On February 15, 2003, when I was still a university undergrad, I joined a million people in London marching against the impending invasion of Iraq. As an Iraqi who grew up in exile, I despised Saddam Hussein as much as anyone did. The invasion would lead to regime change, which I was desperate for. But how could anyone cheer for an assault on their homeland? I knew Iraq would suffer greatly.

Other friends with Iraqi backgrounds had joined various pro-war groups, because they saw war as the only realistic way to get rid of Saddam. The Iraqi opposition held conferences in preparation for their expected leadership roles. I couldn’t get excited: it felt completely artificial that exiled politicians were going to suddenly become Iraq’s new leaders, not because of their actions or a revolution, but just because a foreign occupation would install them. The Iraqi population had little connection to these expats.

Today, I still debate friends, family, and colleagues about whether the Iraq War was the only way that Saddam’s brutal regime could have been removed. Twenty years on, even those Iraqis who most adamantly sought Saddam’s removal have difficulty arguing that the enormous human and material losses of the invasion and its aftermath were worth it.

I still believe there could have been other ways to liberate Iraq. I refuse to be caught in a catch-22, as if the only two choices were Saddam forever, or the specific regime-change war that America initiated. Iraqis should have had the tools to free themselves rather than suffer through a war and foreign occupation.

In a sense, however, it is absurd to ask Iraqis, at this point, if they are glad the U.S. invaded and overthrew Saddam. Iraqi perspectives are more complicated. No matter how much you hated Saddam, there’s little to be unequivocally happy about in the last twenty years. Not only was the war itself horrendous, but its aftermath has been a two-decade-long degradation of the state and the obliteration of the hopes of a generation.

Personal versus National Interest

Before 2003, I had never seen Iraq, and never expected to set foot there in my lifetime. Under Saddam, both sides of my family had been forced into exile after the pain of executions of parents, siblings, and friends. It seemed like the regime was going to rule forever, and many, even in my own family, thought the war was the only way to change that. But I could not accept that reality—I could not support an invasion, even though people like me had the most to benefit from it and little to lose.

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To honestly reflect on the U.S.-led invasion, I have to separate what it meant for me, personally, from what it has meant for the country. I first traveled to Iraq in May 2003, and even though I was ecstatic to visit my homeland, guilt tore at me, and has followed me ever since. In the past twenty years, I have had the opportunity to live in Iraq and meet people from every background. But it has never felt like my personal satisfaction in going home was worth the cost of war.

I also developed a deep disappointment in people I looked up to—politicians and leaders—who had organized the opposition to Saddam, and then spent the next two decades stripping the country of its wealth and devolving into warlords and gangs. There is a lot wrong in Iraq that the United States is responsible for, but Iraqi politicians should be held accountable, too.

It has never felt like my personal satisfaction in going home was worth the cost of war.

Many other Iraqis share these feelings. Very few express positive views about the war, even though it led to a tremendous improvement in fortunes for some. And for many, the results of the war were disastrous, and no amount of reminders about Saddam’s brutality can force them to accept the necessity of the invasion.

Herein lies perhaps the biggest failure of Iraq’s political elite: they have governed Iraq so badly since 2003 that, for many Iraqis, Saddam’s regime no longer seems so bad.

Robbed of Self-Determination

But it is probably a universal truth that more recent suffering tends to overshadow older horrors. The misery of the last twenty years doesn’t change the fact that Saddam’s regime was one of the most brutal of any in the second half of the twentieth century. Still, I believe that, given the right kinds of support, Iraqis could have freed themselves.

Sadly, it will always be impossible to know whether an indigenously liberated Iraq would have suffered less in the last two decades. Iraqis, whether the regime, its supporters, or its many opponents, had no say in the matter. Today, this is a much more important point: the United States decided to invade without Iraqi input, and Iraqis were generally bystanders and victims. Iraqis never had the chance to decide their own destiny, and that fact would have poisoned any outcome of the war—whether the tragic reality of the last two decades, or some other, hypothetical success.

In fact, most Western commentary still focuses on American perspectives of the war, reducing Iraqi views to caricatures of gratitude or total rejection. Iraqis are a footnote in 2003—they were subjected to war but had little to do with it. They should have had the opportunity to break the shackles of dictatorship themselves, but instead they ended up with a Frankenstein democracy: badly deformed, brutal, and nearly impossible to change.

For me, the twenty-year anniversary of the Iraq War means anger, shame, betrayal, and pain. Maybe it is how Germans and Japanese felt two decades after World War II ended. But where their countries recovered and developed relatively quickly, it is hard to see Iraq following a similar trajectory. And the occupation of those countries—a multilateral action—had a justification. Even if the 2003 invasion had somehow worked out for Iraq, I would still stand against it. The ends do not justify the means.

For me, the twenty-year anniversary of the Iraq War means anger, shame, betrayal, and pain.

In a sense, history has rendered irrelevant the nuance of my view on the Iraq War—that regime change was necessary, but that a foreign invasion was unacceptable. The war happened, as did regime change. Iraq is a dysfunctional kleptocracy that I can live in; before, it was an autocracy I couldn’t even visit. These are choices that should satisfy no one.

As for democracy, it would be simplistic to say that it has failed in Iraq. Every day is a new chance for Iraqis to put the country on a better footing. Presently, however, the political elite still oppose major reforms and use the proceeds of corruption, control of armed groups and the media, power in parliament, and coercive methods to challenge the right to free speech and protest. Iraq is often dangerous for those critical of the political elite. And while people are freer than under Saddam’s regime, it remains, for the average Iraqi, an unstable, inconsistent, and unpredictably lethal home.

Regime change was supposed to make Iraq a beacon for the Middle East, but state-building, in the way the United States conducted it, has certainly been a failure. The invasion and the occupation weren’t carried out to serve democracy or Iraqis. They were designed to advance American interests. That is partly why Iraqis are angry about their predicament. The United States wrecked Iraq and then proceeded to extricate itself and wash its hands of responsibility, intervening only when it suited Washington. The 2003 war was a violation of the international system and the highly touted rules-based order. Yet only Iraqis ever seem to pay the costs.

Header image: Thousands of opponents of the planned invasion of Iraq gather in Hyde Park, London, after one of the United Kingdom’s largest peace protests ever, on February 15, 2003. Source: Scott Barbour/Getty Images