential role of China was the way it managed to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in 2023.
China is even competing when it comes to weaponry after the US reduced advanced weapons’ sales to the region. During the COVID-19 pandemic, China took the opportunity to provide aid to states who needed it, as well as leading in providing solutions through lockdowns as the US – father of the liberal international order – started to attack its own ideas of internationalism through Trump’s nationalistic America First policies.
Conclusion: What started in Iraq has spread to Ukraine
No matter how much aid or weaponry the US provides to Ukraine, it cannot hide the fact that its own actions in Iraq (let alone NATO expansion) have intricately influenced the Russia-Ukraine conflict. When it comes to warfare, perhaps the biggest cost of the Iraq war was America demonstrating that international laws have no power to regulate or deter illegal wars and occupations. For Russia, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 was perhaps a testing of the waters, before its formal onslaught in invading Ukraine in 2022. One wonders if Russia’s war on Ukraine would ever have happened had America acted more responsibly in Iraq, adhered to international laws, or at least had been held to account by them, instead of setting this precedent of destruction without accountability. The fact that they did not has caused many repercussions, almost all of which continue to weaken the US’s global position and shore up a messy multipolar world order where domestic and international disorder, or at least radical change, is on the rise.
John Quincy Adams claimed that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy…”. He was wrong in 1821 when those words were uttered; and those words are even more wrong now. It is more apt to quote the more accurate statement of Martin Luther King Jr, in 1967: The United States is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” the exporter of monstrous levels of bloodshed, the destroyer of independent states and of popular aspirations, particularly in the global south.
With its illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, the US got a lot more than it bargained for, and released forces of destruction and construction that signal the end of the American century.
Dr Bamo Nouri is an award-winning lecturer in International Relations at the University of West London, an Honorary Research Fellow at City, University of London, and a One Young World Ambassador. Born in Slemani, Iraq, he is also an independent investigative journalist and writer with interests in American foreign policy and the international and domestic politics of the Middle East. He is the author of Elite Theory and the 2003 Iraq Occupation by the United States.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics and associate dean of research in the School of Policy and Global Affairs at City, University of London, a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and a columnist at The Wire. He is an International Fellow at the ROADS Initiative think tank, Islamabad, and author of several books including Foundations of the American Century.