20 years ago, the US launched an incursion into Iraq. While justifying why this invasion was necessary, then US President George W. Bush said that this invasion was carried out to liberate the people of Iraq and protect the world from grave danger.
A few weeks later, Bush loudly claimed that US forces had succeeded. They overthrew Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and destroyed his army. Bush boarded a US warship in the style of Tom Cruise—the film is regarded as one of the most iconic images in US history. Standing in front of a banner reading ‘Mission Accomplished’, Bush declared, ‘The dictator has fallen, Iraq is now free.’
It didn’t take long for Bush’s ‘success’ to crumble. Just before the end of his term as president, Bush had to deploy large forces to Iraq to suppress Islamist and pro-Saddam insurgents. But chaos and anarchy continued unabated in Iraq.
Since the invasion of Iraq, most analysts have pointed to catastrophic mistakes and failures to stabilize an unstable country caused by civil war, corruption, and interference from archenemy Iran. But very few analysts have looked at one thing. Needless to say, Russia and China did not appreciate the important role at the beginning. Failure to make this assessment leads to fatal mistakes later on.
Consider the case of Saudi Arabia. From the beginning, Saudi Arabia had no choice but to participate in this war. “We cannot accept that this war poses a threat to the unity and sovereignty of Iraq,” said one of the country’s top officials.
Saudi Arabia allowed US warplanes to use their airfields. But that relationship began to change. Slowly but surely, Saudi Arabia started building relations with China and Russia.
Gerald Fairstair, the former US ambassador to Yemen, said that in recent years, Saudi Arabia has been emphasizing not to involve itself in what the US calls the ‘superpower competition’. Saudi Arabia has cleared the area of its interests. They emphasize maintaining strong ties with their main security partner, the United States. At the same time, it is focusing on strengthening relations with China, its main economic partner, and Russia, its main partner in OPEC Plus.
Next, let’s consider Russia and China. The Iraq War markedly changed both countries’ attitudes toward the United States. That shift is now playing out dramatically in the international arena.
In 1990-91, Russia assisted the US in ousting Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the Gulf War. Russia had opened its airspace to American military aircraft. Vladimir Putin was also once a key player in America’s planned ‘war on terror’. That is why the West has been mildly critical of Putin’s brutal war against separatists in Chechnya.
But Putin viewed the Iraq war, which began in 2003, as a violation of international law and an attack on a government with ties and commercial interests to Moscow. In addition, Putin was looking for a way to stop America’s tendency to make unilateral decisions at the time. Putin at the time opposed President Bill Clinton’s war against Serbia in support of Kosovo separatists.
In March 2003, Putin called for an end to the Iraq war. Putin said, “If we establish the principle of force instead of international law, then those who are powerful will be recognised as having the right to do anything.” In that case, a fundamental principle of international law would be called into question. That is the inalienable sovereignty of states.
Since then, Putin has been aggressively protecting countries he considers friends, diplomatically, politically, and militarily. The most notable of these is the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Russian warplanes dropped bombs on rebel hideouts to help Assad’s ground forces and their Lebanese allies take control of northwestern Syria.
Putin has filled the vacuum that the United States has created in the Middle East. Putin backed all sides as American forces withdrew. Apart from this, Iran has eagerly given drones to Moscow in the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Likewise, the unmitigated failure of the United States has created an opportunity for Chinese economic influence in the Middle East. First revealed in 2013, the Middle East is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. By 2020, China is the main importer of Middle East oil.
Analysts say that China, which once focused only on its immediate neighbors and economic affairs, has now moved to the center of global diplomacy. China has mediated the repair of Iran’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was once a key US ally. Similarly, China has now proposed a ceasefire and peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to end the war in Ukraine.
George W. Bush and his war planners planned a new Middle East. But they will never consider that the Iraq war and its failure opened new doors for political and military action for America’s two rivals.