What lay behind the United States’ decision to invade Iraq 20 years ago?
On March 20, 2003, an American-led coalition invaded Iraq with the stated purpose of disarming the country of weapons of mass destruction and installing a democratic government.
The American administration claimed – later proven incorrect – that Iraq had not disposed of its weapons of mass destruction and that there was a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. According to Washington, there was a looming risk that Baghdad would supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. At the time, the Iraqi regime had still not complied with the United Nations’ disarmament requirements. The Bush administration justified its attack by stating that Iraq had not fully disarmed according to previous resolutions. Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz later commented, “For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”
The American decision to attack Iraq without UN approval should be seen in the context of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Within the Bush administration, there was a pronounced fear of being subjected to another terrorist attack, this time with weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. To defend the nation, it was reasoned that preemptive action was necessary – to strike the terrorists before they struck America.
Additionally, there were so-called neoconservatives within the administration who had long advocated for an invasion that would benefit American interests. With a more U.S.-friendly government in Baghdad, American troops could leave Saudi Arabia in favor of Iraq. Since the first Gulf War, the Saudi royal family had become vulnerable to criticism from Al-Qaeda due to the American military presence in the country. A more democratic Baghdad would also secure Israel from Iraqi attacks while presenting Iraq as a democratic role model among the authoritarian regimes around the Persian Gulf. An American military intervention would also demonstrate the consequences of not following the United States’ call for disarmament to other countries with ambitions to develop weapons of mass destruction, especially Iran.
According to the Bush administration, Iraq’s failure to comply with UN requirements meant that a new mandate from the UN Security Council was not needed to initiate a new armed attack. However, the U.S. tried until the last moment to push through a resolution supporting the use of force but abandoned the plans after France threatened to use its veto.
After the U.S. military relatively easily defeated the Iraqi forces, a prolonged period of political chaos with violent conflicts between Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups ensued. The military leadership in Washington had hoped for the best, that Iraqis would welcome the occupying power, without planning for the worst, an internal war.
It soon became clear that the U.S. and its allies launched the operation in Iraq with too few soldiers to stabilize the country. The occupation forces amounted to about 150,000 personnel, but according to many analysts, it would have required close to half a million to effectively govern the country during a transitional phase.
The U.S.-led occupation authority’s decision to disqualify former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from further service in the state further complicated the prospects of governance because it limited access to experienced personnel with administrative competence. Additionally, the U.S. decided to dissolve the Iraqi army, resulting in several hundred thousand disillusioned Iraqi men with access to Kalashnikovs becoming unemployed. Some of them later became prominent figures within the terrorist network ISIS.
An American overconfidence in being hailed as liberators and the difficulties in gaining support for an attack while also pointing out the significant challenges of acting as an occupying power likely contributed to the inadequate planning following the fall of the Iraqi regime. These mistakes continue to affect the Iraqi population even 20 years later.