Why America's invasion of Iraq should be a warning to Israel

In 2003, no amount of planning would have led to a good outcome. The same is true now

US troops take control of an unspecified area in southern Iraq in March 2003. AFP
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Israel’s ground offensive against the Gaza Strip has started in earnest. The Israeli government maintains that its objective is to eliminate Hamas, but if it is successful in that aim, it is unclear what – if anything – it is planning for the day after.

Numerous American and European officials have warned Israel against the consequences of what might follow. In a clear reference to the war in Iraq, US President Joe Biden said: “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. When we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

Mr Biden is correct that what happened in Iraq in 2003 should be instructive for Israel. However, based on his comments and on what has transpired since, he appears to have learned the wrong lessons from the invasion that took place two decades ago.

The US President appears to have told the Israelis that America’s catastrophe in Iraq was caused by poor or inexistent planning, and that that was caused by the fact that the US was still in a state of rage after the 9/11 attacks.

The first obvious point here is that the US invaded Iraq 18 months after 9/11, and that whatever rage it felt in the days and weeks after the attacks had clearly dissipated by then. Indeed, any review of the historical record will unearth countless analysts and decision makers who openly argued that the US had already achieved its objectives in Afghanistan and who wondered why an invasion of Iraq was necessary.

The second problem with Mr Biden’s comments is that planning was never the issue for the US in Iraq. The real issue was that there was no amount of planning that would have led to a good outcome.

Mr Biden is correct that what happened in Iraq in 2003 should be instructive for Israel. However, he appears to have learned the wrong lessons

The main reason for that is that the US did not invade in a historical vacuum. It had already been engaging with Iraq for decades, including in the 1980s when it supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, in 1991 when it bombed vital civilian infrastructure, and during the 1990s with its totally ineffectual and inhumane sanctions regime.

The point is that by 2003, the US was so distrusted and indeed so hated in Iraq that its invasion was bound to start an insurgency and was always going to motivate the international extremist movement to fight against it in Iraq.

Of course, Mr Biden is correct to suggest that the US engaged in faulty planning in 2003.

The original plans were drawn up based on exchanges with a section of the Iraqi community in exile who fed US officials with delusional expectations of what would happen after an invasion. Those plans were abandoned and replaced twice by the summer of 2003. However, although it is easy to stop there and to attribute everything that followed to this poor planning, there is much more to it than that. In fact, less than a year into the occupation, the US authorities had already recovered and were outmanoeuvring Iraqi political and social forces.

But the point is that there was almost nothing that the US could have done to overcome the levels of distrust and bad will that had been accumulating for decades and that were then translated into violence.

The lessons for the Israelis here are obvious: if it ends up reoccupying all or parts of Gaza, it will have to deal with the historical legacy of its own behaviour, including mass expulsions of Palestinians, decades of occupation, a system of apartheid that is increasingly overt, human rights abuses and much more. All of this has given rise to levels of distrust and hatred that will make it impossible to govern that territory.

In response, Israeli officials and analysts have been suggesting that, if Israel is successful is conquering the entire enclave, some type of arrangement will be struck with other actors to take control of Gaza. Some have suggested that the Arab League should step up and lead a stabilising force. Others have said that the Palestinian Authority should be invited to govern Gaza. Others still have said that an international force could assist.

And on this point, Iraq is also instructive.

In 2014, after ISIS took control over large parts of Iraq, the Iraqi government mobilised to liberate its territory. Many analysts, officials and commentators suggested at the time that it could not be done based on the assumption that the local population was so supportive of ISIS that it would always resist a takeover by the Iraqi state.

In fact, the opposite was true – residents in Tikrit and elsewhere were begging for the government to liberate their cities as their only viable escape from ISIS. And the Iraqi government received support from an international coalition for that purpose, which collaborated on several fronts.

After the liberation was complete, the same people who had been described as irrecoverable ISIS supporters all gladly returned to their homes, under the cloak of relative safety that had been provided by the Iraqi government.

The difference with the situation that Israel is now facing in Gaza could not be starker.

The reality is that if it manages to reoccupy Gaza, no one will provide any manpower to support it. No one will step up to occupy the territory on Israel’s behalf. There is no army in the region that will provide assistance, and western nations have no direct interest in getting involved. Finally, Gaza’s local population will be overtly hostile to any form of renewed direct occupation.

Whatever Israel does, it will not be able to overcome the legacies of the past century on its own. Its only solution is to strive for justice for all, a goal that is perhaps more distant today than it has ever been.

Published: November 03, 2023, 4:00 AM