20 Years after Iraq War: Is America Paying Its Debts?

This foolish, cruel war, which started on false premises and ended with hundreds of thousands of casualties, has defined the character of the first decades of the 21st century. But after two decades, it may have some positive effects – for us.

The war in Iraq weakened America, divided the West, and gave Russia and China legitimacy for their own aggression and violations of international norms. It ruined the United Nations’ system based on the recognition of sovereignty. It discredited the 1990s idea of humanitarian intervention in the name of the defense of persecuted minorities. In the Middle East, the war elevated the position of theocratic authorities in Iran and sparked the Arab Spring, which turned into a series of brutal counter-revolutions led by new, cynical rulers. Jihadi terrorism, which allegedly was the reason why the war began, flourished for over a decade and moved from the streets of Baghdad to Paris and London. There has been no crisis in the 21st century, beginning with Donald Trump’s presidency and its consequences, which does not have its roots in George W. Bush’s decision to invade the Iraq led by Saddam Hussein on March 20, 2003.

Most accounts of the Bush administration’s preparations for war point to a particular state of collective psychosis, for want of a better word, as an explanation of its causes. It was a psychosis with patriotic motives — how to protect America from terrorist attacks — but which, nonetheless, was the result of a deep state of denial. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were all convinced that the 9/11 attacks would happen again. They treated every piece of intelligence from CIA Director George Tenet as evidence of preparations for an attack.

An Iraqi peasant kept some shiny pipes in a palm grove? These must be centrifuges for uranium purification! An Iraqi diplomat wanted to buy a GPS map? It would certainly serve to accurately direct aircraft to Washington! Or maybe some truck left a supposedly abandoned factory? It had to be Saddam building mobile laboratories to produce anthrax! One small barrel would wipe out all of New York! And so on, and so on. That’s why the Americans went to war in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed.

The War in Iraq. Who Lost?

The coalition, which was assembled by Secretary of State Colin Powell, followed America into the fire: The British, whose Prime Minister Tony Blair saw himself as a global player; the Spanish, seeking recognition for their role in NATO. Italy, Australia, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, the Netherlands and a number of other smaller countries shared American hubris, its excessive pride, which in ancient Greek tragedies prevents the hero from recognizing reality and ultimately leads him to destruction.

The states participating in the “coalition of the willing” that was at America’s side bear moral and political responsibility for the costs of this war to Iraqis — primarily human costs. And members of that coalition were only partially punished. Prime Minister Blair resigned in disgrace after Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq report to Parliament. Mario Aznar lost the next election in Spain after he attributed the attack in Madrid to the Basque ETA, although it was carried out by jihadis in revenge for Iraq.

American leaders, such as Colin Powell, an outstanding diplomat and general, were forever tainted by their support for the war. Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Rumsfeld became grim anecdotes in books on America’s errors. George W. Bush, the the man who authored the war, today acts as the noble and good-natured Republican of old, Reagan-like in form and patriotic in stature. He shines in comparison to Donald Trump, expressing the opinion that in his time, the Republican Party still represented some values. But it is Bush, not Trump, who is the father of America’s greatest debacle of the 21st century. And no one was ever charged as a defendant.

Poland Enters Iraq

Poland joined “the coalition of the willing” in Iraq for one reason only: to strengthen its status as a U.S. ally. What is striking in the statements of President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Prime Minister Leszek Miller and Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz, both in 2003 and in later years, is the conviction that “we had to become somehow credible.” As a matter of fact, in an interview with the German daily Tagesspiegel in 2006, Kwaśniewski said that he “feels deceived” about Iraq, but maintained that the decision taken three years earlier was meant to prove Polish-American rapprochement. Miller, Cimoszewicz, and then-Deputy Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld spoke in a similar fashion. A significant moral impetus for these politicians at that time was the position of Gazeta Wyborcza Editor in Chief Adam Michnik, who maintained in 2003 that the war against Saddam would be a just war, a war against tyranny, and that Poland had to take a stand against terrorism.

European countries, with France and Germany at the head, opposed involvement in the war. They were surprised by Poland’s eager participation, since Poland was preparing to join the European Union. Jacques Chirac’s words from February 2003 about Poland, who “wasted a chance to remain quiet,” went down in history as contempt of “old Europe” for “new Europe.”

Arguments about building a Polish-U.S. alliance, about Poland’s credibility in NATO, about the ignorance of the Polish authorities at the time have been heard since at least 2003. So was the fact that Poland’s involvement in the Iraq War was accompanied by a cross-party consensus. In 2003, the SLD government gave its consent. In 2005 further quotas were imposed by the Law and Justice government, and the Civic Platform government maintained a Polish combat presence until almost 2009. The war, though an embarrassment, was seen as the fruit of political consensus in foreign affairs. It was only broken by the Smolensk catastrophe in 2010.

The newer and increasingly popular political left — of the “Razem”* kind — criticized our participation in the Iraq War as a sign of subjectivity, and made the moral argument that we were wrong to participate in America’s aggressive war, an imperialist attack on a weaker opponent.

In Poland, as in the West, no one dragged anyone to court. Those responsible for sending and maintaining the military contingent in Iraq, like Blair or Aznar, have not been held accountable. Poles, as voters, largely forgot about Iraq, and you can barely catch our participation in the operation after so many years only in B-rated movies. There is neither remorse nor any lessons learned; there’s not even any moral hangover. However, there is an intangible sense of wrong in Poland. International relations students know little about Iraq, and if asked to judge, they judge it unfavorably; U.S. military policy before 2022 had not been popular.

A Wager with History?

On the 20th anniversary of the war in Iraq, we entered the war in Ukraine. Russia invaded its neighbor, and the belief is that if Russia succeeds, the Baltic States or even Poland might be next. The U.S. rushed to aid Ukraine and strengthened its military contingent in Poland. White House decisions saved Ukraine. The U.S. has become the security guarantor of Central Europe — it’s not only imaginary, but it’s real.

Does this remind you of anything? Isn’t it time to say that, for Poland, the wager with history has paid off after all? Of all that was lost in Iraq, morally and politically, maybe there is someone who gained something — their own security and sovereignty? Perhaps the ones who benefited are those who didn’t care about Iraq, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps it is only those — like Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, and a few other Eastern European countries — who thought that it was worth betting on the U.S. in the name of their own security. They served together in the desert at Al Hilla, Al Diwaniya, Al Kut and Karbala and tried to wager with history that, if they helped the U.S. in 2003, if something happened in Eastern Europe in the future, the U.S. would reciprocate. Ukraine has been gradually gaining the position of a U.S. military ally since the war in Iraq. Ukrainian officers went to the U.S. to study, and American instructors, especially after 2014, transformed the Ukrainian army into its present state — something we can see now on the battlefield.

And can’t you see the old divide between “old and new Europe,” reinforced earlier by the Bush administration, in the modern division between “old and new NATO”? The old NATO — namely France and Germany — is late with weapons and its attitude about Putin, and the “new NATO” — Poland, the Baltic states, and Ukraine itself — are Washington’s most ardent supporters. It’s thanks to them that the U.S. can realize its strategic anti-Russian interests in this area by supporting Ukraine. The “new NATO” is arming itself; the “old NATO” cannot emerge from its lethargy.

Of course, in describing America’s current response to the war in Ukraine and its present calculations, no one in the White House cites the example of Iraq and “the coalition of the willing.” If we want to find links between those decisions and the present, it is the U.S. having developed a natural belief that Poles (but also Ukrainians) are a trustworthy partner, that they will meet military and political expectations, and that they will position themselves on the right side — i.e., American’s side — with regard to Russia.

The Iraq War, an embarrassing part of American history, has created the belief in Washington that new allies from Central Europe will be available if the need arises. The war in Ukraine, on the other hand, a fundamental challenge to the existence of these states, can be won because the U.S., knowingly or not, is paying off its debts.

*Editor’s Note: Lewica Razem is a Polish left-wing political party formed in May 2015, known as “Left Together” in English.

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