20 years on from the fateful decision to invade Iraq, it is generally accepted that the US and UK governments overstated the evidence available for them to justify military action. The central claim to defend invading Iraq was that the country had continued its illicit nuclear weapons programme and had retained illegal stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons. None of these claims supported an imminent threat justification nor could any hidden caches of WMD be found by the US Iraq Survey Group after the invasion.
In the US, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney hinted at additional evidence which could not be shared publicly to suggest that if only people knew what the government knew, they would agree that Iraq posed a significant threat to the West and needed to be disarmed.
In the UK, the Blair government acted similarly, focusing on a narrow interpretation of the evidence provided by the intelligence services and ignoring many of the dire warnings offered by academics and other experts. The Chilcot Inquiry found that the Blair government greatly exaggerated the threat Iraq posed to the UK, and that government arguments were based on the prime minister’s personal beliefs, as well as his promise to President Bush to support the US invasion.
Relying on inadequate information and a biased analysis for invading Iraq has had a negative impact on US and UK credibility in the international security policy environment and domestically with ramifications that persist to this day.
Impacts on soft power and trust
The invasion had an impact on US and UK soft power due to negative perceptions of the decision to go to war and the competence of the UK and US: public opinion polling by the Pew Center showed that perceptions of the US declined significantly as a result of the invasion of Iraq, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia.
This is undoubtedly a challenge for the US, but arguably an even bigger challenge for the UK, which due to its size and power relies much more on diplomacy and coalition-building in order to achieve its goals within various international treaty frameworks.
Over nearly two decades, the US and the UK no longer seemed to enjoy the same foundation of trust, even with close allies, as they did previously. This changed in February 2022.
Towards the end of 2021, both the US and the UK were sounding the alarm about an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine based on information and analysis from their intelligence services. Despite the amassing of Russian troops, tanks and artillery on the border clearly visible from the air and by satellite imagery, several allies remained unconvinced until the invasion happened.
This was in part due to their own assessments which indicated that Russia would stop short of an invasion, and in part because allies were unwilling to take US and UK statements on faith, without being able to assess the information themselves.
US officials found this frustrating as it meant that NATO and the EU were slower off the mark with support for Ukraine than they might otherwise have been. However, the accuracy of the US/UK intelligence on Russia’s invasion, coupled with their sharing it openly, may well have restored faith in their capabilities and analysis.
A more open approach to intelligence
Over the last few years, there seems to have been a change in accepted practice regarding sharing and using intelligence. The UK Ministry of Defence has taken a much more open approach to intelligence in the war in Ukraine, sharing the most recent defence information publicly in order to counter Russian disinformation.
This is a positive step to ensure that intelligence can be discussed and assessed critically. Being more open about secret intelligence may also be linked to the increasing capabilities of open-source intelligence (OSINT). Non-governmental and international organizations and the media all now have access to data from, for example, imaging satellites and can independently verify information coming from governments.
Perceived double standards
A reduction of trust in US and UK intelligence was not the only impact of the invasion of Iraq. Russia and China have repeatedly called out the US and UK for acting without a second UN Security Council mandate. Putin uses the decision to invade Iraq, as well as the NATO humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, to justify Russia’s actions in Crimea. He invokes parallel language to spread disinformation about a ‘responsibility to protect life’ of the (‘ethnically Russian’) Crimean population. Russia has also repeatedly used the WMD trope to create false narratives around Ukrainian biosecurity laboratories to justify Russian military actions against Ukraine.
Deciding to invade Iraq under what turned out to be a false pretext has weakened the application of the international rule of law and has led to a perceived double standard whereby powerful states can use UN processes in their favour, or completely disregard them if they do not deliver their goals.
As the Chilcot Inquiry found, there was very little preparation for the post-invasion period either in the US or the UK. Confirmation bias led not only to trusting shaky intelligence but also to believing in a best-case scenario and a ‘relatively benign security environment’ once the invasion had prevailed. Mismanaging the country’s occupation afterwards also led to the perception that the UK and US are less competent than projected.
Problems for the international order
The Iraq War has left many smaller and medium-sized states outside Europe and North America with the impression that powerful states are not committed to an equitable international system and instead will bend the rules to suit them while nonetheless holding other states to account. This dynamic poses a serious problem for the international system.
It opens the door to ‘whataboutism’ in Russia’s false justifications for invading Ukraine and undermines faith in international law, destabilizing the international order in the longer term. Beyond the immediate challenges of dealing with the war in Ukraine, reforming and strengthening the international order to make it more equitable will be one of the most significant challenges the US and UK will face over the next decade.
A trust deficit
Domestically, for already disappointed citizens, the deceit over intelligence it is yet another piece of evidence which suggests that their government is not trustworthy and may not have their best interests at heart. This has profound implications for US and UK democracies, making it harder for governments to counter citizens’ susceptibilities to disinformation campaigns.