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2. The Iraq war: the enduring controversies and challenges



I. Introduction

II. The road to war

III. The war

IV. Post-war Iraq

V . Conclusions


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Operation Iraqi Freedom began early on 20 March 2003. On 9 April US forces took control of central Baghdad and the Iraq Government fell. Major combat operations ended formally on 1 May 2003, although by 14 April—when US forces gained control of Tikrit, the last Iraqi city to exhibit organized resistance—coalition forces had occupied all of Iraq. As of May 2004 the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was still in Iraq, facing resistance from various Iraqi forces, while the role of the USA and the wider international community in rebuilding the country remained deeply contentious.


The 2003 Iraq war was, and is likely to remain, one of the most controversial conflicts of modern times. The decision by the world’s only superpower to go to war in Iraq without explicit authorization from the United Nations Security Council provoked deep divisions within the international community and within states. Controversy surrounded the public justification for the war, in particular the degree and immediacy of the threat posed by Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapon programmes and whether the use of force was the most effective approach to dealing with that threat. The war was also controversial because it raised deeper issues of principle and precedent, including whether and under what circumstances the use of force may be a legitimate and effective response to the proliferation of NBC weapons; whether and under what circumstances the removal by force of governments or leaders—‘regime change’—may be a legitimate and wise policy; the role of the UN Security Council in arriving at decisions of this kind given the inherent limitations of that body; and the role of the USA in world affairs given its overwhelming power.


Supporters of the war can claim that one of the world’s cruellest regimes has been brought to an end, that the possibility that that regime might develop a strategically threatening WMD arsenal or supply such weapons to terrorists has been removed, and that new prospects for political change in the Middle East have been generated. Critics can argue that the extent of the WMD threat posed by Iraq—the primary casus belli—was greatly exaggerated; that the costs of the war in terms of lives lost, economic outlays and the destabilization of Iraq have been high; and that the fabric of international order has been damaged. The ambiguous outcome of the war—the successful overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the failure to discover evidence of WMD and the serious ongoing post-war problems—suggests that neither argument has been fully vindicated.


The Iraq war and the Bush Administration’s formalization of the doctrine of pre-emptive warfare in its 2002 National Security Strategy provoked much debate about whether the USA would engage in similar operations elsewhere in the world—with Iran, North Korea and Syria seen as the most likely targets for US-imposed regime change. The rapid and overwhelming victory of the USA in March–April 2003 appeared to vindicate the view that US military superiority had revolutionized the nature of warfare and to suggest that the Iraq war might be a precedent for similar US actions elsewhere. The subsequent post-war problems faced by the USA, however, showed that the challenges of post-war stabilization may be greater than those of war itself; that the long-term costs, direct and indirect, of regime change may be very great indeed; and that the USA is likely to need wider international support to achieve its objectives.


The USA could yet succeed in building a democratic Iraq, defeating those determined to prevent such an outcome and making Iraq a catalyst for democratic change elsewhere in the region. The ongoing violence in Iraq and the continuing disputes between the country’s political, religious and ethnic groups could, however, also result in continuing instability within Iraq; the country becoming a failed state or even descending into civil war; and the spill-over of instability into neighbouring states.


The impact of the Iraq war on WMD proliferation and terrorism is also difficult to assess. Potential proliferators may draw the conclusion that the costs and risks of acquiring WMD have increased significantly, but they may also conclude that the only way to prevent themselves from becoming the victims of regime change is to develop a credible deterrent.


Similarly, the Iraq war may have exacerbated the problem of international terrorism by creating a new frontline in Iraq and by fuelling Arab and Islamic resentment. Conversely, by triggering new debate on the political future of the greater Middle East it may also have created a chance to address the deeper causes of radical Islamic terrorism.


Andrew Cottey (United Kingdom) is Jean Monnet Chair in European Political Integration in the Department of Government, University College Cork. He previously worked at the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, the EastWest Institute (EWI), Saferworld and the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), and was a NATO Research Fellow, a Research Associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a visiting researcher at SIPRI. His publications include New Security Challenges in Postcommunist Europe: Securing Europe’s East (Manchester University Press, 2002), Democratic Control of the Military in Postcommunist Europe: Guarding the Guards (Palgrave, 2002), and The Challenge of Military Reform in Postcommunist Europe: Building Professional Armed Forces (Palgrave, 2002), as co-editor. He is the co-author (with Anthony Forster) of Adelphi Paper no. 365, Reshaping Defence Diplomacy: New Roles for Military Cooperation and Assistance (Oxford University Press/ International Institute for Strategic Studies, May 2004). He contributed to the SIPRI Yearbook in 2003.