Sun Feb 25, 2024
February 25, 2024

The Iraq War: Where Bush Broke Off More Than He Could Chew

On March 20, 2003, a military coalition led by the U.S. invaded Iraq. In a short time, it overthrew the Iraqi political regime of President Saddam Hussein on the grounds that he “supported international ‘terrorism’ and possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ for that purpose.” A new government was installed in his place that was supported by the invading forces that became the “occupation forces.” It seemed to have been an easy victory. However, the occupying forces began to face increasing resistance from the Iraqi military and people, and the war became one of national liberation whose course went from increasingly unfavorable, to a quagmire, and finally a defeat. Finally, the situation resulted in a division of the country into three parts, controlled by the Shiites (linked to Iran), the Sunnis, and the Kurds.

By Alejandro Iturbe

The invasion of Iraq was the second episode of the “War on Terror and the Axis of Evil” launched by the George W. Bush administration, taking advantage of the political climate in the U.S. after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001[1]. The first was the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban regime, which was accused of having supported the perpetrators of the attack. To understand the deep reasons for this war launched by Bush and U.S. imperialism, we must analyze the combination of the two objectives that drove it.

Bush Jr. was the visible figurehead of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a nucleus of leaders of the Republican Party. This sector of the imperialist bourgeoisie saw the beginning of the 21st century as defined by the dispute over the domination of natural resources in the world (essentially oil), and that if the US did not guarantee its hegemony in this field, it would regress as a world power.

In the previous decades, U.S. imperialism had lost its almost absolute control of oil reserves, production, and marketing in the world through the formation of state monopoly companies in key countries such as Venezuela, Iran (after the 1979 revolution), and Iraq[2]. In this sense, the invasions, occupations, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly “smell of oil” (as did the failed coup attempt against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002).

The “Vietnam syndrome” and the “Democratic reaction”

To understand Bush’s second objective, it is necessary to return to U.S. imperialism’s defeat in the Vietnam War in 1975 (the first in its history). From the Korean War (1950-1953) to the Vietnam War, the U.S. imperialist bourgeoisie thought it had the right to intervene all over the world (through coups, invasions and wars), with the excuse of “fighting against communism” or wherever it saw its interests threatened. In Vietnam, this policy “bit off more than it could chew.”

It began what political analysts of imperialism called the “Vietnam syndrome”: the difficulty the U.S. faced in intervening militarily in the world (as it had done permanently in the past) for fear that such an intervention, like Vietnam, would result in a long, costly war, and a defeat that would worsen the previous situation.

The policy of the “big stick” was replaced by another adapted to this new reality, which we have called “democratic reaction.” This new strategy was elaborated by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Jimmy Carter’s Security Advisor, in the second half of the 1970s. He was well aware of the unfavorable conditions in the world and that, therefore, military intervention should take a back seat to other central tactics: pacts, diplomatic negotiations, and bourgeois elections, which would make it possible to slow down and divert revolutionary processes and advance more strategic objectives[3].

Using the image of an animal prodded on by the carrot and the stick, the “stick” was limited and put at the service of the “carrot.” For this he counted on the collaboration of the Stalinist apparatus and its policy (the “peaceful coexistence”), as well as its traitorous leaderships.

Bush makes a U-turn but is defeated

The Bush Jr. administration and the sector it represented considered that the policy of Bill Clinton’s administration weakened U.S. imperialism even more. So they made a “turn of the wheel” to liquidate in one stroke the “Vietnam syndrome” and its consequences: they put an end to the defensive policy of the “democratic reaction” and launched an offensive on several fronts, taking up the “stick” as a central element. In other words, they returned to the “good old days” prior to that defeat.

Although the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were the central fact of that imperialist offensive, there were also others: the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002, and the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006.

But the Bush project began to face more and more problems and to suffer defeats. The first of these was the failure of the coup against Hugo Chavez. Two days after overthrowing and arresting Chavez and installing the businessman Pedro Carmona, when the Chavism apparatus had already surrendered, there was a massive popular counter-coup from the poorest neighborhoods of Caracas that cornered Carmona’s government until he resigned. This forced Chavez to be brought back and reinstated as president[4].

In Iraq, after the invasion, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the occupation of the country, they were never able to impose a pax americana. Instead, a series of short and unstable governments succeeded each other. The starting point was that, due to their military inferiority, the high command and the military structure of Saddam’s regime (mostly Sunni) chose not to confront the invading forces head-on but “went underground” to fight them with guerrilla methods and urban terrorism, with considerable success. Thus began a war of resistance and national liberation against the occupier.

On the other hand, in the U.S., although opposition to the war did not generate massive mobilizations as in Vietnam, there was a strong boycott of the recruitment of new soldiers (through the contract system). Increasingly, the U.S. armed forces had to resort to hiring immigrants (especially Latinos) with the promise that they would later receive a green card.

Already in 2004, these problems were very evident and were evaluated by IWL in several articles[5]. In the following years, this negative course for imperialism was only accentuated [6]. With the aim of reversing, or at least attenuating this unfavorable situation, the imperialist bloc made several moves. The first was to extend the invading coalition to other European countries such as Spain. The second was to make a pact with the Kurdish bourgeoisie of Basur (Iraqi Kurdistan), to which it granted the domination of an autonomous region (in fact an independent state with its authorities and military forces)[7]. 

The third was to make an unthinkable agreement with the regime of the Iranian Shiite ayatollahs (in theory, the strategic enemy of the Axis of Evil and the War on Terror) in order to install a “central Iraqi government” in Baghdad. This agreement gave rise to numerous analyses in the imperialist press which, with much acidity, referred to Bush’s “strategic capacity”.

A new turn of the helm

But all these moves of imperialism did not succeed in reversing the unfavorable dynamics of the war as a whole, which was heading towards defeat. This situation was combined with the outbreak of an international economic and banking crisis whose epicenter was the USA.

The main imperialist power was experiencing a strong political crisis. In that framework, the most lucid sectors of the U.S. imperialist bourgeoisie pushed for a new change of direction to resume a new application of the policy of democratic reaction. Barack Obama was thought to be the best figure to implement that change, which began in 2008. Obama started to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and eventually, the coalition officially withdrew in December 2011.

The context of this withdrawal included the also unfavorable course of the occupation of Afghanistan in the face of domestic resistance led by the Taliban. This occupation was “a quagmire” which was difficult to get into but also very difficult to get out of. It was a conflict that, moreover, had spread to neighboring Pakistan[8]. This war would also end with U.S. withdrawal, albeit with delayed effect, in 2021[9].

The impact of the defeat

From our point of view, U.S. imperialism suffered a very heavy defeat in Iraq (as in Afghanistan), which was similar in various aspects to what it had suffered in Vietnam. This defeat was also suffered by the allied European powers. As we have analyzed, Bush’s political-military objective was to liquidate the “Vietnam syndrome” and return to the “big stick” as the center of imperialist foreign policy.

When the U.S. was defeated, the result was the opposite. Instead of overcoming the “Vietnam syndrome” it was updated and enhanced with what the imperialist analysts called the “Iraq syndrome,” whose influence has remained an important part of the world reality. It is impossible to understand what has happened in the Arab world since 2011 (the “Arab Spring”) without considering that an essential part of its genesis was the imperialist defeat in Iraq.

It is true that these defeats do not appear, at first sight, as clear and evident as that of Vietnam. For example, they did not give rise to a workers’ state, as in Vietnam, but to the triumph of a reactionary organization with fascist features, like the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the case of Iraq, it left the country fractured into essentially three countries controlled by Shiites, Kurds, and Sunnis. From one of these “splinters” (the Sunni sector) would come one of the seeds of ISIS, which wanted to redraw the map of the region and add even more confusion to the complex and unstable regional situation[10].

But this does not mean that these are minor defeats. The imperialist bourgeoisie itself and its press were not deceived: that is why they elaborated the concept of the “Iraq syndrome” (in analogy with that of Vietnam) to characterize the resulting situation. On this, in a 2014 interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski again showed his imperialist lucidity: “We are living through a period of unprecedented instability. There are huge swathes of the world territory dominated by unrest, revolutions, rage, and a loss of state control… It is a global political awakening based on an awareness of injustices, inequalities, and exploitation… The United States is still dominant but no longer capable of exercising hegemonic power… American fragility is evident in its inability to bring stability to the dynamic and unpredictable politics of the Middle East…”[11].

It is true that much has occurred since then: the Arab Spring has had a very uneven and contradictory course, a major pandemic broke out, clashes between the US and China have intensified, and Russia’s invasion of and war against Ukraine has taken place. These are all factors that shape the current world situation. However, in our view, without assessing the permanence of the impact of these imperialist defeats (the “Iraq syndrome”) it is impossible to understand the current world situation as a whole.

We would like to end with a brief consideration: despite its overwhelming military superiority, U.S. imperialism suffered heavy defeats in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. military is very effective when it comes to rapid military intervention and support for a military coup. But when that intervention is transformed into a war of occupation, things become very complicated. That is to say, when it has to face, simultaneously, a hard and determined national resistance and a strong opposition in its own country, it ends up breaking down and can be defeated. This is a very important lesson from recent world history.


[1] On the attack on the Twin Towers (2001) see  International Workers’ League (

[2] On this subject, we recommend reading the dossier “The end of oil” in the magazine Marxismo Vivo No. 12, December 2005.

[3] On this and other issues of this article, we recommend reading


[5] See, for example, “Iraq, the calvary of the Yankees” in the magazine Marxismo Vivo No 9, July 2004.

[6] See, for example, the article “Iraq: A War of National Liberation on the Rise” in the magazine Marxismo Vivo No 11, June 2005.

[7] On this issue of Basur, we recommend to read

[8] On this issue, we recommend reading the article Afghanistan: The generals and Obama in their labyrinth [2010] – International Workers League (

[9] See the statement Afghanistan: The Consummation of the Defeat of Imperialism – International Workers League (


[11] Época Magazine, issue 863, December 15, 2014.

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