Twenty years after the unlawful and destabilizing US-led invasion of Iraq, Washington must face the ultimate consequence of that war: UNSC powers China and Russia laying the foundation for a genuine, UN Charter-based system of multipolarism.
On the night of 19-20 March, 2003, the US air force began bombing the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The EU and NATO were deeply divided on whether to join the aggression: While newer NATO members from Central and Eastern Europe were in favor of the war, European heavyweights Paris and Berlin opposed it.
The Iraq war also marked the onset of diplomatic coordination between Moscow and Beijing at the UN Security Council (UNSC). The two countries began in 2003 to apply similar voting patterns in the Council, first on Iraq, then on Libya in 2011, and over Syria in several key votes. That early Russia-China UN coordination has, 20 years later, transformed into a determined joint policy toward “guarding a new world order based on international law.”
Looking back at March 2003 from the vantage point of March 2023, the invasion of Iraq unleashed geopolitical consequences far beyond the obvious ones, like the proliferation of terrorism, a decline of US power, and regional chaos. In 2003, a foundational, global shift in the balance of power was surely the last possible consequence envisioned by the war’s planners in Washington and London.
Disconnecting the dots
The destruction of Iraq, the disbanding of the Iraqi Army by the first “US Consul” Paul Bremer in May 2023, the outflow of refugees to neighboring states such as Syria and Jordan, and the exponential growth of extremism and terror attacks are among the consequences of this misguided war.
The flimsy reasons for the war, such as non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and Baghdad’s alleged support of terror groups like Al Qaeda, were debunked extensively in the following years. By the spring of 2004, evidence was already rife – whether from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or from the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group (ISG) – that Iraq had no WMD program at all.
Rarely before had disinformation campaigns – what is now commonly referred to as “fake news” – been so meticulously executed. The “with us or against us” narrative had firmly taken hold: Western think tanks were out in full force promoting regime change and “democracy” (not a stated goal of the US-led invasion) in Iraq, while those who opposed it were labeled anti-Israel or anti-America.
Despite unprecedented, massive public protests across western capitals in opposition to the Iraq war, the US and its allies had already set in motion their considerable war machine, led by figures such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar.
A false narrative linking Baghdad and the September 11 attacks had already been well-seeded, despite there being no connection whatsoever between the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the bombers. It should be noted that there were no Iraqi or Afghan citizens among the terrorists who piloted the 9-11 planes, who were predominantly Saudi nationals.
In the autumn of 2001, war scenarios for an invasion of Iraq and regime change were already being laid out in Washington. Johns Hopkins University dean Paul Wolfowitz – an avid supporter of regime-change and US military expansion into Iraq – was named deputy secretary of defense in February 2001, a full seven months before the 9-11 attacks. Wolfowitz’s working hypothesis was that Iraq, with the liberalization of its oil industry, would be able to finance a post-war reconstruction from its own petroleum exports.
The group around Vice President Dick Cheney, which included Wolfowitz and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was influential in shaping President George W. Bush’s position on Iraq. Unlike his father, George H. Bush, who was an experienced CIA director and analyst, the younger Bush lacked a distinct personal worldview on foreign policy, which he outsourced to his hawkish coterie.
Nevertheless, he was determined to finish what he saw as his father’s “unfinished business” from the 1991 ‘Gulf War’ aimed at expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait. That conflict was executed under a UN Security Council resolution, authorizing legal measures against Iraq as a state, but which did not constitute a war under international law.
In 1991, only Jordan‘s King Hussein took a position supporting Saddam Hussein, with all other nations backing the coalition assault against Baghdad. The US government adhered to the UN resolution, which aimed to restore Kuwait‘s territorial integrity – but not to overthrow the Iraqi government.
Instead, the US supported Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country and encouraged them to revolt against Baghdad. The Iraqi army crushed that rebellion, as it did an uprising in the Shia-dominated south. Perhaps the rebels had hoped for more concrete military aid from the US, but regardless, Hussein remained firmly in power despite military defeat elsewhere.
From Washington’s perspective, the US had failed to unseat Hussein, and within the Bush family, there was a desire to settle a score. For George W. Bush, the invasion of Iraq provided an opportunity to step out of his powerful father’s shadow by executing the elusive regime-change goal. The September 11 attacks provided a justification for this obsession – what remained was to connect Iraq to the US terror attacks and galvanize public and political support for a war, both domestically and internationally.
The UN Security Council in turmoil
In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, there was a great deal of division among UN Security Council (UNSC) members. US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented questionable evidence of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, while the foreign ministers of Germany and France publicly opposed the aggression, for which they occasionally received applause in the Council.
China and Russia, who vehemently opposed the war, began coordinating their decisions and responses, in part because of their respective oil interests in Iraq. This cooperation between Moscow and Beijing set the stage for a coordinated multilateral approach between the two nations. Both governments understood that a war would open Pandora’s box, leading to the collapse of Iraqi institutions and resulting in widespread regional disharmony.
Unfortunately, this is precisely what happened. The subsequent years saw weekly attacks, an expansion of Salafi terror groups like Al Qaeda, the rise of ISIS in 2014, and perpetual internal Iraqi conflict. Anyone familiar with the country‘s conditions was aware of the looming catastrophe when the illegal invasion of Iraq began on 20 March, 2003.
China and Russia and the multipolar order
Twenty years to the day, Chinese President Xi Jinping will embark on a three-day state visit to Moscow, and the focus will extend beyond bilateral energy relations, which have been a consistent priority since 2004.
As previously stated in their joint declaration in Beijing in February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart aim to coordinate their foreign policy and advance it together. Their discussions may also touch on the Ukraine dossier, although media expectations in the west may be overestimated.
It may be pure coincidence that the meeting coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Yet it also highlights how extensively Russian and Chinese strategies have intertwined over the past two decades.
Today, increasingly, “orientation comes from Orient.” Cooperative geostrategic leadership and sound alternative propositions to resolve global conflicts are being shaped in Beijing and Moscow – because the old centers of power can offer nothing new.
Twenty years after the US invasion of Iraq, a failed ‘war on terror,’ the proliferation of extremism, millions of dead and displaced in West Asia, and never-ending conflict, China and Russia have finally teamed up to systematically advance their view of the world, this time with more resolve and global clout.
As catastrophic as it was, the Iraq war ended the practice of direct US military invasions, ushering in a war-weary era that desperately sought other solutions. That global division of opinion that began in 2003 over Iraq is, 20 years later, being institutionalized by emerging multipolar powers that seek to counter forever wars.