Was Iraq a success or failure?
On a visit to Iraq in the spring of 2021, I was chatting with a group of Iraqi and western friends – all current or former advisors to the Iraqi, US, or UK governments – when the conversation turned to whether the 2003 US-led war to depose Saddam Hussein’s regime had been worthwhile. The dogmatism, divisiveness, and emotion that characterized the debate in the run-up to the war were still evident. For some, ending the murderous brutality and atrocities of Saddam’s rule superseded any other concern. Others were more equivocal, pointing to the corruption, violence, and misrule of the US-bequeathed, post-2003 political order and the toll it has taken on the country.
On the 20th anniversary of the war, the question of whether Iraq is better or worse off and whether the cost in coalition lives and money was worth it is, almost inevitably, being revisited. But it is a feckless one. The reality of Iraq’s experience since 2003 cannot be captured by a simplistic dichotomy; the country is — as it always was — more complicated than that.
Some things are undoubtedly better. Representative politics has been entrenched. Elections — former President George Bush’s measure of democracy and freedom — are genuine contests that are seen as important to political legitimacy. Power has been transferred peacefully across seven successive governments.
The Iraqi media is one of the freest in the Middle East, with rival viewpoints on full display, and criticism of the political elite — unthinkable and deadly in Saddam’s era — is now common. And, after a disappointing first decade and a half, there are signs of economic stirrings underpinned by oil production that is now almost 50% above immediate pre-war highs.
Still, Iraq has fallen far short of the hopes and promises of the war’s proponents. While the country never became a failed state, it has flirted with it at times, especially during the 2005-2008 civil war and at the height of the Islamic State threat, when large swathes in the northwest of the country were beyond Baghdad’s control. Iraqi society still bears the scars of ethnosectarian violence and the divisions it bred.
Development and reconstruction have been slow and stunted. Corruption is endemic, and state services are shoddy at best. Islamist Shia militias act with impunity, answering to their own leaders and increasingly dominating government and state institutions. Meanwhile, the Kurdish region, beloved by its amply rewarded and vocal cheerleaders in the West, is increasingly divided between two warlord factions running what has long amounted to personal fiefdoms.
Washington (and London) bear a lot of responsibility for the outcome. The ignorance and hubris that guided pre-conflict planning and all that followed made for an occupation that was insufficiently resourced and lacked the most basic understanding of the country (or even its language). Hunkered down and detached in the heavily protected Green Zone, the US-led endeavor rested on feet of clay from the get-go, and Washington’s aversion to state building, combined with the disbanding of the Iraqi army and evisceration of the civil service, left Iraq without the tools for effective governance and administration.
Worse still, US post-war policy quickly fell prey to domestic political imperatives and the growing popular disaffection with the occupation at home, leaving the imperial timetable at odds with, and largely dismissive of, conditions on the ground in Iraq.
But the most corrosive aspect of US policy was the ethnosectarian political system it enshrined, dominated by a narrow coterie of identity-based parties that have ruled ever since. Bereft of any real understanding of Iraq or its society, and impatient for signs of “progress,” Washington officials took their cue from their nominal allies in the pre-war Iraqi opposition, turning a blind eye to their failings, and never quite realizing — or at least acknowledging — that, beyond ousting Saddam, their agendas were not the same.
Occupation on the cheap and on the run was never going to establish the foundations for the stable, prosperous Iraq that proponents of the war envisaged, but the kleptocratic, militia-dominated state that has emerged 20 years later is not wholly Washington’s fault.
The zenith of US imperial power, when its ambassadors chose governments, dictated laws, and forced through constitutions, is a distant memory. If the US built the exclusive political fortress that was and remains the Green Zone, the factions that it empowered have manned the ramparts to ensure their exclusive access and control would never be challenged. Power and privilege are what matters to this parasitic elite, not freedom and democracy, and they have taken full advantage of what they inherited to that end.
Iraq’s ethnosectarian factions have fractured over time, and newer faces and groups have come to the fore, but the underlying players and the political equation have remained largely unaltered. The current prime minister, Mohammed Shi’a Sudani, is the first since 2003 not to have been in exile, but most major party leaders such as Nouri al-Maliki, Hadi al-Amiri, Masoud Barzani, or Ammar Hakim are either remnants of the former opposition or their offspring.
Elections determine the relative balance of power among the main players, but successive Iraqi coalition governments have been broad affairs, no matter who leads them, allowing the oligarchy to protect their exclusive power while feeding from the trough. Political opposition, even within the protected confines of the elite, is still regarded as an existential threat. Meanwhile, the real opposition to the corrupt system is brutally repressed, as the government’s deadly response to the 2019-2020 demonstrations starkly illustrated.
Change in the near term is unlikely. Every new Iraqi government talks about reform, but the preservation of the system will remain the number one priority for Iraq’s leaders and their various regional and international benefactors. After over 40 years of war, sanctions, deprivation, and domestic violence, the majority of the population is exhausted, increasingly detached from politics, and largely resigned to the state of affairs.
There are pockets of opposition activism on the “Iraqi street,” especially in the Shia-majority center and south, the heartland of real power in Iraq. But it is disorganized, unfunded, and largely powerless relative to the leviathan that is the US-bequeathed Iraqi state. Good men do not last long in Iraq, either neutralized or co-opted, and the seeds of systemic change are few and far between.
Maybe this was always the most likely outcome. The flourishing liberal democracy that US neo-conservatives imagined would catalyze regional change was never in the cards. A poor vegetable vendor in Tunisia did more to bring about a democratic revolution in the Middle East than the US adventure in Iraq ever did, and the eventual outcome was greater authoritarianism across the region.
Thus, Iraq will likely remain a mismanaged, kleptocratic, violent, and underdeveloped state governed by a political elite that is consumed with self-interest and sustained by oil revenue, the force of arms, and regional and international powers that see the country through the narrow focus of their national security priorities.
Not the worst outcome that could have been imagined in 2003 or since, but certainly less than the Iraqi people deserve.
Raad Alkadiri is the managing director of Energy, Climate & Resources for Eurasia Group. He served as assistant private secretary to the UK Special Representative in Iraq from 2003-2004.
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