Some wars haunt like recurring nightmares long after its initiators pack up their bags and quit. Exactly ten years ago, the United States invaded Iraq ruled by the despotic Saddam Hussein on flimsy pretexts.
It was an intervention which changed the world. The impact of this tragic war was monumental. A sober reckoning is needed to avoid repetition of such colossal follies.
Hawkish neoconservatives in the administration of George W. Bush planned to overthrow Saddam in order to repaint the entire Middle East in a pro-Western and pro-Israeli colour.
All the lies about Iraq fanning terrorism or possessing weapons of mass destruction, which were presented as justifications, were subsequently exposed as lies.
That a democracy like the US could have a political leadership which hoodwinked its own people with baseless propaganda to go to war was a low point in American presidential annals.
Bush junior ended his tenure as the most unpopular president in modern history, with his image sullied by association with torture and foolish military misadventures.
For international order, the US’ decision to attack Iraq without the consent of the United Nations (or even agreement of close European allies like Germany and France) was a big blow to the notion of rule of law.
The weakening of the UN and the callous disregard of international public opinion by the superpower also fuelled concerns that the world was headed towards an undemocratic and leaderless future.
In Iraq itself, the change that the Bush administration sought through violent force never materialised. Instead of a staunch new ally of Washington and Tel Aviv, Iraq’s sectarian churning and fissures produced another authoritarian regime under Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, who drew his nation closer to Tehran.
Far from undermining Iran’s radical power in the Middle East, the Iraq war bolstered it.
The neo-cons did not calculate on the resistance to the American empire that would emerge after the removal of Saddam.
Bush junior destroyed a society with proud historical antecedents like Iraq and made life more difficult for American interests in the Middle East.
Today, if there is a growing consensus that American unipolarity (a condition where a single power dominates the whole planet) has ended, the origin of this big shift owes to Bush’s obsession with forcible regime changes in the Middle East.
Barack Obama may be recovering some lost ground for America’s reputation, but the liabilities accumulated in a long-drawn-out war in the heart of Arab lands cannot be neutralised for decades to come. Hatred for America and its perceived bullying has not declined, partly because of the historical baggage of what it had done in Iraq.
Iraq today is still burning with the fires of Shia-Sunni discord. Sunni terrorism of the al-Qaeda variety, which had never existed in Iraq until the Americans invaded in 2003, is waging a stubborn insurgency against the Maliki regime.
The worst of the bomb blasts and shootouts may be behind Iraq, but American oil corporations like Exxon Mobil and Chevron are blithely pursuing profits in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country, thereby aggravating the ethnic divisions that could still tear Iraq apart into mini-states.
The war in Iraq was meant to rebuild a nation as a democratic bastion in the Middle East and to arrest the global decline in American power. On both counts, it backfired.
Human rights have been set back by decades. The sorrow of Iraqis knows no bounds. This war carries a crucial lesson in statecraft to all wielders of enormous power — think before you leap.
Sreeram Chaulia is dean, Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal