Mission Accomplished?

Andrew Noakes

Image © U.S. Army


Almost ten years on from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, President Obama has fulfilled his 2008 campaign pledge to withdraw US troops from the oil rich country. Last week, he told American soldiers that they could return home with their ‘heads held high.’ For America, now, the Iraq saga is finally over. But for Iraqis, the carnage goes on. As John Simpson tells us, there have been 79 bomb attacks in the last month alone.

Knowing what we know now, it is hard to imagine that the Iraq War could ever have been a success as the Bush administration envisaged it. Since 2003, the country has been gripped by a sectarian civil war; it has become a haven for terrorists; and Iran, meanwhile, has been transformed by the conflict into a regional superpower. And yet, looking back, it seems perfectly obvious that the invasion would have produced these outcomes.

Back in 2003, though, it was not all so clear. The Iraq War was launched at a time when Western political culture was still defined by post-Cold War euphoria. It was ‘the end of history’, and the beginning of a new world order. America believed that it could spread freedom to the far corners of the globe, and that each person, no matter their cultural conditioning, ultimately yearned for Western liberal democracy.

Then, suddenly, this triumphal optimism collided with the terrible trauma of 9/11 and it seemed that only by making the world democratic could the world be made safe for democracy. This was the freedom agenda. It became the focus of US foreign policy at a time when American confidence in military might as a panacea for all global problems had never been higher, and under an administration that had no interest in complexity. It was a recipe for disaster.

The Iraq War was inspired by idealism and insecurity; how ironic, then, that it cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqis their lives and made the West considerably less secure, both because it fomented terrorism and because it exposed the limitations of American military power.

At the height of the conflict, in 2006-7, there were many who argued that the West should disengage from Iraq. The civil war was raging, with over 30 bomb attacks each day, and US forces seemed to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But withdrawal then would have been a terrible mistake. The Iraqi security forces were not yet ready to take responsibility for security and the American counter-insurgency strategy had not been given a chance to produce results. It is likely that a premature withdrawal would have caused the country to descend into genocidal anarchy. This should serve as a warning to those who would like to see a rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan.

As US troops finally depart, Iraq is a safer place than it was a few years ago. It is far from a thriving democracy and stability remains elusive but the killing has lessened and survival is a realistic prospect for the nascent post-Saddam state. Some may disagree, but now is the right time to leave Iraq in the hands of the Iraqis; their future is finally their own to build.

Is this mission accomplished? In part, perhaps. But the dream of turning Iraq into the linchpin of a wider democratic revolution in the Middle East never became a reality. In exchange for the modest progress that has been made, an extraordinarily high price has been paid in blood and treasure.  The civil war goes on, though not with the same intensity; the terrorists remain, though they are less potent. Iraq’s future is uncertain. It is a work in progress.

What lessons should we in the West learn from this saga? There are two that are particularly important. The first is that military force is a blunt instrument for solving the kind of extremely complex political problems that we have faced in post-Saddam Iraq. Libya may prove another case in point, and so too would Syria were we to intervene. If we decide to use force in cases such as these, we must have a plan, or at least the capacity, for tackling the political problems too.

The second lesson is that humanitarian intervention should be used in response to crises that threaten to cause humanitarian catastrophes, rather than to impose a new political system or culture on a country that is largely docile at the time of the intervention. That is the difference between Libya and Kosovo, and Iraq. That is why I supported the former but never the latter.

Both Iraq and the West have been changed irrevocably by the nearly ten-year long conflict. America is far less confident and powerful than it was in 2003, partly because it lost so much moral authority as a result of the war, and partly because the limitations of its military might were laid bare for the world to see. And Iraq has gone from dictatorship to freedom, albeit a strange kind of freedom plagued by violence and instability. Iraq has a fighting chance, but that is all. Its future hangs in the balance.


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