Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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April 3, 2003

After Iraq: Changes in the Fundamentals?

Identifying the questions is the first step in finding the answers and the path through the next phase of global strategic development.

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. Wars do not always define the nature of Victory — the multi-generational success of a society or group of societies in determining control of their own fate — but they can define watersheds in the achievement or sustenance of the long-term process. The old educational process of learning history through the rote memorizing of battle dates may, after all, have been important. The US-led war against Iraq has been sufficiently global in its impact to represent such an historic watershed. How states and leaders act in the aftermath will be critical.

Among the fundamentals which need to be addressed are:

It is significant that the Iraq war demonstrated that warfare remains a province in which the character of commanders and troops is critical. This is a reflection on training, morale, leadership and logistics. But above all, the US Clinton Administration’s attempt to validate the concept that air power alone can win wars has been thoroughly discredited. Equally, the Iraqi resistance  to the US-led Coalition, despite a reliance on coercion of Iraqi troops to fight against their will in many instances, demonstrated that sheer numbers can sustain a credible (although not war-winning) defense, sufficient to provide an iconographic political impact.

If anything, the war against Iraq was a struggle for symbolism, highlighting the point made by Napoleon: the moral is to the physical as two is to one. How cleanly the image of the war’s result emerges will greatly influence the strategic impact which the United States has in the immediate post-war years.

The perhaps necessary focus of the US George W. Bush Administration on the military symbolism of the “war on terror” and the related war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein obscured the reality that longer-term strategic dominance requires — to paraphrase Napoleon — twice the focus on global psychological strategies than a focus on military strategies. This does not diminish the US need to continue to focus its energies on military transformation and modernization, but rather demands that Washington now, almost for the first time in real terms, look at the psychological aspects of grand strategy implementation.

What has been significant in the post-Cold War period has been the fact that overall global spending on defense has remained extremely low as a percentage of economic levels. In FY 1975-76, when Donald Rumsfeld was first US Secretary of Defense, US Defense spending was 6.6 percent of GNP, at $92.8-billion in then-current dollars. By FY 1999-2000, the US Defense spend was down to 3.2 percent of GDP (at $276.7-billion). By FY 2002-03, when Donald Rumsfeld was again Defense Secretary, the spend was around $380-billion; again, proportionate to the economy’s size, Defense spending made less than half the demand on the public than it made a quarter-century before. At the same time, the number of men under arms declined proportionately in the US.1

 The same relative situation has applied in all other industrial societies, and has been mirrored in many developing states. So while much discussion has been focused on the belief that the world is now dominated by a single superpower, the reality is that global dominance by one, or more than one, power has in fact diminished; the world is, in fact, far less dominated and finitely controlled than at any time in the past 50 years. This means that the world is far more volatile than for generations.

But as new coalitions of trading, responsible nations occur, other communities, which are endemically committed to deliberately non-productive structures, are also building their own alliances and blocs. These new “unproductive blocs” have only one power, the power to inflict punishment on their own people and others; and this is a great power for blackmail and leverage. What is so difficult for states who aspire to great civilization, which are built over generations, is that this great work can be so easily threatened by ignorance and the willingness of the unproductive blocs to take risks through the use of brute force. The United Nations (UN) itself has been, and almost certainly will continue to be, a major forum in which to achieve consensus, but it is not a body which is a sovereign legislative power.

The frustration of failing, or unproductive states and societies has led — and will almost certainly continue to lead — to the use of terrorism as a means of strategic leverage. In many respects, the net strategic impact of terrorism has been a loss of leverage for the sponsoring states, albeit simultaneously providing a psychological sense of achievement and self-assurance to the users and supporters of terrorism. However, the success of counter-terrorism operations, and the growth of international cooperation in combating terrorism, following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network on the US has severely and increasingly curtailed the scope and frequency of terrorist “spectaculars”.

However, even where terrorism continued on a significant scale — in Bali, Mombasa and Israel — it was because the targets were (in the case of Bali and Mombasa) soft, and because in all instances state sponsorship of terrorism continued, albeit on a more cautious level. The US and allied targeting of some, but certainly not all, state sponsors of terrorism has already had a profound effect in limiting the risks which those sponsoring states will take in supporting terrorist groups. Since the so-called “war on terror” began, governments such as that of Sudan and Pakistan and Iran have ceased supporting terrorist operations which might draw the ire of the US. There was, even within the Indonesian arms of al-Qaida, and among their supporters within the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), a real debate raised about undertaking the Bali operation on October 12, 2002, for the real reason that it would bring down on the Islamists and their allies the focus and wrath of the governments of the region and the US.

With the collapse of the Saddam Government in Iraq, the possible collapse of the clerical Administration in Iran, and the impending collapse of Yasir Arafat’s leadership in the Palestinian Authority and Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi’s demise in Libya, the tenor of terrorism will change. Egyptian Pres. Hosni Mubarak on March 31, 2003, warned that the US-led war on Iraq would unleash “one hundred new bin Ladens”,2 driving more Muslims to anti-Western militancy, but this is not necessarily the case. Or, perhaps more to the point, without significant state or private sector sponsorship (logistical as well as financial), “100 new bin Ladens” would not be as effective as the original.

The US Bush Administration failed to make absolutely clear the linkages between the “war on terror” and the issue of state sponsorship by Iraq, Iran, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, etc. This failure to make the linkage clear — in effect, to enunciate the casus belli — made it more difficult to generate global support for the US-led war against Iraq. But the results will speak for themselves: the limiting of state sponsorship will, along with the anti-terrorist operations underway, drive terrorism into a smaller place in the strategic and psychological framework.

So terrorism must be relegated to its proper proportion in the global strategic outlook. What is of primary importance now is that all 18 of the strategic questions be examined, and addressed, within a unified framework.


1. Figures from Defense & Foreign Affairs Handbook 1976 edition and 15th edition; published by the International Strategic Studies Association, Alexandria, Virginia, USA.

2. Address by Egyptian Pres. Hosni Mubarak to Egyptian troops in Suez City, March 31, 2003.