Iraq, 20 Years Later

War did not solve the issues resulting from Saddam Hussein’s regime, and social tensions persist in the country

Twenty years after the start of the second Gulf War, what comes to mind are the tactics the United States and its allies turned to in order to justify the unjustifiable preventive war that doomed Iraqi society. It did not substantially improve the safety standards in the Middle East. It empowered a new type of jihadism which gave birth to the Islamic State. Today, the picture of the Azores summit between George W. Bush, Tony Blair and José María Aznar still provides an overview of the extent to which a superpower is able to attract crowds of followers and fabricate evidence — the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — before giving the order to attack. At the same time, the memory of the backlash from the streets, with widespread mass protests against the war, gives relevance to the idea that in situations of extreme risk, civic mobilization is the greatest and most convincing ethical counterweight.

War did not solve any of the issues resulting from Saddam Hussein’s despicable regime. The United States failed miserably as a nation builder, and the new regime contributed to the entrenchment of political-religious sectarianism in Iraq, a social divide incompatible with stability and progress. The party system put in place in 2004 has been fueling social tensions ever since. It has been unable to guarantee Shiite-Sunni institutional collaboration and is keeping the Kurdish dossier open, despite the federalism-based 2005 Constitution.

Two decades later, it is embarrassing to look at the neocon obsession with Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, the effort to include the country in the Axis of Evil along with Iran and North Korea, and the fabrication of evidence to persuade the U.N. Security Council that there was no choice but war. Likewise, the triumphalism triggered by the arrival in Baghdad of the vanguard of the U.S. Army was foolish: The tagline “Mission Accomplished” hanging from an aircraft carrier to greet President Bush had little to do with reality. In the following years, high-risk moments came one after the other, and in the end, before the almost complete withdrawal from the country, it became clear that the United States had not escaped the historical constant dooming great world powers since the end of World War II: Although they secured momentary victories over their adversaries, they have not managed to win a war.

The gradual withdrawal of the United States from the Middle East is linked to the experience in Iraq and with their inability to control Afghanistan. If the Persian Gulf expedition was part of Israel’s security-shielding strategy and the neutralization of a revived pan-Arabism that was far more noisy than effective, the withdrawal from the scene has left the path open for China, which has become a world power ready to fill the gap, the latest proof being the restoration of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia with China’s help. The only requirement was guaranteeing that business runs smoothly. By all accounts, this is a more effective formula to stabilize the region and guard Israel than 2003’s resort to arms, whose benefits were conspicuous by their absence.

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