As we pass the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, I’ve been asked to reflect on that experience by a number of people. So far, the only thing I’ve said publicly was in a panel “Remembering and Misremembering the Iraq War” organized by the Carnegie Endowment. Doing full justice to this question requires a more thoughtful review of what we now know about the consequences of the war, and what we thought we knew at the time. I haven’t had time to do this because I’m to deliver three big public lectures by the end of the month on a completely different topic. (I did, of course, write a whole book on this subject in 2006.) But I thought I would start with a reflection on my thinking on the war at the time, and how it has changed.
Back then, I felt there were two main reasons for opposing the intervention. The first had to do with the morality and prudence of using force to overthrow a dictator. There has been a norm in international politics since 1945 that countries should not invade one another. The intervention in March 2003 gravely weakened the moral credibility of the United States subsequently, particularly in the global south and in the Middle East in particular. We have many pro-democracy friends in the latter region who have not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are very cynical about American protestations that U.S. foreign policy is based on principles like a “rule-based international order.”___STEADY_PAYWALL___
However, the moral issues here were never that simple. Saddam Hussein was an even worse dictator than Vladimir Putin, and had already invaded his neighbors Iran and Kuwait. Mel Leffler’s recent book on the origins of the war dispassionately chronicles that record of drastic human rights violations and repressions against entire populations like the Kurds and Marsh Arabs. Because the United States was so dominant in this period, invading Iraq did not carry any of the risks of superpower confrontation or nuclear escalation as it would have during the Cold War. Many people, including a number on the political left, were in favor of a “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations against human rights abuses.
The second issue concerned America’s ability and will to sustain a long-term invention that would actually create a peaceful and stable Iraq. In this respect, there were many, many reasons to think the answer was no. I thought at the time that our record in democratic nation-building in developing countries was very poor, leading to bad outcomes in our own neighborhood of Latin America and the Caribbean (Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti), Southeast Asia (South Vietnam and the Philippines), and the Middle East, where we had overthrown a democratically-elected Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and were openly supporting autocracies in Egypt and the Persian Gulf.
I felt there was a kind of five-year rule at work: The United States could sustain a difficult nation-building project for about 5 years, slightly longer than one presidential term, after which public support began to diminish. This happened both in Nicaragua, where a new administration withdrew U.S. Marines in 1933, and in Vietnam, where the Tet offensive turned most Americans against the war slightly more than five years after our initial involvement. I thought that if we were willing to deploy large numbers of troops in Iraq and keep them there for a couple of generations (as we did in Japan, Germany, and Italy) then the nation-building effort might have some chance of success. But that was politically very unlikely to happen in Iraq, and the Bush administration gave little evidence that it was prepared for a long haul. The actual situation was much worse than I feared. Don Rumsfeld apparently hoped to be able to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq before the end of 2003, and resisted even calling what he faced an “insurgency.”
Finally, there was the matter of culture. U.S. policies often went to the Middle East to die, because that region was and remains very different from other parts of the world. At the time, the Bush administration argued that a belief that Muslim or Arab countries could not democratize was a simple cultural prejudice, because of the universal appeal of freedom. Condoleezza Rice pointed to American success in democratizing Germany and Japan after World War II, gliding over the fact that they were already industrialized countries before the war, and did not host the kind of religious politics prevalent in the Middle East. The fact of the matter is that political Islam was powerful throughout the region; while there have been democratic Islamists like the Ennada Party in Tunisia, these have tended to be rare. This simply makes the Middle East a much more difficult region for the United States to operate in.
The belief that the United States would not be able to handle the aftermath of invasion was decisive in the break I made with my neoconservative friends over the war. Having signed a letter from the Project for the New American Century calling for intervention in Iraq, I changed my mind on the wisdom of intervention in the months leading up to the March 2003 invasion. The question of international legitimacy was not at the top of my concerns at the time, though I did write an op-ed piece in the Washington Post saying that we should not act without support from the UN Security Council. In retrospect, I should have taken this issue more seriously than I did.
In 2003, the United States was at the peak of its international hegemony across all domains—economic, military, political, and social. The country felt like it had the freedom to act to reshape the world in its image, but did not understand the limits of its power. That power began to erode quickly, with the war itself turning into a quagmire and the 2008 financial crisis dethroning the American economic model. Russia and China continued to consolidate their power, and big cracks began to emerge in American society reflecting problems in the globalized social model the country represented. This is the world we face now, and American foreign policy has been in the process of adapting ever since.
Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Image: U.S. Army M1A1 Abrams tanks and personnel pose for a photo under the "Victory Arch" in Ceremony Square, Baghdad, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of Defense)
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