The Invasion of Iraq in Retrospect

March 20, 2023

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.  Six weeks into the invasion, on May 1, President Bush declared “mission accomplished”. Two decades later few would agree with him.

The following is a key paragraph from “The Modern History of Iraq” by Phebe Marr published a decade ago:

“Without substantial international support and lacking in understanding of Iraq or clear planning for Iraq’s future, the decision by the United States to occupy Iraq was fraught with dangers. Toppling Saddam proved easy and swift, but replacing the government and the political and social institutions that underpinned the regime was a long, difficult, and costly process – for both the United States and Iraq. The initial attack, followed by unchecked looting and the ill-advised dismantling of the political and military structures, created widespread destruction and a political and social vacuum, which foreign personnel proved unable to replace. Iraq soon began to fracture into ethnic and sectarian components.” [i]

As could be expected, during the last few days, articles were published in the Western media about the invasion. None had words of praise for the invasion or satisfaction with the current picture in Iraq.

Under the Obama administration, the US officially withdrew from Iraq in December 2011. But roughly 2,500 US troops are still there mostly in military installations in Baghdad and in the north. And US troops are also deployed in several bases and posts in northeastern Syria as part of “the fight against Islamic State”. Recently, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley visited the US troops stationed in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) adding to Ankara’s resentment.

During the months before the invasion, the Turkish government came under intense pressure from Washington for “full cooperation” which extended from the opening of ports, airports, and military bases to US troops, navy, and air force to the transit through Türkiye of tens of thousands of American troops into Iraq, and the deployment of thousands more in Türkiye across the border with Iraq. Many saw a conflict between such cooperation and our definition of independence. Moreover, this was a time when democratic reform was high on the country’s agenda, and when the separation of powers was still the cornerstone of Turkish democracy. Thus, the Turkish Parliament only approved less than “full cooperation”, causing deep and long-lasting disappointment in Washington.

I remember a senior US State Department official telling us in Ankara during those challenging days that with political stability Iraq would experience rapid economic growth, that people from poor Arab countries would go there to work creating a bridge between Iraq and their countries, a bridge that would expand democracy’s outreach across the region. Sadly, none of that happened.

Allegations that the invasion of Iraq was launched under false premises continued for years. Thus, in 2009, a British public inquiry into the nation’s role in the Iraq War was announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Seven years later, on July 6, 2016, Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the inquiry, summarized the conclusions of the 2.6-million-word report with clarity and precision. As a matter of fact, the inquiry was a lesson by the United Kingdom on what democracy is about. Very few Western countries, if any, could launch such an in-depth inquiry into major policy decisions of international consequence, no less than starting a war, taken by an earlier government and a prime minister and come up with a report underpinned with adjectives “scathing”, “devastating”, and “damning”.

Sir Chilcot recapitulated the conclusions of the Inquiry as follows:

•          The judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were presented with a certainty that was not justified.

•          Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.

•          The Government failed to achieve its stated objectives.

None of the foregoing broke new ground. Many countries had long ago reached the same conclusions. The Report only substantiated them.

By contrast, Mr. Blair’s remarks to the press were contradictory, leading those present to ask him what was it that he was sorry about. He appeared “unrepentant” as many interpreted his statement that he would again do exactly the same under those circumstances and that “the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein”. This is also the Bush line.

One day before Sir Chilcot made his statement, Jeremy Bowen, BBC’s Middle East editor, reported the following from Baghdad:

“Kadhim, like many Iraqis, blames the invaders for starting a chain of events that destroyed the country. He longs for the certainties and stability of Saddam’s time…

“The Americans and Britain removed a hated dictator and dissolved his army and state. But they had no real plan to rebuild the country they had broken. They improvised – and made matters worse.

“Jihadists were not in Iraq before the invasion. Shia and Sunni Muslims, whose sectarian civil war started during the occupation, could co-exist.

“The invaders did not have enough troops to control Iraq. Jihadists poured across open borders. Al-Qaeda established itself here, and eventually was reborn as the so-called Islamic State.”

“Iraqis have often made matters worse for themselves, but it was the mistakes by the US and Britain that pushed Iraq down the road to catastrophe.” [ii]

For decades, the Middle East has experienced crisis after crisis, and conflict after conflict. However, questions such as, “Why did the Bush administration decide to invade Iraq? What were its motives? What were the expected benefits? Was the invasion the first step of a scheme to weaken the Arab core consisting of Iraq and Syria?” will be with us for many years.  “Getting rid of Saddam” cannot possibly be the only answer. And every time the US calls for respect for the “rules-based international order”, Washington’s adversaries will continue to mention the invasion of Iraq as a blatant violation of that very order.


[i] Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq, Westview Press, 2012, p.257.



About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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