Fourteen years ago today, a U.S.-dominated coalition of forces began bombing Baghdad. The U.S. had demanded that Saddam Hussein leave Iraq within 48 hours. When he didn’t, coalition forces attempted to kill him and his sons in the first hour of their “shock and awe” bombing campaign, beginning the morning of March 19, 2003. George W. Bush went on television that evening to describe the purpose the war to follow: “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.”
The invasion of Iraq was the fulcrum on which much has shifted since. Vladimir Putin’s speech in February 2007 to the Munich Conference on Security Policy dissented sharply from Washington’s vision of a unipolar world and warned against further NATO expansion along Russia’s southern borders.
The “Arab Spring,” beginning in Tunisia in late 2010 (“gripped by the narrative of a young generation peacefully rising up against oppressive authoritarianism to secure a more democratic political system and a brighter economic future,” in one interpretation), swept through Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria with profoundly mixed results.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) found its footing in the villages and towns along upper Euphrates and Tigris rivers, accelerating the European refugee crisis and contributing to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. The fall of a friendly government in Kiev in 2013 led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and civil war in Ukraine. The financial crisis of 2008-09 proceeded separately, contributing greatly to the strain.
The disaster in Iraq is well understood. The best book I know on the war itself is Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq (Harvard, 2014), by Michael MacDonald. The broader context is well covered in America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House, 2016), by Andrew Bacevich. Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (Viking, 2004), by James Mann, traces its origins to the experience of America’s defeat in Vietnam.
Yet like a repressed bad dream, the decision to invade Iraq is routinely overlooked as a landmark event. George W. recanted only in joking. Solidarity with his brother helped cost Jeb Bush a primary campaign he was expected to win. Hillary Clinton’s slippery views on Iraq counted against her in the recent election and almost certainly cost her the 2008 Democratic nomination. And Donald Trump, skewered when he claimed he had opposed the war before it started, has scarcely mentioned it since.
As for the newspapers, the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal still thinks that the war was a great idea. The Washington Post has renounced its zest for the war only a little. Even The New York Times has trouble remembering the role its coverage played in fomenting the war. Economicprincipals.com, my Web site, still burns with shame.
The U.S. made various mistakes in the 1990s, when it stood alone as the as the world’s dominant power, but there is a sense in which invasion of Iraq was the 21st Century's original sin, costing credibility around the world – never mind the lives of 5,000 of its soldiers, those of at least half a million Iraqis, and some $3 trillion so far. Until the U.S. comes to terms with its miscalculation, it can expect to misunderstand and be misunderstood
The aftermath of the war is central to today’s controversy with Russia. And with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warning of a much harder line against North Korea, it could hardly be more relevant. Let March 19 become a national day of reflection.
David Warsh, a longtime columnist on economic, political and media affairs, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this first ran.