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20 years after US invasion of Iraq, what lessons remain? 

With the Pentagon now refocusing elsewhere, and with Iran getting closer to nuclear weapons by the day, the widening post-Iraq American boots-on-the-ground Middle East vacuum is cautiously being challenged by China.
Shiite Muslims protest near the local headquarters of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority on July 20, 2003, in Najaf, Iraq.

The invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, by a US-led “coalition of the willing” set the standards for the use of armed force as an instrument Great Power foreign policy outside the scope of the UN resolutions. 

That action destabilized the delicate balance of power in the Middle East and North Africa and undermined the system of alliances built in the wake of WWII, paramount amongst them the cornerstone of the Quincy Agreement on Feb. 14, 1945 — signed aboard the USS Quincy moored in the Great Bitter Lake along the Suez Canal — between President Franklin D. Roosevelt — who had just returned from Yalta — and King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud, setting up the “oil for protection” pact between the United States and the Saudi kingdom. It would “fuel” the West and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against the Warsaw Pact, rich with the plentiful oil fields of Siberia and the Caspian, then in USSR territory.  

The Iraq invasion was a protracted reaction against the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, known as the “two blessed raids” in Islamist parlance. To a large extent, though, the four planes that hit America on that day were but US jihadi chickens coming home to roost, as the United States itself had unleashed the genie from the bottle when the CIA instrumentalized the Afghan and international brigades of mujahedeen to vanquish the Red Army and kick it out of Kabul, on Feb. 15, 1989. That would prove the final blow to the Soviet system and a prelude to the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9 of that same year.  

Using jihadis to unsettle the USSR looked at once like a coup de maître, but it would soon prove to feel more like a sorcerer’s apprentice, as jihadism was fueled into becoming the major world threat until the 2020s, morphing from local to regional then international stages under the guises of al-Qaeda and finally the Islamic State (IS), reaching deep into America and then European societies. 

Fifteen of the 9/11 kamikazes being Saudis, the neocons in the George W. Bush administration blamed the Wahhabi kingdom for the misdeed — a modern-day illustration of the beam and the mote parable — and envisioned the invasion of Iraq as a means to punish Riyadh for shifting to a post-Saddam Hussein, Shiite-dominated Mesopotamia with huge oil fields. Intoxicated by Iraqi exiles roaming inside the beltway, they underestimated the resilience of the armed Sunni resistance — which would give birth to IS — and didn’t anticipate the Iranian capacity to control local Shiite militias who came to dominate in Baghdad. Paradoxically, the US invasion eventually delivered Iraq to its arch-nemesis, the Islamic Republic of Iran, while the neocons had naively believed in a domino theory that would see Western-style democracy expand from Shiite Baghdad to Shiite Teheran by virtue of example.  

The Iraq fiasco engineered the local branch of IS in the infamous US detention facilities of Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib, which would later expand to Syria during the course of the civil war in 2012, taking advantage of the sectarian output of the hastily praised democratic ideals of the Arab Spring, and finally bring terrorist havoc into Europe with the to-and-fro of jihadis with their Levant bases. Equally damaging, it undermined for good the Saudi-American trust relationship, which had survived the trials of the 1973 Yom Kippur-Ramadan war and the first oil crisis, the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan jihad. When Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in 2017 and started the process that would shift the kingdom from gas station of America to political heavyweight on the world scene, he had learned the lessons from the Iraq invasion and its far-reaching consequences.  

One of them was that the United States would shy from armed intervention in the Middle East for fear of unpredictable pernicious effects: President Barack Obama, who had achieved the painstaking pullout of troops from Iraq in December 2011, reneged from bombing Syria in August 2013 when President Bashar al-Assad gassed his own insurgent population on the outskirts of Damascus. Rather, the White House would take precautions from the chaotic outcomes of the Arab Springs in engaging the Muslim Brotherhood, the intimate enemy of Riyadh, as a stabilization force against all-out chaos.  

As a consequence, Saudi trust in America went to a new low, and the kingdom — together with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — helped then-Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi oust and replace Muslim Brother Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 in a media campaign that painted the latter as a stooge of the Obama administration.  

Though Saudi relations with Donald Trump looked better as the latter pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kazemi had a more balanced attitude toward his Sunni neighbors and the West, Tehran regained much of its hand in Baghdad after the last elections. Meanwhile, the United States — with traumatic memories of the disastrous Iraq invasion — was pulling much of its troops from the Middle East. It let the Taliban retake Afghanistan in August 2021, giving mixed signals to regional allies dependent on its military guarantees.  

With the Pentagon now refocusing on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Chinese navy challenge on the Taiwan straits, and with Iran getting closer to nuclear weapons by the day, the widening post-Iraq American boots-on-the-ground Middle East vacuum is cautiously being challenged by China, which is going beyond its commercial and financial collaterals to venture into security safeguards. Such are the lessons learned from the Iraq War by Beijing and its Arab partners, if not by Washington.

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