What do we mean when we talk about the Iraq War? In the flurry of retrospectives and appraisals marking the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the question seems particularly relevant. Most of the bitter debates that preceded, accompanied and outlived the war now seem settled. But in many ways, that apparent resolution is illusory.
On some things, of course, there is consensus. Besides a few neocon “dead-enders,” Washington’s decision to go to war is almost universally considered to have been a strategic blunder of historic proportions. The arguments deployed to justify that preemptive war and minimize its implications, we now know to be specious—something that was obvious to many but denied by those who mattered most at the time. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. enjoyed a position of global dominance, the lone superpower in a unipolar world, trusted by many and feared by all. Less than two years later, it had squandered its legitimacy and set about squandering its might. The resulting quagmire would make it appear a hapless and bumbling giant, able to break things with exquisite efficiency, but unable to put anything back together.
What it broke, too, was clearly visible, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion and then, ever increasingly, over the course of the following two decades. The destruction first visited upon Iraqi society, in terms of lives lost and communities upended, did not stay in Iraq. The war also upended the Middle East’s regional order, removing the major constraint on Iran’s westward ambitions. It ultimately led to the rise and spread of ISIS, which had implications not only for Iraq and Syria, but also for Europe, in the form of the terror attacks and refugee crisis that buffeted the continent in 2015. And it locked the U.S. into a lengthy preoccupation with its ongoing military operations in the Middle East, even as the center of gravity in global politics increasingly relocated to Asia: the rise of China and the so-called Rest, and the impact of shifting trade patterns on the distribution of power.