20 Years Later*

*Editor’s note: On March 4, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council Andrey Kortunov explains how the Iraq War dashed hopes for a just world order.

March 20 will mark the 20th anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Is there any reason to consider this intervention a watershed event in the modern history of international relations? After all, there were other dramatic events that clearly pointed to a change in the course of global politics. For instance, on March 12, 1999, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary officially joined NATO, but only 12 days later, the U.S. and its allies began bombing Yugoslavia. That’s not to mention there were other pivotal events. In early December 2001, NATO completely occupied Afghanistan, and on Dec. 13, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would unilaterally withdraw from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Nevertheless, the Iraq War still stands out against the backdrop of all these crucial events. It is no exaggeration to say that it is the Iraq War that has finally dashed any hopes for a just, democratic world order in the early 21st century. In many ways, this war proved to be an unprecedented crisis beyond all previous U.S. efforts to consolidate a unipolar world.

First of all, the intervention was notable for its scale. Operation Iraqi Freedom involved hundreds of thousands of troops, including ground, air and naval forces, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. National Guard and military contingents from Britain, Australia and Poland. That’s not to mention military support from many other Washington allies and partners.

Second, this operation is still closely associated with epic failures of U.S. intelligence. Washington failed to prove that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Although the military operation itself was completed within three weeks, the accompanying plans to quickly transform Iraq into a viable Western-like liberal democracy ended in a total fiasco.

Third, the Iraq War divided not only the international community as a whole but the West in particular. The U.S. didn’t succeed in convincing the U.N. Security Council or even some NATO member states to support its actions. France and Germany, not to mention Russia and China, openly opposed this military campaign. Turkey refused to allow the U.S. to station its troops in the country. At the same time, this war provoked a political crisis in the U.K. Even the usually cautious U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared that Washington had violated the U.N. Charter by invading Iraq.

Fourth, the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, one of the leading Arab countries at the time, had lasting and far-reaching consequences for the entire Middle East region, some of which are still evident today. The collapse of Iraq upset the established balance between the Shiite and Sunni communities, triggered the rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism and international terrorism and set off a chain reaction of statehood crises in a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries that turned into the Arab Spring seven years later.

Today, no one in either the U.S. or the West likes to recall the events of March 2003. The main players of that already distant era have either died or are writing their memoirs in the silence of their home offices. Joe Biden, despite being one of the few Democratic senators who actively supported the belligerent stance of the Republican president two decades ago, seeks to distance himself from the Iraq War as much as possible today. The same goes for the new French and German leaders who are not particularly eager to be reminded of the time when their predecessors had the unthinkable audacity to question the legitimacy of Washington’s decisions. The Iraq War has gradually been overshadowed by other conflicts and crises that frivolous humankind continues to drag itself into with a persistence that could be applied to greater goals.

However, the main lesson of the Iraq War is still relevant. It is relatively easy to get into a conflict, but it is often very difficult to get out of it with dignity. This simple truth has been repeatedly proved in various ways in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Kosovo and Myanmar. Many modern conflicts drag on for years or even decades, making the final triumph, which once seemed so close, eventually become an elusive horizon that steadily drifts away when approached.

Therefore, before getting involved in another conflict, it is necessary to carefully consider not only the plan for the upcoming military campaign but also the strategy for subsequent peace talks, because the last word in 21st century conflicts usually belongs to the politicians and diplomats, not the generals.

The author is a Valdai Discussion Club** expert and general director of the Russian International Affairs Council.

**Translator’s note: The Valdai Discussion Club is a Moscow-based think tank and discussion forum, established in 2004.

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