The publication of George W. Bush’s memoir last week predictably reopened the debate on his presidency and the decisions he made following the 9/11 atrocities. In particular, the debates and issues surrounding the invasion of Iraq were argued once again with the familiar protagonists taking up their old positions right and left of the front line.
But more important than these historical arguments, are the consequences that Bush’s foreign policies, and especially the invasion of Iraq, had on global affairs and the U.S.’s ability and willingness to shape them.
Outside of Iraq, perhaps the most significant long-term impact of the 2003 invasion is the mortal blow it struck to the notions of an idealism-based foreign policy and the concomitant fillip it provided for a realist renaissance.
With the benefit of hindsight, it has become clear that Saddam’s regime was never the threat to international security that it was imagined to be. It turned out that there were no WMD and that the intelligence used to make the case for war was heavily embellished. Nor was there any impending humanitarian crisis. The imposition of no-fly zones over the north and south of the country by coalition forces actively curtailed Saddam’s ability to persecute the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north, as he had done immediately after the Gulf War.
So the misbegotten Iraqi adventure served none of its stated purposes. Perversely though, the invasion actually undermined one of the central tenets of the Bush Doctrine: preemptive war. The theory was that in a world riddled with terrorism and terror-supporting states, preemptive war was the only way to avoid attacks like 9/11 or worse. But in 2003, Iran, not Iraq, was rushing towards nuclear capability and it was Iran which was the world’s biggest state sponsor of terror. Tehran’s clandestine nuclear program had already been exposed and its patronage of its terror proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, ultimately led to two wars with Israel in 2006 and 2008, and continues to destabilize the region.
It seems clear that the invasion of Iraq and the descent of the country into anarchy and sectarian violence severely hampered Bush’s ability to deal with one of the most serious threats to international security of our times: a potentially nuclear-armed, terror-supporting Iran. Following the adoption of UN Security Council 1441, diplomacy and weapons inspections were given less than five months to be effective before Operation Iraqi Freedom was given the go-ahead. But Bush allowed six years of his presidency to pass by after Iranian dissidents exposed the existence of secret nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak. Is there any better illustration of just how self-defeating and enervating the invasion of Iraq was to Bush’s desire to safeguard the interests of the U.S. and her allies from the threat of WMD and terrorism?
Preemptive war was not the only victim of the misadventure in Iraq. The cause of liberal interventionism, which was significantly bolstered in the pre-Iraq war years, was also undone. The NATO campaign against Serbia in 1999 to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and the UK’s critical intervention in Sierra Leone in May 2000 to prevent the sadistic Revolutionary United Front from committing further atrocities, were both examples of how interventionism could avert the kind of crimes against humanity witnessed in Africa and the Balkans during the 1990s.