Viewpoint: Robert Beck – A troubling 20th anniversary

  • Robert Beck COURTESY PHOTO

Published: 3/14/2023 8:10:54 AM

Twenty years ago, on the night of March 19, 2003, U.S. military forces invaded Iraq, an operation which President George W. Bush’s administration justified by an unwavering belief in Iraq’s development of a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, as well as totally unfounded allegations of Iraqi ties to the 9/11 attacks on America. 

Bear in mind that the decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom was, in the state of fear that enveloped America in the immediate post-9/11 period, widely supported across the country. In fact, the joint resolution to authorize the use of United States armed forces against Iraq easily passed both the House (296-133) and Senate (77-23) in October of 2002.  

The hindsight of 20 years has shown the tragic folly of that decision, with the loss of nearly 3,500 U.S. personnel killed in action, and approximately 32,000 wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom, not to mention the immense toll the invasion took on the citizens and economic infrastructure of Iraq. As we now know, the feared WMD program was never found, and the myth of Iraqi participation in the 9/11 attacks has been repeatedly and totally debunked for years. 

Unfortunately, the invasion set off a cascade of events that bogged U.S. forces down in the deserts of Iraq for the next decade and adversely influenced foreign policy for the following 15 years. Some of the most-serious, current challenges to America’s position in the world have been at least exacerbated, and in some cases caused, by our war of choice in Iraq.

Firstly, the focus on Iraq unquestionably degraded our ability to complete the mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.  While we did eventually track bin Laden down, the redirection of U.S. resources (personnel, material, expertise) to Iraq certainly lessened our effectiveness in Afghanistan, a conflict that progressively sapped our national will for 20 years until its inglorious end in September of 2021.

From a geopolitical perspective, the regional power that likely gained most from the demise of Saddam Hussein, at least in the short-to-mid term, was Iran.  Tehran quickly took advantage of the political vacuum in Iraq to support various Shia political and mercenary groups that continue to the present day to influence the Iraqi government. Not content with merely flexing its muscles in Baghdad, the Iranian regime used the situation in Iraq as a springboard for expanding Tehran’s meddling in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, all to the serious consternation of U.S. allies in the region, primarily Israel and the Persian Gulf states.  

Furthermore, despite assertions by the Bush administration, prior to the attack Iraq was in no way a safe haven for Al-Qaeda given Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden’s mutual animosity. The invasion, and the subsequent disbanding of the Iraqi Army, created the conditions for the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which quickly developed into a lethal, anti-American terrorist group.

As U.S. counterterrorism efforts subsequently ramped up in Iraq to deal with this new challenge, the most-extreme, violent elements of AQI broke off to join the nascent Islamic State (ISIS) organization, creating a terrorist juggernaut that by 2015 governed a large swath of western Iraq and eastern Syria, inhabited by approximately 10 million people.  The rise of ISIS and its participation in the Syrian civil war against the regime of Bashar al Assad was a contributing factor in Moscow’s decision to directly enter the conflict in 2015 in support of Damascus, thereby providing the Kremlin with an ongoing live-fire testing ground for its personnel, weapons and command-and-control infrastructure.

Lessons learned on the battlefields of Syria are being tragically employed by Russian military forces in Ukraine to this day. While the U.S. national security apparatus was focused primarily on the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, Moscow invaded Georgia in 2008, overran Crimea in February and March of 2014 and then later that year actively supported a Russian separatist attack in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, a conflict that has since morphed into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  

Meanwhile, in Asia, China took advantage of Washington’s lack of engagement to increase its influence in much of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America through its Belt and Road Initiative, pumping untold billions into infrastructure projects, in the process aligning many developing nations in the “global South” to Beijing and away from the United States.  

The Iraq invasion certainly cast its shadow over politics in the United States as well.  Then-candidate Barack Obama made his opposition to the war in Iraq a centerpiece of his successful 2008 presidential campaign. Fast-forward eight years, and then-candidate Donald Trump railed against the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, deftly tapping into a groundswell of isolationist sentiment in the U.S. electorate caused in large part by America’s post-9/11 military adventures. 

Many might posit that dredging up past foreign policy blunders serves no worthwhile purpose, as we should be focused on America's future.  However, the strong counterargument to that proposition is that only by clearly understanding the myriad, sometimes tragic, consequences of our decision to invade Iraq, will our current and future leaders make better, more informed choices on the judicious use of American military forces. 

Robert Beck of Peterborough served for 30 years overseas with the United States government in embassies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He now teaches foreign policy classes at Keene State College’s Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning.

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