One Year On: Lessons from Iraq

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 1, 2004

The war on terrorism

Regime change in Iraq was supposed to be a contribution to the war on terrorism in the three distinct ways. First, by removing a state sponsor of terrorism that allegedly had links to al-Qaeda and might supply such organisations with weapons of mass destruction; second by sending a message to other potential state supporters of terrorism and thus deterring them from doing so; and third by taking a first step toward the democratisation of the Middle East, which in the long run would help dry up the sources of terrorism.

At this point, it appears that the first effect was minor at best, because Saddam does not appear to have had the links with al-Qaeda that many in the Bush administration alleged. The Iraqi regime no doubt had a record of support for terrorism, of which its announced incentives for Palestinian suicide bombers was an egregious recent example. But if the primary target of the ‘war on terrorism’ was meant to be the ‘terrorists of global reach’ that could and would conduct massive attacks against the United States, then removing Saddam was a minor contribution at best. In that sense, if anything the war in Iraq was a significant distraction to the war on terror: it diverted massive military, intelligence and financial assets away from missions on which they would have been better deployed. As regards the direct threat from global terrorism, the United States would have better off focusing on the stabilisation of Afghanistan and the hunt for al-Qaeda that on the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

As for the deterrent effect on terrorism, the record is so far mixed. The Bush doctrine of using or threatening force against rogue regimes—strongly reinforced be the sight of Saddam Hussein being pulled out of a hole by the US military—may well have had a salutary effect on the leaders of terrorism-supporting states. But it can also be argued that the costly American occupation of Iraq actually makes military threats against other regimes less rather than more credible. US diplomacy is discredited and the US military is overstretched by its occupation duties in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iran, three times as populous as Iraq and historically, averse to American intervention—leaders must feel reasonably confident that the United States will not soon seriously contemplate an ‘Operation Iranian Freedom’ followed by a US occupation. Nor, tragically, has the invasion of Iraq les Palestinian militant groups to abandon terrorist tactics out of fear of US power. Almost by definition, non-state terrorists actors like al-Qaeda itself will not be deterred be regime change in Iraq, though they could be inspired by it.

Reprinted by permission of the Institute for Strategic Studies (Chaillot Paper 68, One Year On: Lessons from Iraq, March 2004)