Little can be said that has not already been said regarding the Second U.S. Gulf War (better known as the War in Iraq, 2003-2011). The U.S. invasion of the Republic of Iraq was a strategic blunder of historic proportions. Virtually every premise and prediction made by its advocates for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was either false or grossly exaggerated. Its casualties included not only the lives of many thousands, but also truth, and the "public trust" in both government and political party. Yet there was a casualty that continues to go largely unreported and underappreciated, particularly within the country’s intellectual class: the respect for state sovereignty which is the fundamental unit of the international system.
As academic and abstract as this casualty may seem, its recent departure has already been felt far beyond any ivory tower.
In order to better appreciate the strategic magnitude of this loss and how it affects the ordinary lives of non-academics, one must understand how the aims of the Second Gulf War departed from the aims of the First Gulf War (1990-1991).
Consider the aims of the First Gulf War. Contrary to popular recollection (and initial statements made by George H.W. Bush's administration), the First Gulf War was not waged because Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed a geopolitical threat to global oil supplies or to the American economy. That understanding, while still acceptable in informed circles, is a myth. It was waged because Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, by invading and annexing a fellow UN member state in Kuwait, had committed an unpardonable sin in international relations. This cardinal sin was the unprovoked transgression into another state’s borders and formal annexation of that state’s territory (in this case the entire state) to the aggressor state.
Such fundamental prohibitions on interstate behavior date back to the 17th century Peace of Westphalia (1648) that legally codified both the political map of post-Reformation Europe and the norms of interstate behavior. These norms were further codified on a global scale through the ratification of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945. It should be noted that the immediate circumstances of the latter treaty, World War II, arose when a certain state (Hitler’s Germany) proceeded to annex territories in violation of international treaty. Hitler broke the Munich agreement with Great Britain and France by annexing all of Czechoslovakia, rather than just the Sudetenland, by force in 1938, as well as international law during the invasion and annexation of Poland in 1939.
Now contrast this with the aims of the Second Gulf War. Briefly put, the Second Gulf War was a pre-emptive war against a state, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which the U.S. felt constituted a unique global threat by virtue of its perceived intentions to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the perceived uncertainty that these weapons would not fall into the hands of Islamist terrorist groups. It is clear that this course of action was not an anomaly, but represented a new strategic approach in how the U.S. confronted international challenges.
Unlike the First Gulf War, which was a defensive conflict waged to restore the territorial integrity of a weaker state in Kuwait from an aggressor state in Iraq, the Second Gulf War was a purely offensive conflict that not only violated these well established norms but also provided a harrowing precedent: the overthrow of a legitimate state which would be quickly followed by the disintegration of the existing political order within that state, thus rendering that state a "failed state."
This precedent has since been taken up on two occasions, both in 2011; first n Libya by the UK and France with the assistance of the U.S., and second in Syria by the U.S., UK, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf State monarchies, and Iran. The former intervention has since been blamed for exacerbating the instability in North Africa, particularly in neighboring Mali. The outcome of the latter intervention, which is still in its preliminary stages, is already beginning to impact the fragile political systems of neighboring states in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq.
Compounding these problems still further is the battlefield where the Second Gulf War was actually waged: in the heart of the Middle East. Perhaps in no other region were the precedents established by the Second Gulf War needed less than in the Middle East, where internationally recognized borders bare little resemblance to the populations they contain. Indeed, the borders of Iraq are a perfect example of this regional reality.
In short, the lasting legacy of the Second Gulf War is the Hobbesian order that has slowly emerged in large parts of the Levant. Rather than an order where "the rule of law, and not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations," it is an order characterized by lawlessness, instability, violence, extremist religion, and increasing anarchy.