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The Iraq War Undercut American Power for At Least a Generation

Blasting a 155mm Howitzer round during a gun calibration exercise at Destiny Range, Soldiers from 1-9 Field Artillery make the earth tremble as they fire over 30 rounds from an M109A6 Paladin, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, Mosul, Iraq, April 23.

From an international perspective, the Iraq War represents one of the great “own goals” of 21st century foreign policy, sharing the stage with Brexit and with Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.

That the United States has managed to weather this humiliation is a testament to its wealth and power, not to the wisdom of the policy. The war gutted the moral authority that the United States enjoyed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, poisoning US relations with wide swaths of the world and of course inflicting catastrophic damage upon Iraq, the target of America’s rage.

US rhetoric in the run up to the war was quite aggressive as the Bush administration tried to make the case to both domestic and international audiences that the war was worth it. “You are with us, or you are with the terrorists” was the order of the day, giving the international audience to the war little option for disengagement.

The war was intended to showcase the United States as a power for global justice, but instead undercut American power and prestige for at least a generation.

Middle East and Islamic World

It’s important to remember that the decision to invade Iraq was controversial in the Middle East, strongly opposed by some and yet supported by others. As the war went ugly, however, the supporters of the US policy ran for cover and left the US on its own.

Iran, originally terrified of being next, rapidly pivoted to exploiting US misfortune to its own advantage. On balance, the war weakened US friends in the region and empowered its enemies.

In particular, the invasion of Iraq badly damaged the US relationship with Turkey.  Ankara regarded itself as having a special role in the Middle East, and particularly regarded Kurdish national aspirations as representing a critical national security threat. The US invasion wounded Turkey’s foreign policy prerogatives in both of these areas, causing problems in the relationship that endure today.

For its part, the war has left deep scars on Iraq, both in terms of physical destruction and political culture. The country is formally democratic, and indeed in many ways it has become the most democratic country in the Middle East apart from Israel. However, Iraq is today regarded as the object of influence rather than the subject; Iraq’s neighbors continue to conduct a low-grade proxy war for influence rather than worry about Baghdad as an independent actor. Iraqi society is divided, with immense tension enduring between Sunni and Shia and the virtual independence of the Kurdish north. Two decades later there remains no obvious path to resolving these tensions and turning Iraq into a “normal” country.


There is no question that the decision to invade Iraq affected the US relationship with Russia. Russia reacted to September 11 with a sense of solidarity against the threat of Islamic extremism around the world, a threat that Moscow took quite seriously in the midst of its wars in Chechnya.

And while it is surely overstating the case to blame Russia’s later behavior on the American example in Iraq, the US decision to invade in March 2003 undoubtedly indicated to Moscow that Russian preferences would simply not be taken seriously in the US vision of liberal international order. US behavior in Libya and Syria would only reinforce this conclusion.

China did not display the same kind of indignation about the Iraq War, making clear its opposition but not suggesting that the invasion represented some kind of critical betrayal of American principle.

But arguably the decision to invade Iraq contributed to a decade-long delay in the American reckoning with Chinese power. Most assumed after the election of George W. Bush that relations between Washington and Beijing would deteriorate as a result of Bush’s public interest in great power competition. Instead, the Washington set Pacific priorities aside in order to pursue its adventure in the Middle East, allowing China to develop unimpeded.

Global Politics

As Washington and the collected governments of NATO have discovered to their chagrin in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much of the Global South does not share the West’s shock, dismay, and indignance with respect to Moscow’s behavior.

The Iraq War isn’t the only reason for this; the legacies of colonialism and semi-colonial imperial spheres of interest are long and dark, and likely would have affected the reaction in Asia, Africa, and Latin America in any case. But Iraq surely didn’t help. Washington’s denunciation of Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine is harder to sustain in light of Washington’s illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq.

That said, many of the countries that opposed US intervention in Iraq both at a political level (in particular France, Germany and Canada) and a popular level (pretty much everywhere other than Australia and the United Kingdom) have been nearly unified in support of Ukraine. Iraq did not induce NATO to collapse, and Iraq did not even collapse the NATO mission in Afghanistan, although it surely undercut the political efficacy of that mission and helped ensure the collapse of the Kabul government in 2021.

What the Iraq War Actually Did Accomplish

Ironically, the Iraq War accomplished many of its key objectives, including the demonstration of the nearly profound extent of US power. The US armed forces rapidly destroyed the government of Saddam Hussein and replaced that government with a client regime.

Over the course of several years, it then waged a counter-insurgency campaign that effectively defeated the opponents of that regime, then destroyed yet another set of regime opponents in a campaign that spanned both Iraq and Syria.

And yet the United States does not seem to have earned a reputation for power or for resolve or for justness. The US paid an immense price and (more importantly) inflicted an immense price upon Iraq, and now seems to have virtually nothing to show for it. Only the brute fact of American power remains to mediate the damage inflicted by the decision to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003.

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. 404NotFound

    March 18, 2023 at 2:05 pm

    The Iraq war (2003) was totally immoral, but it cemented in steel-reinforced granite America’s military and political power over the entire globe.

    America could now do what it want, even threatening to arrest and sanction ICC judges. Its power was utterly complete.

    America had previously used Iraq as a live shooting range and bombing range for its armed forces + allies, but after Iraq, others became open season and/or fair game.

    There was the blatant attempt to topple Syria with help from jihadist & islamist groups but miraculously, after 2015 direct help from Russia, Syria rolled back and defeated those foot soldiers of Washington.

    Now, US has successfully enacted proxy war on Russia itself, right on its doorstep.
    The assessment is Russia will fall via this war with regime change in Moscow the final result.

    After Russia, the rivals in the far east will become fair game, as Washington prepares to execute and realize its long cherished aim of a one-world government, a world where control and direction comes only from the US White House.

    Mercantile-based fascism will ultimately rule humanity forever and modern day 21st century Genghis couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect outcome than a fascist dictatorship imposing woke lifestyle or ersatz lifestyle or Kardashian lifestyle as the manna of humanity.

    But will US actually succeed. Numerous fascists and genghises have tried in the varied & misty pages of history and all have failed in due course.

  2. Julia

    March 18, 2023 at 2:24 pm


  3. HAT451

    March 18, 2023 at 3:43 pm

    From my perspective, the issue was not with conduct of military operations, but scope creep, and lack of an exit strategy.

    The first war, to liberate Kuwait, was over about 100 hours after the start of ground kinetic operations. Once that was done we left. This was not the case with subsequent military operations.

    Bosnia (SFOR) transitioned into the the operation to take Pristine, and then subsequently into bombing the capital of Serbia, inadvertently hitting the Chinese’s embassy in Belgrade. This was followed with the establishment of KFOR, eventually carving a piece out of Serbia to make Kosovo.

    After 9/11, we went into Afghanistan, and a short time later into Iraq. The military operations transitioned into humanitarian and nation building.

    What this article describes, is the effect of bad, undefined, or changing national policy across several administrations. The best way to strengthen our military, is to give it a clearly defined mission, recruit the best qualified, provide them with the best possible equipment.

    Continuing on, what is happening in Ukraine today, regardless of one’s politics needs to be studied, without the prism of politics. This is the first major regional conflict since the first golf war. Techniques and tactics are being adapted, but the combatants, based on the technology that was either immature or did not exist in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Based on the lessons the Russians and Ukrainians learn from this conflict, we will identify and mitigate risk to our military. The size and complexity of our military, this can not be done overnight, but a multi year process.

    Bottom line, we need to start this process sooner rather then later, else we end up embroiled in a 21st century war with using antiquated equipment, technology, and military organization appropriate for the 20th century.

  4. Ralph6

    March 18, 2023 at 4:25 pm

    The US has a well deserved reputation for ADHD(to quote Putin) with respect to its military involvements. Chalk that up to – – in reverse order – – 1) not being committed to winning 2) trying to fight limited warfare without clear objectives 3) being too willing to take on foes who don’t represent an existential threat to the US.

  5. Andy Gibbs

    March 18, 2023 at 5:49 pm

    America is a dying empire and pretty much every institution that holds our democracy (republic!) together is broken. It’s sad but true.

    The fact that we spend $1 trillion a year on weapons while inflicting crippling inflation on our people is proof of that.

  6. Commentar

    March 18, 2023 at 6:15 pm

    The iraq war didn’t undercut American power, it actually enhanced it.

    Today, 20 years later, America has truly unmasked itself.

    Via proxy wars, endless wars, wholesale sanctions, ever continuing war drills & military pact engagements, America has revealed itself as a most unique one-of-a-kind dollar-supremacy-based fascist entity hell bent on one aim – achieve utter global control.

    Finally, at last, we witness the rise of a franken-hyper ultra megapower, capable of truly being the GOD on Earth.

  7. Jacksonian Libertarian

    March 18, 2023 at 9:51 pm

    Rebuttal: While much of this article is true, much is also irrelevant.
    “poisoning US relations with wide swaths of the world”
    Real world diplomacy is about power, Nations have no gratitude.
    The expert on foreign relations Walter Russell Mead says, American foreign policy is a balance between the 4 schools of American foreign policy thought: Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian. It was the wisdom of these schools that gave us the “war on terror”.

    The Silver linings:
    1. The world now has direct evidence that if you attack America, you can expect to be gutted for a generation (Jacksonian justice).
    2. Nation Building and Democratization of the authoritarian Islamic Culture has been proven impossible. The west can wash its hands of any responsibility to ever try uplifting Muslims again (Wilsonian Morality).
    3. Any political clout or moral authority lost with the Authoritarian Islamic States especially the Islamic Dictatorship of Turkey, was never real to begin with. Fear of American vengeance is of greater benefit to America for those Machiavellian cultures (Hamiltonian trade).
    4. The American military spent 20 years combat testing and hardening its military into an unequalled veteran force. Lessons have been learned across the range of military science, which could not have been learned any other way.
    5. Any opinions that Authoritarian countries like Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, etc. were somehow having their belligerence restrained by Western moral authority before the war are foolish, as nothing but power can ever restrain their lust for power. And America’s demonstrated power kept them in their holes for over a decade.
    6. While in their holes the Authoritarians spent so much time fantasizing about what they would do with the military power demonstrated by the West. That they forgot that the “Regime Protection Armies” they use to ensure loyalty, are not the combat equals of the “Field Armies” the West produces. Putin clearly misunderstood the nature of his armies when he invaded Ukraine. A Western field army with a 3 to 1 advantage in heavy weapons would have gained Air superiority and Crushed the Ukrainian military just as it did Saddam’s Iraq, twice.

  8. Ven

    March 19, 2023 at 9:49 am

    Brexit was BASED you fool. Britain showed its strength and independence of the evil and illegal European Union. The governmental response to Brexit is what is shameful, cucking their way back into the EU through covert means.

  9. Jon

    March 19, 2023 at 2:43 pm

    Regardless of whether the US had invaded Iraq, Russia might have embarked on its mission of hegemony, frozen conflicts, reconquering it empire independently. Similarly, China’s expansionist foreign policy is likely driven more by its economic strength than concern about Western domination or containment. In two years, the Iraq invasion squandered the goodwill and support that the US had received after 9-11.

    There’s no question that the Right To Protect has set a dangerous precedent, leading other countries to greater suspicion of the US. While it was appropriate in Serbia and Ukraine, it has been more than disastrous in Iraq and Libya (where the US was very much a reluctant junior partner).

    Can the US regain its diplomatic stature? Quite likely. The US did not pay much of a diplomatic price in the wake of Vietnam, but the world has certainly changed. US defense of Ukraine is certainly well regarded in the democratic corners of the world.

  10. H.R. Holm

    March 19, 2023 at 10:35 pm

    If many think the Iraq war geopolitical/strategic outcome was bad, wait until we could see what unfolds in the future with our involvement in this Ukraine thing. Both the U.S. Treasury and U.S. forces’ weapons/ammo stocks have only been further drained with our open-ended committment to do ‘whatever it takes’ to throw the Russians back and out. Yeah, and how long does that mean? Forever, if that is ‘what it takes’ ? Our provision of the all-you-can-shoot weapons/ammo buffet to Ukraine can certainly lead to what remains of the world starving after a nuclear exchange is triggered ultimately by some out-of-the blue unforseen action generated in this conflict. The Iraq war was wholly unwise, but this no-holds-barred support of Ukraine is pure dangerous. If we don’t be the ones to blink in a nod towards a negociated peace, well, the Russians aren’t giving up either. Perpetual stalemate. Perpetual holding the world hostage to cataclysm.

  11. John R. Shanahan

    March 20, 2023 at 4:17 am

    Well, said. I have said as much for years. So many subsequent events stem from that fateful rushed decision to prosecute a war on faulty and downright untrue intelligence.

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