“The early 2000s was a strange era of fear and terror”: remembering the Iraq War 20 years on
Twenty years on from the Iraq War, a BBC Radio 4 series sets out to chart its real causes and consequences. Matt Elton speaks to its presenter, Gordon Corera, about how it compares with earlier wars, and his own experiences of the conflict
Do you think we’re now far enough removed to be able to view the Iraq War as a historical event?
It’s a good question, because there’s an ongoing debate about when you can start looking at an event with a historical eye: is it five years afterwards, 10 years, 20 years? When does it stop being news or current affairs?
The impacts of the 2003 Iraq War are still rippling out to this day, and some of its legacies – including the way Iraq is run – are still unresolved. So it would be wrong to say that we can treat it purely as history. But we can now ask people who were involved to reflect and to analyse the events in a historical context.
That includes the significance of the 9/11 attacks on the US, but also later events, too: developments in the Middle East, or even the resurgence of state-on-state conflict in Ukraine after years in which the global focus had shifted to a concern about terrorism.
What were your experiences of the conflict at the time?
I started as a reporter and producer on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in 2001. I went to the US within days of 9/11 and, in the following weeks, heard the first talk about attacking Iraq. It seemed extraordinary, but I watched first-hand as developments drove the US and UK closer and closer to war.
One of the aims of this new BBC Radio 4 series, Shock and War: Iraq 20 Years On, is to understand why those decisions were taken: why claims were made about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, for instance, or why Tony Blair made the commitments he made. I’ve had the chance to ask those questions of some of the well-known central figures in London and Washington, as well as people in Iraq who experienced things at the sharp end.
At the time, did this feel like a moment that would have such a seismic effect?
I think the world changed on 9/11 – and then the year and a half leading up to the Iraq War was just relentless. Looking back at archive material from the time, it’s clear just how fast events moved during that period: the terrorist attacks in Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia, attempts to bring down aeroplanes with shoe bombs, and the fear of further attacks.
It was a very strange era of fear and terror – and the seemingly relentless drive towards conflict in Iraq was very much a part of that.
Do you think the pace of events was a factor in decision-making and, arguably, in mistakes that may have been made?
Absolutely. If you talk to top British officials, including Blair, you sense that there was so much focus on day-to-day decisions, and on procedural concerns such as getting resolutions passed at the United Nations, that not enough thought was put into plausible post-war scenarios.
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It’s self-evident that was not done properly, and there are a lot of reasons for that – some of them related to the dysfunctional internal politics of Washington DC at the time. But it’s astonishing to think that the war plans were all about removing Saddam, not about what would come afterwards. That, clearly, was one of the greatest failures.
Another important thread in the story is the influence of Iraqi exiles on debates about the kind of government that should run Iraq after the war. So little preparation went into that aspect. We spoke to people who were basically deposited in Iraq and told they were running a province – people who had no experience running anything, let alone a province of a country that had just been invaded and was effectively occupied.
How is the war now viewed in Iraq?
There’s no simple answer to that, and you will get different views from different people. We have spoken to a lot of Iraqis and, especially, set out to talk to young Iraqis about their views. Some are happy that Saddam Hussein is gone, but very few are happy with what came afterwards.
Some of the most powerful voices are those who feel that, even though Saddam was a tyrant, they were promised something that was never delivered after 2003: a more open and democratic Iraq.
Many people suffered greatly, too. Making the series, I was reminded just how terrible the spasms of violence were in Iraq after 2003, and how many people lost their lives or paid a terrible price over the years.
How does the Iraq conflict compare to other 20th-century wars?
The war itself was relatively short: it took just weeks for the US and its allies to depose Saddam Hussein. The problematic issues were the politics and ideologies that drove the war, which were also used to explain why the war fell apart and what went wrong afterwards.
The 1956 Suez Crisis [in which a coalition of Israel, the UK and France launched an ill-fated invasion of Egypt in a bid to topple its president] is an interesting reference point for the UK. That failure did great damage to Britain’s standing and reputation, and changed its relationship with the US.
The Iraq War had similarly profound historical consequences for the UK – and the US – in terms of how it was seen by the world and, later, in its unwillingness to intervene in future crises, including those in Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
What are the most important misunderstandings about the conflict?
The idea that the war was simply about weapons of mass destruction isn’t true, but it is true that the intelligence was wrong. In the series, we try to unpick why. Is it as simple as people being deliberately misled, or was there something else going on – and why did the intelligence turn out to be so wrong?
I hope that our series will reveal new details, particularly about what was really going on with those weapons of mass destruction, about Blair’s decision to join the US – and why, frankly, that decision was based on a truly historic intelligence failure.
Listen to more of this conversation on the HistoryExtra podcast
BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera tells Matt Elton about his new BBC Radio 4 series considering the causes and consequences of the Iraq War – and discusses whether now is the right time to view the conflict as history.
Gordon Corera is the BBC’s security correspondent, author and journalist. His new series Shock and War: Iraq 20 Years On airs on BBC Radio 4, and is available as a podcast on BBC Sounds
This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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