Operation Iraqi Freedom: 20 years since the war that undermined U.S. credibility

Two decades after George Bush ordered the invasion, Washington’s prestige in the Middle East is damaged, populism is on the rise and military spending divides Congress

Iraq war
An Iraqi soldier captured during the early days of the invasion, in 2003.James Nachtwey / Agencia contacto
Macarena Vidal Liy

Shortly after 10pm on March 19, 2003, then-U.S. president George W. Bush addressed the nation as a barrage of missiles filled the skies over Baghdad. “My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” Among the countries in the coalition Bush referred to were Spain and the United Kingdom. Operation Iraqi Freedom had begun. A war — and an occupation — launched on a base of lies and the consequences of which are still being felt the world over 20 years later: instability in Iraq, a strengthened Iran, a loss of prestige in Washington and heightened isolationist tendencies in U.S. foreign policy.

It would be a swift war, according to Bush, members of his administration and neoconservative Republicans who cheered the invasion. It would be a walk in the park for the most powerful military in the world: overthrow Saddam Hussein, locate the (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction, which then U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell had a month earlier assured the United Nations the Iraqi regime was hiding, and reconstruct the country as an exemplary democracy. Just six weeks after the invasion, speaking from an aircraft carrier under a banner that read “mission accomplished,” Bush announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.” But in reality, the conflict had only just begun.

Officially, the war lasted eight years and at its peak, in 2007, up to 170,000 U.S. troops were deployed in Iraq. Although the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom was formally declared in 2011, on the ground fighting continued. Today, 2,500 U.S. military personnel remain stationed in the Arab country; congressional authorization for their deployment remains in place.

In that time, over half a million Iraqis have lost their lives — the vast majority of them civilians — and seven million more have been displaced in Iraq and Syria, according to the Watson Institute’s Costs of War project. Close to 4,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed and 30,000 more wounded, according to Pentagon data. Costs of War estimates place the economic toll of the conflict at $1.8 trillion, which will rise to $2.9 trillion by 2050.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell addressing the Senate in February 2003.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell addressing the Senate in February 2003.Chuck Kennedy / Zuma Press / Contactophoto (Chuck Kennedy / Zuma Press / Con)

“Everything was done wrong”

No one came out of the invasion untarnished: a U.S. government that waged war based on exaggerated or false evidence; allied governments that merely acquiesced; a U.S. military that carried out tortures at Abu Ghraib prison, and a mainstream media that, on the eve of the invasion and during its early stages, reproduced the White House’s reasoning without a minimum of critical thinking. “Everything that could have been done wrong in the aftermath of the invasion was done wrong,” said Nadje al Ali, director of Brown University’s Center for Middle East Studies.

“There were terrible mistakes made,” Stephen Hadley, Bush’s former National Security Advisor, told CNN last week. “Abu Ghraib was a stain on our administration, [a] stain on the country and it was inexcusable. And it really cost us enormously in terms of credibility within the Arab and the Muslim world, there’s no doubt about that.”

Other decisions also had a lasting impact. The Iraqi army was disbanded, leaving hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the street. The administration was purged of Baathist officials (those loyal to Saddam) and sending a smaller military force than was necessary to achieve its objectives contributed to an increase in violence, corruption, sectarianism and economic problems. Distrust of the Sunnis, who had supported the dictator, and the promotion of the Shiites increased Iran’s influence in Baghdad.

Sectarianism in Iraqi society has mired the country in a bloody civil confrontation, threatens political life with an eternal blockade. Last October, the Iraqi Parliament gave the green light to the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani, a year after elections in which the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the U.S. invasion, emerged victorious, although he was unable to form a consensus administration. The elections were called after widespread protests in 2019, largely led by young people disenchanted with systemic corruption, unemployment, and a lack of opportunities.

An anti-war demonstration on Santa Monica Beach, California, February 15, 2003.
An anti-war demonstration on Santa Monica Beach, California, February 15, 2003.Lionel Hahn / Zuma Press / Contactophoto (Lionel Hahn / Zuma Press / Conta)


Sectarian divisions, which were particularly acute following the U.S. invasion, were also at the root of the emergence of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which would eventually become the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

The false intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, together with the disastrous management of the operation and the inglorious U.S. withdrawal from the occupied country, dealt a heavy blow to Washington’s credibility and its stature and influence in the Middle East. The occupation “deflated the myth of U.S. military might, shattering the country’s post-Cold War reputation as the only superpower capable of imposing its will far beyond its borders,” writes Joost Hiltermann, director of the Middle East program of the International Crisis Group, which specializes in conflict resolution.

Washington’s loss of prestige in the region became evident last week when Iran and Saudi Arabia — once staunch allies — announced a diplomatic agreement under the mediation of China after years of confrontation.

On the domestic front, the Iraq war widened the already existing gap between pro-war Republican voters and the more skeptical Democrats. The management of the occupation absorbed everything from economic resources to political attention, while other problems went unnoticed: among them, the failures in the U.S. mortgage sector that eventually triggered the global financial crisis of 2008.

US soldiers next to an exploded car bomb in Abu Ghraib, April 3, 2005.
US soldiers next to an exploded car bomb in Abu Ghraib, April 3, 2005.JEROME DELAY (AP)

The costs of war

According to Costs of War: “U.S. federal spending on the current wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] would have led to at least 1.4 million more jobs had the money been invested instead in education, health care, or green energy. This is the result of war spending financed entirely by debt, which has contributed to a higher ratio of national debt to Gross Domestic Product, and subsequent rising long-term interest rates.”

The fatigue generated by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan among the U.S. population was a key factor in the election of Democratic president Barack Obama in 2008. Over time, war weariness and globalization gradually turned into a more isolationist ideological trend. Those affected by the financial crisis and a lack of prospects saw leaders on their televisions who were not solving their problems, but devoting generous amounts of money to distant conflicts.

“No event since the end of the Cold War has influenced U.S. policy as much as the invasion of Iraq. It is fair to say that without the Iraq war, neither Donald Trump nor Barack Obama would probably have been president,” says Andrew Peek of the Atlantic Council think tank.

The U.S. still maintains a presence of 2,500 troops in Iraq and continues to approve appropriations for the fight against terrorism in the region. “The United States will continue to strengthen and broaden our partnership in support of Iraqi security, stability, and sovereignty,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a former commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, said during a surprise visit this month to Baghdad.

Congressional authorization

Trump, who is once again running for the White House, and other declared or potential Republican presidential hopefuls, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have expressed opposition to continuing current military aid for another foreign conflict: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, the open-ended Congressional authorization that provided the legal basis for the Iraq war remains in place, opening the door to U.S. participation in other military engagements.

The Senate is aiming to rescind the authorization to prevent any future government from using it to launch another military intervention: Trump invoked it to approve the drone strike in Baghdad that killed the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qasem Soleimani, in 2020. A preliminary vote last week garnered a two-thirds majority in favor of canceling the war order. Senators plan to vote this week on a bill to abolish the measure. “People are tired of wars,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

However, even if the measure passes the Senate, it is unclear if it will prosper: it must also get the green light from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has already stated that he opposes it.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS