Twenty years ago, President George W. Bush announced to the world the beginning of a war to “disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.” With these brief remarks, Bush inalterably changed the trajectory of his presidency and U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. On March 19, 2003, the vast majority of Americans supported the war to end Saddam Hussein’s regime. That support wouldn’t last.
Today, it is a matter of banal consensus that the war for Iraq was a blunder. This narrative is bolstered by the fact that the war and reconstruction were riddled with mistakes: Shortly after a victory against an impoverished and disloyal Iraqi army, everything began to unravel. The weapons of mass destruction that Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council Saddam had concealed were never found. The U.S. military was unprepared to administer a country of what was then 30 million people. L. Paul Bremer, the second American proconsul, disbanded the Iraqi army, which provided a steady stream of armed young men for an insurgency led by the remnants of the Baath Party and al-Qaeda. A war that Bush and his cabinet had promised would cost less than $200 billion has now, 20 years later, cost more than $2 trillion. And there were abuses. The most notorious of these scandals was the torture and humiliation of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. The U.S. Army and the CIA partnered with thugs after the fall of Saddam’s regime. Even John McCain, for years the most unflinching advocate for Iraq’s liberation, came to view the war as an error. In his final memoir, published in 2018, the year he died, McCain wrote, “The war, with its cost in lives and treasure and security, can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”
With all due respect to the late Senator McCain, his confession was premature, at least in one key respect. Despite massive corruption and the reverberations of a political crisis that began in 2019 with widespread protest, Iraq is better off today than it was 20 years ago.
In 2003, the World Bank estimated that Iraq’s GDP was a paltry $21.9 billion. In 2021, Iraq’s GDP was nearly $208 billion. During Saddam’s reign, only a small number of Iraqis had cellphone subscriptions. As of 2021, 86 percent of the country had a wireless telecom plan. Several measures of quality of life, from literacy rates to life expectancy, have gone up. Just one example: Before the advent of Covid, life expectancy in Iraq had risen to 72 years. In 2001, it was 67.
Despite two Sunni Jihadist insurgencies, not to mention reprisal campaigns from Iran’s Shia majority and Iran’s proxies and agents, Iraq has held six consecutive parliamentary elections since 2005. Its representatives have drafted and its people have ratified a constitution. And while Iraq’s political system is blemished by corruption and sectarian demagoguery, the country’s elections are competitive. The outcome is not known in advance, as were the pageants staged by Saddam Hussein during his reign.
Iraq’s Kurdish provinces have enjoyed a level of autonomy since the fall of Saddam, even though the ruling Talabani and Barzani families remain enriched in Kurdish areas through graft. The Kurds make up as much as 20 percent of Iraq’s population of 42 million. And the creation and continued existence of a Kurdish provincial government—which began after the first Gulf War in 1991—has given Iraqi Kurds almost unprecedented security. The Baathist regime’s forces massacred Kurdish forces at the ends of both the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s and the first Gulf War in 1991. In 1988, Iraqi forces gassed Kurdish civilians at Halabja, the last time a state used chemical weapons in the 20th century.
Even more startling, despite all signs that Iraq would become a vassal of Iran after Barack Obama withdrew U.S. forces at the end of 2011, there remain significant limits to Iran’s influence in Baghdad. In 2019, a protest movement emerged that in part targeted Iranian meddling in the country. The struggle of Iraqis against Iran’s designs for their country was bolstered in the first days of 2020 by an unlikely figure, Donald Trump. When he ordered the drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds force (as well as the head of Iraq’s popular mobilization forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), Iran’s campaign to control Iraq was dealt a serious blow.
Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammed al-Sudani (chosen by Iraq’s elected parliament in October 2022), has so far shown he is not Iran’s cat’s-paw, even though he was selected by a Shia political coalition with historic ties to Iran. In January, al-Sudani told the Wall Street Journal that he did not support a policy to force out the 2,000 U.S. soldiers currently stationed in Baghdad and the Kurdish provinces. And in July, before al-Sudani’s ascendance, Iraq signed a deal with Saudi Arabia to connect to its electricity grid, a move that would make the country less dependent on Iran for its energy.
All of these hopeful signs do not mask the most significant threat to the Iraqi state today: corruption. At the end of 2022, al-Sudani held a press conference flanked by stacks of Iraqi dinars worth $250 million that had been recovered from former high government officials who had looted $2.5 billion in tax revenues from the state-owned Rafidain Bank. The tragedy here is that the $2.5 billion swindle was a drop in the bucket compared with the amount of money stolen from the Iraqi treasury and U.S. financial assistance since 2003. Some estimates put that figure north of $200 billion.
This endemic corruption is one of the negative legacies of the U.S. intervention. The federal reserve, since 2003, has exported between $1 billion and $2 billion a month to Iraq to help pay salaries for government employees and provide capital for foreign trade agreements. These cash shipments ended up fueling a system that has created a class of billionaires who secure loans for imports that are never shipped and for businesses that exist only on paper.
But while corruption is the most significant challenge to Iraq today, that in and of itself is a testament to the progress the country has made in the past 20 years. Consider that the Iraqi state has survived two terror wars since the fall of Saddam Hussein. When I was last in the country, in 2015, at the height of its second terror war, I went on the front lines with an Iraqi military unit that was taking orders from the leader of the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia with deep ties to Iran. There I encountered a grocer named Assam al-Hashem who had fought for Saddam’s army in the 1980s, manning an anti-aircraft gun. Al-Hashem said he was grateful to fight alongside a militia that was trained and equipped by Iran because there was no alternative. “What choice do we have?” he asked.
To understand his perspective, one must recognize the barbarity and cruelty of the Islamic State and its earlier incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq. One gruesome story from 2006 was that a local sheik in Anbar who had refused to give his obeisance to a local jihadist found at his home a cooler with the severed heads of his children. The Islamic State was known for rounding up the women of a town it had conquered and “marrying” them off to the victorious warriors. When facing such a foe, one will accept aid from anyone willing to provide it.
The bargain that Iraq’s leaders made in 2014 and 2015 with Iranian-backed militias to save their state from a new caliphate is the antecedent to the corruption problems and the militias that plague Iraq today. But as daunting as those challenges are, they are better problems than the ones faced by Iraq from the jihadist insurgencies before.
All of this gets back to Bush’s original reasons for starting the war. Let’s start with Bush’s most obvious error. He promised to disarm a country that was not stockpiling the chemical and biological weapons that U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as almost every other foreign spy service, believed Saddam was hiding. In the past 20 years, barrels of ink and thousands of acres of forest land have been spilled and milled to forward a tendentious theory that the Bush administration lied in the run-up to the war when it claimed to know that Saddam had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. No subsequent reports from either Congress or various bipartisan commissions have confirmed the deception, though it is true that some dissenting analyses on this question were not included with the more alarmist public estimates of Iraq’s WMDs. That said, it was not as if Iraq was innocent and simply the victim of Western plotting. Saddam never complied with the 17th UN Security Council resolution that required him to demonstrate that he had disarmed. Rather, his military shot at surveillance planes. He barred scientists from speaking with UN inspectors. The 2004 report from CIA weapons inspector Charles Duelfer concluded that “Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability—which was essentially destroyed in 1991—after sanctions were removed and Iraq’s economy stabilized.” It also said Saddam had had an interest in convincing his neighbors and his own people that he possessed the apocalyptic weapons he had in his possession before his 1991 invasion of Kuwait.
Did the war “free Iraqis”? If you compare their lives with those of Belgians or Americans today, then Iraqis are not free. But that is primarily because of the presence of sectarian militias and the reality of staggering corruption. Indeed, these are the two main reasons Freedom House ranks Iraq as “unfree,” despite its contested successive elections. But are Iraqis freer in 2023 than they were under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny? Without question, they are. Saddam created a Stalinist nightmare in Iraq, empowering the secret police to disappear citizens. Neighbors spied on neighbors. Bureaucrats lived in constant fear. When Saddam’s son Uday was placed in charge of Iraq’s Olympic committee, he would often torture at a private prison in the committee’s offices the athletes who were bested in international competition.
Finally, is the world safer now that Saddam no longer is in charge of Iraq? If you asked that question in 2006, before Bush chose General David Petraeus to oversee a new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, the answer would have been no. In 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian-supported death squads were engaged in a competitive ethnic cleansing that risked spilling over into a regional war. But by the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, al-Qaeda’s insurgency was largely defeated and Iraq was on a better trajectory. After 2011, when Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq, its Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Malaki, persecuted the Anbari tribes that sided with America against al-Qaeda. This created another opening for al-Qaeda’s successor, the Islamic State. After the Islamic State took over Mosul and was threatening Baghdad in 2014, there would have been merit in denying that the world had been made safer by the Iraq war. But the Islamic State’s caliphate was defeated as well.
In 2023, Iraq still has much work to do. And yet its current condition represents a historic achievement that has not been recognized. Iraq has continued to have successive elections, its economy has grown, and Iraqis have managed to save their country twice from fanatic terror armies seeking to rebuild a lost caliphate. To evaluate the war that rid Iraq of a sadistic crime family, one must imagine what Iraq would have resembled had Saddam or his sons remained in power. In that light, the plagues of corruption, ethnic militias, and Iranian influence look like a bargain.
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