On March 19, 2003, Iraq was invaded by an "alliance of willing states" headed by the U.S. and UK. My U.N. inspection team.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush's administration felt a need to let the weight and wrath of the world's only superpower fall on more evil actors than just Afghanistan's Taliban regime. No target could have seemed more worthy of being crushed than Iraq's brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein. Sadly, however, the elimination of this tyrant was perhaps the only positive result of the war. The war aimed to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, but there weren't any. The war aimed to eliminate al Qaeda in Iraq, but the terrorist group didn't exist in the country until after the invasion. The war aimed to make Iraq a model democracy based on law, but it replaced tyranny with anarchy and led America to practices that violated the laws of war. The war aimed to transform Iraq to a friendly base for U.S. troops capable to act, if needed, against Iran - but instead it gave Iran a new ally in Baghdad.
The Bush administration certainly wanted to go to war, and it advanced eradication of weapons of mass destruction as the main reason. The WMDs argument also carried weight with the public and with the U.S. Congress. Indeed, in the autumn of 2002 the threat seemed credible. While it was hard to believe that Saddam could have concealed a continued nuclear program, many thought there could still be some biological and chemical weapons left from Iraq's war with Iran. If not, why had Iraq stopped U.N. inspections at many places around the country throughout the 1990s?
However, suspicions are one thing and reality is quite another. U.N. inspectors were asked to search for, report and destroy real weapons. As they found no weapons and no evidence supporting the suspicions, they reported this. But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield dismissed our reports with one of his wittier retorts: "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Rumsfeld's logic was correct, I believe, but it was no excuse for the American and British governments to mislead themselves and the world, as they did, by giving credit to fake evidence or assuming that if weapons items were "unaccounted for" that they must exist. They did not exist...
I am not suggesting that governments should ignore information coming from their billion dollar intelligence programs. Such information is indispensable and collected with many means that are not available to U.N. inspectors. However, I think one lesson from the Iraq war is that we should pay equal attention to the results of multimillion dollar international reports that are based on extensive professional inspections on the ground. In 2003, the alliance of willing states did not do that.
The political leaders who have been criticized as responsible for launching the war on false premises have asserted that they acted in good faith, and that interrogation of leading Iraqis showed that the regime planned to revive its weapons program as soon as sanctions disappeared. I am not questioning the good faith of the political leaders, but rather their poor judgment in bringing war and death to a country on flimsy grounds.
At any rate, whatever view one took of the evidence of weapons, no one could believe in 2003 that prostrate Iraq was a threat to any other state. I cannot judge whether Iraqi prisoners were sincere when they talked about Saddam Hussein's intentions to revive weapons programs after the end of sanctions. They might have said what they thought their Western interrogators wanted to hear. Either way, the risk of a revived weapons program was remote and hypothetical - and the U.N. foresaw a system of reinforced monitoring to continue in Iraq and to provide an alarm bell even after a lifting of sanctions.
The most important lesson of the Iraq War, I think, has been that an overconfidence in military power has been replaced by an understanding that there are severe limitations on what can be achieved by military means. Intervening swiftly with arms and crippling strikes might be easy for a great power, but achieving desired political aims is another matter and exiting may be hard - the phrase "If you break it, you own it" comes to mind. Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have been long and costly engagements with very mixed results. Since then prudence has held the U.S. back in the case of Libya and so far in Syria.
Another important lesson is that today armed international interventions are likely to be condemned by much of the world unless they are clearly in self-defense or have been authorized by the Security Council. Iraq was neither. Unless we remember this going forward, I fear there is nothing stopping this kind of tragedy from being repeated.
In short, yes, I believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake!