The publication of the Chilcot Inquiry’s report on Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq was the moment to ask Tony Blair and George W Bush, the instigators of the conflict: is this what you wanted?
Iraq, a decade and a half since the fighting ceased, remains mired in chaos and bloodshed. More than a quarter of a million Iraqis have been killed, and millions displaced. Instead of a despotic Sunni Muslim regime in Baghdad, there is a Shia government heavily under the influence of a newly assertive Iran. That has alarmed Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, from where money and arms have flowed to disempowered Sunni populations in both Iraq and Syria.
The result has been an upsurge in Islamist extremism, first under al-Qaeda in Iraq, and now in the form of Islamic State. Both movements oppressed Sunni Iraqis as much as aiding them, but the actions of Shia militias in newly conquered territory have consistently driven Sunnis back into the arms of the militants. And when Islamic State loses ground, it has shown that it can cause mass casualties with car bombs in the heart of Baghdad.
Some have claimed that without the overthrow of Saddam, there would have been no ‘Arab Spring’ – the series of uprisings against authoritarian rulers that began in Tunisia in December 2010 – but they cannot provide any evidence. What is far more obvious is that when the revolt began against the Assad regime in Syria, the instability in Iraq gave Islamic State a launching-point for its proclaimed ‘caliphate’, a magnet and an inspiration to Islamist extremists everywhere. The people of Nice, Paris and Brussels are among those to suffer from this most violent and nihilistic strain of militancy, while the tide of migrants created by the conflict has overwhelmed neighbouring states and caused disruption in Europe.
Nor should the impact of the invasion on the region to the east of Iraq be forgotten. Unlike that war, the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks had international support, but almost immediately the neo-conservatives around President Bush began to turn their attention to Iraq. They had already allowed the Taliban’s guest, Osama bin Laden, to slip through their fingers; now they starved the new Afghan government, confronted by a Pakistani establishment which founded and nurtured the Taliban, of the support it needed.
The result was a Taliban resurgence which has not been contained to this day, and a Pakistan rendered dangerously unstable by the ‘blowback’ of militancy on its own territory. And Iran has expanded its influence eastwards as well as westwards, into the neighbouring provinces of Afghanistan.
Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, played the hand he was dealt with some skill, although announcing a fixed deadline for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan was a mistake from which he was forced to retreat. Ignoring opposition from Israel and its supporters in Washington, he patiently negotiated with Iran to halt its progress towards nuclear weapons, reducing the danger of Saudi Arabia and others attempting to follow suit. (Despite constant threats, Donald Trump has not yet ditched the agreement with Iran or pulled US forces out of Afghanistan.)
Obama struck down Bin Laden on Pakistan’s soil and, in forging close ties with India, demonstrated to Islamabad and Rawalpindi the penalties for bad faith. But one legacy of the Bush-Blair years was the rise of Islamic State, forcing the US to send troops back to Iraq, albeit mainly in support and training roles rather than taking part in combat.
The Iraq adventure defied and undermined the United Nations and international law, and convinced a generation of unemployed and angry young Muslim men that the West was their enemy. The false claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, based on ludicrously thin and manipulated intelligence, eroded trust in America and Britain across the world, as well as contributing to the suspicion and contempt with which politicians in both countries are regarded by large proportions of their own voters.
Above all, Iraq punctured the neo-conservative myth that America would be the world’s lone superpower, able to impose its will wherever it chose, with democracy the magic result. As the conflict in Syria has shown, Russia is the only power with any appetite to intervene, while to the east, China is flexing its muscles. Far from showing the strength of America and its allies, the aftermath of the war in Iraq has diminished it, and emboldened challengers to that strength.