Daniel W. Drezner

Operation Iraqi Freedom did not affect the international system

Operation Iraqi Freedom did not affect the international system

So it’s the ten-year anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which means it’s time for the obligatory commemorative blog posts and such. Go read Stephen Walt and Peter Feaver for some contrasting takes. Do wait five minutes in between clicking those two, however — any quicker than that, and intellectual whiplash might result.

This was a Big Deal in American foreign policy, and a single blog post about it will not do it justice. So I think it’s worth reflecting on the legacy of the Second Gulf War at three  different levels — the system, the country, and the individual levels. Today’s installment: How did Operation Iraqi Freedom affect the international system?

The surprising answer is: not all that much.

I don’t come to this conclusion lightly. You’d think that a conflict that cost more than $2.2 trillion and led to 190,000 deaths would have some systemic ramifications. Except that it didn’t — not really.  

To understand why, consider what both standard realist, instiitutionalist, and neoconservative accounts predicted would happen. 

Realists were convinced that the largely-but-not-completely unilateral act of preemption by the United States should have triggered significant amounts of blowback. The great powers that opposed the invasion should have formed a balancing coalition against a revisionist United States. That did not happen. Furthermore, all the realist yapping about "soft balancing" looks pretty absurd in retrospect. There is no doubt that the United States suffered a few years of some serious unpopularity — but that temporary dent ended very quickly after the 2008 election. 

Some realists fond of the "imperial overstretch" argument might try to posit that the costs of the Iraq war led to America’s parlous fiscal state. Any serious look at the numbers, however, says this is not true — the war didn’t help, but the principal causes of U.S. budget deficits over the past decade were the Bush tax cuts, the rise in entitlement spending, and the decline in tax revenues caused by the Great Recession.  The Iraq war played a supporting role — not a leading one.

The institutionalists would focus on the U.S. defection from international regimes and international institutions. In the end, the U.S.-led coalition invaded without an imprimatur from the United Nations. In the run-up to the war, the IAEA was particularly scornful of U.S. claims. Institutionalists would also have predicted some kind of punishment of the United States for its defection from the rules of the game. Absent that punishment, institutionalists would predict a weakening of global governance more generally, given the toothless  nature of enforcement.

Except that none of these things happened. Both the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council suffered minimal costs in the aftermath of the invasion. Within a few years, however, it was the United States leading the U.N.S.C. to successive rounds of sanctions against Iran and North Korea for doing things that had been used as a pretext for invading Iraq. A decade later, it turns out that global governance did a decent job in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. 

As for the neoconservatives, well, their predictions were straightforward. The invasion of Iraq was supposed to set of a tectonic shift in the politics of the Middle East. States contemplating the development of WMD should have been cowed by the might of American power. The creation of a stable democracy in Iraq was supposed to trigger a massive wave of democratic regime change across the Middle East. 

Now, to be fair to the neocons, Libya did give up its WMD program, and there has been a wave of regime change across the Middle East. But let’s be clear about a few things. The Iraq invasion played a supporting and not a primary role in Qaddafi’s decision. And anyone who tries to connect the regime change in Iraq with the Arab Spring needs to read Harry Frankfurt again and again and again. The fact that no one judges Iraq to be a real democracy suggests the hollowness of the neoconservative argument. 

At the systemic level, the Iraq invasion did not matter. Maybe one could argue that there was a mild acceleration of relative U.S. decline. The thing is, a lot of the metrics that people use to discuss relative power were shifting away from the United States regardless of Iraq. None of the major predictions of standard realist, institutionalist, or neoconservative models hold up terribly well a decade later. 

So does this mean Operation Iraqi Freedom doesn’t matter? Of course not. Affecting the international system is a really high bar. World wars, economic depressions, industrial revolutions — these things matter at the systemic level. It’s rare that a conflict smaller than that would have systemic implications (though the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan does come to mind). Rather, the conflict’s primary effects were at the national level. Iraq did have a profound effect on American foreign policy thinking. Which is the subject I’ll tackle in my next blog post. 

Am I missing anything?