US tanks pose for a photo under the "Hands of Victory" in Ceremony Square, Baghdad, Iraq. Photo: US Air Force/John L Houghton

The United States’ global hegemony is by many accounts being challenged seriously for the first time in generations. This is, first and foremost, due to the rise of China, but also the growing influence of South Korea, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Asia is the driver of the global economy and is rightfully speaking for itself more than it has since the Second World War.

In the aftermath of World War II and then the Cold War, America’s hard power was matched by truly seductive soft power. In contrast to the atrocities committed at the hands of imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the flaws and hypocrisy inherent in America’s espoused values seemed de minimis.

Today, nothing could be further from the truth. Decades of efforts by China’s ruling communist party to rehabilitate its image have been aided by striking examples of America’s flaws. The global financial crisis of 2007 was the result of the United States’ excesses, while the political polarization now seen in Washington harkens back to the most uncertain periods of American history.

But, as US diplomats dial up accusations that China is flouting the “rules-based order,” by employing “predatory economics,” there is a much more glaring example. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was arguably one of the most calamitous violations of international norms in recent history.

Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi novelist who once dreamed of the day Saddam Hussein would be dethroned, wrote Monday – fifteen years to the day since the US invasion began – on what the disaster has meant for the Iraqi people.

Despite being a critic of Saddam Hussein, Antoon said in his editorial in The New York Times, “when the cheerleading for the Iraq war started, I was vehemently against the proposed invasion.”

“The United States had consistently supported dictators in the Arab world and was not in the business of exporting democracy, irrespective of the Bush administration’s slogans. I recalled sitting in my family’s living room with my aunt when I was a teenager, watching Iraqi television and seeing Donald Rumsfeld visiting Baghdad as an emissary from Ronald Reagan and shaking hands with Saddam. That memory made Mr. Rumsfeld’s words in 2002 about freedom and democracy for Iraqis seem hollow,” Antoon recalled.

The author witnessed the war from abroad, and when he returned, despite low expectations, he was horrified by how dysfunctional and dangerous daily life in Iraq had become.

“No one knows for certain how many Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion 15 years ago. Some credible estimates put the number at more than one million. You can read that sentence again,” Antoon suggested.

While some now call the Iraq invasion a “blunder,” or even a “colossal mistake,” he says, it was in truth a crime. “I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign,” Antoon writes in conclusion, “but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.”

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