It is now 15 years since the Iraq invasion. It marked the start of it all in the country, of almost everything in the region and of much of what we see in the international order. The demolition of the Twin Towers and the subsequent US-led operations in the Middle East put an end to the 90s melancholic unipolar illusion and the delusion of security and prosperity that came with its famous “end of history”.
The fiery speech is still reverberating: “Major military operations in Iraq have ended”. On 2nd May 2003, from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln while sailing the Pacific, George W. Bush announced with this message the end of combat operations in Iraq. Addressing his soldiers, Bush highlighted: “Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free”. It is hard to look back without being aghast at such a huge frivolity. The Commander in Chief made this statement under a big banner telling the world “Mission Accomplished”, while the drums of war had only just begun to play their funeral march.
At the global level, the invasion of Iraq is the zero mile marker for the damages committed – some possibly irreversibly – on the international liberal order, which have exacerbated over the last years. The Kantian utopia of cosmopolitan peace based on rules, dialogue and cooperation, which had reflected in the slow structuring of multilateral bodies after 1945, is experiencing an unprecedented setback. In this sense, its current threats must be understood as intensified replicas of that episode: from military unilateralism to trade unilateralism.
Let’s recapitulate. The poor digestion of a terrorist attack that dismayed the world eventually kicked off the prefabricated plans that the neoconservatives, already settled in Washington, had for the region. These ideas had been slowly simmered by the think tank Project for the New American Century (dissolved in 2006) and had already put the spotlight on Iraq. The 11-S was seen by many of its lead actors as the opportunity to implement this magnificent project and update the democracy promotion agenda – established in the Bush Doctrine of 2002 –in terms of clash of civilizations. This was a war of almost biblical proportions in which the Arab-Muslim world, with the Middle East at the lead, was regarded as a dysfunctional conglomerate, an endemic focal point of terrorism governed by fanaticism, oppression and economic backwardness, for which the inexorable solution was to hammer the door open to democracy and modernity.
Iraq became the first move of a fanciful plan of social engineering which would end up reshaping the region; a plan which was, besides, deployed without the agreement of the international community. The outcome today is very well-known: the greatest failure in the history of U.S. foreign policy and the subsequent loss of image, prestige and influence. The consequences of this huge miscalculation have been 4,500 military casualties, more than 30,000 wounded and costs higher than 2 trillion dollars. But the list doesn’t end here: in hindsight, the plans to build a new American century only ended up accelerating the arrival of the emerging multipolar world.
Likewise, the “Make America great again” rhetoric is reinforcing the Asian ascent, in such a way that only a real strategy of coupling and honest resizing will maximize the Western forces in a 21st century in the making. We have already seen the limits of post-Westphalian idealism.
Division in Europe, chaos in the Middle East
At the European level, the invasion of Iraq led to the first great divide within the European Union. Since then, cracks have occurred one after the other: between the new and the old Europe, between creditors and debtors, or between the East and the West of the continent. The photo in the Azores marked the prelude to the serious internal cohesion problems that the process of European integration has experienced over the last decade. It was also symptomatic of Britain’s gradual distancing from the continent; this time at the hands of a theoretically pro-European premier.
Europe’s structural weaknesses regarding foreign and defence policy had been uncovered in several occasions, but Iraq revealed them most harshly. It is to be appreciated that the Union is now truly better equipped in this regard and that this is one of the areas where it is planning to deploy its coordination efforts in the coming years. We currently have a solid European diplomacy and the enhanced cooperation in defence policy has just started a promising journey.
At the regional level, the Iraq invasion led to an unfinished reshaping of forces in the Middle East and let the genie of political and religious sectarianism out of the bottle. An unbridled genie that has visited Syria, Yemen and Libya and is scarring for ever regional relations. Why was Iraq so relevant? Because further to the invasion and the imposition of the demographic majority rule for power-sharing, Baghdad entered Tehran’s orbit: the fall of the Sunni Saddam Hussein resulted in a Shiite government.
In this way, the strained Iranian-Saudi relations lost an important regional shock absorber. The ayatollahs understood from the very beginning – paradoxes of history – that the American military actions were offering them an unexpected opportunity to strengthen their political and religious influence; while the obstinate obsession with Persian power grew in the House of Saud. This rivalry largely explains the countless and destructive conflicts that have inhabited the region and have been compared to the Thirty Years' War. It is a difficult enclave already riddled by itself with poorly designed borders, satraps, vast natural resources and strong economic interests.
However, it is the Iraqi people who have undoubtedly had the worst of the Iraq invasion. The management of the first short-lived military victory came with a frenzied destruction of any hint of the Baa’th party in society and the subsequent destruction of the Iraqi State itself, a strategy that plunged the country into chaos. This formed a true Hobbesian state of nature: wars, forced displacements, sectarian governments, tribalism and a chain of mutual hatred which were the breeding ground for one of the scariest extremisms, the Islamic State (IS).
A new EU strategy for Iraq
After overcoming strong internal discords regarding the military deployment in the country, for years now, the EU has been jointly cooperating in the field of humanitarian aid, stabilisation, security and the political reform agenda in Iraq. In response to the challenges faced following the territorial defeat of Da’esh, including humanitarian, stabilisation, early recovery, reform and reconciliation needs, the EU adopted on 22nd January 2018 a new strategy for Iraq, with the aim of deploying all the tools of the soft power that the old continent has over the field.
Iraq has been enduring decades of violence and armed conflict, but the successful campaign to territorially defeat Da’esh could be the trigger for a peaceful future in the country. Given the current crossroads Iraq is standing at, the EU is ready to build a post-Da’esh future focusing on the need for inclusive governance and the resulting social cohesion. In this context, the Union has increased its diplomatic outreach and mobilized further funds as part of the strategy. And in so doing, it is also seeking maximum coordination between the EU institutions and the Member States’ interventions.
On the 15th anniversary of the invasion, and following the territorial defeat of Da’esh, the EU launches a new strategy for the country
The new EU strategy for Iraq identifies the following challenges for the country, stressing their regional context. Firstly, challenges on humanitarian, local governance and stabilisation issues. It must be recalled that the Iraqis are facing massive and urgent humanitarian needs after years of conflict, human rights violations, persecutions of minorities and crimes against humanity. The consequences are widely known: 3 million Iraqis being internally displaced and a country suffering from a systematic destruction of civil infrastructures.
Secondly, the threats in terms of security. The mixture between official military forces and civilian ones, and their severe fragmentation, calls for an effective and comprehensive security sector reform if effective control over the territory is to be consolidated and the legitimacy of State structures regained. Thirdly, the struggle between ethno-sectarian monolithic blocks places political reforms and national reconciliation at the heart of the institutional action: political inclusiveness, respect for minorities and the fight against corruption are key elements that must accompany this national reconciliation strategy.
Fourthly, we get to the economic and financial challenges. The persistent macroeconomic vulnerabilities must be tackled through a fiscal and monetary framework that brings stability to the country. Finally, in the field of migration, Iraq faces the paradox of being both recipient and sender of refugees, as a result of its complex neighbourhood. The management and digestion of these migration flows will be another big area of work.
Along with the challenges, the strategy sets the objectives around which the EU action should revolve: the preservation of Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the establishment of a system of government which is balanced, accountable and democratic, while also strengthening the national identity and reconciliation, as well as the promotion of sustainable and inclusive economic growth.
Lastly, it clarifies and develops the policies and measures that the EU will deploy in order to support its objectives and strengthen the fragile statehood of Iraq. The EU remains committed to the delivery of humanitarian aid and the stabilisation of the liberated areas so that a safe, voluntary and dignified return of the millions displaced is possible. In this regard, it’s worth stressing the support for the outstanding and constantly postponed reforms in the fields of security, political governance and economy.
On another front, the EU is committed to promote a constructive dialogue between the federal government and the regional government of Kurdistan which is conducive to finding constitutional solutions that shape stable and satisfactory relations for both sides. There are also actions to support an effective and independent justice system which establishes transitional justice mechanisms so that the horrors of the conflict are accounted for, as well as support for inclusive, equal and quality education in order to prevent further lost generations.
The success of the new EU strategy for Iraq will require a continuous and coordinated support with a long-term view that goes beyond the incidental military victories; that is, a look towards the institutions of the country and their inclusiveness. But the keystone to overcoming the endless conflicts is the establishment of a real multilateral rapprochement in a turbulent regional context. European diplomatic forces suggest that the Gulf’s apparent involvement in the solutions for the country can make the difference – this time for real – in achieving Iraq’s peace and reconstruction. Thus, this could also imply a new beginning with encouraging implications at the regional, European and global level.
Javi López is Member of the European Parliament and ECFR Council Member.
This article has been published in Política Exterior on March, 20 2018.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.