How the Iraq war ignited ‘anti-system’ rhetoric in the West

The United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the name of “fighting terrorism” played a crucial role in the growing mistrust between American and European citizens and their political leaders. The war also provided fuel for the rise of authoritarian regimes, the consequences of which can still be seen today.

How the Iraq war ignited ‘anti-system’ rhetoric in the West

Illustration by Yann Charaoui.

“Well, it’s just heaven here.”

Wearing a red equestrian-style blazer, Norah O’Donnell, anchor of CBS Evening News, expressed her amazement at the breathtaking scenery of Prairie Chapel Ranch.

The 6.4-square-mile property, located south of Dallas, was acquired by former US President George W. Bush in 1999.

The meeting occurred in April 2021 in springtime when the earth was turning green, the sky was cerulean blue, and the bluebonnets were in full bloom.

Wearing a pilot jacket, the former president seemed at ease and good-humored, making witty comments, and uttering a few expletives. His wife, Laura Bush, reprimanded him politely.

During his two terms in office (2000-08), he had earned a reputation as a “village idiot,” but the tumultuous tenure of his controversial successor, Donald Trump, allowed former President Bush to rehabilitate his image.

Bush has since portrayed himself as a respectable and reasonable statesman — even approaching philanthropic at times.

The CBS feature shed light on him for good reason.

At the time of the interview, Bush had recently published a book of oil paintings titled Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants.

It is a tribute to immigration, seemingly incongruous with the author’s legacy as one of the architects of the “war on terror” launched in the aftermath of 9/11, which was fueled by a “good-versus-evil” narrative with disastrous and deadly consequences.

At home, the narrative translated into policies of generalized surveillance, suspicion, and fear of Muslims, who have been depicted as a “fifth column” within society, further exacerbating fear and distrust toward them.

Abroad, this discourse has resulted in endless military interventions in various parts of the world in the name of fighting terrorism and combating a widespread, erratic and concealed jihadist threat.

The rhetoric and practice of anti-terrorism — at the cost of questioning fundamental rights — has taken hold at various levels of Western liberal democracies. This narrative has also given grist to the mill of many dictatorships to justify the repression of all dissent.

The area of ​​Saddam Hussein's palaces is the target of airstrikes in Baghdad on March 21, 2003, the second day of the US-led coalition attack on Iraq. (Credit: Patrick Baz/AFP)

Unjust democracies

Although Afghanistan has been the official center of attention for the Western world — from the US offensive against the Taliban in 2001 to its turbulent exit in 2021 — the most significant event that has shaped the Western geopolitical mindset in the 21st century is the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This event returned to the surface the colonial past of certain countries that are still grappling with its consequences. US global dominance after the fall of the USSR was seen by some as a manifestation of this past.

This feeling was amplified by the catastrophic aftermath of the US military venture.

The Iraqi people, who had already suffered under Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, had to face the American occupation, two civil wars and the overwhelming influence of neighboring Iran.

Also, this so-called “preventive” war was based on a lie. The weapons of mass destruction that the Iraqi dictator was accused of concealing from the United Nations were never discovered, and the link between Baghdad and the Sept. 11 attacks was never proven.

Lastly, the invasion indirectly contributed to the rise of the Islamic State group (Daesh).

“Two significant dynamics emerged after 9/11,” explains Marie Peltier, a historian, an essayist, a professor at the Haute École Galilée in Brussels and an expert in authoritarian regime conspiracy and propaganda.

“On the one hand, George W. Bush responded with a civilizational posture that was divisive and echoed colonial history, emphasizing Western domination. On the other hand, the extreme right in the West, as well as many dictatorships around the world, capitalized on the moment to push their own ‘anti-system’ narrative.”

This was compounded by the rising distrust of democratic institutions among populations affected by the “fight against terror,” as well as among some in the left wing.

An emblematic instance is the Syrian revolution that broke out in March 2011, which immediately clashed with Western certainties that were carefully manipulated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In the eyes of the extreme right and those moderates obsessed with the clash of civilizations, Assad, known as the butcher of Damascus, managed to skillfully present himself as an anti-Islamist shield and protector of the “Christians of the East.”

To those, he was also the husband of the elegant Asma al-Assad, whose unveiled head, slim figure and “so British” English served as evidence of the regime’s cultural superiority over its opponents.

Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma, on his right, leave a polling station in Douma, in the suburbs of Damascus, after voting in the “presidential election” organized on May 26, 2021. (Credit: Louai Bechara/AFP)

For large sections of the radical left, the Syrian president was a bulwark against American imperialism and the projects of Washington’s Arab allies in the Gulf.

The “anti-system” stance was galvanized by the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, reviving Cold War-era thought patterns.

Muhamad Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer in digital journalism at the University of Stirling and author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014), recalls that in 2013, when there was a possibility of taking action for human rights in Syria after the regime’s use of chemical weapons, many in the UK saw echoes of the Iraq case, despite the two situations being vastly different.

He told L’Orient-Le Jour, “2003 had a devastating effect on public discourse.”

For Peltier, “The war on terror, in general, coupled with the internal construction of a ‘Muslim problem,’ has generated the notion that democracies are unjust and should therefore be rejected.”

Supporters of Donald Trump during the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Credit: Samuel Corum/AFP)

Fake news and ‘information spectacle’

But while the “anti-system” rhetoric often appears to be a response to the divisions created by increasingly illiberal liberal democracies, these two dynamics often work hand in hand.

In the US, the march on Capitol Hill organized by Trump’s supporters to dispute the election results in favor of Joe Biden in 2021 represents the peak of the sequence characterized by hatred toward minorities and immigrants on one hand, and rejection of democratic institutions on the other.

Trump served as both the president of the “Muslim Ban” and as the leader whose most radicalized supporters, sporting T-shirts with the image of Bashar al-Assad, chanted that “the Jews would not replace them” during a parade of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville in August 2017.

“[The years from] 2001 to 2003 played a fundamental role in the articulation of racism and anti-Semitism,” Peltier said. “Islamophobia is at the heart of the civilizational narrative, and the anti-system narrative is historically anti-Semitic.”

Peltier further explained, “Many people believe that Israel or Mossad, in collaboration with the CIA, are behind the Syrian popular uprising, while others believe that the destabilization caused by the uprising is responsible for the migration crisis and the so-called ‘barbarian invasion.’”

This discourse is built on a conspiracy theory that suggests a small group is manipulating events such as wars, elections, health crises and attacks for their own hidden interests.

In this vein, any official explanation put forward to account for a sequence or an event is rejected, especially when it is disseminated by mainstream media outlets that have lost credibility among significant segments of the population for not fulfilling their watchdog role, according to them.

The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 provided fertile ground for such sentiment, highlighting the degree of public mistrust of their governments, even on matters of public health.

On the surface, conspiracy theories uphold the value of doubt, a crucial element in exercising freedom of thought, particularly in situations where political, economic and media spheres appear to be colluding.

However, instead of offering a critical analysis of how information is presented, this phenomenon leads to a widespread suspicion that undermines the ideological, political and economic structures responsible for democratic shortcomings, or at least blames them on a select few — the “elites” — who are believed to be conspiring to manipulate public opinion.

For Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-American novelist and author of Ave Maria (2018) and The Baghdad Eucharist (2017), the citizens’ distrust of mainstream media in the US has been exacerbated by the fact that the narrative in favor of the Iraq War was based on fabrications in which the media played a complicit role.

“Unfortunately, these lies have not necessarily led to the development of a critical attitude towards these media or the search for alternative sources of information,” he said.

“Instead, inconvenient facts have been relegated to the status of 'fake news.’”

Antoon added that while Trump greatly benefited from this trend, the atmosphere was already conducive to it due to years of “fusion between entertainment and information.”

Iraqi artist Edine Sallat finishes her fresco denouncing the Abu Ghraib scandal, May 23, 2004, in Baghdad. (Credit: Rmzi Haidar/AFP)

Aristocrats and the ‘new rich’

The question of conspiracy and the “anti-system” posture is complex. It is often intentionally pushed to the margins of politics by a discourse intended to be “centrist” or liberal in order to delegitimize demands for social justice, yet it has gradually infused all political currents.

This phenomenon is particularly visible in France, where the main candidates in the 2017 presidential election have all resorted, to varying degrees, to a narrative opposing the “people” to the “elites.”

Similarly, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many voices have regularly intervened in public debate to find mitigating circumstances for Moscow. This includes conventional French political figures such as Ségolène Royal and Hubert Védrine.

These figures are neither far-right nor far-left, having built their political careers in the “center-left,” and now adopt anti-establishment rhetoric of resistance to the US.

This reflects a longstanding French anti-Americanism that was reignited by the Iraq War in 2003 but is not so much driven by the right of peoples to self-determination as by a Western rift between an aristocratic France and its American cousin — one whose lack of refinement is often derided but whose considerable diplomatic influence arouses envy.

For the past two decades, the arrogance of the Anglo-Saxon world that led to the decision to invade Iraq, coupled with the complete destabilization of the country, has served as the ultimate benchmark by which each new geopolitical challenge is evaluated on both sides of the Atlantic, even by countries like France that did not participate in the crusade of Bush and then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Prior to the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, this logic seemed unstoppable: Assad and Putin should be allowed to do what they did because Bush and Blair were allowed to do it before.

But where does this end?

“Most of my students, even those who come to New York University from privileged backgrounds and private high schools, know nothing about the war in Iraq,” Antoon said.

“As for Bush, for many people, he is a charming man,” he quipped.

For Ahmad, the lecturer at the University of Stirling, “The rehabilitation of Bush as a respectable former head of state and the lack of repentance from Blair have contributed to a certain cynicism and whitewashing of many dictatorships around the world.”

However, this is not solely a Western issue but rather a matter of power.

The US, for instance, shields itself or Israel from accusations of war crimes. Similarly, Russia and China do the same with their allies.

“The prerequisite for being prosecuted by an international court is to not have any support from major powers,” Ahmad said.

This article was originally published in French by L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

“Well, it’s just heaven here.”Wearing a red equestrian-style blazer, Norah O’Donnell, anchor of CBS Evening News, expressed her amazement at the breathtaking scenery of Prairie Chapel Ranch.The 6.4-square-mile property, located south of Dallas, was acquired by former US President George W. Bush in 1999.The meeting occurred in April 2021 in springtime when the earth was turning green, the...