On the night of March 19, 2003, a massive bombing campaigned commenced in the sky over a darkened Baghdad. The so-called “shock and awe” experiment had begun. What looked like a laser light show, or a sequence from a Hollywood film to those glued to their screen watching CNN, cost the Iraqis an estimated six thousand civilians dead. The goal of that campaign: to overawe the Iraqi people and kill the ever-cagey dictator Saddam Hussein. In a prelude to what much of the next decade would bring, both efforts failed. Instead, the curtain opened on what would be the greatest foreign policy debacle of the post-war era.
Coalition forces stormed across the windswept Iraqi border on March 20, 2003. CENTCOM Commander Tommy Franks-fresh off of his Afghanistan campaign, which terrorism expert Peter Bergen refers to as “one of the greatest military blunders in recent US history”-called the shots. Deciding not to occupy major cities or to engage units not directly in the path of the Coalition juggernaut, Franks pushed relentlessly toward Baghdad. On April 9, Baghdad fell and the Hussein regime was deposed.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom,” a misnomer if ever there was one, disguised what became a neo-liberal interventionist campaign designed to turn Iraq into a pliable client state or a glorified gas station. In May 2009, L. Paul Bremer, a creature of Donald Rumsfeld, took the reins of power in Baghdad. His mission: open Iraq for business. Aside from banning the Baath Party, Bremer-in a decision that haunts Iraq to this day-disbanded the Iraqi military as well. Order No. 39, issued by the Bremer regime, opened up the Iraqi economy. It enabled investors from outside of the country ” to… transfer abroad without delay all funds associated with its foreign investment, including shares or profits and dividends….” While condemning what Saddam had done to undemocratically rule Iraq, the Bremer regime wrote the letter of the law for the New Iraq with zero input from the Iraqi people.
Publically owned enterprises went on the auction block. Incompetent and untrained officials were appointed to do things like modernize Baghdad’s stock exchange. Chaos ensued. Even as President Bush strutted aboard the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the glue holding Iraq together began to melt. Disaffected Sunnis, former Baathists and unemployed soldiers cobbled together a fierce resistance movement that challenged the occupation’s ability to keep order, especially in the so-called Sunni Triangle.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld contemptuously dismissed the insurgents as “dead-enders.” But instead of dead-ending, the insurgent storm frustrated not only the ability of the US to rebuild the shattered oil economy, but also their ability to make the Bremer state safe for corporate investment. By 2004, Iraq had descended into a full-fledged meltdown.
As Iraq moved toward civil war, Al Qaeda emerged in Mesopotamia. The claim that Saddam supported Islamic militants in Iraq proved as fictitious as the imaginary weapons of mass destruction; however, the gross mistakes and crimes of the American occupation did ultimately bring Islamists to the country. In response to these events, the US brought in General David Petraeus to stem the tide of the insurgency. Petraeus’s counter-insurgency was regarded as wildly successful. But as professor and retired army colonel Andrew Bacevich points out, “Bribes and guns helped turn the Sunnis against their erstwhile Al Qaeda allies. It was the cops paying the Crips to take on the Bloods.”
Despite all of that, the death knell of the American experiment in Iraq has finally come. Years of civil war in Syria brought together a collection of Sunni Islamic groups and foreign fighters warring against the government in Baghdad and against Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad. From that motley crew emerged the Islamic States in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In the last few months, the ISIS organization has destroyed the last vestiges of American state planning in Iraq. Representing a force more terrible than Saddam Hussein or even Al Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden, ISIS is cutting a swath through the country, leaving only an ineffectual and corrupt rump state. ISIS represents the end of the Bush regime’s vision for Iraq.
The Iraq War left almost 5,000 American servicemen-the majority from the working classes-dead. Many more are severely psychologically and physically maimed. Around 500,000 Iraqis died as a direct result of the invasion, and the debacle in the desert will cost a heavily indebted America around $2 trillion.
Iraq ended the American dream of “full spectrum dominance.” We are now likely going to watch the disaster in the Middle East play out from the sidelines. However, if we do not, Americans must be prepared to call up the spirit of the 2003 anti-war protests and reject the neo-conservatism of the Republicans and the Democrats-including probable 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Let “Operation Iraqi Freedom” serve as the lasting lesson that Vietnam did not. And let us call for the end of empire.