20 March 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, a tragic event that has had a lasting impact on the country and the region. The War on Iraq was launched just one and a half years after the 9/11 attacks at a time when the United States was the world’s undisputed superpower. The invasion was considered part of a broader “emancipatory strategy” in American foreign policy, which had garnered popularity among Neoconservative circles, keen champions of interventionism in the post-Cold War era.
As a result, President George W. Bush promised to bring “freedom” to the Iraqi people, expecting a domino effect to take place, leading to the toppling of authoritarian leaders and replacing them with democratic ones. This idealistic vision of top-down democratic change led US foreign policy towards risky and ill-fated endeavours like the 2003 War on Iraq. In addition to the extremely high humanitarian toll and growing instability that followed the invasion, the US forces were constantly in the line of danger.
The world political chessboard abounds with lessons learned or forgotten. Twenty years on, many experts agree that the root causes of this disastrous war are notions like pre-emptive war and aspirations to export democracy.
Such an approach resembles a Crusader’s, as both employ force to disseminate their beliefs. President Bush used the word “crusade” in one of his speeches. Intriguingly, the primary impetus behind this agenda since 9/11 has been the preponderance of progressive liberalism, according to John J. Mearsheimer, known for his grim and pessimistic depiction of global politics.
While a superpower is supposed to devise a foreign policy ostensibly grounded in human rights, peace, freedom, and democracy, a neocon-led White House exhibited acute intolerance and zeal for enforcing conformity in a unipolar world where it is the only master.
Viewed from another vantage point, this situation is but a mirage. Let us not dismiss it as a mere abstract proposition. What we have here is a liberal mirage, an acute illusion which can unabashedly champion the imperative of regime change while being ignorant of the sociocultural complexities of Afghanistan, Iraq and other victims of the Bush Doctrine. Eventually, this illusion begets the falsity of its validation. Perhaps nothing captures this mirage more aptly than the official commission report published two years after the invasion:
“We conclude that the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure.”
The deception of liberal ideals can be an enticing trap that ensnares even the most astute among us. This situation is exemplified by the insidious falsehoods propagated by Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton and Vice President at the time, who baselessly claimed that Saddam Hussein had a ten-year relationship with al-Qaeda.
Analysing the root causes of a foreign policy agenda that espouses interventionism under the guise of liberal ideals is fraught with self-contradictions. Barbara Lee, the sole congressional dissenter of the AUMF, which she feared would furnish the military with an essentially limitless credit card for myriad foreign interventions post-9/11, faced numerous death threats to herself and her family and was accused of being anti-American and was subjected to societal ostracism.
Further confirming the contraction of the public sphere, the Patriot Act, awash with ethnic and religious profiling, effectively infringed on freedoms under the pretext of national security. Above all, the 9/11-centric counter-terrorist notion is disconnected from cause-and-effect relationships and concrete proofs while reinforcing the practice of othering. The illiberal repercussions of these liberal illusions are countless, despite the unsubstantiated claim of promoting freedom.
It is evident that Today’s US foreign policy does not view past decisions, such as the expensive and unpopular “liberal” invasion of Iraq that cost nearly a trillion dollars, as a gain in its balance sheet. The American public opinion views this past military action with disdain. Thus, Washington’s recent efforts to revise its strategies reflect such a reality. The White House’s actions in containing China or reforming NATO show a departure from this “liberal dream.”
In retrospect, it is apparent that the decision-makers who spearheaded the invasion of Iraq under the guise of liberal tenets did not truly have faith in the foreign policy they espoused, neither then nor now. This situation serves as a prime example of what is referred to as the liberal illusion – a path filled with ambiguity and expense that, despite being recognised as false, is still pursued with deceitful intent. As in the lines of Shakespeare from Sonnet 138: “When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies.”
This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.