On the eve of war 20 years ago, the United States, still triumphant from winning the Cold War but reeling from 9/11, was at the peak of its influence in the Arab world. That influence was largely political, but it was also aspirational. Leaders from the Middle East looked to Washington as their closest ally and often took direction from it. Outside the halls of power, many liberals in the region saw the United States as a champion of civil liberties and human rights.

This is no longer true. Although a multitude of events led to the decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East, the Iraq war was the trigger. Immediately after the war began, the United States emerged as an all-powerful country that, with little regard for international law or support from allies, could topple a government that had never attacked it. The United States’ incompetency, however, was soon exposed as its enormous military could not defeat local insurgents or keep up with Iran’s maneuverers inside of Iraq. So while the United States proved its overwhelming power in the Iraq war, it also revealed a powerlessness to end the war on its terms.

That the United States went to war without the permission of the UN Security Council was the first blow to the United States’ global reputation and the rules-based order it worked so hard to uphold. It was the country’s actions during the occupation of Iraq, however, that ultimately led to its demise as the world’s leading superpower. The United States displayed a mix of ignorance and arrogance that caught Iraqis and others in the region by surprise. Decisions such as disbanding the Iraqi army and many state enterprises caused Iraqis to question Washington’s intentions. Although clearly not understanding the complexities of Iraq, some U.S. officials came across as particularly arrogant, acting as if they alone knew how to deal with the country. In March 2003, days before the invasion, Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, told The New York Times that he had been unable to speak to U.S. President George W. Bush since the previous September and learned of the American plan only in the news.

In the Middle East, the United States has never quite recovered from its decision to squander the enormous influence it had among decision-makers in the region before the war began. Its inability in 2022 to convince key Arab allies to follow its lead on Ukraine highlighted this weakness, as did the Chinese-brokered détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In many ways, the United States is still paying for the decision it made 20 years ago and the path on which it set Iraq, the Middle East, and the global order.


When President George H. W. Bush successfully led an international coalition to force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait in 1991, Middle Eastern governments had an ironclad belief in American might. Although many Arabs resented U.S. support for Israel (and some from older generations still missed the Soviet Union), the region was generally supportive of the United States. After 9/11, for example, Middle Eastern governments offered near-unanimous support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia was particularly vocal, since it wanted to put as much distance as possible between it and al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national. Arab populations largely sympathized with the 9/11 victims, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) even committed troops to the coalition in Afghanistan.

The United States could have built on that goodwill, especially given that Arab leaders often noted that al Qaeda also targeted their cities and their beliefs. One of the terrorist organization’s deadliest attacks was its 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, a building complex in Saudi Arabia that housed 2,000 U.S. military personnel. Soon, however, the “war on terror” appeared to be targeting Arabs and Muslims, who faced extra screening at airports and bore the brunt of the rollback of civil liberties under the 2001 Patriot Act. This reservoir of goodwill was drained further when the United States set its sights on Iraq.

On March 1, 2003, the Arab League convened an emergency summit in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt. Moussa, the organization’s head at the time, warned attendees, “Arabs their identity, their religion are being questioned, and there is an attack that they are facing.” Although the statement exaggerated the U.S. threat to the region, it encapsulated the feelings of many. At the same meeting, the UAE suggested that Saddam step down and go into exile to spare Iraq the destruction of the impending war. The Iraqi dictator, however, refused the offer, and several Arab leaders did not support the idea, fearing they could be next.

As it planned its war, the United States put its regional allies in an increasingly difficult position, asking them for military and logistic support even though Arab governments and publics largely opposed the war. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey did not allow use of their military bases to launch the war; instead, Qatar offered up its Al Udeid Air Base as the staging ground. The presence of the base was unknown publicly until a few months before the war, sparking suspicion among Arab publics that the U.S. military footprint in the region was bigger than publicly acknowledged.

For those who hated the United States, Abu Ghraib was vindication.

Arab officials were also concerned about what system of government would replace Saddam’s regime and whether Iran’s position in the region would be strengthened after Saddam was gone. Both the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baath regime in Iraq were hostile to Iran. Removing these regimes, as troublesome as they were, would likely strengthen Iran’s hand. Arab leaders could see that this was a likely outcome of overthrowing Saddam. By 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan was publicly warning that if pro-Iranian politicians dominated the new Iraqi government, an ideological “Shiite crescent” would emerge, stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

These warnings from the region’s leaders went unheeded. Less than two months after the U.S. invasion, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which the United States had installed to run Iraq, announced the disbanding of the Iraqi army and its security forces. The move left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis without an income. Many of the disbanded soldiers went into hiding; others eventually became insurgents. Iraqis and others in the Middle East saw disbanding the army and breaking up state enterprises as a major betrayal. The United States’ word was not to be trusted.

During the chaos that followed the fall of Saddam, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed reports of looting at the Iraq National Museum and the burning down of several government ministries. " Freedom’s untidy,” he said. This cavalier attitude about what was unfolding on the streets of Baghdad angered Iraqis and other Arabs alike and foretold the era of mayhem that would follow.

No greater disservice has been done to the cause of freedom than the chaos of those early months in the Iraq war. Had U.S. forces shown a sense of duty or care and had the Iraqi state not been gutted, Iraqis would have had a fighting chance to rebuild their country. The destruction and violence taking place raised questions in the minds of Iraqis about whether the United States was unwilling to protect key parts of the country or was just incapable of doing so. With 160,000 troops and superior air power, the United States dislodged the Iraqi army but then seemed unable to hold the empty streets left behind.


From the beginning of the war, the United States shied away from its role as occupier. Providing basic security to key facilities, such as hospitals and government ministries, would have helped Iraq stabilize. The culling of government workers under the pretext of removing Baathists from office left universities, hospitals, and ministries leaderless. In their place came U.S.- or British-led “provincial reconstruction teams” that were often clueless about the country. The United States also let Iraq’s borders go largely unguarded, giving foreign fighters easy entry into the country and leading to the creation of al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that went on to become the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

Even in May 2003, as Bush stood on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner declaring, “Mission Accomplished,” it was not at all clear which part of the mission had in fact been accomplished. With no weapons of mass destruction found, the U.S. war was stripped of its central mission. Democracy had not arrived in Iraq, and the people who plotted 9/11 were still at large. The only part of the stated mission that could be declared “accomplished” was the removal of Saddam from office, but in May 2003, he was in hiding.

Some regional leaders, such as Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, feared they would be toppled next. If the so-called mission was indeed accomplished in such a swift manner, then the United States could feel emboldened to take on another regime deemed hostile to the United States. With this in mind, Iran worked to undermine American efforts in Iraq and ensure the United States would become bogged down there. It started arming and training Iraqi militias that attacked both Iraqi and American forces.

By the spring of 2004, the United States was facing a complex web of problems, most important a quickly rising death toll of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. Local militant groups were carrying out deadly attacks within months of the war's start, including the 2004 killing of Ezzedine Salim, the head of the Iraqi Governing Council. His death was a harbinger of the bloodshed that would follow. In 2006, The Lancet medical journal estimated that over 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the war.

Among the casualties of the Iraq war was Middle Eastern democracy promotion.

At the same time, the U.S. military was inflicting severe blows to its reputation. In April 2004, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. Images of American service members torturing and demeaning Iraqi prisoners became seared in the minds of Iraqis and other Arabs of that generation. The shock was not limited to the depravity of the images; it also derived from the fact that the United States, with all its declared respect for human rights, would have an army carrying out such torture. Other scandals were coming to light at the same time, including the U.S. detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the CIA’s extraordinary renditions and torture of suspected terrorists. For those who hated the United States, Abu Ghraib was vindication. For those who had admired and looked up to the country, it was a source of deep shame.

The schism between the United States and the Middle East was widening, and the Bush administration knew it. It tried to shift the focus in 2004 by promising to work on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but achieved little progress. In April of that year, Bush wrote an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urging him to move toward a two-state solution. In November 2007, Bush hosted a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, aimed at reviving the peace process. In May 2008, Bush attended a regional meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh, where he expressed optimism that a peace agreement could be reached before his term was up in January. None of these efforts resulted in any tangible solutions, but they did illustrate Washington’s recognition that it needed to reengage regional leaders.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly frustrated that its Arab allies were not more welcoming of the new Iraqi political establishment. Although many of the figures in Iraq were known in the Gulf, as Saudi Arabia had hosted dozens of Iraqi opposition figures, there was a growing sense that Iran had the upper hand in Baghdad and the political order was imposed from abroad, and so there was a wariness to engage with the government there. To counter Iran’s growing influence, Washington pushed for closer ties between Iraq and the rest of the Arab world. The United States was keen for Arab investment to help rebuild the Iraqi economy, but there were deep concerns about security. Wanting to establish ties with Iraq, Algeria and Egypt were among the countries to reopen their embassies. In July 2005, al Qaeda in Iraq kidnapped and killed Egypt’s top envoy and two Algerian diplomats in Baghdad. Militants were keen to keep Iraq isolated from its Arab neighbors.

Iran’s expanded role coincided with a rise in sectarian politics in the region. While the Bush administration was responsible for setting up a political system built on sectarian and ethnic divisions in Iraq, it was the Obama administration that repeatedly framed the region as divided between Sunni and Shiite belief systems, political actors, and communities. The United States, in addition to political operatives in Iraq, cultivated this sense of sectarianism. U.S. officials promoted the idea of sectarian and ethnic representation because they saw it as a way of establishing democratic rule in Iraq. They assumed that various constituencies would feel represented by having officials from their own communities in government. But the reality was that most Iraqis did not identify along sectarian lines and representation was more tied to geographies and societal affiliations.

Among the casualties of the Iraq war was Middle Eastern democracy promotion. Today, the three democratic Arab countries Iraq, Lebanon, and Tunisia are all in dire straits. According to the Arab Youth Survey of 2022, 82 percent of Arabs between the ages of 18 and 24 believe that stability is more important than democracy . Ultimately, the United States proved unable to convince people in the region that its promotion of democratic systems of government would lead to a better future.


While the trajectory of U.S.-Arab relations over the past two decades was by no means exclusively shaped by the Iraq war, the conflict cast a long, dark shadow over the region’s view of the United States.

The non-Western response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 came as a surprise to many U.S. and European officials. They could not understand why most African, Arab, and Asian governments did not heed American calls to condemn Russia for violating the rules-based international order. On February 17, 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke before the UN Security Council and demanded that other countries take a stand against Putin’s designs on Ukraine, saying American intelligence could confirm an attack was imminent. Many in the chamber and those watching Blinken’s address on television in the Middle East could not help but think of the misleading presentation about Iraq’s supposed weapons program that one of his predecessors, Colin Powell, gave to the council in February 2003. Although Powell’s request for backing of the invasion of Iraq and Blinken’s request for condemnation of Russia are vastly different, the lukewarm response to the second request can be traced back to the first. As Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said last month, “There must be a universal application of the rules-based order.”

Then there is the perception that the United States cannot maintain its foreign policy positions from one administration to the next, which also caused U.S. allies to hesitate before supporting Ukraine. Over and over, the United States has decided to reestablish ties with leaders it previously considered hostile, such as Qaddafi in Libya, the Iranian regime during nuclear negotiations, and the Taliban in 2020 ahead of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. These reversals have caused many in the Arab world to question whether the United States might strike a deal with Russia, despite all its public rhetoric, and leave the Middle East to deal with the fallout once again.

The past 20 years of eroding trust between the United States and the Arab world were on display earlier in March, when China mediated a resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The announcement suggested U.S. influence had waned given that Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. ally, turned to China, the United States’ biggest rival, to help it seal a deal.

Although the United States’ standing in the Middle East has declined, the country still wields enormous influence. The United States continues to have the largest military presence in the region. Between 40,000 and 60,000 U.S. troops are deployed there, with approximately 2,500 of them in Iraq. Many countries either peg their currencies to the U.S. dollar or have economies that function on the conversion of that currency. But what has changed is that, as Biden has made clear, the era of American-led attempts at nation building is over. Most people in the Middle East welcome this development. Even so, there is an innocence, a naivete, that is forever gone among those in the Middle East who truly believed in the United States.

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