‘Tell me, how does this end?’ asked US general David Petraeus during first push to Baghdad in 2003
The French statesman Georges Clemenceau once said: “War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory.” In the case of the invasion of Iraq, however, the war that began 20 years ago started in victory and has ended in a series of catastrophes.
The main US military pullout from Iraq was ultimately completed by 2011, finally answering the question posed by Gen David Petraeus during that first push to Baghdad in 2003: “Tell me, how does this end?” Yet the long shadow of the invasion still looms over the international order, staining the reputation of those who instigated it and the political process itself, and dealing a heavy blow to the self-confidence that the west felt in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
At this distance, on the eve of the twentieth anniversary on 20 March, it seems to matter less whether the war was launched on a deceit, a distortion, a wilful misapprehension, or a sincere false premise. It was a blunder that looks worse with every passing anniversary and memoir. Barack Obama drew one lesson from the episode: “Don’t do stupid shit.”
The question in the title of Baroness Ashton’s new book on diplomacy, And Then What?, was asked by many in relation to Iraq before the invasion. The risky consequences for Iraq were spelt out in memos and meetings at the time by Iraq experts in Britain such as Rosemary Hollis and Toby Dodge and by innumerable US Middle East specialists, including the current CIA chief, Bill Burns, but those who mattered, including the notably incurious George Bush, chose to ignore the warnings.
Dodge, freshly back from Iraq, was even invited to Downing Street to warn Blair that the invasion would be a disaster. He recalls Blair saying to him at the outset: “I know you think I should not do it, but I have to. I know it’s going to be bad. Tell me how bad it’s going to be”. Dodge explained: “In London and Washington, there was no one who had the first idea about Iraq, but they were planning to occupy it and run the place. It was hubris of the highest order.”
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