Analysis & Opinions - Financial Times

The Long Shadow of Iraq and Its Lessons Today

| Jan. 17, 2023

Twenty years on, the invasion of Iraq still haunts the US. Americans grew weary and wary of wars in the wider Middle East. But Washington may still reflexively confront dangers with a mixture of fear, good intentions, and overconfidence instead of prudence and a judicious exercise of power.

Melvyn P Leffler ably examines these issues in this first scholarly history of President George W Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Leffler, professor at the University of Virginia and one of America’s pre-eminent diplomatic historians, has set a high standard. His cautionary tale is not exculpatory; it is explanatory.

Historians usually cannot begin their scrutiny within 20 years because they cannot read classified government files. Leffler, however, assembled extensive released materials — including the interviews for Britain’s Chilcot report — conducted detailed interviews, and then pushed for more declassifications of papers. The professor takes his readers back to the now foreign land of 2001-03 in order to understand why and how America went to war.

Confronting Saddam Hussein opens by recalling what Saddam Hussein was really like. The author’s account replays the horror and revulsion that Americans felt 20 years ago. Saddam’s ruthless cruelty included raping loved ones in front of their families, dipping victims in acid, invading two neighbours, and using chemical weapons against domestic and foreign foes. In 1991, after the Gulf war to liberate Kuwait, the world was shocked to learn that Saddam had enriched uranium and had an advanced nuclear bomb project.

Leffler explains how the shock of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington rattled the White House. Attitudes became a risky mix of guilt, fear, anger and the hubris of power — especially after the rapid fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Zoellick, Robert.“The Long Shadow of Iraq and Its Lessons Today.” Financial Times, January 17, 2023.