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Lessons of the Iraq War

Mar 26 , 2013
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Early on the morning of Thursday, March 20, 2003, the United States launched bombs at targets in Iraq – commencing the Iraq War. Since then, it has been a decade and the conflict in Iraq has offered important empirical evidence for studies of international relations in the early 21st century. What lessons should be drawn when we reflect over the war ten years later? Tao Wenzhao finds the three following points worth considering.

First, no matter how strong a country is, unilateralism leads nowhere in international relations. Since the Cold War has ended, the US and Western nations were elated to celebrate their victory. In the eyes of many, the fall of the Berlin Wall and disintegration of the Soviet Union marked the end of not only the Cold War, but also mankind’s ideological evolution: Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government was to be universalized; Western political system, ideology and economic system won a complete victory; and other opposite ideologies were defeated. Since there was only one superpower, the international community was a unipolar world and the US enjoyed exceptional power, status and prestige.

At the conclusion of President Clinton’s second term in office, American power was at another historical high. The United States led the whole world in a new economy driven by the IT sector with US GDP again accounting for 30% of the global total, the highest level since the 1960s, and the federal budget surplus reached a record high of $250 billion. When Osama bin Laden waged the 9/11 terrorist attacks the whole country mobilized, with partisan differences disappearing and patriotism running high. President George W. Bush immediately declared that the US was in a global war on terror. Besides homeland defense, the Bush Administration launched a war in Afghanistan. To maintain absolute military superiority in the world, a new foreign policy agenda, called the Bush Doctrine, was articulated, which included pre-emptive strikes, unilateralism and regime change.

In 1991, the US easily won the Gulf War, but Saddam Hussein had not been subdued and was still challenging the United States. How could the Bush Administration tolerate that? With tangible strength and supportive public opinion, there was no worry that a war couldn’t be won. Disregarding extensive opposition in the international community, the Bush Administration waged war and took Iraq in less than a month and a half. Then, the US was really sucked into a mire of a war.

Shortly after taking office, newly confirmed US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a brief statement at the end of February, “We can’t dictate to the world, But we must engage in the world … No nation, as great as America is, can do any of this alone. … That engagement in the world should be done wisely.” It seems he has learned some lesson.

Second, no matter how strong a country is, it must be extremely cautious to use military force in external relations. After the Gulf War, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell outlined his vision for a series of conditions allowing military actions abroad, more commonly known as the Powell Doctrine, which conservative Republicans did not support. In their view, since the US had the means, it may be used to achieve US ends.

When the Iraq War was launched, the annual military budget of the US was $400 billion whereas Iraq’s was only $4 billion. Moreover, Iraq had been under UN sanctions since the Gulf War and had no way to renew its military equipment. So from a pure military perspective, Iraq was no match for the US. Nonetheless, the use of military force in international relations, in particular the overthrow of a regime by way of massive ground invasion such as the Iraq War, involves far more factors than pure military force alone.

Besides direct casualties, the war also had a high economic price. For the US, it was the first war fought with borrowed money and contributed to a much higher federal debt, which was recognized by the Obama Administration to a certain extent. In his second inaugural address, President Obama vowed that the United States “will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully … because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.” It seems that Obama definitely does not want to borrow money for another war in the Middle East.

Third, ideology must not be allowed to dominate a country’s foreign policy. Neo-conservatives overstress the ideological factor in foreign policy to the extreme. A main purpose of neo-conservatives’ support to fight the Iraq War was to create an example of democratization, to be followed throughout Middle East. In their view, success of democracy in Iraq would declare to those from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be achieved in all countries, and a free Iraq in the centre of Middle East would be a watershed for democratic revolutions in the whole world.

The Bush Administration even had a grand plan to promote Western democracy in 22 Arab countries throughout the greater Middle East. Yet American-style democracy had difficulty adapting to Iraqi conditions. As a matter of fact, there is no uniform model of democracy. Democracy should grow naturally out of history, culture and society, rather than being transplanted from outside. It must suit the stage of development and involve an ongoing process of development and improvement. The US policy went to the opposite of its desire, fuelling extensive anti-American sentiment across the Islamic world.

Lessons of the Iraq War can in no way be fully detailed in this short piece. Compared with the time when the Bush Administration waged war in Iraq, the Obama Administration is now in a different situation. Yet, it remains prudent for the US to draw necessary lessons from the war.

Tao Wenzhao, Researcher, Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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