In the two decades since the second Iraq war, the United States appears like the Bourbon kings who had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq was a story of geopolitical failure and domestic political disaster. To understand the foolhardy decision to launch the war, one must first understand the US grand strategy of global hegemony, which Washington has pursued since 1945.
The “war on terror” provided political cover for the further pursuit of supremacy, despite threatening democratic government with lies, fraud and violence. George W Bush’s rash actions did provoke some murmurs of concern about the damage being inflicted but these faded from the corridors of power. Instead the US has refused to move on, believing that countries are “either with us or against us”.
The key to US strength has been its ability to dominate the three regions of the world of most importance to it for security and economic reasons: western Europe, east Asia and the Middle East. American power depends on preventing the emergence of a dominant rival on the Eurasian landmass or a single power in the Gulf controlling the majority of the world’s oil reserves. Nonetheless the present-day coalitions emerging could lead to these outcomes.
History suggests that when one great power becomes too powerful it is defeated by the counter-balancing efforts of the other major powers. Vladimir Putin’s unlawful and bloody invasion of Ukraine has thrown into sharp relief how differently the conflict is viewed by US allies and the rest of the world. It is the latter’s expanding trade with Moscow that helps Russia dodge western sanctions on everything from oil to microchips. This, along with China’s rise, has exposed US attempts to maintain its “unipolar” power in the international political system, which it obtained after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.
The US portrays the arrival of a world that is both multipolar and ideologically diverse as a moment of great danger. The more great powers, the reasoning goes, the greater the number of rivalries and the greater chance that wars could break out. The opposite could also be true with nations such as Turkey and India acting to avoid picking sides in disputes. States freed from a US policy to entangle rising powers in a web of rules designed to benefit Washington may find better terms elsewhere. The deal this month to restore relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, negotiated by China, underlines the accelerating Sino-American rivalry.
In global affairs the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Yet policies must be judged on their consequences. US strategy since the 1970s had been to keep Moscow out of the Middle East. The calamitous invasion and occupation of Iraq proved an invitation for other powers to enter the region. By 2016, there was a Saudi-Russian oil partnership, Russian support for the Iranian regime and a Russian military presence in Syria. In that year, the US had a choice of electing a confront-China candidate, Donald Trump, or a confront-Russia candidate, Hillary Clinton. It is now led by a president, Joe Biden, apparently willing to take on both giant rivals at once in the belief that the US can be safe only in a world of like-minded democratic states. The Manichaean quality to American foreign policy enunciated so clearly in Bush’s rhetoric has not gone away.
The capricious and self-centred nature of American power is well known to friend and foe alike. The US was prepared to split with old allies to bomb the Middle East into a shape that suited it. Washington had little time for French and German diplomatic protests against the illegal nature of the Iraq war. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. The political system planted in Iraq by Washington has intensified divisions and made it practically ungovernable. While Iraq’s oil has flowed on to world markets, about $150bn has been corruptly siphoned off. A token number of US troops remain to keep Islamic State at bay, but the real power in Baghdad runs through Tehran. Iran’s allied militias have the casting vote in Iraqi politics. The US could write off the failure of Iraq because a shale oil and gas boom made the country an energy superpower.
The US never lost its taste for being the world’s sheriff. Against the backdrop of the Arab spring, in 2011 Barack Obama sent US forces back into action in Libya, without care for Germany’s disagreement at the UN security council, on a mission that drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change and a bloody civil war. The botched American withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 came out of the blue and as a shock to Britain, which had suffered the second-highest casualties among western nations in keeping the Taliban out. As to the wisdom of letting the militants overrun Kabul, London’s view was judged irrelevant.
There is a warning in Iraq’s recent travails for Ukraine: in US politics success is supreme and no moral law is binding. For all the talk of “unwavering support”, there is a domestic constraint on US war casualties that Iraq helped to reanimate. Biden won’t see American troops fight Russian ones. That would be the third world war. His officials have already talked about plans for a postwar order on the east European plain. This rightly unnerves the Kyiv government, which sees in a hasty end to the war a requirement to cede territory to Russia.
But Washington has already achieved three significant foreign policy objectives. First, Putin is now a pariah in European eyes. Second, the US is displacing Russia as Europe’s top gas supplier, thus freeing Nato’s big powers from energy dependence on Moscow. Third, Germany’s industrial power, the engine of the eurozone, will not – as Berlin had bet it would – rely on the Baltic transit of Russian gas. The EU is likely to be a more pliant American ally in the future.
The US won’t want to look like it is pulling the rug from beneath Kyiv. But history suggests Washington would prefer an imperfect peace to a forever war. Biden, who was in favour of the Iraq invasion, has not forgotten that Obama rode into power as the anti-war candidate. He will be looking over his shoulder at Republican presidential candidates who argue that protecting Ukraine is not a vital US interest. If a Ukrainian victory could be declared now it would still leave the country in need of rebuilding. A good deal of this could be paid for with the $300bn of Russian central bank assets currently frozen in the hands of G7 states and the EU.
Washington will also not want to be out of step with public opinion in large swathes of the globe for too long. Iraq showed that international politics is not an ideological crusade of good versus evil. Putin’s invasion has revived the solidarity of the west. But Washington should stop pretending that the global triumph of US hegemony is within reach again.
This article was amended on 18 March 2023. An early version referred in error to the Kyiv “regime”, when the author’s intended reference was to the Kyiv “government”.