The Ultimate 'What If': A World Where America Never Invaded Iraq

What would America’s strategic options look like today? What would the world look like? 

Every player of the popular video game Civilization knows to hit the save button before engaging in the risky, stupid invasion of foreign country. In the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it became apparent after the first few months that the war was not working out as its framers had envisioned.  The failure to find weapons of mass destruction was only the icing, so to speak, on the disaster of failed reconciliation, state collapse, and executive incompetence.

What if we had “saved game” before we invaded Iraq? What would America’s strategic options look like today?

The Middle East

In 2003, we spoke of the policy of “dual containment” as a problem that needed a solution.  How could the United States manage a pair of hostile countries right next to one another? Today, the wiser among us recognize that “dual containment” was, in large part, a solution to its own problem.  The animosity of the Hussein regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran meant that neither could achieve overarching influence in the Gulf.

In the wake of the Iraq War, “dual containment” has become “basket case management,” as Iraq has ceased to exist as a relevant strategic actor, and Iranian influence has grown in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.  While the U.S. no longer has to worry about Hussein, it has been forced to devote its military and political attention not only to the maintenance of the shaky Baghdad government, but also to the resistance of Iranian power in the region.

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The impact of the Iraq War on the Arab Spring is more difficult to sort out.  The framers of the war hoped that the establishment of a democratic Iraq would spur anti-authoritarian reactions around the region, although they also hoped that U.S. clients (including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states) would be spared. Something along these lines did indeed happen in 2011, but only well after most in the region had concluded that the invasion of Iraq was a disastrous failure.

And indeed, the fruits of the Arab Spring have been limited at best.  Tunisia represents the clearest case of success, while Libya has fallen into chaos, authoritarian forces have reasserted themselves in Egypt, and Syria has become an unending cauldron of violence and brutality. In Iraq itself, the legacy of the invasion of 2003 seems to be an inability to escape obligations to the new Iraqi government; the United States continues to act as the Iraqi air force, and continues to struggle to train reliable Iraqi army forces.

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Was dual containment manageable in the long run?  The U.S. has spent far more in blood and treasure since 2003 than it did between 1991 and 2003, so from a purely military and financial standpoint the answer is clearly “yes.” And while dual containment would have left the dreadful Hussein regime in power, it likely would have avoided the worst of the several civil wars that Iraq has endured in the past twelve years.

Russia and China:

Did Russia or China take advantage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to advance their interests?  This question demands the follow up “How would Russian or Chinese behavior have changed if the U.S. had avoided the Iraqi quagmire?” The answer, probably, is “not much.”

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The Iraqi campaign surely occupied U.S. attention and used up American capabilities, but the likelihood of U.S. military intervention in a campaign involving either Russia or China was vanishingly small in any case.  The only conflict of note that the U.S. might have played a part in was the 2008 South Ossetia War.  Although the Georgians desperately sought American intervention, the Bush administration wisely limited its support to rhetoric.

The rise of China and the increased belligerence of Russia owe more to geopolitical factors than to anything specifically associated with the Iraq War.  At best, we might find some association between the rise of oil prices in the wake of the invasion of Iraq and the strength of the Russian state (China did not benefit from higher oil prices. However, the increase in oil prices after 2003 owes at least as much to the growth of the Chinese and Indian economies as it does to the decision to invade.)

Russia and China have surely enjoyed soft power benefits from the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Moscow regularly responds to U.S. criticism of its actions in Ukraine by referring to the 2003 invasion, although it also points to the 1999 Kosovo War and the 2011 Libya intervention.  Beijing regularly questions American pretensions to maritime husbandry in the South China Sea, fueled to some extent by lingering unhappiness about the invasion of Iraq. But the long-term impact of this soft power boost is uncertain.


The invasion of Iraq affected Afghanistan in two ways.  First, it diverted U.S. government resources away from Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban was clearly suffering from a devastating defeat.  Second, it undermined the legitimacy of the Afghanistan war by presenting the operation merely as one of (potentially) several invasions of Muslim countries, rather than as a uniquely necessary effort to destroy a uniquely horrible regime.