Iraq, Trump and Why ISIS Would Have Happened Anyway: In Conversation with Britain's Former Special Envoy to Iraq

Jeremy Greenstock
Sir Jeremy Greenstock leaves the Iraq Inquiry after giving evidence in London on November 27, 2009. He has since published a book "Iraq: the Cost of War" about the mistakes made during the U.S.-led invasion. Oli Scarff/Getty Images

It has been 13 years since the Iraq War began and nearly six years since the last U.S. troops withdrew—but the country remains desperately unstable. Violence is a daily reality of life in Iraq; in the first 10 months of this year, the U.N. recorded that 5,566 people died due to acts of terrorism, conflict and violence. More than 3 million Iraqis are displaced throughout the country while hundreds of thousands more have fled to Europe and the Middle East.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the U.K.'s special envoy for Iraq from 2003 to 2004, says he's not surprised that Iraq's security situation is still precarious. In his new book, Iraq: the Cost of War (£14.99, available at, Greenstock catalogs several failures during the U.S.-led occupation, from lack of communication between the U.S.'s military and political wings to the Americans at times sidelining the British when it came to making key decisions. That in part explains the current crisis in Iraq where the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) still controls large areas of territory, including the country's second-largest city, Mosul.

Greenstock's revelations about the mistakes made during the war might also explain why the then Home Secretary Jack Straw blocked the book's publication in 2005. The British government only approved its release 11 years later, following the publication of the Chilcot report, an inquiry into the U.K.'s involvement in Iraq, in July of this year. (The report rather damningly concluded that the U.K.'s decision to invade Iraq was made in "unsatisfactory" circumstances; that British intelligence agencies produced "flawed" information; that the country's military was poorly equipped for the occupation; and that the U.K. government had no postwar plan.)

Related: The Chilcot Report: Bush ignored numerous warnings before invading Iraq

Now chairman of the strategic advisory company Gatehouse Advisory Partners and chairman of the oil and gas specialists Lambert Energy Advisory, Greenstock spoke to Newsweek about his book, the rise of ISIS, and what Donald Trump's election means for the Middle East.

The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Did the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—one of the major reasons for the intervention—still justify the war?

There were [weapons of mass destruction], but they were very few and not important enough on their own to be a reason for invasion on that timing. I still feel, after all this time, that there was a reason for dealing with Saddam [Hussein] who was just raising two fingers to the U.N. the whole time and saying: Get lost, I am not going to comply with international law.

What went wrong was the handling of Iraq after the invasion. If we'd got that right and got security firmly enough established so that Iraqis could begin to write a constitution and form their civil society organizations and get political parties going—without terrorism and without the former Saddamists and Baathists fighting back—the criticism of [the war] would have faded away.

How did Washington's tendency to act on its own, without seeking consultation elsewhere, affect the occupation of Iraq?

You have to go into what the U.S. is and who was representing the U.S. The State Department under Secretary Colin Powell did think about these things, did want to plan ahead, did have some understanding with its Arabist cadre of what Iraq would be like once Saddam had gone. But it wasn't the State Department that was running the war or the post-war. It was the Pentagon and the Pentagon didn't want to learn from the State Department, their own sister department, what it might be like in Iraq.

Related: What can be done for Iraqis still suffering the shockwaves of the 2003 invasion?

It had a real effect on the sophisticated level of preparation that might have been possible if the whole of the U.S. government had worked together and listened to each other. I think the way in which the American system handled it and the quite narrow and ideological nature of the neoconservative team around President George W. Bush did mean that some mistakes were made in the analysis and in the expectations of what might happen in Iraq. Therefore, and this is important, not enough resources were put on the ground to handle the problems before they arose. The Americans were always catching up on events that were running away from them.

Saddam Hussein statue falls
U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq's former President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Jeremy Greenstock has criticized the U.S. for failing to properly plan for Iraq's future. Goran Tomasevic/Files/Reuters

Did the failure to adequately plan for Iraq's future lead to the rise of ISIS?

As I say in the book, it was not the base cause but it was a contributing cause. It did make it more likely that ISIS was going to find territory, ungoverned space for a caliphate, that Iraq was unsecured. But I think ISIS would have happened anyway even if we hadn't attacked Iraq. Because Syria would have happened anyway and the rebellion and the loss of grip of [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] would have been enough to get ISIS going in Syria, even if Iraq had not fed it. Because we lost control of Iraq and the Iraqis never regained it, the conjoining of ungoverned space in western, northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria made it much easier for ISIS to grow to a certain size. I think if Iraq had not happened, ISIS would not be so big in Syria but it would have existed.

We've spoken about Iraq and Syria, both of which are two volatile countries. Is there a concern about how U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will handle these nations, particularly given his lack of political and military experience?

Not necessarily. The American government is a team, you have the executive and the legislature and [Trump] will bring expert people into his government. But his instincts appear, at this stage, quite aggressive. He's being the big, brave man wanting to smash ISIS and smash all the enemies of America. But he will have to come round to understanding, which I'm sure he will, that this is not just military strength, which the Americans are very good at, very destructive with; this is political construction in failed states, which they're not so good at.

It is very difficult to mend a failed state from the outside. In the end, the people have to do it. I've learned through all this involvement with Iraq, and other issues, that outside intervention with military strength freezes the problems in a country. It may look as if you're solving them because people are no longer being killed in the same way and you've got rid of a nasty leader, but you haven't created the next state of capacity [for] people to run themselves without outside interference. You see that in Afghanistan, which is not a mended state yet, you see it in Iraq, you will go on seeing it in Yemen, Libya and Syria. Intervention freezes the problems, it doesn't mend them.

So, does this mean that foreign states need to stop intervening in other countries?

No, if intervention is calculated to give the people an opportunity to get rid of a repressive system and make their own choices then that's fine. But you've got to help them immediately with the politics and have some idea of who the next leadership is going to be. We were wrong with Iraq and Afghanistan on thinking no, it's not going to be too difficult to find effective leaders after we've got rid of the Taliban or Saddam or whoever it is. Finding a better government to replace the one you remove is proving extremely difficult.

I think the colonial, imperialist era is over. Countries are now equal within the U.N.; we don't have any moral authority [to intervene] unless we're invited by partners and allies in the region and for good reasons from the point of our domestic interest back at home. If our interests and their invitation go in the same direction then I think intervention could be justified. It has to be very carefully managed, with massive resources so that you don't lose control of security, with the political leadership being taken by the people of that country. If those circumstances are fulfilled then it could be right to intervene. If they're not it's nearly always a bad mistake to intervene.