It’s just been the 20-year anniversary of one of the more formative-to-me and likely damaging-to-the-world political episodes I can remember from my youth: the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This was spearheaded by US president George Bush, with the UK’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair, often portrayed as Bush’s poodle (a take that I now know is unfair to actual poodles), joining in amongst others.
As the BBC summarises, it did not go well.
There’s no question that Saddam Hussein was appalling. Truly horrific. Famously, decades ago he’d even used chemical weapons to commit atrocities against his own citizens. There’s no serious doubt that his removal should in theory have been a very good thing. But as to who should remove him, how, for what reason and, all-importantly, what should happen afterwards are all issues where, let’s say, suboptimal decisions were taken.
The motivation given to us, citizens of “the coalition of the willing”, was something mainly along the lines of “Saddam Hussein is behind al-Qaeda’s acts of terrorism” and “he has illegal weapons of mass destruction that can be deployed in the next 45 minutes”. Those sentiments were widely contested at the time and sure enough turned out to be untrue.
The UN process was overlooked, to the extent that most likely the US-led invasion was illegal. It certainly caused tension with some NATO allies who declined to join in. There were huge protests against the invasion in the UK, but our government decided to go ahead anyway. Global institutions such as the UN were weakened, potentially leading to some of the poor responses the rest of the world has made to other such geopolitical crises since then.
Saddam was removed from power relatively quickly, but what transpired next was something like an insurgency against a US-ordained occupation. As time went on, a lack of effective government exacerbated the eruption of essentially a civil war between the main ethnic or religious groups in Iraq, with Jihadists groups joining in. The extraordinarily violent extremist group ISIS - the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” - thrived.
All in all, the abject failure of the approach that the US and its allies took left the world a worse and more dangerous place. The post-invasion conditions in Iraq itself got so bad that some Iraqi’s reportedly consider the days when they were under Saddam’s tyranny as better than what came next.
From the BBC article:
It is a sign of how bad the past 20 years have been that Saddam nostalgia is well established in Iraq, not just among his own Sunni community. People complain that at least you knew where you were with the old dictator. He was an equal opportunities killer of anyone he saw as an enemy, including his own son-in-law.
Of course all the people Saddam killed are unable to express an opinion. But neither are the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died as a result of the invasion, and potentially some of the uncountable number of people who would go on to be negatively affected as part of the downstream consequences.
Trying to quantify a small part of that also resulted in one of the most haunting and memorable graphs I can recall ever seeing; Simon Scarr’s “Iraq’s Bloody Toll”.