Democracy, International Law, Middle East and North Africa, North America, Terrorism, Warfare

WMD: Three Letters that Caused Ten Years of Misery

031113-F-0981H-032Ten years ago this month the ‘coalition of the willing’ entered Iraq to topple the Saddam Hussein regime, which they believed was renewing its ambitions to build ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD). This short abbreviation, WMD, effectively invoked fear amongst British and American lawmakers and citizens alike, and their general consent was given for this intervention. To the embarrassment of Tony Blair and George W. Bush, it only transpired after major combat operations that there was no WMD in Iraq, discrediting all intelligence and the case for war entirely, leaving a black mark in both their legacies.

Costs and Benefits

After the initial stages of the war drew to a close, the situation in Iraq worsened. Sectarian violence and political corruption rose; the country’s infrastructure was decimated; and Coalition troops have failed to contain the concerning security situation.

It is not difficult to understand why so many Iraqis are sceptical of the 2003 intervention. At a BBC World Have Your Say debate, members of the Iraqi community in Great Britain voiced their anger and frustration over an intervention that claimed the lives of their friends and family, and which has destabilised their country. Some genuinely believe Iraq would be better of today with Hussein in power. Some of the families of Coalition servicemen and women, who have sustained serious injury or lost their lives, believe they have done so in vain.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. A form of democracy now exists in Iraq, and its citizens no longer have to worry about what they say in public owing to their newfound freedom of speech. In spite of the above bleak picture, some onlookers believe Iraq is better off after the intervention and believe it’s at the start of a journey that will deliver better things.

The Benefit of Hindsight

The overriding shortfall of the Coalition’s plans for its intervention was its short sightedness to see beyond initial combat operations. This failure to develop strategy for the long-term meant Iraq quickly unravelled once major combat ended. If a clear long-term plan had been developed Iraq may have been in a better state than it is today, and lives could have been saved. Why a clear exit strategy wasn’t planned by the Coalition before going into Iraq baffles any observer.

Finally, a more robust hearts and minds campaign should have been implemented, particularly amongst the American military where incidences of abuse towards locals have been rife. Incidents such as Abu Ghraib, or the gunning down of innocent civilians by an Apache helicopter do not make you friends and only counter efforts to gain the trust of locals and rebuild a country from the ground up. It was as if military leaders learnt nothing from Vietnam.

A Long Journey

After ten years of struggling, Iraq is still in the early stages of a slow recovery towards growing economically and becoming a more stabilised country in all respects. Predicting what Iraq will look like in another ten years is almost impossible, and whether the country is better off with or without Saddam Hussein is undecided amongst Iraqis and outside observers.

There is a clear lesson lawmakers can take from this episode: when confronted with a leader hell bent on intervening in a country, challenge them until you are comfortable with giving them your consent for military action.

About Jonathan Lima Matthews

Jonathan earned his BA with honours in International Relations from the University of Portsmouth. Last autumn he travelled to Washington, D.C. and worked in United States Congress as a policy analysis intern within the personal office of the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, Hon. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Jonathan is currently pursuing a career in the policy field, and will begin his Masters at the Brazil Institute, King’s College London in September, 2013. His key areas of interest include U.K., U.S., and Brazilian foreign and domestic policy, conflict resolution and management, ethnic conflict, democracy and democratisation.


  1. For me the “evidence” Powell presented to the UN convinced me in the first place. My impression was, that he wasn’t convinced either. Iraq is a complicated story. Some say, Bush sen. should have gone to Bagdad as he had the chance. I’m not a friend of regime change by invasion. As you say on the one hand there is improvement like freedom of speech, on the other hand there are still people losing their lives by bombs. Well, over all I think Iraq will be better than Afghanistan. We can only hope that military and political leaders will learn from this. As you said, sometimes I got the impression Vietnam never happened, or they forgot about it.

    • Jonathan Lima-Matthews

      Thank you. Yes, you’re totally right, Powell’s evidence was utterly convincing and presented to the UNSC in a slick way. It came from an exile, Rafid “Curveball” al-Janabi, and was fabricated as we now know, but it was only around 2008-9 that Powell was made aware by colleagues that Curveball’s evidence was false. Like I said before, law and policymakers should really be asking tough questions before they put themselves on the line for something as major as war. The recent open letter to President GW Bush by Iraq War veteran Thomas Young is proof of the devastation of making the wrong decision: – J

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