Many are the people who ask what went wrong after 9/11. Why, after the swift decimation of Al Qaeda and the rare moment of national unity and world support, did so many things go so wrong for America? One possible answer is the invasion of Iraq.
The Iraq War was launched in 2003 on the premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and the implication that this placed his despotic regime in league with Al Qaeda and on the hook for 9/11. The premise was wrong, the implication was unfounded, and the intelligence wheeled out to support it was embarrassingly ginned up.
I was offered rare insight into the thinking that led to this in an interview with Tony Blair in June 2005, when, as London-based Europe-Africa Editor of the Associated Press, I interviewed the British PM together with our local bureau chief, the indomitable Paisley Dodds.
As he met us on the terrace overlooking the pleasant back garden of iconic Number 10, Blair was already bleeding support because of his strong backing of the Iraq War; but he had just won a third term nonetheless, and the war was not yet viewed as quite the unforgiveable travesty that so dogs his reputation at home today.
In my preface to the key question, I noted that the invasion was based on nonsense, but conceded that good things resulted as well: a cruel dictator was gone, and a jittery Libya gave up its own weapons program, which was real. Was it a case of the ends justifying the means?
Blair is a personable fellow who will stop and talk to you; he looks you in the eye and truly seems to listen; he does not run away from a question. And, on this occasion, he was in a frame of mind for candor in a rather extraordinary way.
“What happened for me after September 11 is that the balance of risk changed,” Blair said. The stakes were now so high that sitting idly by was not an option.
He described the conclusion of his talks with George W. Bush this way: After the attacks it was necessary to “draw a line in the sand here, and the country to do it with was Iraq because they were in breach of UN resolutions going back over many years.”
Translating this into ordinary person-speak: a Mideast butt needed to be kicked to scare the hell out of any other evildoers, and Saddam’s was the most kickable, because the excuse was sitting there waiting to be used.
Put another way: Something had to be done; invading Iraq was something; so invading had to be done.
Saddam indeed was in breach of resolutions to allow inspections, but it ultimately emerged that this was not because he had an advanced weapons program. Blair seemed untroubled by the false intelligence to the contrary: “I took the view that if these people ever got hold of nuclear, chemical, or biological capability, they would probably use it.”
And so the US military, backed by the UK and a coalition of other countries, but not by the United Nations, invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003. Saddam was swiftly overthrown, and, after a period of hiding, he was found, tried, and executed.
But warfare against insurgents and Islamists took up most of the intervening 18 years. The country was badly ruled by Shiites who bungled relations with the minority Sunnis and the Kurds. From 2014 to 2017, the Al Qaeda offshoot calling itself Islamic State controlled vast swaths of Iraq (and also Syria, decimated by its own civil war), brought epic misery to the population, and was dislodged only by a massive US-led air war that left entire cities in ruins (see this AP series). Today, the country still hosts a small US contingent, but is coming increasingly under the sway of Iran.
To achieve these unstellar ends, the US spent well over a trillion dollars (some estimates are double that) and sacrificed (as of July) the lives of 4431 soldiers, well over the toll of 9/11 (the UK lost hundreds of soldiers as well). And while counts vary, it is widely believed that the direct and indirect Iraqi deaths caused by the invasion run north of a half-million (a landmark 2006 study by the Lancet put the figure at over 600,000).
In the interview, Blair pledged to stick it out. “There is only one side to be on now, and it is time we got on it and stuck in there and get the job done, and not leave until the job is done,” he said. The last UK forces withdrew from Iraq on May 22, 2011, four years after Blair ultimately stepped down.
The Iraq War proved to be a massive distraction from Afghanistan, the invasion of which was justified by the fact that its Taliban leadership had hosted Al Qaeda, which carried out the 9/11 attacks. There too, the initial aim was swiftly achieved in the overthrow of the Taliban (and later killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden).
But it became the lesser war, and the US never did move to crush the Taliban as it crushed Islamic State. The group was allowed to hide out in Pakistan, which itself was strangely given a free pass, and the coalition was dragged into a war of attrition. Insufficient steps were taken to ensure the Western-backed Kabul government would be clean, competent, and able to survive a US pullout. Now, as of last month, the Taliban are back in power in Kabul, at great cost to the people of Afghanistan and the reputation of the West.
The Iraq War affected more than Afghanistan, in the way that all events impact all events to follow. No Iraq war — no Barack Obama to stand out among the few to vote against it, and possibly no Obama presidency. No Obama presidency — no white backlash to yield a Donald Trump. No Trump — well, a different world today. There are other factors too, but these are all pieces of the terrible puzzle of bad karma that now afflicts the United States.
In the interview, Paisley asked Blair if he feels badly aged in office. Ever-alert communications adviser David Hill quickly stepped in: “Prime Minister, we mustn’t keep the queen waiting.” (Such a meeting was actually in the books!) But Blair, ever the pleaser, motioned him away. “I want to answer the question.”
He looked at my colleague as if convincing her was the most important thing in the world (next to, perhaps, the pacification of Iraq): “Not at all. Rather, I feel … full of vim. And vigor!” Jumping to his feet, he appeared to want to say one further thing, but changed his mind. With a bounce in his step Blair leapt into the house, and swiftly he was gone.
I glanced sadly at the garden, understanding that my time, too, would soon be finished in this place. It actually is such a green and pleasant land.