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After Iraq: the great unravelling

The breakdown of the West’s rules-based order began with the invasion of 2003.

By Peter Ricketts

It’s time to face the truth. The unravelling of the international order, graphically demonstrated by Vladimir Putin’s full-scale attack on Ukraine, began with the West’s invasion of Iraq 20 years ago. By disregarding the principles of the UN Charter in 2003, the US and the UK ceded their moral authority to promote the rule of law, and emboldened authoritarians to act illegally when it suited them. The calamitous occupation of Iraq also turned Western public opinion against the whole idea of leadership in international crisis management and left an indelible mark on opinion in non-aligned countries. The consequences are still playing out to this day.

The invasion of Iraq was the pivotal crisis of the post-Cold War period. In the first decade after 1989, US presidents and their allies were careful to use their military pre-eminence with restraint. George HW Bush showed the way in the 1990-91 Gulf War, when the US-led and UN-backed coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and then resisted the temptation to go all the way to Baghdad and depose Saddam Hussein. In April 1991, John Major used military units to bring humanitarian aid to Kurdish refugees freezing in the mountains of northern Iraq. When Yugoslavia collapsed in chaos in 1992, Bill Clinton waited through three years of civil war and ethnic cleansing before using US diplomatic and military muscle to put an end to the killing, first in Bosnia, then in 1999 in Kosovo. In the same year, the Australians led a five-month military operation in East Timor to end widespread violence following a referendum on independence. And in 2000, the UK dispatched a small force to Sierra Leone to forestall a coup enacted by mercenaries sent by Charles Taylor, the brutal leader of neighbouring Liberia.

[See also: The road to war in Iraq]

These interventions were not motivated by the traditional reasons for waging war – occupying territory or grabbing resources. None involved regime change. Military operations were carefully coordinated with civilian programmes providing assistance and training, organised by the UN or the EU. Western public opinion was largely supportive. Tony Blair’s Chicago speech in April 1999, setting out a doctrine of humanitarian intervention, caught the mood of optimism at the turn of the century that military force could be used successfully to uphold international law and stop human rights abuses.

The first stages of the international engagement in Afghanistan after 9/11 seemed to follow the script from the previous decade. The initial US bombing of al-Qaeda camps led to the rapid collapse of the Taliban government. Germany hosted an international conference in Bonn, including the heads of all the Afghan factions, to agree a new interim government. The UN took on the task of administrative support. Blair volunteered the UK to lead the initial deployment of a small military force with a narrowly defined mandate to help maintain security “in Kabul and its surrounding areas”. It was still all about restraint.

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The invasion of Iraq in 2003 trashed the US and UK’s reputation for using military power judiciously and in accordance with international law. Having tried and failed for months to get unambiguous authority from the UN Security Council to use military force, George W Bush and Blair went ahead anyway. The US administration was completely unprepared to meet the responsibilities of an occupying power in a country where the mood rapidly turned against the occupiers. The British never mobilised the military or civilian resources needed to administer the large swathe of southern Iraq that Washington assigned to London on the eve of the invasion.

In the UK, as in other European countries, the level of public opposition to the war was already evident by the huge demonstrations that took place before the invasion. But when coalition forces failed to find the nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programmes that had been at the heart of Blair’s case for intervening, even supporters of the war felt angry and betrayed. In 2009, the UK handed over its area, nominally to the Iraqi army, but in practice to militia gangs. US combat forces did the same the following year.

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Iraq is only now beginning to emerge from 20 years of chaos and brutality. Weak governments in Baghdad left plenty of ungoverned space for extremist groups such as al-Qaeda to operate in, and many thousands of radicalised Sunnis to recruit from. Most of the terrorist attacks against European countries since 2003 were mounted or encouraged from this region. The largest and most radical group of all, the so-called Islamic State or Isis, grew out of the chaos created by the 2003 war.

In parallel with the war in Iraq, the Western military presence in Afghanistan grew rapidly in the years after 2003, peaking at over 130,000 by 2010. But the mission suffered from constantly shifting objectives – from combating terrorism to nation building, poppy eradication to, by the end, simply surviving. Nato combat forces were withdrawn in 2014. The Americans, British and others stayed on in training and advisory roles, propping up the Ashraf Ghani government, until the final chaotic retreat from Kabul in August 2021. That opened the way for the Taliban to reinstate their brutally sectarian rule and remove all the freedoms introduced in the previous 20 years, particularly for women.

The 20-year Western presence in Afghanistan ended in failure. But the original objectives, if hopelessly ambitious, were honourable: supporting an elected government, promoting the rights of women and improving education and public health. It was the Iraq War – launched in hubris on a false premise and ending in chaos – that did the real damage to the West’s reputation. The consequences continue to shape wider international relations today in three ways.

First, when further crises arose, Western politicians and publics were determined that there should be no “boots on the ground”. That became clear in 2011, when Muammar Gaddafi in Libya threatened protesters demanding political freedoms with a bloodbath in Benghazi. David Cameron and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, were determined to prevent this. But the Iraq effect meant there was never any question of sending Western troops. And Barack Obama was reluctant to be drawn in, famously preferring to lead from behind. The Western intervention was therefore a half-hearted affair of airstrikes to protect the demonstrators. As a result, when Gaddafi was deposed in October 2011 and his regime collapsed, Nato countries had no means of preventing a descent into tribal violence, from which Libya has still not recovered.

The West’s retreat from crisis management was even clearer in the civil war in Syria that began in 2011. Western countries put little energy into brokering a settlement and Putin filled the vacuum, sending his air force to bolster Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and make Russia the pivotal power in the region. The enormous flow of refugees to Europe was a reminder that not intervening in other people’s conflicts also has consequences.

[See also: In its pursuit of Russian regime change, the West is doomed to repeat the errors of the Iraq War]

The second lasting impact of Iraq is that where the US pulled back, the authoritarians pressed forward. Putin exploited the West’s travails in Iraq to make a sudden strike on Georgia in the summer of 2008. This produced a flurry of European efforts to mediate, but no penalties. After his Syrian escapade, Putin took a greater risk in 2014, annexing Crimea and stoking civil war in eastern Ukraine. The subsequent EU and US sanctions were no more than an inconvenience. Perhaps it was the debacle of the final Western withdrawal from Afghanistan that convinced Putin to launch the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 – the most dramatic failure of the international order in Europe since 1945.

Xi Jinping also ruthlessly exploited the fact that Western countries had lost both the authority and the appetite to uphold the system of international rules they had so long proclaimed. His militarisation of the South China Sea got little more than a rhetorical response from the West. The repression of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and protesters in Hong Kong showed China did not feel bound by norms of human rights or by international treaties.

The third long-term effect of the Iraq War is the level of cynicism among non-aligned countries about a rules-based international system increasingly seen as little more than a construct to preserve Western dominance. This was clear when the UN General Assembly voted in March 2022 to condemn Russia’s breach of international law in Ukraine. Among the 35 countries that abstained were significant powers – and democracies – such as India and South Africa. In February 2023, UN members had a second chance to vote for a Russian withdrawal. Not a single extra country did so.

Non-aligned countries have a variety of motives for refusing to condemn Moscow. Some get weapons from Russia. Many are dependent on Russia’s ally China for massive infrastructure programmes and trade. There has been widespread criticism that Western ministers come calling when they want something, but otherwise neglect the interests of the non-aligned, including by paying little attention to long-running civil wars involving terrible human rights abuses, such as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar and Yemen. But they are also signalling that the international order does not matter enough to them to vote for upholding it.

One part of the non-aligned case is that, given the Iraq history, the West was guilty of hypocrisy when it condemned Russia’s illegal invasion. A fair debating point, but a flawed one. There is no moral equivalence between the invasion of Iraq and what Putin is doing in Ukraine. Bush and Blair were misguided in their anxiety about Iraq’s alleged stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological material. But their armies did not reduce towns and villages to rubble, and they had no intention of wiping the state of Iraq off the map.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is a stark reminder of what a world without order would look like. This should be an alarming prospect for every country that values peace and security. It is an opportunity for the US, UK and EU to regain some of the ground they have lost in the wider world through years of preoccupation with their own economic problems and political dramas. A good start would be to show some humility and recognise that Western countries do not have a monopoly of wisdom on how to create prosperous, stable societies. With this should come a genuine effort to listen to the priorities of non-aligned countries and ensure that they are addressed more effectively. An initial list could include financing for green investment without imposing the sort of conditions that China attaches; a properly funded loss-and-damage fund for the countries most affected by climate change; equitable access to vaccines; and greater contributions to UN peacekeeping operations dealing with conflicts.

Vital to rebuilding trust in the international system is that Western countries show they are scrupulous in respecting the rules they preach. There should be no more threats from British governments to break international law or to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights. Any future Republican occupant of the White House should avoid Donald Trump’s crass errors in withdrawing from crucial international negotiations and undermining confidence in the US commitment to Nato.

Putin’s war in Ukraine must have been partly based on the premise that, since Iraq, Western countries have lacked the political will and the stamina to uphold our values and stand by beleaguered allies in a tough world. By finding the staying power to ensure that Ukraine prevails in its fight for freedom and the rule of law, the West can finally show that it has learned the lessons of Iraq and leave the world a safer place.

Peter Ricketts is a retired senior diplomat and life peer. He served as chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) under Tony Blair. He is the author of “Hard Choices: What Britain Does Next” (Atlantic Books)

[See also: The A-Z of the Iraq War]

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe