Twenty years on: an Iraq retrospective

Today marks twenty years since the American-led invasion of Iraq, one of the most serious violations of international law in recent times – at least until the Russian invasion of Ukraine blew all of its competitors out of the water.

There’s been some good commentary around in the last few days. Here’s Gordon Corera at the BBC; here’s Peter Beaumont in the Guardian; and here’s Juan Cole at Informed Comment, if only for his wonderful subtitle, “Putin the Prequel”.

I’ve written quite a lot about Iraq over the years, so rather than look for a new angle I thought I’d pick out the points from my past coverage that seemed to have the most continuing relevance. Links to the original pieces are included; if you follow them up you’ll find I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way (I was much too optimistic about Libya, for example), but I haven’t changed my mind about the basics of why the war was wrong and the harm that it’s done.

Whatever the mistakes, crimes and insanities of America’s actual involvement, the Vietnam war at least had an apparent justification: the Soviet empire was a real danger, the Viet Cong were real communists, there really was a cold war and a global struggle. The war ended up hurting rather than helping the western cause, but the cause itself was not imaginary.

Iraq is Vietnam without the communists: without even the semblance of a coherent geo­poli­tical rationale.

November 2004 (no longer findable on the Crikey website)

[C]ivilisation is a fragile thing; the descent into barbarism is easier than we like to think. With hindsight, the biggest contribution the Iraq war made to the disaster may be not that it depleted the reserves of National Guard, but that it depleted the respect for the rule of law and endorsed the message that might makes right. And the ultimate carrier of that message is a looter with a shotgun.

September 2005, on the lessons of Hurricane Katrina

Kim Beazley … is therefore, very tentatively, coming around to the view that public opinion woke up to some time ago: the occupation is feeding terrorism rather than fighting it. It’s a striking example of the public seeing things that their leaders refuse to. Both here and in the US the opposition seems scared to touch the issue, and the commentariat have convinced almost the entire political class that “troops home by Christmas” was a negative for [Mark] Latham, despite the lack of any evidence at all..

January 2006, on the political response in Australia

The real question about the death penalty for Saddam is a practical one: would it do more harm than good? In contrast to [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi, Saddam’s relation to the insurgency seems tenuous at best. The likelihood is that he would be much more useful to the insurgents as a dead martyr than a living inspiration (or embarrassment). By showing him the mercy that he denied his victims, Iraq could send an important message, and perhaps do something to help stop the cycle of violence.

June 2006, on the trial of Saddam Hussein

When Kelly says that “Iraq symbolises the collapse of the intellectual framework that defined Bush’s foreign policy”, he seems to be confusing motive with rationalisation. Because George W Bush used neocon rhetoric about Iraq, and employed some advisers with neocon back­grounds, it is tacitly assumed that the neocon narrative of spreading democracy in the Middle East was the reason for the invasion. But I find that uncon­vincing.

… It’s much more likely … that the Iraq war was due to the same sort of mixture of inertia, power politics, electoral calculation and random events that usually drives politicians. …

Perhaps it’s less disturbing to think of Bush as a bumbling politician than as a grand ideologue bent on remaking the world. Perhaps not.

June 2006, responding to Paul Kelly’s analysis of neoconservatism

[Iraq prime minister Nuri Kamal] Al-Maliki was actually more supportive of his fellow-Shi’ites in Hezbollah than the Sunni leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been; the ties of religion are evidently a stronger force than the thousands of American troops backing his government.

… The neoconservative boosters of the Iraq war were almost all strong supporters of Israel, and their project was supposed to produce a democratic government that would also be pro-Israel. There was no shortage of voices at the time pointing out that this was an impossible goal. Now they have been proved right.

July 2006, on conflict in Lebanon

Yet the political class in the west still shies away from any rapid move to withdraw the occu­pying forces, even though this seems the course favoured by public opinion in both Iraq and the west. Even many who initially opposed the war have swallowed the line that leaving would make things worse.

But why would anyone believe that? Iraqi violence is shocking, but it is not random: it is still primarily framed by the occupation, and often directed against the occupiers and their perceived collaborators. …

Without the occupiers, Iraqis will have no-one else to blame and will have to sort out their differences themselves. It may take much bloodshed before they do, but hypothetical future bloodshed is hardly a trump card against actual current bloodshed.

November 2006, on the occupation

Howard’s visceral loyalty to the American alliance certainly put him offside with “much acad­emic foreign policy analysis”, but foreign policy in Australia has always been a political, not an academic, business. Howard’s support for the Iraq invasion can be condemned for any number of reasons, but not for going outside the Australian tradition. Hence Mark Latham’s realisation that the tradition, and specifically the US alliance, needed to be re-evaluated; it had been based on a premise that American policy would not exceed the bounds of sanity, and that turned out to be mistaken.

December 2006, on John Howard’s approach to foreign policy

The very thing that makes it impossible to take Bush seriously also hamstrings many of the Democrats: they approved the war in the first place and, like most of us, they don’t like to admit to being wrong. But until there is a frank admission that the whole project was crim­inally misconceived from the start, American policy in Iraq will remain detached from reality.

January 2007, on the politics of the war in the United States

We will be told that the mistakes of the past are irrelevant, and we need to focus on what’s happening today. Even if you opposed the war in the first place, they say, you can still accept that premature withdrawal would be a disaster.

There’s an element of truth in this. The rights and wrongs of the invasion are logically separate from the question of current policy.

But when the people directing current policy are shown to have been so spectacularly wrong in the past, it deals a powerful blow to their current credibility – particularly when they offer no explanation or apology.

Our own John Howard just this week doggedly maintained that the decision to go to war in the first place was correct. When someone says that, how can you believe anything else they say?

February 2007, on the release of the invasion PowerPoint

Blair was the one world leader who had a chance of preventing the Iraq war – the only one whose opposition might have given George W Bush pause. All the rest, John Howard included, were also-rans, but Blair’s support really counted.

New prime minister Gordon Brown is unlikely to change much on the domestic front, partly because so much of the existing policy is already his. But despite his occasional denials, it stands to reason that distancing himself from Blair’s Iraq policy will be one of his top prior­ities.

In the fascinating, yet-to-be-written story about how Brown became unchallenged heir, the salient point will probably be the desperate desire of many in the Labour Party for someone who was identifiably not-Blair – and that movement in turn was driven primarily by anger and frustration over Iraq.

June 2007, on Tony Blair’s retirement

Opponents of the Vietnam war argued that the conflict was a civil war within South Vietnam, with a popular uprising against the corrupt US-backed government. We know now that this was completely wrong …

But in Iraq there is no North Vietnam and no Soviet Union. There is no opposing army waiting to take over when the Americans leave. The terrorists of al-Qa’eda would get a brief boost in prestige, but no material advantage. Without the foreign occupation, Iraq would be left to sort out its own problems, as South Vietnam was not.

August 2007, on George Bush’s use of the Vietnam analogy

But from the government’s point of view, there were no good options. Facing electoral obli­vion, Gordon Brown had to try something, and even if it gave no benefit to the govern­ment, the thought of taking Tony Blair down with him must have had some appeal. …

So the inquiry looks like being more revealing than such exercises usually are. Although lawyers have criticised the lack of a lawyer on the panel, the legality of the war is not really the key issue. Everyone knows the war was illegal; no serious international lawyer not in the pay of one of the belligerents has ever said otherwise.

November 2009, on the opening of the Chilcot inquiry in Britain

This confusion in turn reflects basic differences over what the original crusade for Middle Eastern democracy, as promoted in the middle years of George W Bush’s administration, was really about.

On the one hand were those, probably including the president himself, who genuinely believed that Arab democracy was good and achievable and in the long-term interests of the United States and Israel. (For what it’s worth, I think they were right about this, although the way they went about making the case was often counter-productive – most obviously in Iraq.)

At the other end was what we might call the “imperialist” school, represented notably by Dick Cheney, who were actually hostile to democracy and used it simply as a rhetorical screen to promote (what they saw as) American interests.

But between these strands was the group including most of those properly called “neo-conser­vatives” (think Daniel Pipes, Martin Peretz, Wolfowitz of Arabia). Although, unlike the imperialists, they thought democracy was a good thing, their primary interest was support for the Israeli right and a consequent hatred of the Arabs.

February 2011, on the Arab Spring

The Iraq war has been critical to Obama’s political identity. When much of the Democratic Party vacillated, he was clear and consistent in his opposition to the invasion. His 2008 primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, had voted in favor of it; that in itself need not have been fatal, but she seemed tone deaf in her failure to understand that a convincing explan­ation and apology for that vote was required. Had she given it, she would now be presi­dent.

Obama last night didn’t mention his opposition to the war – partly because that would have been awkward in front of a military audience, but mostly because he didn’t have to. Everyone knows that he won election in part as an acknowledgement that the war had been a mistake and on a promise to end it. That promise has now been kept.

December 2011, on Obama bringing the troops home

And it’s true that compared with the Bush White House, almost any sane person starts to look like a realist (or vice versa). The proponents of the Iraq war managed to synthesise the worst elements of realist and idealist views: they had the idealists’ lofty disdain for practical consequences together with the realists’ contempt for human rights and international law.

January 2013, on the advent of Chuck Hagel as defence secretary

It’s commonly accepted wisdom now that the Americans “took their eye off the ball” in Afghanistan by being diverted to Iraq. From the point of view of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the diversion made sense: Afghanistan was a mountainous backwater, whereas Iraq was potentially a very wealthy country at the crossroads of civilisation. If you wanted to make a statement as an imperial power (and they did), Iraq was the place to make it. …

But it wasn’t just the lack of attention. The Iraq war poisoned the well of support for western intervention generally. Having started with massive international sympathy and support following the 11 September attacks, the United States threw it away by behaving like an international outlaw. For the project of winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan (or pretty much anywhere else), that was fatal.

February 2013, on the war in Afghanistan

Ten years ago today US-led forces invaded Iraq, in one of the most egregious breaches of inter­national law of the last fifty years. It’s hard now to credit – indeed for many of us it was hard even at the time – the number of apparently sane, intelligent pundits, policymakers and other opinion leaders who appeared to take leave of their senses and advocate for an adventure that patently lacked legal or moral justification. (…)

One of the key elements in the rush to war was the unanimity expressed by the media outlets of News Limited (or News Corporation, as it’s known internationally). Not a single one of Rupert Murdoch’s 175 or so papers editorialised against the invasion; his major outlets were vociferous cheerleaders for it.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that the Bush administration wasn’t quite capable of going to war on its own, without News’s prompting. But such strong media support must have played some part in creating that circle of mutual reinforcement of pro-war views that allowed people to ignore the obvious warning signs about what they were getting into.

March 2013, on the tenth anniversary of the invasion

Iraq may by this point have been yet worse off if Saddam had remained in power, but that still would not transform a crime into a good idea.

Unfortunately, that conclusion provides little guidance for what to do now about Iraq. It may still make sense to intervene against ISIS – assisting an established government is a very different action from overthrowing one. (It is an ironic bond between Blair and some of his fiercest critics that they both seem unable to grasp this distinction.)

June 2014, on Tony Blair and the rise of Da’esh/ISIS

Coming from Labor’s Left, Plibersek is no doubt sincere in her reservations. But it would be more intellectually honest if she acknowledged that that assessment of the Iraq War was controversial within the ALP, and that if Labor under Kim Beazley had been in power at the time, it’s very likely Australia would have fallen in behind the US anyway. …

[A]s American politics advances further into the surreal, the attempt to shut down debate on the merits and dangers of the US alliance seems misguided. At the very least there needs to be an open examination, of the sort that neither major party has yet undertaken, of how we got into Iraq and how we can avoid anything like it in the future.

June 2016, on Tanya Plibersek and the rise of Trump

A generation has now grown up with at best hazy memories of the Iraq war. But if you are looking for reasons why democracy seems in relentless decline, and why respect for standards of public behavior and for truth itself has fallen precipitously, Iraq would be a good place to start.

I am not one of those who takes a reflexively anti-American position in world affairs; I think American policy has often been a force for good, and that even when its actions have been harmful they have often stemmed from good intentions. The invasion of Iraq, however, was an ill-inten­tioned policy, badly implemented.

Rumsfeld and Cheney seemed to be driven not be any calculation, reasonable or not, of the costs and benefits of intervention in the Middle East, but by a determination to spite their domestic political enemies and to demonstrate their own power by delivering a symbolic expression of contempt for world opinion. Undermining the institutions of international co-operation seemed to be not just a means to their goals but an end in itself.

July 2021, obituary for Donald Rumsfeld

The invasion of Iraq was probably the greatest geopolitical disaster of the last fifty-odd years. Its sheer lawlessness poisoned the well of support for democratic values around the world; the current strength of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping is impossible to understand without it. It also brought carnage on a grand scale to Iraq itself, with casualties ultimately exceeding 100,000 (some estimates run much higher). But on the credit side it did at least overthrow a brutal dictatorship, and the country’s governments since 2005, whatever their faults, are a vast improvement on Saddam Hussein.

October 2021, Iraqi election report

14 thoughts on “Twenty years on: an Iraq retrospective

  1. “… It’s much more likely … that the Iraq war was due to the same sort of mixture of inertia, power politics, electoral calculation and random events that usually drives politicians. …”

    I would say this comment could also be applied to the recent AUKUS announcement, although some acknowledgement should be made for the fondness of generals, admirals and air marshals for big pieces of military equipment.


    1. … the most accurate summary on the reasons …


      Although a lethal arsenal, actual and potential, was the centerpiece of the public case for war, a host of other reasons were officially cited in the authorization of the use of military force.

      That’s the most accurate summary? ‘A host of reasons’?


      1. I’m happy to be corrected if you can provide the sources for the information on which you base your alternative views.


  2. My alternative view is that ‘a host of reasons’ is never the most accurate summary of anything. If you ask me why I did something and my response is ‘For a host of reasons’, that’s no different from saying ‘I’m not going to tell you’.

    The information on which I base this view is my knowledge of how the English language is used, and the source of that information is my experience using it to communicate all my life. If your experience of how it is used is different, please tell me about that.


    1. It seems you have not read the article as it clearly states the reasons why Iraq was invaded. These include Sadam Hussein starting a war with Iran which took almost a million lives, refusing to allow weapons inspectors to inspect certain sites and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. What the article doesn’t mention is Hussein’s destruction of the globally important Iraqi or Mesopotamian Marshes – 20,000 square kilometres of wetlands – because people living in them did not support him.
      I do not understand how your knowledge of the English language is relevant to the facts about Hussein’s brutal regimes.


      1. I did read the article. It does describe events you refer to, and also other events, but it doesn’t describe them as being the reasons for the war.


  3. The left is keen on siding with the evil people (LTTE, Saddam etc.) and plants and nature instead of the human race – look at their pals the Palestinian Arab Muslim leadership. Or Bandt pretending the Greens want “thousands of homes” to solve the housing crisis but Greens-controlled councils in Melbourne have blocked high density developments that would provide that housing. “Sunlight is a human right”, dontyaknow.


  4. Can you please explain your understanding of what the reasons were for the war?

    It’s strange that Bernie Masters is asking me this question. I don’t know what purpose that’s supposed to serve, or what good can come of my answering, but I’ll do so nevertheless. The answer is that I don’t understand what the reasons were for the war.

    Now that the question has been asked and I have answered it, if Bernie Masters wants to explain what their understanding is of the reasons for the war, that might be interesting to me.


    1. I’m still waiting to see what you understand ti be the reasons for the war starting. My understanding is as stated above: “Sadam Hussein starting a war with Iran which took almost a million lives, refusing to allow weapons inspectors to inspect certain sites and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. What the article doesn’t mention is Hussein’s destruction of the globally important Iraqi or Mesopotamian Marshes – 20,000 square kilometres of wetlands – because people living in them did not support him.”


      1. I’m still waiting to see what you understand ti be the reasons for the war starting.

        I have already stated that I don’t understand the reasons for the war starting. It is difficult to understand now why you would be waiting for me to explain my understanding of something which I have recently informed you that I don’t understand.

        What I expect is that when people (any people) take the decision to start a war (any war) they will have in their own minds some conception of a goal of some kind that they are trying to achieve. Maybe I’m wrong to expect this (or at least wrong to expect it in all cases); maybe sometimes people start wars with no conception of any kind of goal. If you tell me that the people who started the Iraq War did not have any particular goals in mind, I will be curious to know what other kind of explanation (of their decision to start the war) you would offer instead. However, in what you have written you don’t mention anything about any goals of the people who decided to start the war, so it doesn’t seem to me like an explanation of their decision.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. The left is keen on siding with the evil people …

    Dividing people into ‘the evil people’ and ‘the good people’ or even ‘the evil people’ and ‘the not-evil people’ is itself an evil thing to do.

    I know there are many people who have sometimes sided with evil: people on the left, people on the right, people in the centre have all done this. These facts don’t help us to decide whether we should position ourselves on the left or on the right (or somewhere else). People who have chosen (for whatever reason) to position themselves on the right have an obvious motive for selectively citing evils perpetrated by people on the left, just as people who have chosen (for whatever reason) to position themselves on the left have an obvious motive for selectively citing evils perpetrated by people on the right: selective citations of this kind should be recognised for the ad hoc ex post facto pretextual justifications they are.


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