The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 – led by the United States with the active support of Britain, Australia and others – was a strategic error. Of questionable legality, undertaken on false assumptions about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, resulting in the deaths of thousands of soldiers and nearly one hundred thousand of civilians, and costing three trillion dollars, it has made much of the contemporary world less secure.
Despite its importance, I have not written about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I did, however, publish a book on Iraq a decade earlier. In Politics without Principle: Sovereignty, Ethics and the Narratives of the Gulf War (1993) I examined the assumptions behind the previous US-led military action against Iraq in 1990-91. I was interested in the way international politics is replete with shades of gray despite the desire to narrate events in a black and white manner. Many of those concerns are relevant to the 2003 invasion, especially as they recall how US support for Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s included the provision of dual use technology knowing it would probably result in the production of a chemical weapons capability. This meant the US and its allies established the possibility of the problem they later objected to violently, while they steadfastly refused to acknowledge how they were implicated in that problem.
Nowhere is this clearer than with regard Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in Hallabjah in 1988. Much cited as a reason for regime change by the Bush administration, the horrible death of 5,000 civilians took place not only as the West ”looked the other way,” but with the aid of a covert US program run by the Reagan administration that provided Saddam Hussein’s regime with “critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).” Ethical engagement demands that we acknowledge responsibility for helping to create the problems we later wish to oppose, in the hope that we might think through such possible consequences before future action. One legacy of the 2003 invasion is that we still have some way to go in establishing ethical engagement in foreign policy.