This week marks the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Yet, it drew a somewhat limited focus in the German media, which was much more attentive to the new Pope in Rome or the economic plight of Cyprus. Those commentaries that did aim at this milestone reflected a glass half empty attitude when it came to evaluating the accomplishments of the war and Iraq itself. The terrorist explosions in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq coinciding with the anniversary were seen as evidence that Iraq remains a most fragile state following the exit of U.S. troops.
Germany’s decision in 2003 to say no to supporting the U.S.-British led attack on Saddam’s Iraq has been relegated to the history books on both sides of the Atlantic. Bitter as the battle between Berlin and Washington was ten years ago—Condoleezza Rice declared German-American relations poisoned by it—the attitude among Germans today appears to be simply that of “we were right.” Colin Powell’s warning that “you break it, you own it” came true and the Germans were relieved that they did neither.
Of course, the story is more complicated. German intelligence was involved in the analysis of Saddam’s alleged weapons program, along with other allies of the U.S., and shared suspicions about the dangers with Washington. Nevertheless, Chancellor Schroeder and Joschka Fischer were “not convinced” that the response required an invasion, arguing for other options instead of force. While those options were never clearly spelled out, it did not matter given the resolve in the Bush White House to go after Saddam.
During the following years, Germany was to offer various dimensions of aid and help to Iraq in its struggle to steer through the violence of its civil war and terrorist attacks in order to stabilize the post-Saddam environment. And the initial antagonism between Washington and Berlin gave way to areas of cooperation as the situation in Iraq evolved to what today is still a very precarious balance of stability and threats in an unstable region.
Meanwhile, the debate in the U.S. over the decision taken to invade Iraq in 2003 remains polarizing in many ways. The fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction posing an immediate threat from Iraq undermined the credibility of the Bush administration at home and abroad. Furthermore, that more people were to die and be injured in Iraq after that revelation became clear added to the clash between those who supported the invasion and those who—then and later—criticized the decision. Iraq was destined to become a milestone in the American annals of foreign policy debates. Billed as either the biggest blunder in history or a noble cause undercut by domestic infighting, Iraq will cast a long shadow over the course of American foreign policy-making for years to come. It is clearly impacting the U.S. positions on other conflicts, as Washington watches events in Syria and Mali unfold.
Whatever the future of Iraq will be, the arguments in Washington, DC and throughout the entire country about the virtues and vices of that decision are certain to remain, just as the debate over Vietnam continues to haunt the American foreign policy chronicles.
For Germans—in contrast to Afghanistan—Iraq is more like a tragic drama they watched unfold, tragic for Iraqis but also for the U.S. The conclusions drawn in Berlin confirmed their belief that superior military forces would not be powerful enough to transform Iraq as a society. Nor did Germans necessarily share the belief that Iraq could become an example for liberty and democracy in an Arab-Muslim framework as advertised by the Bush administration. In fact, the conclusion was that the Americans had created a situation in which Iran had risen in its influence throughout the region, along with a further polarization of ethnic and religious clashes not only in Iraq.
Yet amidst this critical view that is now widespread on both sides of the Atlantic, there remains a series of question. How can the lessons from Iraq offer a better platform for dealing with the forces of oppression, violence and aggression? When is the need for force both clear and justified to stop a dictatorship from inflicting terror inside or beyond its borders? There was agreement between Berlin and Washington when that question was raised with regard to Afghanistan after 9/11. Even earlier there was agreement with regard to dealing with the forces of aggression in the Balkans. Germany is even currently helping Turkey with defenses of its borders as a NATO ally. However, there was also disagreement between Germany and its allies when it came to the crisis in Libya. And now there is dissonance over the question of an arms embargo on Syrian rebels.
During the past two decades, Germany has moved beyond a passive stance when it comes to military engagements, including the loss of military lives as a cost. Yet the combination of both the legacy of its past, as well as the perception of present challenges like Afghanistan and Iraq, lead Germans to arrive at a point where they believe they can say that they don’t have to agree with their allies on responses involving military force. Even today Germans will argue that their engagement in Afghanistan was primarily prompted by loyalty to a wounded U.S. after the September 2001 attacks. But even that engagement offers evidence that Germany was not unwilling to use force, even if the conditions imposed on the German military were constrained by its own domestic political parameters.
Given the uncertain futures of Afghanistan, Iraq, and indeed the entire region in which they find themselves struggling for stability, the questions raised above may generate different answers within the domestic debates on either side of the Atlantic for many years to come. There is no question that there is now significant argument going on in the U.S. about the parameters of American foreign policy following this past decade. The factors determining American power are in a period of transformation in what some call the “post hegemonic era.” Yet precisely because of that transformation, countries like Germany should be thinking about what the implications will be for them in this new era. It is not so evident that such efforts are underway.
If nothing else, the legacy of Iraq will be not only how that country was changed after 2003, but how it in turn changed others, in particular the United States, but Germany as well.