Twenty Years Ago, the Iraq War Changed Everything — and Taught Elites Nothing

The ripple effects of the disastrous Iraq invasion still course through the Middle East and domestic US politics decades later. Yet there’s little evidence those in power have learned anything from it.

President George W. Bush with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after a meeting about the Iraq War in the White House in Washington, DC, January 5, 2006. (Brooks Kraft LLC / Corbis via Getty Images)

The first thing to remember about the Iraq War is that it was only meant to be the beginning.

You don’t have to take the word of former general Wesley Clark, a man who once nearly started World War III, and his claim that there existed a secret memo outlining plans for war on “seven countries in five years,” starting with Iraq and ending with Iran. The Bush administration’s own behavior, rhetoric, and later admissions made it abundantly clear that this was the idea.

Of course, George W. Bush’s invasion fell to shambles so quickly that he never had the chance to put this plan into action. Rather than being the starting gun for a series of US wars in the Middle East, the attack on Iraq instead became merely the signature disaster of the Bush presidency and — at least until recently — the entire twenty-first century, a Vietnam-like black hole insatiably pulling human lives, neighboring countries, and trillions of dollars into its death vortex.

For Iraqis, the war was a cruel and lasting generational cataclysm that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, with parts of the country toxic to their inhabitants years after the war was nominally over thanks to US use of depleted uranium. The considerable US costs — including more than four thousand dead soldiers and nearly $3 trillion set aflame — pale in comparison. Yet even so, this week has been replete with US retrospectives on the war and what it means. Why, twenty years on, does the Iraq War still hold the place it does in our consciousness?

After all, the US invasion of Afghanistan — the other Vietnam-esque quagmire Bush dragged the country into, in this era of supersize wars — lasted far longer. And Iraq was by no means the last US-led regime-change war, with Obama condemning Libya to still-ongoing bedlam with his 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. What Bush and his underlings did in Iraq is hardly unique in the scope of US history, let alone just this century.

And yet there is something distinct about Iraq.

Lemons to Lemonade

Maybe it’s the extraordinary cynicism of the administration’s push for war, which involved not just “co-opting” global sympathy for the United States, as UK prime minister Tony Blair urged Bush to do the day after September 11, but manipulating ordinary Americans’ pain and anger over the attacks to create the consensus for an entirely unrelated war neocons had long slavered over.

Bush’s former counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke and others memorably alleged that the then president almost immediately demanded aides find some connection to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the attacks. Plenty of documents — like a top secret directive Bush signed six days later ordering the Pentagon to start war planning for Iraq — made it just as clear that he was determined from the start to take out Hussein no matter what.

Likewise, it took only hours after the 9/11 attacks for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to ask the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others if there was information “good enough [to] hit” Hussein at the same time as Osama bin Laden, and to order the Pentagon’s top lawyer to get “additional support” for the “connection w/ UBL [Osama bin Laden].” Two whole months before September 11, Rumsfeld had produced a memo suggesting a “more robust policy” against Hussein on the basis of “the danger of an increasingly bold and nuclear-armed Saddam in the near-future,” and claiming that his ouster would create “a much-improved position in the region” for the United States and “enhance US credibility and influence.”

Thanks to the slew of paperwork unlocked by the UK’s Iraq Inquiry, we can today read almost in real time as US and British officials schemed over a “clever strategy” for how to most effectively sell and justify an attack on Iraq to a largely reluctant world. Sending weapons inspectors into Iraq, they made clear, was merely a tool in this campaign. As Secretary of State Colin Powell explained to UK prime minister Tony Blair, the “over-riding objective is the removal of Saddam,” and if the dictator avoided the trap by allowing inspectors in, they would simply “find a new demand to justify military action.”

Misinformation From the Mainstream

All of this was bad enough. But as Powell’s words suggest, the administration’s determination to drag the country into war also involved a breathtaking and ferocious campaign of fearmongering, omissions, half-truths, and outright lies, all propagated at the highest levels.

Bush officials were ubiquitous on TV making the case for war, sometimes citing the very same dubious information they’d anonymously fed to the press as independent confirmation of the claims they were making. Internal dissent was ruthlessly ignored and suppressed, as when undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame was publicly outed to get back at her husband for disputing officials’ lies. Powell himself drew on the considerable esteem in which US liberals and foreign publics held him to make a pivotal pro-war case at the United Nations that he privately derided as “bullshit.”

We’ve arguably never seen this level of misinformation campaign in US politics, before or since. So relentless was the administration’s campaign of deceit that on the eve of the war, nearly two-thirds of the US public thought Hussein had played a role in the September 11 attacks, and upward of 90 percent believed that he had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) or was developing them. The Trump administration’s comparatively lackluster and unsuccessful attempts to create a groundswell of support for regime change in countries like Cuba and Venezuela are a testament to how sophisticated this operation was.

None of it could have succeeded without the mainstream press. Long before the words “social” and “media” became a single noun, this avalanche of powerfully effective fake news emanated from the most establishment of establishment news outlets and no small number of liberal columnists, to the point that you can literally count the number of journalists who questioned the administration’s case on one hand. It took only two days after the 9/11 attacks for a reporter to bring up the nonexistent links between Hussein and bin Laden to Powell, and for the Wall Street Journal to cite “experts” that Iraq was “most likely to have helped” bin Laden. An exhaustive analysis of two weeks of coverage in the lead-up to the war by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that 222 of the 297 current and retired officials that networks overwhelmingly relied on as guests were associated with governments backing the war, and that a mere four were critical of the invasion.

This all came with a stifling and aggressively censorious pro-war climate that makes the last few years’ worth of complaints about cancel culture look quaint. What little dissent from the official line existed was swiftly stamped out, with reporters and media personalities losing their jobs or outright ordered not to be critical of the war effort, while those with even an inkling of questioning the administration were scurrilously labeled as anti-American or pro-Hussein. Antiwar protesters were derided or cast as suspect. Even voices on the Left weren’t immune to this jingoistic fervor.

The media’s conduct didn’t get much better once the war began. The Iraq War continued, if not perfected, the art of “embedded journalism,” sidestepping the grave error officials had made in Vietnam, when they’d allowed reporters the leeway to honestly and independently tell the public what was happening on the battlefield.

Cable networks covered the campaign less like the brutal assault it was and more like the Super Bowl. In one infamous incident shortly after the invasion, CNN and other networks broadcast footage every four to seven minutes of a throng of Iraqis cheering as they toppled a statue of Hussein. The reality was that the square was nearly empty, that the small crowd was largely reporters and US marines, and that the Iraqi who sledgehammered the statue later regretted it, having become a refugee in the post-invasion chaos and now fantasizing about killing Bush and Blair with his bare hands.

No matter. Media coverage of the war soon dropped off, and the US public was led to believe the war was won and done, a belief soon tested by the outbreak of civil war in Iraq, the steady stream of body bags coming home from Iraq, and the failure of any WMDs to materialize.

It’s no coincidence that Americans’ trust in the media dipped in 2004, as the mission in Iraq started to look more and more distinctly unaccomplished. That trust has only deteriorated ever since. The press has never really recovered, a state of affairs helped along by a widespread refusal to self-reflect on this failure, much less accept responsibility for it. The years since have instead set off a desperate search for scapegoats, be it Donald Trump or social media.

A Spreading Cancer

But as the war’s fallout stretched far into this century, collapsing faith in the press would prove to be only one facet of its political cost. A slow-twisting dagger in the side of the Bush presidency for the rest of his two terms, the war would go on to both make and break politicians, helping account for the rise of Barack Obama (and, stunningly, Donald Trump), and contributing to the shocking defeats of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, it’s hard to find a young leftist today in the United States (and beyond) for whom the invasion wasn’t one of their formative, radicalizing experiences.

The unambiguous catastrophe that the war became set off a genuine shift in US public opinion more generally, as Washington politicians succeeded in somehow getting more Americans killed than had died in the terrorist attack that was supposed to have justified the war. Public sentiment soon lurched away from the hawkish view that had prevailed since the Reagan era, and toward less military adventurism, more restraint, and an emphasis on securing prosperity at home. Even if US elites today remain slow to catch up to the rest of the country, this public shift has inflicted real political costs on those running against it, enough that the war’s architects are still whining today that the resulting “Iraq syndrome” has stopped them from getting all the wars they’ve wanted in the intervening years.

Beyond domestic politics, the reputational damage the war inflicted on the United States globally was immense. Washington had been enjoying the “unipolar moment” for barely more than a decade when Bush invaded Iraq, triggering unprecedented global opposition, while running roughshod over international law, multilateralism, and the “norms” in which US officials now unconvincingly drape themselves.

If the United States was the undisputed global power, it had suddenly revealed itself as a profoundly erratic, irresponsible, and dangerous one. Iraq to this day remains a sticking point for a Global South unwilling to align with the United States over the invasion of Ukraine, and is no minor cause of the United States’ potential displacement in the region by what US officials see as their leading rival, China.

Geopolitical blowback for US elites continued in the form of strengthening Washington’s other major adversary in the region, Iran — which used the ensuing power vacuum to boost its influence in Iraq, whose Shia majority was no longer held down by the dictatorial, Sunni hand of Hussein. When Trump very nearly started a war with Iran by assassinating Qassem Soleimani in 2020, it was as the powerful Iranian general was heading to Baghdad, a common practice for the man who used the Bush-created void in Iraq to extend his government’s military and political sway inside of Iran’s former foe. Even on the foreign policy establishment’s own narrow, power-seeking terms, in other words, the invasion was one big case of Washington elites shooting themselves in the foot.

The chaos that defined Iraq only metastasized in the years that followed, in large part due to the administration’s arrogance and laziness. Not caring to properly understand the country it was occupying, the Bush administration blundered forward against official advice with its policy of “de-Ba’athification” and disbanding of the Iraqi military. This contributed to the creation of an army of bitter Iraqis who wound up helping to form ISIS — which cut a swath of terror and death across not just Iraq but also Syria, and which necessitated yet more US troop deployments, foreign occupations, and endless wars in the region that persist today.

Sold as an action to fight terrorism, the invasion of Iraq was instead terrorism’s greatest gift. Meanwhile, twenty years later, US soldiers are still in Iraq, more than a decade after the official withdrawal.

Miles to Go

It’s still an open question how much elites have really learned from Iraq, and how much has really changed.

No subsequent administration has had the appetite for more ground invasions that cost US lives and money, including Trump’s administration, which preferred to try regime change in countries like Venezuela using economic warfare and local proxies. But as Trump’s four years showed, whether in Venezuela or Cuba, regime change and military adventurism are still at the top of the menu for US foreign policy.

Leaders continue to try their hand at Bush’s folly, even as Iraq should’ve beaten into the heads of everyone alive that the ability to militarily subdue a country isn’t the same as winning a war, and how quickly and easily things spiral out of one’s control when a leader is violently toppled. Obama blasted Bush while repeating his policy in Libya with similarly horrendous results and intensifying similar efforts in Syria. Commentators and officials today talk with breathtaking glibness about regime change as a solution to Russian aggression. And of course, it’s not just US leaders: Russian president Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine has followed Bush’s playbook almost to a T, from faulty intelligence and expectations of being greeted as a liberator to poor war planning and empowering local extremists.

The architects and major backers of the war, meanwhile, have suffered no consequences, moving on to plum positions in US intellectual circles and policy making. Bush is now a beloved elder statesman who has dipped his toe back into politics. John Bolton is now running for the GOP nomination after a stint as national security advisor to another Republican president. Propagandists for the war — whether David Frum, Nicole Wallace, or Ari Fleischer — populate the nation’s media platforms. Some, like Bill Kristol, who led the call to Bush to invade “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [September 11] attack,” are now influential in liberal circles. Dick Cheney’s advisor as he engineered the war is now a top state department official shaping US involvement in the Ukraine war. The leading Democratic architect of the invasion is the president.

Maybe Iraq’s lasting legacy is the psychic break it triggered for Americans at the height of post–Cold War supremacy — a violent, ongoing reminder that those who rise to the top of US media and political institutions may not in fact be all that bright, or all that good, fueling the signature cynicism and rage of the era we’re living through. As for the lessons it holds about the limits of US military power and the perils of seeking hegemony at all costs, it looks like those are yet to be learned. But it’s not too late.