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Did the Iraq war serve any positive purpose?

March 20, 2023

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The Conversation

Salvador Sánchez Tapia

Professor of International Office of the University of Navarra

Hidden behind the limelight of the ongoing war in Ukraine, these days mark the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the military operation that put an end to Saddam Hussein's despotism, irrevocably altered the balance of power in the Middle East and shook the foundations of the international system in a way not yet fully envisioned.

Operation "Iraqi Freedom" was a dazzling conventional offensive executed with B professional expertise by a US-led joint-combined force whose superiority could not be matched by a poorly motivated Iraqi enemy composed of an amalgam of regular army, Republican Guard and improvised militia units, which tried futilely to contain the offensive torrent flooding the country.

The fact that, only twenty-one days after abandoning their starting positions in Kuwait, the coalition forces reached Baghdad, provoking the collapse of Saddam's regime, the end of which was definitively sealed by the subsequent capture and execution of the dictator, speaks for itself. However, as in Vietnam, this unquestionable military victory did not translate into political strategy. In other words: the objectives achieved by arms were not aligned with those defined at the political level, and did not serve to improve the US strategic position, in clear contradiction with the political nature of war that Clausewitz had so shrewdly identified.

This lack of alignment is, perhaps, the greatest reproach that, from a technical point of view, can be made to the US strategic design . Reinforced by decisions such as that of disbanding the Iraqi armed forces, throwing thousands of soldiers into the arms of the insurgency, such strategic myopia meant that the conclusion of the conventional offensive, far from signifying the end of military operations in Iraq, was in fact the beginning of an occupation whose parameters took time for the US leadership to understand, and which drastically altered the strategic landscape of the region. Add to this episodes, punctual but terrible, such as Abu Ghraib, or the failure in the search for weapons of mass destruction, to understand the effect that the Iraq War has had -is having- on American military power, worn out by the effort, and on its international reputation, dented in a way from which it has not yet fully recovered.

With hindsight, some negative effects of the war appear clear. First, the decade-long effort to transform Iraq into a democratic system that did not harbor terrorist groups was used by China to narrow the economic gap between it and America and to challenge its position as the leading global power. The absence of war would probably not have prevented the emergence of Chinese power. But perhaps it would have taken longer to arrive and, above all, it would have occurred with the United States on a more solid footing. Second, when Washington finally decided to leave Iraq, it left behind a failed state, deeply divided and at the mercy of Iran, and fertile for the growth of groups such as the Islamic State. Third, that same departure created a vacuum in the region, upsetting the balance of power that had prevailed during the long years of Pax Americana, and which others - China is beginning to emerge - are rushing to fill.

Spain did not remain unaffected by the shock waves caused by the war. The decision of the government of the time to become involved in the post-war period with a contingent of the Spanish Army served as a pretext for those who wanted to take advantage of the circumstance to -successfully, it must be said- drive a wedge into the Western coalition, and destabilize national, domestic and foreign policy.

In retrospect, the question of whether or not the war was worthwhile arises naturally. The long years of operations in Iraq certainly served to rid that country of the Baath Party tyranny embodied by Saddam and ended up, along with those in Afghanistan, bringing Al Qaeda to its knees. However, the price paid in blood to finally leave behind a broken Iraq and a destabilized Middle East, and the economic and international prestige drain that the United States has had to pay, gives a rather more nuanced balance. Has the war brought America closer to its decline as a global power?

Regardless of all these considerations, we cannot omit to mention reference letter to the American, Iraqi and international soldiers, including eleven Spaniards, who generously gave their lives in the line of duty in the service of their respective countries. May their sacrifice not have been in vain and may they always be rewarded by gratitude and remembrance.