The lasting legacy of the Iraq invasion on US policy
When the United States led a small coalition of countries to invade Iraq in 2003, amid mass protests around the world, the US architects of the war seemed to think that in the end the "greater good" would prevail and history would judge them better than their contemporaries.
Twenty years later, the war, though far less discussed than it was at the time, continues to embarrass those even indirectly associated with it, and in some cases elevate those who were fortunate enough to come into politics afterward.
The war's long shadow on the campaign trail
In the two decades and numerous election cycles since 2003, the US failures of the war in Iraq have consistently been a significant issue and subject of great debate.
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, a major pitch to voters as he ran against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary was that she had voted for the Iraq war as a senator, and he hadn't. Of course, he hadn't been a senator when the vote took place.
"As time goes on, the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq is becoming less of a forefront issue in US campaigns"
The next person to win the presidency, Donald Trump, who also hadn't been in political office to vote for or against the war in Iraq, similarly used the Iraq war against his opponents.
On the Republican debate stage, he told Jeb Bush, at the time considered one of his strongest primary opponents, that his brother, George Bush, had lied about weapons of mass destruction to get the US into Iraq.
"Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake," Trump said on the 2016 Republican primary debate stage. "We should've never been in Iraq. We have destabilised the Middle East."
Trump later used Clinton's Iraq war vote against her in the general election, in what was considered one of the biggest upsets in a US presidential election.
More recently, in the 2022 midterms, veteran Congressman Jerry Nadler was able to defeat another longtime congress member Carolyn Maloney when he compared their voting records in his campaign ads, noting that she voted for the Iraq war and for the Patriot Act, which helped usher in an era of increased mass domestic surveillance, while he had voted against those measures.
It would be unfair to say that the Iraq war vote is the main issue for American voters (domestic politics consistently plays a bigger role). However, it remains an issue that is difficult to explain away.
As time goes on, the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq is becoming less of a forefront issue in US campaigns. After all, Americans voted for Joe Biden, a former senator who, like most of his colleagues at the time, voted for the war.
Today, two decades on, attention in the US Congress has turned to repealing the Authorisation of the Use of Military Force Act, the legislation signed just days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that gives the president broad powers to take military action and that enabled US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, the legacy of the war continues to be a haunting reminder for many of what not to do (though before Iraq, many said that was what the Vietnam War was).
"I don't think anything has more seriously undermined the US reputation than the tendency to intervene. We look like a bully and we fail," Gordon Adams, a professor of US foreign policy at American University, told The New Arab.
"Iraq specifically was a strategic error from start to finish. It was never a viable policy. The end result was horrible in the region," he said. "You can almost draw the lines directly to ISIS, Syria and Lebanon. Almost everything that's happening now finds a tap to the US decision to invade Iraq."
"It weakened American credibility, and it just accelerated the process of the rebalancing of power in the world," Adams added.
"The past 20 years have seen a rise in extremism, poverty, environmental degradation, and mass migration in Iraq and throughout the region. Though not all can be blamed on the 2003 Iraq war, they were arguably exacerbated by it"
The impact on Iraqis
As regrettable as the war has been for many Americans, it doesn't come close to the impact it has had on those in Iraq and across the region. Many of the people who lived through the 2003 war had already experienced multiple wars, often tied to US interests.
When Americans refer to the Iraq war, they're likely referring to the 2003 US-led invasion. For Iraqis, before the decision of America to invade, they had already lived through the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, a crippling sanctions programme had helped sink a once-prosperous country into poverty.
The past 20 years have seen a rise in extremism, poverty, environmental degradation, and mass migration in Iraq and throughout the region. Though not all can be blamed on the 2003 Iraq war, they were arguably exacerbated by it. A 2022 UNICEF report puts the country's child poverty rate at nearly 40 percent, despite its vast oil wealth.
"What gets me is when people say it was an American foreign policy misstep," Mariam Georgis, a research fellow at the University of Manitoba, told The New Arab. "The policies wouldn't have been like that if they'd worked with the people inside Iraq. They could have created a pluralistic society, as opposed to what it is now."
Instead, she said, "Women's rights have gone backwards. Where is the democracy?"
Georgis, an Assyrian who left Iraq for Canada with her family in 1994, watched the 2003 war unfold through the lens of an Iraqi from a minority community and as an academic. She says she watched the invasion of Iraq ostensibly go from part of the War on Terror (even though none of the 9/11 hijackers were from Iraq) to a democratising project.
"Somehow, Iraq became the new site for the War on Terror," she said. "Then the US and the UK and their band of misfits decided to invade that sovereign country, setting a huge precedent for the global superpower, sidestepping global mechanisms that they had put in place."
In addition to turning away from international legal norms, the US has not fully kept its own promises to its Iraqi allies, who worked mainly as translators and interpreters during the occupation. Thousands remain in limbo and in danger in their home country while their US visas are being held up indefinitely.
"In Iraq, some of them have been waiting for years," Kimberly Grano, staff attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project, told The New Arab. "People who have put their lives at risk are reliant on the promise the US made for that path to safety."
This is one of many examples of the US not meeting its promises to Iraqis, further eroding American credibility among its longtime allies in the region.
Still flexing, but losing of status in the region
Whether or not it is because of its invasion of Iraq, it's hard not to see a power shift in the Middle East. The US has already stated its intent to focus its foreign policy more on Asia. That, combined with other factors, has created an opening for other brokers, such as China, which has become the largest trading partner of most countries in the region.
With its role in the recent historic truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China has shown that it can also play an important role, perhaps without the same political baggage as the US.
"I think we've lost our diplomatic clout, not just in the Gulf, but elsewhere," Ronald Stockton, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, told The New Arab.
"People used to look at Washington and say: do something. We don't have credibility in the Middle East. It's interesting that the Chinese had to step in and be the authority figure in the Saudi-Iran agreement. What you see is that the US played no role," he explained.
Meanwhile, Iran does not appear eager to re-negotiate the long-paused nuclear deal, which seemed to be a priority at the beginning of Biden's presidency.
Syria, whose Arab Spring uprising started during Obama's administration, also could very well have been affected by the war in Iraq, which Obama had campaigned on ending with the understanding that he would try to not get the US involved in other conflicts in the region.
As for Israel, there are few indications it is listening to the US, or that the Palestinians believe that the US has the clout to rein in the right-wing government.
For the future of US international interventions, Adams is keeping his eyes on the growing US presence in the Horn of Africa. Last year, Biden approved the return of US special operations forces in Somalia, with no estimated time limit. Like other interventions, he sees it as an inevitable losing game.
"By using the military to fight against indigenous forces, they're creating more of them by making them resist more," he said.
Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.
Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews