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.
But for Bush, having spent so much political capital mustering a coalition for the invasion of Iraq, and having committed so many resources there, tackling humanitarian crises simply became unfeasible. The shortage of logistical capacity and the dearth of political support — both domestic and international — for foreign adventures, meant that the possibility of any other military intervention was practically nil.
The most obvious victim of this new reality was Darfur. At exactly the same time that U.S. armed forces were taking Baghdad, government sponsored militias in Sudan were massacring and raping the inhabitants of Darfur by the thousands. The slaughter in Darfur, which began in 2003, continued for at least five years. But the fact that 150,000 U.S. troops were tied up in Iraq and that foreign intervention was now anathema to the international community meant that the response to the atrocities in Darfur was pitifully inadequate.
And the interventionist spirit of the late ‘90s and early 2000s continues to fade into the past. It is most likely that the African Union’s call last month for international forces to blockade Somalia in order to prevent the Islamist al-Shabaab insurgency from rearming will be ignored. There is little appetite these days for such action, and the beleaguered, starved, and desperate people of Somalia cannot expect the kind of deliverance which Sierra Leone received just ten years ago.
True, the U.S. and others cannot and should not intervene in every trouble spot in the world. If the conflict in Iraq has taught us anything it must be that there are very real dangers in trying to reshape an entire country at the point of a sword. But to discount all intervention as dangerous, neo-imperialist meddling is an unworthy attitude which abandons with cruel indifference those most vulnerable to repression.
Unfortunately, this is the legacy which Bush has left the world. The mistaken Iraqi invasion led to a deep crisis of confidence in the West and to a will-sapping war-weariness. Just ten or eleven years ago, it seemed that the world had finally started to learn the lessons of Rwanda, Srebrenica, and all the other horrors of the twentieth century. Unfortunately the hostility and mistrust of intervention of any kind engendered by the misadventure in Iraq has meant that these lessons are being lost once again.