The Iraq invasion, 20 years later
As told to a newspaper in Slovakia
Every so often, a daily newspaper in Slovakia (!), Dennik N, asks me for commentary on American politics. For the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Tomas Corej, a foreign affairs correspondent for the paper, sent me a handful of questions, so I thought I would reproduce that exchange below. A caveat here is that I tend to try to keep the language and my explanations simple, because I’m just not sure how much context the Dennik N audience has for making sense of American politics. And I also don’t know how much of what I write will get lost in translation, so I figure (perhaps wrongly) it’s best to keep it simple.
So, I would not describe this as in-depth analysis. Indeed, I’d say it’s closer to remedial. But it might at least serve as a useful primer/trip down memory lane, as you’ll see from the thrust of the questions and my responses.
(And for a less varnished take on the Bush/Cheney years, especially for more recent subscribers, here you go).
Here it is:
1) Can you briefly explain the political context of the USA in 2003? How is it possible that a Republican administration was able to seemingly convince virtually the entire American political scene that an invasion was inevitable?
The Bush administration was able to rally popular support and, more importantly, to avoid any serious opposition to its planned invasion because of 9/11. It would be hard to overstate how much 9/11 shaped the next several years of American politics. First, because it made President George W. Bush immensely popular for a time. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, over 90% of Americans told pollsters they approved of his performance as president. For most of the next year and a half, leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, his approval ratings typically were over 70%, which would never happen in the United States today, given how divided Americans are along political party lines. So, Bush had tremendous popular support on the eve of the invasion in 2003.
Second, and related to the first point, in the early post 9/11 period, it was hard to challenge the Bush administration about national security issues. So, when the administration said we had to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), there were people who questioned that. But President Bush, Vice President Cheney (who was, in many ways, the mastermind of the Iraq invasion) and other leading supporters of the Bush administration regularly questioned the patriotism of anyone who disputed the administration's claims about WMD specifically, or about how to make America safe more generally.
In that context, a simple guilt by association was created between the 9/11 attacks on the one hand, carried out by radical Jihadist terrorists and, on the other hand, the need to attack a country in the Middle East, as if the mere fact that Saddam Hussein was Arab and a tyrant was enough to tie him to 9/11 itself. One of our most famous journalists, Thomas Friedman, who is a Democrat, explained in 2003 that the invasion of Iraq was justified because a "terorrism bubble" had emerged in the Middle East, and by attacking a country there we were telling that part of the world to "suck on this." (a slightly more polite way of saying 'fuck you.")
(Substackers: here’s a clip of that unbelievable interview Friedman gave).
So, that was the atmosphere in the United States in March of 2003.
2) In what way did the invasion later reflect on the (dis)support of President Bush? Do you see it as a fundamental moment that later brought Obama to the White House?
Initially, the invasion was very popular with the American public, as United States armed forces achieved swift and overwhelming victories against the totally overmatched Iraqi army. But relatively soon, that support began to decline. Once the invasion of Iraq pivoted from overthrowing Saddam Hussein to creating a new government, everything became much harder. "Nation-building," which became the task of the American occupation, was a disaster. Indeed, it became clear early on that the Bush administration had barely planned for the task at all. More importantly, in terms of Bush's own popularity, significant numbers of American soldiers were killed or wounded by Iraqi insurgents in the years following the invasion. The Bush administration promised a quick, decisive victory. But the United States occupied Iraq for years, spent trillions of dollars, by some estimates, and failed to pacify the insurgency.
So, that was one reason for Bush's declining support. A second reason was that it became increasingly clear that the Bush administration had lied about Saddam's WMD program, which barely existed at the time of the invasion. And once Bush himself became less popular, it became easier for more politicians to criticize him for those lies.
With all that said, Bush was still able to win re-election in 2004, in a very close election, against Democratic Senator John Kerry. To take a step back, in October 2002, the United States Congress voted in favor of a resolution that authorized the Bush administration to use force in Iraq. In the United States Senate, most Senators, including almost all Republicans, voted for the resolution. A smaller majority of Democrats did as well. Among the Democrats who voted in favor of the resolution were Kerry, Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden. I mention those three because each of them had presidential ambitions. And each thought that, in order to be viable presidential candidates, they would have to demonstrate that they were "strong" on national security.
This, again, speaks to the atmosphere in the United States before the invasion. But it also helps explain Obama's future success as a candidate. Because while many Democrats in 2002 thought it was politically wise to support Bush, Obama did not. In 2002, Obama was not a United States Senator (he became one in 2004). In 2002, he was a state senator from Illinois, and much less well known than Kerry, Clinton or Biden. But Obama did speak out against the war.
That became very significant when Obama decided to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. By then he was very well known. Also by 2008, for many reasons, President Bush had become one of the most unpopular presidents in modern American history. And very few people boasted about supporting the war. Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden also ran for president that year. And in the beginning, Clinton was considered by many the favorite to win the nomination. But the fact that she had voted for that authorization to use force in 2002, whereas Obama had spoken out against the future invasion when it was unpopular to do so, became a significant advantage for him in 2008.
Of course, Obama did win the Democratic nomination in 2008 and, with Joe Biden as his vice-presidential running mate, won the presidency that year.
3) And in short, I'm not sure if this is your domain: would you say that Iraq has undermined much of the world's trust in the American intelligence services? Was Iraq the biggest reputational shock for the US in decades?
I'm not sure I can answer this question better than you can. But I would say two things. One, the Pew polling organization keeps track of whether people in other countries view the United States favorably or unfavorably. At the time of the 2003 invasion and especially in the years following, the United States was unpopular in a number of the countries that Pew keeps track of and became more so as the Bush presidency wore on. But the United States generally became more popular in this same group of countries after Obama became president. And then it became much less popular in many places after Trump became president.
So, while there's plenty of highly justified skepticism about US intelligence services around the world, support or lack of support for the United States, in general, seems to depend more on who is in the White House than other factors.
The story is certainly more complicated than that. But that is one way to think about it.
Here's the link to the Pew data, if you're interested u-s-remains-positive
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Thanks for this, Steve. I'd flagged it to read, but haven't done so yet.
Great post! Did you see this? https://twitter.com/ProfPaulPoast/status/1637070751072223233