Ghassan Salamé: 2003 US invasion of Iraq was emulated around the world

Two decades since the invasion, L’Orient-Le Jour speaks with former Lebanese Culture Minister Ghassan Salamé, also a scholar and UN diplomat, who says the invasion marked the beginning of an era of collective insecurity.

Ghassan Salamé: 2003 US invasion of Iraq was emulated around the world

Ghassan Salamé at his apartment in Paris. (Credit: Anthony Samrani/L'Orient-Le Jour)

While the world ponders the long-term geostrategic consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you continue to perceive the US invasion of Iraq as a key rupture in the international order. Why?

In order to understand this, we must first revisit what happened before, particularly the events that followed the end of the Cold War in December 1989. Back then, an extremely promising phase had started for those who believe in collective security. First came Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which was conducted by a large US-led international coalition, and was legitimized through a dozen United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, with the clear objective of forcing Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. We witnessed, for perhaps the first time in UN history, an almost ideal application of the principle of collective security: in the event of an attack against a UN member, the others come to its rescue.

Then, during the succession of tragedies that marked the decade across the world — from the conflicts in [Africa’s] Great Lakes region to the Balkan wars — states systematically went through the UNSC to undertake multilateral actions with clear and proportionate objectives. One could, therefore, rightly think that the international system was finally accepting the regulation of force.

It was in this almost euphoric climate — with the exception of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999 which had gone virtually unnoticed at the time — that George W. Bush was elected in November 2000.

He assumed power along with several hawks, some of whom had served in his father’s administration and who wanted to seize an opportunity they missed 10 years earlier: Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, for which they had campaigned in vain.

As we now know, the idea of an attack against Iraq was already being discussed within the administration as early as February 2001, and plans were made in this direction. These plans were temporarily postponed by the Sept. 11 [attacks] and the intervention in Afghanistan, but the Bush administration only waited a few months before it started moving some of its military capabilities there, in preparation for an invasion of Iraq.

To justify this war, the Americans did not hesitate to propagate all sorts of lies and arguments without logical basis [about the weapons of mass destruction, links between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Sept. 11, and others]. But they faced strong international opposition, mainly from three other permanent members of the UNSC, as well as the Vatican and public opinion.

When the invasion began on March 19, 2003, the Americans did not have the UNSC’s authorization and led a much smaller coalition than the one in 1991, with the sole objective of decapitating the regime. This is what allowed George Bush to proclaim “mission accomplished” in May 2003.

However, as I realized as soon as I arrived in Baghdad the following month, while the start of the war was an illegal and disastrous decision, the management of the aftermath of the war proved to be even worse. The US administrators read books on the democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II and sought to apply similar recipes by attacking the foundations of the regime, including disbanding the army and “de-Baathifying” the administration.

But in this region, we know too well how states and regimes are intertwined, so hitting the latter in this way will cause three victims at once: the regime collapses, the state is deconstructed and society ends up decomposing. This is precisely what happened in the summer of 2003.

Beyond its disastrous effects on the country, the major effect of this war on the international order is that it has set an indisputable precedent. The architect of the post-1945 international order violated Article 2 of the UN Charter on the use of force against a sovereign state, and without the cover of the right to defend itself.

From that point on, this deregulation of force has had an emulation effect on the rest of the world. Many countries have done the same — whether to help their allies, to establish their influence or even for much more material reasons, including to take control over natural resources.

This has been the case whether they are great powers, such as China and Russia; medium powers, such as Turkey and Iran; or even “small Spartas,” such as the United Arab Emirates, Chad or Rwanda. After the neoliberal deregulation of the economy, the invasion of Iraq opened up the era of the deregulation of force.

The Russian case may seem paradoxical. Not only has this country led the opposition to the 2003 invasion, but it has consistently denounced, in a more general way, the interference in states’ internal affairs by the West.

When the first in the class cheats, the other students can either tell on him to the teacher or they can do the same, especially if this does not work. At first, Putin continued to denounce this precedent — we recall that in his 2007 speech at the Munich conference, he kept referring to this (along with Kosovo and Libya later on). But very quickly, he started to use it to legitimize his actions — in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022.

During the Cold War, the US — like the USSR — did not skimp on the use of force to control the destinies of other nations and overthrow regimes. In what ways are the current interventions different?

You are quite right to point out that the two great powers did not hesitate to use force. The novelty is not there. It lies in the question that the US asked itself at the end of the Cold War: what to do with victory?

In his book After Victory … John Ikenberry tried to answer this question. He outlined three scenarios: to opt for a form of restraint of power which, while not exactly strict isolationism, would considerably limit the scope of foreign interventions (as Paul Wolfowitz had already recommended early as 1992, but without being followed); to take advantage of the momentum to establish the US hegemony throughout the world, including by force; or to try to build a world constitutional order.

Unfortunately, after some hesitations, it was the second option that was chosen with the neoconservatives’ access to power. With the support of Vice President Dick Cheney, they convinced George W. Bush to undertake the “regime change” that his father had wisely avoided 10 years earlier. The aim was to create a “domino effect” in the region and, at the same time, to dissuade any potential rival on the international scene.

Didn’t the 2003 invasion also have an echo effect in terms of the increased privatization of the armed forces on a global scale, as illustrated, for example, by the weight of the Wagner Group in Russian interventionism?

When I arrived in Iraq in June 2003, the first military force in the country was the US army and the second was “the army” of private security companies, which numbered about 60,000 men. This was a continuation of a trend that began in the Balkans in the 1990s, when US firms went to “train” Bosnian and Croatian troops.

Of course, mercenarism is an age-old phenomenon. Think, for example, of the role of mercenaries in the many conflicts between Italian cities in the Middle Ages or in the capture of Constantinople.

But the novelty here, too, lies elsewhere. In the context of the deregulation of force, states are finding new qualities in these groups, such as the lack of obligation to disclose casualties (thus mitigating the effect of “body bags” on public opinion) and the possibility of denying any official presence (as with the Wagner group in Africa).

Sometimes the interests of these private groups are not always aligned with those of their home state, which can lead to paradoxical situations. For example, in June 2019, at the same time that Wagner’s men were fighting alongside those of Marshal Haftar [in Libya], the Blackwater group was attempting to overthrow the interim government. That day, Russian and American mercenaries served, unsuccessfully, the same master.

Let’s stay on the Libyan case for a moment. To what extent has the application of the principle of “responsibility to protect” by the West — which eventually resulted in Gaddafi’s death — completed the process of de-legitimization of foreign interventions that began with the 2003 invasion?

Is it still possible to find a compromise between this principle of “responsibility to protect” and that of respect for national sovereignty, which is the basis of collective security?

It is clear that, since then, we have been witnessing a kind of backlash against a process that was carried out by the West, and that was previously accepted somewhat reluctantly by others.

This principle of “responsibility to protect,” enshrined in 2005 by the UN and applied for the first time in Libya, was a kind of compromise between the right to intervene (or the “duty to intervene” in its radicalized version), which came mainly from NGOs, on one hand; and the traditional definition of the principle of sovereignty, on the other.

However, since the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, it has become much more difficult to convince Russia and China (and also other countries such as Pakistan or India) to agree to the extension of the definition of sovereignty implied by the responsibility to protect. This is particularly true for Beijing, which defends the idea that it is only applicable in cases where the national state has ceased to exist.

That said, it is in some way ironic that some countries can both challenge this principle and resort to it when they need to — such as Russia, which, on the eve of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, justified its operation by the need to protect speakers of the Russian language in Ukraine.

This may evoke another paradox: the constant US desire to disengage from the Middle East, which has resulted in delegating its management to the regional powers in its orbit, creates a vacuum from which its rivals (such as Russia and China), as well as the local emerging powers, can benefit.

This disengagement is only the consequence of the American awareness that what has been called the “peaceful emergence” of China has reached an end — to the benefit of its assertion on all levels, including militarily — and that the rivalry that will mark the 21st century is the one between them and Beijing.

This pivot towards Asia, initiated by Obama and pursued by his successors, has been constantly diverted by the multiplication of crises elsewhere in the world, but it is a strong trend that worries the allies of the United States, whether in Europe or the Middle East.

For the latter, frustration probably reached its peak when the “holy of holies” of the global oil industry [Saudi Aramco] was attacked in September 2019, and the US reaction fell far short of what the countries of the region expected. In the face of this, they continue to seek security guarantees from the US, and at the same time, they try to diversify their international relations in case they do not get these guarantees. We are in the middle of this double game from the regional powers.

More broadly, what we are witnessing in the Middle East is an adaptation by regional actors to this new reality of the “deregulation by force”. Turkey, a member of NATO, is buying missiles from Russia; Saudi Arabia is resorting to Chinese mediation to negotiate with Iran; and the Gulf countries, like Israel, do not want to take Ukraine’s side at the risk of completely alienating Moscow. Diplomatic opportunism is elevated to the status of a strategic choice.

Add to this the significant increase in military spending in the region — with Saudi Arabia in the top 10 in this area and the other middle powers following suit — all these factors will lead to dynamics of war and peace that are not orchestrated from Washington, but by the autonomous activity of these countries.

Let us return to the consequences of this deregulation of force through a concrete case: Iran approaching the nuclear threshold. What can be the response to such a challenge to collective security when an international consensus seems, this time, impossible?

This question is all the more difficult because it arises at a time when three factors are seriously complicating the situation. First, there is a form of growing resignation about the impossibility of a new agreement, even though an attack on Iranian installations would prove to be both ineffective (it would only delay the Iranian capacity to acquire the bomb) and very hazardous in terms of regional security.

Second, there is the invasion (by a nuclear power) of Ukraine, which had given up its arsenal at the end of the Cold War. This is pushing some countries to consider that it is an example not to be followed.

Finally, there is an American reluctance to grant security guarantees to some of its allies in the world (as we saw with the attack on the Aramco installations).

All this is happening at a time when some 20 countries in the world (including Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Germany and Argentina) can currently acquire a nuclear bomb within a few months.

This is why I am particularly concerned about the future of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and I think that to reverse this trend, we must act on these three factors. First by prohibiting Iran from becoming a nuclear power; second by forcing Russia to respect the borders of Ukraine; and third by ensuring that the US effectively grants protection to the countries that feel threatened.

In other words, we must no longer deal with the Iranian issue as such, but as part of a comprehensive negotiation on non-proliferation.

To conclude on the long-term challenges of the 2003 invasion, do you think that the United States has reached the peak of its “imperial overstretch,” to quote the historian Paul Kennedy? With its rapid expansion in all directions — from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Africa — and the stalemate in Ukraine, is Putin’s Russia not heading towards a similar fate?

I will give a simple answer: just as the 2003 war was the worst US foreign policy decision I have ever seen in my long career, the invasion of Ukraine is Moscow’s worst foreign policy decision.

Beyond the many differences between these two decisions — to which one should add the fact that, unlike Russia, America was at the height of its glory and power in 2003 — they were both aimed at amplifying the influence and power of these countries, and ended up with exactly the opposite effect: Iran has never been so influential in the region and we are witnessing a new resurrection of the NATO, which was declared brain-dead by Emmanuel Macron a few years earlier.

This interview was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury. 

While the world ponders the long-term geostrategic consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you continue to perceive the US invasion of Iraq as a key rupture in the international order. Why?In order to understand this, we must first revisit what happened before, particularly the events that followed the end of the Cold War in December 1989. Back then, an extremely promising phase had...