March 20th marked the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That day, at 2:30, Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, was attacked with missiles and bombs in an attempt to target the nation’s leader Saddam Hussein and bring down his government. Operation Iraqi Freedom began with a “shock and awe” campaign of aerial bombardment. A few hours after the first strikes, then U.S. President George W Bush appeared on TV promising to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.

For Thomas Hanson, a former U.S. diplomat, the Iraq invasion left a very bitter aftertaste in the American public. Hanson spent over 25 years as a U.S. diplomate in major capitals and at crucial moments, including during the Cold War, in Europe and Russia.
Hanson, now a diplomat in residence at Minnesota’s St. Thomas University and Carleton College, as well as chair of the Minnesota Council of Foreign Relations, recalls former French President Jacques Chirac’s reaction when the French president appeared on U.S. television the night before the invasion to urge the United States not to invade Iraq.
“There is another option, a less dramatic way than war,” Chirac said. “Beware, be careful, that can be very dangerous.” But his warning went unheeded.

According to a study of the Brown University published in 2021, Iraq lost nearly 500,000 civilians in the war and the subsequent eight-year American occupation. As for the United States, around 8,500 American military personnel and contractors have died there and as many as 300,000 others returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, among other war-related conditions. In addition, the Iraq invasion’s cost for the United States is $2 trillion.

While initially the majority of Americans supported the war, the high human and financial costs eventually turned the electorate away from wanting to go to war again any time soon, Hanson says. “Just like people talk about a new Vietnam syndrome,” he says. Long after the brutal experience in the war in Vietnam (1955-1975), the “Vietnam syndrome” is still being used to explain the reluctance of some U.S. administrations to become involved in overseas conflicts.

Iran is the only beneficiary of the war, Hanson says, adding that the country gained more influence in the region.
When the Iraqi Army collapsed in 2014 after The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured major parts of the territory including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) were formed. These Shia militias under the umbrella of the PMF were supported by Teheran and thus seen as Iranian proxy groups.

Thomas Hanson during the interview at St. Thomas University in St. Paul   

(Photo: Tarek KAI)

“Teheran has a lot of influence on what is going on there through the Shia militias.” Hanson explains. “In a sense, we kind of removed the counterweight that was there ever since the Iran-Iraq war where we backed Iraq.”
But what would have happened if Iraq was not invaded?
“Saddam’s son was waiting in the wings,” says Hanson. “How stable would that have been? There might have been some kind of a Shia uprising at some point. Chances are, they are doing it themselves as opposed to us.”

The other problem of that war for Hanson is the outsourcing from the U.S. military, as what happened with Blackwater, the paramilitary group that operated in Iraq.
“That’s not healthy for a democracy. To start creating private militias and things,” says Hanson. He draws parallels with Russian paramilitary group Wagner that is operating now in Ukraine. “It is a copy of Blackwater that was not under the control of U.S. government and which committed atrocities.”

Unlike the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hanson views the first Gulf War in 1991, which had a UN mandate, as successful. Both military interventions aimed to bring democracy to the region. But democracy for Hanson is not just about organizing elections and letting people vote.
“As if just having an election makes you democratic,” he says. “There is a deeper institution building that has to happen. It’s not just surface elections. I can’t really think what we have learned from this invasion except not to do it again anytime soon.”