The independent resource on global security

Introduction. Iraq: the legacy


I. Introduction

II. The USA’s role in and impact on global security

III. Asymmetric threats and responses to them

IV. A wider but divided West

V. Institutions as the problem or the solution

VI. Iraq as a conflict

VII. Iraq in its region

VIII. Military–technical lessons

IX. General lessons for arms control and non-proliferation

X. Putting Iraq in a global perspective

XI. Envoi: the rights of the individual


Read the full introduction [PDF].


The military action taken by the USA and its coalition partners in Iraq in March–April 2003, and its aftermath, dominated the security debate in 2003 and impinged on virtually every field of security policy. The successful, low-cost occupation of a nation of 23 million people displayed the USA’s unique strength: the aftermath showed more about its limitations and about the limited meaning of military power in general. The USA was able to win a war in Iraq but not to restore peaceful conditions, nor provide a convincing vision of the country’s future. It overthrew an enemy, but the limited nature of its supporting coalition—and its inability to secure a United Nations mandate on the wished-for terms—betrayed its inability to coerce its friends. Indeed, the lessons drawn by others seem to be provoking a closing of ranks in many regional groupings which, if not exactly anti-US, do set limits to any one-power ‘hegemony’.


The supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat from Iraq seemed the strongest foundation for the USA and its coalition partners to launch their attack, but it subsequently crumbled. Perhaps luckily, evidence of past and present WMD problems in (notably) Iran, Libya and North Korea was strong enough to maintain the momentum of international cooperation against the proliferation menace—and many states were motivated to work for less violent solutions. A boost has been given to multi-functional, full-cycle arms and technology control strategies adapted to new globalized conditions.


The Euro-Atlantic community was sorely divided by Iraq, but the heart-searching this prompted suggests that the Western ‘family’ is still ‘family’, no matter how dysfunctional. Determined efforts were made from mid-year onwards to restore a sense of unity and find new purpose in key institutions such as the United Nations (with a fundamental review of security challenges and principles commissioned by the Secretary-General), NATO (with a new focus on global military operations, initially in Afghanistan), and the European Union (with new strategy documents, innovations in European defence cooperation, and proposed institutional changes for stronger leadership). ‘Reinstitutionalization’ has outweighed ‘de-institutionalization’ in the balance up to now.


Considered as a conflict, Iraq underlined that any intervention—even non-military—is a gamble for high stakes. Improvement of national and international performance on follow-through and peace-building is long overdue. The impact on Iraq’s region was limited in terms of conflict escalation but lacking in positive results for ‘Arab democracy’. New fronts and incentives for terrorism outweighed any deterrent effect that might have been hoped for.


The performance of new military equipment and tactics in Iraq will encourage imitators in some parts of the world and a search for new ‘asymmetric’ responses in others. The concomitant boost in US military expenditure has aggravated both the problems of budgetary and trade imbalance for the USA itself, and the uncertainties for the whole world economy.


The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003 was a reminder that the world is threatened by other dangers— including, for example, climate change and environmental collapse—for which it has yet to find either united policies or adequate resources. More insidious damage was done in the year to human rights and freedoms, without which security policies designed to protect and spread Western-style values risk losing both credibility and effect.

Alyson J. K. Bailes