The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq overthrew a dictator, but 10 years on the war is seen to have destabilized the Middle East, exposed the limits of military power and left America no stronger than before.
With U.S. forces having withdrawn after the deaths of almost 4,500 American troops and an estimated $1 trillion outlay, there is little soul-searching in Washington today about a war that has faded from public consciousness.
And 10 years after the “shock and awe” that launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, removing Saddam Hussein from power, most analysts and diplomats agree the Iraq war did nothing to improve the U.S. position in the Middle East.
“Regardless of whether genuine democracy is viable or even sustainable, the Iraq war did not serve any strategic net gain for the United States,” said Ramzy Mardini, a fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut.
On the contrary, “misplaced certainty” about the ability of U.S. military power to do the job and a lack of regard to Saddam’s role as an Arab counterbalance to Iran have harmed American interests, he said.
“The fall of Saddam didn’t just create a power vacuum in Baghdad, it created a power vacuum in the region, which plunged neighboring states into an intense environment of security competition” that continues today, Mardini added.
Such miscalculations were not confined to the presidency of George W. Bush, according to Christopher Hill, a veteran of the peace settlement in Bosnia and North Korea nuclear talks, who arrived in Baghdad in 2009 as the U.S. ambassador.
Hill, now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, suggested the “complete disconnect between Washington” and people such as himself “on the ground” continued until the end.
Barack Obama had used his opposition to the war to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton when seeking the Democratic nomination in 2008. As president, he ended US military involvement on the same December 2011 timeline set by Bush.
“America did not show enough strategic patience with politics in Iraq,” Hill said, recalling the months he spent trying to ensure a government was formed after elections in 2010 that served Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish interests.
Instead, U.S. policy continued to be largely guided by military considerations, said Hill, noting that general David Petraeus’s recent fall from grace has left many people “including me” to take “a more honest look” at Iraq.
Petraeus became the face of the “surge,” a mix of troop reinforcements and counterinsurgency tactics which in 2007 was credited, along with Sunni tribes turning against Al-Qaeda and siding with the U.S. military, with halting the worst of Iraq’s bloody sectarian conflict.
“There were people in Washington more interested in consolidating gains made in counterinsurgency warfare than in understanding the essential politics of the country,” said Hill.
As a result, the Iraq that America left behind had a “democratic standard that we would not sign off on,” and the “great game for Iraq” is under way among its neighbors, Hill added.
Obama’s desire for a smooth military exit perhaps reflects the tortured place that the conflict occupies in the American psyche.
“All rhetoric aside, we invaded a country by mistake,” said James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, a Washington think tank with close ties to the U.S. government.
“For all Saddam’s malign intent, he had effectively been disarmed already. The sanctions had worked.”
With no nuclear weapons program or significant chemical weapons dumps ever found, the second Bush administration refocused its effort on establishing a pro-Western state in occupied Iraq, aiming to gain a regional ally.
Dobbins, who has held State Department and White House posts, including assistant secretary of state for Europe and special assistant to the president, said Americans should not fool themselves about the limited outcome.
“The democracy agenda became the last possible excuse for invading Iraq. It’s not an ally. It’s not an enemy either,” he said.
Costly Iraq war left U.S. no stronger in Middle East