President Obama is due today to announce the beginning of the end of US troop involvement in Iraq with just 50,000 troops due to remain until the end of next year. In view of this drawdown it is perhaps time to reflect on the nature of the US and UK involvement in Iraq for the past seven years.
The invasion that took place in 2003 was controversial at the time and the consequences of it have been far-reaching. The effect on Iraq itself has been considerable. The toppling of Saddam Hussein, a seriously brutal dictator whose excesses against his own population are today largely forgotten, was something that was a direct product of the invasion, as it was intended to be. The arguments concerning the justification of the war against Hussein have been gone through endlessly with particular focus on the failure of the "weapons of mass destruction" to be found and the repeated charge of the "illegality" of the invasion. The charge of "illegality" had two prime sources. The first was in a highly charged normative theory of international law. This theory, perhaps elaborated most extensively by Jurgen Habermas, tended to collapse the aspiration for a world order in which normative considerations are paramount from the reality of the world order we are faced with. The second, less contentious, focused on narrower issues, to do with the alleged status of UN resolutions and with the "ban" on aggressive intent in war. The status of UN resolutions and, indeed, the status of the UN itself, are less settled than opponents of the Second Iraq War contended. The more important point was the settled consensus that there is no basis for aggressive war and, indeed, it was due to the understanding and acceptance of this view even within official circles in the US and the UK, that it was suggested that Iraq possessed the potential and the desire to attack the West or, at least, unsettle Western possessions or allies. That was the reason the discussion of the alleged weapons mattered.
Despite the failure to find any weapons it is worth remembering that there was little dispute in 2002-03 that Iraq possessed dangerous weapons. There was a general acceptance that this was very likely including in governments that led opposition to the war such as those of Russia, China, and France. This tends to be forgotten by those who would wish to re-write history. It also tends to be forgotten that there was a serious split within Europe concerning the invasion with the governments of Spain, Italy and Poland prominent amongst those willing to support the invasion, even leaving aside the complicated case of Britain.
The effects of the invasion, apart from the removal of the brutal dictatorship of Hussein, have been, to put it mildly, mixed. What became clear after the dictatorship's removal was the basis of its existence. This basis was that the dictatorship had been able, by use of its methods, to keep Iraq as a nation united and removal of the dictatorship opened the way for all the forces that could pull Iraq apart. The insurgency against the invasion was mainly based in the Sunni population who had been net beneficiaries of the rule of the dictator though Shiite factions also arose that were to dispute the rule of a central government. Further, the US/UK reliance on ill-informed outsiders was exposed early. The general failure to understand or plan for the aftermath of the invasion was surely criminally irresponsible and is the single biggest mark both against the invasion itself and the principal movers behind it, especially the second President Bush.
The regional effects of the invasion remain, somewhat surprisingly, unclear. There were initial encouraging effects when Libya, for example, hurried to become part of the fold of "accepted" nations. The failure to contain Syrian ambitions has revealed, however, how limited the regional effects of the invasion has been. The continuing conflict in Afghanistan, from which resources were drained by the invasion of Iraq, perhaps poses the more significant long-term questions.
US politics became drawn into long and bitter arguments that prompted, for a time, the most serious hostility to a sitting president in living memory. The continuing polarisation of US politics can be seen in the peculiar "Tea Party" phenomena. The Democratic Party was neither united in opposition to the war or capable of throwing up a leadership that could outline alternative views of America's place in the world as Obama's presidency continues to reveal.
In the UK the Iraq war eroded and eventually destroyed the premiership of Tony Blair, a consequence whose effects continued to be seen in the last election here this year. The corrosive consequences of this have been the return of traditional Tory isolationism combined with a general aversion for discussion of normative questions in international relations. These consequences are seriously regrettable and show that the long-term effects of the conflict reach far and wide.
The invasion may well have produced an international climate that is less favourable to serious normative consideration of international affairs generally despite the appeal to such considerations on the part of the war's critics. Alliance of such critics with governments of dubious standing and with those willing to make Islam a political movement also stained the credibility of such critics. There is little long-term to celebrate either concerning the war or its adversaries.