“The idea that over 100,000 forces would invade another country since World War II, nothing like that has happened,” said US president Joe Biden last month, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Twenty years after the United States sent hundreds of thousands of troops to launch a full-scale, unwarranted invasion of Iraq, Biden’s assertion suggests that the United States has erased the unwanted memories of the war. Biden’s failure to see the hypocrisy in his statement is a testament to the enduring dominance of American exceptionalism: the belief that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations and has a unique mandate to dominate and impose its values across the world. It holds that America is synonymous with freedom, and that the liberal world order is structured around its hegemony.
Today the nature and scale of US military engagements across the globe has certainly changed since it first invaded Iraq, but the underpinning ideology that the United States is not bound by the same rules that govern others remains fundamentally unchallenged.
Every anniversary regurgitates “fresh” articles reflecting on tactical and operational mistakes. The recurring question is whether Iraq is better off today because of American intervention. Those defending the war may point out that many more Iraqis now have a cell phone plan, and that life expectancy increased from sixty-seven in 2001 to seventy-two today, conveniently omitting that this increase still lags behind the global average increase. Self-justificatory pieces, like one by former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, often argue that the United States saved Iraq from a Syria-style civil war by establishing some form of democratic governance. “They [Iraqis] gained a chance,” Frum writes.
It would be hard to overstate the devastation wrought by the Iraq War. Brown University’s Cost of War project estimates that roughly three hundred thousand innocent Iraqi civilians were killed as a result of direct fighting. Millions more died indirectly from its consequences, such as malnutrition, disease, and poverty. More than nine million were displaced from their homes. Today much of the political instability, corruption, and sectarian violence in Iraq can be traced back to the devastation of the war. Domestically, the invasion of Iraq cost US taxpayers $2.4 trillion and fueled the military-industrial complex. Regionally, it birthed an Islamist insurgency that would become the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), destabilizing the region from Syria to Yemen and Libya.
Despite this, the invasion of Iraq continues to be held in American consciousness and the mainstream political establishment as a mistake, yes, but one that had good intentions and that was based on sound logic — namely, that Saddam Hussein represented a threat to the US-led world order and needed to be removed. Despite a track record of disastrous wars and interventions like Vietnam, Libya, and Afghanistan, Iraq is seen as an aberration in American foreign policy rather than a symptom of American hubris.
Iraq bore no responsibility for or links to those responsible for 9/11, but then president George W. Bush and vice president Dick Cheney began arranging plans for its invasion just days after the planes struck. Not a single hijacker was Iraqi, and claims that Iraq had links to al-Qaeda were shaky at best. But that didn’t matter. In the aftermath of the attacks, America needed to reassert its hegemony. Saddam’s Iraq provided the perfect opportunity for it to showcase what would happen to those that threatened its power, and the disposability of the lives that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
With the help of mainstream media, the Bush administration spun a narrative of Iraqi WMDs. They found the few Iraqis, most who had been living in exile, who would support their war and cherry-picked evidence to support their claims. In the two years after 9/11, Bush and top officials in his administration repeated lies about the threat Iraq posed to the US public nearly a thousand times. Mainstream media largely failed to challenge these claims, silencing any dissenting voices. In the two weeks before and after Colin Powell’s United Nations speech, just 17 percent of commentators on major networks expressed skepticism at the war. These efforts to shape public opinion worked: by September 2003, seven in ten Americans believed that Saddam was in some way responsible for 9/11.
Officials and media would later claim that they were misled, that the intelligence was faulty, and that they did the best they could with the evidence they had at the time. But even in 2003, at the height of the propaganda campaign, not everyone believed the official narrative. In the lead-up to the war, an estimated 36 million people across the world took to the streets to oppose the invasion in what is now considered the world’s biggest coordinated protest. These protesters did not take to the street that day just because they did not believe the claim of WMDs, but because they fundamentally rejected the notion that the United States had any moral justification to launch a war. They rejected the role America had designated itself as the global police and defender of the liberal world order.
From Boots on the Ground to Drones in the Sky
President Obama presented a flickering hope of confronting American exceptionalism and the hold it had on the political establishment. In a speech he gave on the campaign trail in 2008 in which he discussed the failures of the war in Iraq, he told voters, “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.” He used the failures of Iraq and his opposition to it as a major talking point of his campaign to set himself apart from Hillary Clinton and John McCain, both of whom were outspoken supporters of the invasion. He preached the need for diplomacy and international cooperation over military engagement.
But this promise proved to be short-lived. By the time Obama took office, Americans no longer supported the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, and it became increasingly clear that the United States’ traditional approach to warfare was not only ineffective against insurgents, but would not sell. So, Obama morphed the “war on terror” into a covert one, trading nation-building and democratization for counterterrorism and replacing boots on the ground with drones in the sky.
Obama vastly and dangerously expanded the US’s drone program, making them his weapon of choice. In his time in office, Obama authorized 1,878 strikes, including 563 in nonactive conflict zones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. But his real legacy in the war on terror is how he legitimized drones as the legal and moral choice.
“By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life,” Obama asserted during a speech defending the use of drones in May 2013.
But reality proved otherwise. Under Obama, the definition of a combatant was expanded to include all “military-aged males‘,” allowing the CIA to classify many innocent civilians as terrorists simply because of their age and gender, masking the actual civilian death toll. Obama also dramatically expanded the use of “signature strikes,” where the identity of a target is not known and based simply on behavior. Double-tap strikes, firing two strikes consecutively to target those first on the scene, also became a feature of Obama’s drone program.
By the end of his presidency, Obama had implemented a set of practices and norms that sanctioned a system of extrajudicial killings with very little oversight or transparency. Like his predecessor, Obama took for granted that the United States had the legal right and moral duty to bomb targets that it perceived as threats to its interpretation of global order.
When Donald Trump took office, preaching the need for “America First”, he revoked what limited oversight existed under Obama and ended the requirement to report on casualties. He continued to ramp up extrajudicial killings unchecked. In his first ten days in office, President Trump authorized three drone strikes and a US military raid in Yemen, reportedly killing up to thirty civilians. In just two years, Trump authorized 2,243 strikes.
Biden’s presidency has so far marked a significant decrease in drone strikes. The disastrous withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Taliban’s swift return to power despite two decades of American fighting has defined Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has certainly diverted attention away from the war on terror.
“I stand here today, for the first time in twenty years, with the United States not at war,” said Biden speaking at the UN in September 2021. “We’ve turned the page.”
It was a brazen and misleading statement. In fact, the war on terror has never been declared to be over. The legislation that the United States has relied on to conduct its military operations for the past twenty years, particularly the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Act, is still in place. Today America has more than 750 military bases spread across 80 countries with more than 40,000 troops in the Middle East, including 2,500 in Iraq. The drone program continues. And President Biden just requested a record-breaking defense budget of $886 billion.
International Law in Ruins
On September 20, 2001, nine days after the terrorist attacks on US soil, George W. Bush announced the start of the “global war on terror.” He told Americans: “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” He issued the United States a blank check for a war not bound by temporal or geographical boundaries, and a mandate to attack anyone anywhere deemed a threat.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the US invoked its right to self-defense, enshrined by international law. But as the years passed, the right to self-defense from an imminent attack became harder to claim. Instead, America has shifted to a policy of preemptive and preventive self-defense to defend itself against threats that have not yet materialized, a practice that violates international law.
The war on terror’s impact on the principle of sovereignty and legitimacy of the international order and are most evident today in Ukraine. In this case, Russia also justified its unilateral invasion with a weak claim to preventive self-defense against growing NATO influence. Today, as the world watches another illegal occupation go unchecked, the United States is repeating the mistakes of Iraq in its response to the Ukraine war. The reductive narrative of “good versus evil” is repeated over and over, while dissenting voices are silenced. International law has become an empty slogan.
Today, when the US and its allies condemn Putin’s actions, the rest of the world’s memories of Iraq diminish any principled stance they may claim to have. Major allies of the United States, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and India, have refused to join the Western sanctions bloc. Across Africa and Asia, from South Africa to Indonesia, Uganda to Pakistan, politicians and leaders have called out America’s selective concern for human rights and international law. Even Bush himself, when he accidentally called his Iraq War “wholly unjustified” instead of the invasion of Ukraine, can’t hide the hypocrisy.
Perhaps what is most detrimental to the authority of international law is the complete lack of accountability that the United States has faced for the invasion of Iraq and larger war on terror. It refuses to subject itself to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or abide by any international systems of law. No formal apology has ever been issued. The architects of the war have never been tried, and many of those responsible for carrying out war crimes have evaded justice. There has been no meaningful conversation about reparations for the Iraqi people or the nearly one million victims of the war on terror, from Fallujah to Guantanamo Bay.
The United States is not exceptional in its violation of international law, or even in lying about it. In fact, this is one of the most constant realities of the international world order. But what is exceptional is the underpinning belief in its own moral superiority, and the double standards it allows itself as the defender of freedom and democracy while simultaneously acting as the world’s main aggressor, with a global empire that answers to no one.
For now, the US continues to behave as the judge, jury, and executioner of world order. Until the ideology of American exceptionalism is reckoned with, the true lessons of the Iraq War will remain unlearned.