Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Ten years ago this month, the United States led an invasion of Iraq, which led to an eight-year war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. Has it been worth the cost? Amid continuing political and economic instability in Iraq and the increasing assertiveness of Iran, our experts are skeptical.
Jonas Parello-PlesnerSenior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
In short: no, it wasn’t worth it.
The invasion of Iraq was based on false assumptions about the country’s secret program of weapons of mass destruction. There were no weapons. That experience has made emerging powers like China and India so deeply suspicious of the West that the UN’s fabric of international norms has sustained serious long-term damage.
Furthermore, there was no plan for winning the peace after winning the war. The idea seemed to be that democracy would flourish in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s downfall. Ten years on, the political and economic system is still struggling to recover.
Likewise, Western standards of human rights and decency, which Western leaders claimed to have ushered into Iraq, were debased by cases of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison.
There is no doubt that Iraq—and the world—is a better place without Saddam Hussein. Still, Iraq was and is the foreign-policy mistake of the last decade, thanks to a combination of faulty assumptions, bad postwar planning, and hypocrisy.
If the decision to go to war was genuinely based on the aim of ridding the world of weapons of mass destructions, the United States should have targeted North Korea instead, which has developed a nuclear capability beyond what Saddam ever dreamed of.
Paul SalemDirector of the Carnegie Middle East Center
Like most wars in history, the Iraq War had winners and losers; so the answer to this question depends on whom you ask.
For the United States and its allies, the war was clearly not worth it. With thousands of U.S. servicemen killed or wounded and $1 trillion in direct expenditures, the United States was eventually forced to withdraw, leaving behind a shattered country, an empowered Iran, a vibrant al-Qaeda, and no identifiable political, strategic, or economic gains.
Turkey initially panicked about the risks of a dismembered Iraq and growing Kurdish ambitions, but has since adjusted by building strong relations with Iraqi Kurdistan and becoming one of Iraq’s biggest energy and trade partners. While powerful Arab Sunni states have bemoaned the rise of Shiite power in Baghdad, Iran has only seen its regional influence grow.
Inside Iraq, the Kurdish and Shiite communities generally see themselves as better off, while most Sunnis feel the opposite.
Interestingly, however, had the Iraq war not happened, Saddam’s regime might have faced its demise during the recent Arab uprisings. The U.S.-led toppling of the Iraqi regime was grossly mishandled and left over 150,000 Iraqis dead and the country divided and devastated.
But in the face of another uprising, Saddam would have fought at least as fiercely as his neighbor Bashar al-Assad, and Iraq would likely have gone through a period of destruction and near civil war to rid itself of the regime. For Iraq, there probably was no easy path out of tyranny.
Were the sacrifices worth it? Only if the Iraqis eventually succeed in building a more stable and prosperous democratic future.
Paul SchulteNonresident senior associate in the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program and at Carnegie Europe; UK commissioner on the UN Commissions for Iraqi Disarmament, UNSCOM and UNMOVIC (1997–2002); and director of defense organization in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq (2004)
The Iraq War has to be judged against complex counterfactuals.
While every life lost in Iraq is regrettable—and some of those killed were my friends—Iraqis would have continued dying, either violently or slowly through deprivation, under Saddam’s increasingly reckless tyranny. Without regime change, the process of demoralization and atomization and the collapse of national infrastructure would also have continued inexorably. That is, unless Iraq succeeded in escaping the failing sanctions regime, in which case it would have sought to rearm itself with prohibited weapons.
Iran could hardly be criticized for seeking its own nuclear weapons program while it was next door to such a neighbor. Today, the Syrian civil war demonstrates both the ugly way in which Saddam’s regime might eventually have ended and the level of ethnic and sectarian violence that can accumulate within complex societies under long-term authoritarian Baathist rule.
War might have been avoided if in early 2003—after over a decade of nuclear weapons inspections and the stern final warning of UN Security Council Resolution 1441—a deal had been reached with Saddam’s regime. Yet such a deal would never have been considered conclusive. While the general public might have greeted it with relief, diplomats and intelligence agencies across the world would have seen it as successful Iraqi defiance of its disarmament obligations.
Saddam’s Iraq was the ultimate test case for disarmament: the worst possible regime, the fewest extenuating circumstances, the most shocking record of serial aggression, and the strongest legal obligations. Regrettably, without war, that test would probably have been failed.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
No, it wasn’t worth it.
The Iraq War exhausted America’s power and reputation. Power is always more effective when feared but not exercised. In Iraq, U.S. military power was seen to be incredibly destructive, but the United States emerged less feared rather than more, with its reputation receiving most of the collateral damage.
Not only is the United States less feared than it was before the war, it is also less respected. At home, Americans continue to pay the price of a wildly expensive diversion and waste of resources, not to mention the loss of thousands of American and Iraqi lives.
The big winner to emerge from the conflict was Iran, which now poses a challenge that the United States cannot counter effectively. The era of American hegemony came to an end in the first decade of the new century, without being replaced by a new dominant power. This is especially the case in the Middle East.
Sinan ÜlgenVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The short answer to this question is: Who is asking?
The consequences of the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq have been manifold, and it has affected the key constituencies in different ways. Saddam’s regime has gone, but the system of governance that replaced his authoritarianism is weak and stymied by sectarian tension. This sectarianism has been one of the major effects of the conflict: the three major ethnic groups in Iraq have been unable to build a stable order.
As a result, Iraq’s territorial integrity remains uncertain, ten years after the invasion. So from the perspective of geopolitical stability, the intervention has been disastrous. From the perspective of regional relations, it has helped Iran to assert itself as a more influential player in post-Saddam Iraq. That is unlikely to be counted as a major success for U.S. policymakers.
On the other hand, the ousting of Saddam’s regime has certainly helped many Iraqis to believe in a brighter and more democratic future and to put the tragedy of the Saddam years behind them.
So, a general, objective evaluation is impossible. An assessment can only be made based on subjective elements.