It has been 20 years since the invasion of Iraq. Despite all the chaos and misery that ensued, it was perhaps, and only just, still the right thing to do.

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March 20 marks two decades since the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq. In those 20 years, it has become de rigueur to malign the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the attempt to build a free and prosperous Iraq. Such critics often tell us that the intervention was always going to fail and that this failure was utterly foreseeable, that nothing but catastrophe could come of invading.

And, indeed, catastrophic is too mild a word to describe the state of Iraq since 2003. As one of those critics, Ben Sixsmith, recently put it:

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. Millions were made refugees. Thousands of American soldiers were killed, as well as almost two hundred British troops.

Christians in Iraq have been pushed dismayingly close to the edge of extinction. Numberless Iraqis are disabled or have been made orphans. Mental disorders are absolutely rife.

Indirect consequences were dramatic. Regional instability helped to inspire the Islamic state. Iran, far from being intimidated, was emboldened. Extraordinary amounts of Western resources and attention were focused on a little segment of the Middle East as China quietly prospered.

Even some of the champions of the invasion have come to regret their support for the war, or at least express their regret for how things turned out. Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi scholar and dissident whose 1989 book The Republic of Fear remains the classic text on the nigh-unutterable evil embodied by the Saddam Hussein regime, is one such. In 2016, he said:

Things are very bad, but I can’t change positions because of how bad they have become now. Things were also equally very bad under Saddam. There was no future. Once the future was made possible, Iraqis did the worst possible job at it; they went from bad to worse. That means, and part of that failure, I’ve got to argue and criticize “my own,” quote unquote, because I have to deal with the fact that they failed.

In 2008, the journalist Andrew Sullivan wrote of the shame he felt for supporting the invasion:

What the war has done to what is left of Iraq—the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed—was bad enough. But what was done to America—and the meaning of America—was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself.

Christopher Hitchens never backed down from his view that the removal of Saddam was correct no matter what, but he was disgusted by what followed. As he put it in a 2007 essay:

To describe the resulting shambles as a disappointment or a failure or even a defeat would be the weakest statement I could possibly make: It feels more like a sick, choking nightmare of betrayal from which there can be no awakening.

Compare this to his (albeit cautious) optimism in October 2003:

But consider the options. Iraq cannot go back to Ba’athism. It is incredibly unlikely to opt for an Islamic theocracy, given a state where no faith or faction has absolute predominance. It is too rich, actually and potentially, to collapse into penury. And it is emerging from a period of nightmarish rule to which anything would be preferable. So dare to repeat, in spite of everything, the breathless question: What if it works?

In short, even the most stalwart advocates of intervention were sickened by the devastation wrought on Iraq after 2003. And yet, as post-Saddam Iraq turns 20, I believe ending his rule was still (probably) the right thing to do. I was a child in 2003, so my views have been formed in retrospect—but yes, even in retrospect and despite everything, I believe, on balance, that an Iraq without Saddam was and is much preferable to one with him.

Understating Saddam’s evil

I say this partly because those who criticize the invasion all too often understate the appalling and nearly unparalleled evil of Saddam Hussein and his regime. Sixsmith, for example, says “he was indeed a maniacal and bloodthirsty dictator… [and] an at least quasi-genocidal one.” At least he prefaces the “quasi-genocidal” point with a nod to Saddam not being just another tinpot tyrant, but he doesn’t really go into much detail beyond this (aside from a brief mention of Saddam’s insane invasions of Iran and Kuwait).

The crimes of Saddam were not incidental to the case for war and Sixsmith’s almost perfunctory treatment of them does a disservice to that case. Saddam was highly irrational and extremely violent, far beyond ‘normal’ levels for a dictator. Consider his futile setting ablaze of the Kuwaiti oil wells while he retreated during Desert Storm (the plumes of which were visible from space). Or his draining of Iraq’s southern marshes in reprisal for the Marsh Arabs’ rebellion against his tyranny in 1991 (which the head of the United Nations Environment Programme in 2001 called a “major ecological disaster, comparable to the drying up of the Aral Sea and the deforestation of large tracts of Amazonia”). Or the absurdity of sending his forces toward the Kuwait border again in 1994 (whatever his intentions, a stupid and pointless move). Or his attempt to re-take Iraqi Kurdistan in 1996 (as in 1994, swift US action scared him off).

And what is this about Saddam being “at least quasi-genocidal”? I’m not quite sure that the word “genocidal” in the context of the gassing, imprisoning, and slaughtering of the Kurds in a targeted campaign of extermination in 1988 (and not just at Halabja) requires any qualifiers or equivocations. And this is not even to mention Saddam’s further massacres of Kurds and Shia in 1991 and his near annihilation of the ancient Marsh Arab culture. In other words, whether Saddam attempted two or even three genocides is debatable, but there was certainly nothing “quasi” about 1988.  

No alternative to invasion?

Mention of US intervention in 1994 and 1996 brings me to another important point: the invasion of 2003 did not come out of nowhere. Since Saddam’s expulsion from Kuwait, the international community applied extremely harsh sanctions on Iraq, which did little to hobble Saddam but caused a great deal of misery to those who were unfortunate enough to suffer under his rule. The US Congress near-unanimously passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, which committed the US to the removal of Saddam’s regime. No-fly zones were also established to protect the southern Shia population and Iraqi Kurdistan, allowing the Kurds to build a fairly democratic and prosperous, if far from perfect and harmonious, society in the north. (The Kurds’ overall success in this endeavor shows, incidentally, that there was at least some good reason in supposing that the rest of Iraq could also emerge from the hell of Saddam’s reign and evolve into a free society.)

With the US and others already heavily involved (and the above is far from an exhaustive list of the ways in which they were entangled), what were the options? Keep going with sanctions and no-fly zones while Saddam continued to torture and kill Iraqis? How long could such a situation really last? There was little prospect of an internal toppling of Saddam, so robustly insidious was his system of totalitarianism—as Makiya chillingly chronicled in The Republic of Fear. Assassinating Saddam would have left Iraq in the hands of his sons, who were every bit as vicious as their father.

Given that something had to be done about Iraq since the international community was already involved (mostly to the detriment of Iraqis), and given that there is a good chance Iraq was always going to collapse into violence and instability, was it not better to overthrow Saddam by force and help Iraqis try to create a free, democratic society?

Add to this already unsustainable situation the dire conditions in Iraq as a result of Saddam’s rule and more than a decade of sanctions. Poverty and misery and brutality were the norm. According to a 2002 Oxfam report, the Iraqi people “are on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.” And then there were the latent sectarian impulses, long nourished by Saddam. As Hitchens put it in 2004, “A broken and maimed and traumatized Iraq was in our future no matter what.”

Given that something had to be done about Iraq since the international community was already involved (mostly to the detriment of Iraqis), and given that there is a good chance Iraq was always going to collapse into violence and instability, was it not better to overthrow Saddam by force and help Iraqis try to create a free, democratic society?

Whatever the chaos in the wake of the intervention and whatever crimes and blunders on the part of the interventionists, try to imagine a post-2003 Iraq without US and international forces.

Without intervention, I think it likely that complete state failure would have occurred, and sectarian and religious strife, with all the opportunities such a situation would have provided al-Qaeda and other jihadists, would have been the result. I don’t think Iraq would have been spared bloodshed and civil war. I don’t think we would have been spared the Islamic State or something very like it. I think most of the horrors of the post-invasion era would have come in one form or another anyway—and probably would have been much, much worse. The US would have been responsible for this just as much as it is responsible for the consequences of the invasion, because inaction is a decision, too.

Of course, I’m relying on a lot of counterfactuals here, and counterfactuals are hazardous in the extreme, but I think they are reasonable ones on the evidence. And none of this, let me be clear, is to excuse the crimes and failures of the invasion, from the cruelty of Abu Ghraib to the spectacularly incompetent post-war planning.

Nor is it to deny the shortcomings of the pro-intervention arguments in 2002 and 2003. Hitchens, for one, despite sometimes expressing caution (see above), could at times be startlingly overconfident in the prospects for a free and secure Iraq post-invasion and he sometimes approached the hysterical when discussing Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. In his excellent new book How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, Matt Johnson rightly criticizes Hitchens, who himself later admonished Bush and Blair for overhyping the WMD case, for his “loose talk of retail plutonium, weapons of genocide, and so on” and his contortions in trying to link Saddam to al-Qaeda and 9/11.

Johnson also notes that Hitchens failed to see how the near-unilateral invasion of Iraq would hinder the slow progress towards an international system committed to the defense of human rights and how it would damage the case for liberal interventionism more generally—vide the invocation of Iraq as an excuse for inaction whenever some new horror looms. The abandonment of the Syrian people to the poison fumes of Assad’s chemical weapons—and, never forget, the carnage-wreaking bombardments of Putin’s missiles—for fear of being drawn into a “quagmire” is the prime example here.

To set up another counterfactual, the US could have done things very differently. It could have waited longer and worked harder to build a broad international coalition for the liberation of Iraq. It could have made a much more modest and realistic argument about WMDs and relied less on scaremongering (exaggeration aside, there was good reason to be concerned about Saddam’s never-renounced quest for such weapons). It could have focused much more on the moral case for war. It could have stuck to its principles and rejected Abu Ghraib-style brutality. This list could go on endlessly. The main point is that Iraq and the world would have been much better off if the US hadn’t disgraced itself so much from 2002 onwards.

Iraqi democracy: no longer a contradiction in terms

Nevertheless, my argument isn’t just that things were going to be horrific regardless of whether the US invaded or not. No, there have been real gains for Iraqis in the past two decades. For all its imperfections, Iraqi democracy is no longer a contradiction in terms. And while there has been a decrease in the number of Iraqis who view democracy as the best system for their country (45% in 2020, compared to, for example, 65% in 2014), Iraqis are highly engaged in the democratic process, with 62% believing in the importance of voting and 76% registered to vote in 2020.

A Freedom House report from 2021 notes that while there are many deep flaws with Iraq’s political system, “Iraq holds regular, competitive elections, and the country’s various partisan, religious, and ethnic groups generally enjoy representation in the political system.” Read that sentence again and marvel. Such a situation would have been unthinkable in 2002, never mind 1992. That Iraq has evolved from one of the most unstable and barbaric totalitarian pits of misery in human history to this is an achievement the US and its allies—and the Iraqis most of all—should be proud of.

Iraq still has a long way to go, as the massive protests of 2019-2021 show, but can there be any doubt that it’s moving in the right direction? Those protests were, among other things, against sectarianism and for a stronger secularism. They were also an expression of anger at the system the US helped to set up in Iraq, which split political offices among various ethnic and religious groups. On many (if not most) things, the protesters were quite right, and the Iraqi government should do more to address their concerns.

[O]ne must bear in mind how [the 2019-21 Iraqi protests] would likely have played out under Saddam (let alone in an imploded and utterly desolate Iraq). There would have been no elections and certainly no victory of any kind for the protesters, while repression wouldn’t have been the half of it. Iraqi democracy is in its infancy so it will face more such tests, and perhaps it will need to be overhauled, but this is unarguably progress.

Parties arising from the protest movement gained almost 10% of the seats in Iraq’s parliament in 2021, while parties associated with Iranian-backed Shia militants lost ground (another aim of the protestors was to curb Iran’s influence in Iraq). Since 2021, political instability has continued, with supporters of the aggrieved Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr storming parliament in 2022. Iraqis clearly still have many issues to deal with and the government’s reaction to the 2019-2021 protests was dismayingly repressive, but one must bear in mind how this would likely have played out under Saddam (let alone in an imploded and utterly desolate Iraq). There would have been no elections and certainly no victory of any kind for the protesters, while repression wouldn’t have been the half of it. Iraqi democracy is in its infancy so it will face more such tests, and perhaps it will need to be overhauled, but this is unarguably progress.

Meanwhile, Iraq has signed investment deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and President Biden has committed to encouraging US companies to invest in Iraq.  The scholar Geneive Abdo argues that all this will dilute Iran’s influence in Iraq while providing new opportunities for it to prosper. As she put it in 2022 (in an article entitled ‘Iraq Is Becoming a Surprising Success Story’):

In the long term, Biden’s efforts will bolster US leverage in Iraq and weaken Iran’s footprint in the country. Iraqis generally support an American presence in Iraq, as long as it’s not a military one. Iraqis often complain that the United States’ historic role in Iraq has focused solely on security issues. But my several visits to Iraq since 2016 show the younger generation, in particular, welcomes US investment in the economy and in education.

Even those most pessimistic about Iraq’s future, such as former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, who was instrumental in the United States’ decision to invade Iraq in 2003, agree that Iraq could become a stable, democratic state with increased American investment and decreased Iranian malevolence.

Was it worth it?

So, did it work, to echo the question Christopher Hitchens once so hopefully asked? Yes and no is the only correct answer.

The Iraq intervention was a bold reversal of US policy. Rather than cynically playing off Iraq and Iran against each other, using Saddam as a proxy, and promising to support the rebellious Kurds against Saddam and then abandoning them to genocide, George W. Bush, for all his many faults, took a revolutionary step. This was part of a broader reconception of US foreign policy away from realpolitik and towards upholding universal standards of human rights and democracy. This shift was and is an imperfect and incomplete and, in many ways, still a hypocritical one and, yes, there were crimes and failures galore, but this evolution deserves to be recognized and applauded.

ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions

Ben Sixsmith, How were we so wrong?

Contra Ben Sixsmith, Iraq is not just “a little segment of the Middle East.” It is an important regional power whose chances of freedom and prosperity and even stability are, I think, considerably higher than they were under Saddam Hussein. But more than this, and certainly more than any narrowly-defined national interests, the US owed a moral debt to Iraqis, particularly the Kurds (whose role in liberating Iraq should never be forgotten, even as they seek to break away from a post-Saddam Iraq which has frequently disappointed them). Overthrowing Saddam went some way to repaying that debt, even if the US has re-embraced its ancient and abominable tradition of betraying the Kurds—as when President Trump pulled US troops out of northern Syria in 2019, leaving the Kurds there wide open to a vicious Turkish assault.

The US and the international community should make amends for their post-invasion mistakes and misdeeds and must not abandon Iraq entirely. They should keep helping Iraq with investment and guidance as its people continue to struggle along the difficult path of democracy. To repeat: Iraqi democracy is very young and very flawed and its future is extremely uncertain (quite aside from internal political instability, the Islamic State is still active and seeking to restore its caliphate). But at least it has a future now—that, at its briefest, is the ultimate and still-enduring achievement of the US invasion.

And yet… There really is no getting away from all the haunting disaster and misery Sixsmith so piercingly enumerates. And perhaps my case relies too much on overconfident conjecture. Am I callously disregarding all the pain and suffering of Iraqis and Western soldiers? Could I really look an orphaned and limbless Iraqi child in the eye and piously intone to her that it was all worth it?  

In the face of such an image, I don’t think I can quite keep up my earlier certainty. So I have to end a little lamely and say that, yes, I think the invasion was, just, the right thing to do, despite everything. For all the chaos wrought by the intervention, I still doubt there were any better prospects for Iraq. If Saddam had been left in power, there would have been much more pain and suffering, I think. Whatever the case, one can only hope that Iraq’s future is brighter than everything that has befallen it so far.

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Daniel James Sharp

Daniel James Sharp is an independent writer and Deputy Editor of Areo Magazine. He is currently working on a book about Christopher Hitchens for Pitchstone Publishing. He lives in Fife, Scotland.