“Now We All Live in Saddam’s World:” The Regional Legacies of the US Invasion of Iraq
Panel VII-18, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am
While much of the public commentariat in the US greeted the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and its “coalition of the willing” with wild enthusiasm, it was decried by many at the time as a grave mistake. Most informed observers within Middle East studies viewed the looming military campaign as a catastrophe in the making as well as an event that would have unintended and negative ramifications for years to come. Given the vantage point of twenty years, the papers on this panel suggest that even some of the most pessimistic prognosticators from those days may have missed the mark in their appraisals of the potential deleterious effects of the American-led campaign. At a time when the US public and its policy makers seek to push discussion of its “endless wars” in the Middle East into the recesses of memory, this panel attempts to assess the vast scale of the invasion’s consequences on the political-economy, political practice, and discursive politics across the MENA region. Our papers offer insight into areas where the gaps between pessimistic forecasts and even worse outcomes continue to plague the region. We survey the post-invasion experience of the region by considering realignments, transformations and developments between state-based and non-state-based actors in particular countries and across the entire region. Our papers, by historians and social scientists, revolve about this premise and reflect on the past two decades and what they might signal going forward. In this regard we examine a number of on-going issues whose current manifestations, we argue, can be traced back to the Iraq invasion as a turning point that came to sharply define the course of events and foreclose others. The papers address topic such as the post-Iraq War deployment of sectarian discourse in the political maneuvering of regional political actors; how political realignments have impacted the question of Palestine; how the invasion shifted the regional position of states like Iran and Turkey and set in motion a series of events that have led to the current unrest in those countries. Other papers look more broadly at how US policies that violated international norms helped unleash new dynamics of regional intervention, lethal technologies and forms of warfare.
In the modern history of the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) sectarian discourses have played an important role at a number of pivotal moments. With increasing European domination of the region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries European states fought wars of position against one another by sponsoring particular local religious groups as a means of embodying their political claims. As a consequence, European rivalries became sutured onto local identity in new ways. Then, as hegemony turned to direct rule, colonial powers deeply imbued the political entities they created with sectarian norms. Legal personhood was mediated by religious identity. Ironically, the liberal norms guiding the accompanying colonial civilizing projects foregrounded the idea of freedom of religion and the protection of minorities. In so doing, religious identity, imagined now in sectarian terms, became a site for the intervention of the imperial hegemon as the guarantor of religious liberty and as a safeguard for religious minorities. But sectarianism also played an important role in various anti-colonial nationalist movements across the region. Likewise, it had a role in state-building and in the construction of citizenship regimes in post-colonial states across the region. Despite this complicated history, the present dispensation of sectarian discourse in the MENA is unprecedented in scope. It has become ubiquitous in ways unimaginable even twenty-five years ago. It headlines the political maneuvering of regional actors from Iraqi politicians to the Saudi royal family to the Israeli, Bahraini and Syrian governments to say nothing of the Islamic State which celebrated its sectarianism. My paper traces the current irruption of sectarian discourses across the region to the American-led Iraq invasion and its aftermath.
Looking back on it twenty years later, this paper argues that the US decision to engage in a war for regime change in Iraq in 2003 was less a mistake by a US president that was shortsighted and ideologically committed than a product of the US failing to ever consider a post-Cold War approach to the Middle East in terms other than imposing a US-led regional hegemonic order. As a result, the US invasion that violated international norms helped unleash new dynamics of regional intervention, lethal technologies and forms of warfare. Drawing on James C. Scott’s critique of high modernist planning in the 20th century, this paper explores how the US effort to use the 2003 war as a mean to reorder the Middle East can be understood like other misguided imperial or hegemonic projects that seek to establish new material structures and social orders. We can use Scott’s analysis of high modernist efforts to impose order to offer similar lessons about the failure of US efforts to order the Middle East as US policymakers relied on representational simplifications, were overconfidence in US technical capabilities, deployed coercive power, and failed to accommodate resistance to their plans. US policy was blind to the political dynamics at the regional and domestic levels and consistently rejected alternative options for building regional order. The paper then maps the consequences using Scott’s observation that the populations that planners seek to order often develop in reaction forms of practical knowledge, informal processes and improvisions that they use to navigate the unstable and unpredictable environment they inhabit. In this context, the states and organizations best able to develop and manage networks of self-organized actors -- such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its allied militias, US special forces, and armed jihadist groups including the ISIS – have been the ones best able expand their power and influence producing a complex of rival, overlapping networks of influence. As a result, efforts to promote security, let alone regional order, have become difficult and precarious.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the U.S., U.K. and their “coalition of the willing” has significantly shaped the world we live in today – especially as regards geopolitics. Arguably, the no single regime benefited more from the aftermath of the Iraq war than the Islamic Republic of Iran. The invasion left in its wake a massive regional power vacuum that was swiftly, ably, and ruthlessly exploited by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Sepah Pasdaran), stretching from the southwestern banks of the Tigris river to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Through its elite branch, the Qods Force, the IRGC not only cultivated formidable networks of patronage and mercenaries among Shi’a communities in the region, but also set about centralizing economic and political power inside Iran. In short, the Iraq war was the single biggest catalyst for the development of a security-military-industrial complex inside Iran under the auspices of the IRGC. Although the rise of IRGC is a much discussed topic in foreign policy and think tank circles, it is both curious and revealing that it is hardly considered as a direct consequence of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. This paper recounts the rise of the security state in Iran through a direct examination of the imprint of the Iraq war on the regional and domestic dialectics of power that have fundamentally transformed the Islamic Republic. These transformations, the paper argues, shed glaring lights on the regime’s crises of legitimacy today.