The Iraq War was by any definition a failure at all its stated goals, costing far more in blood, treasure, and time than expected, empowering our enemies, and failing to build a stable democracy and long term ally in a worn torn region, but there are some who still insist we should do it all over again twenty years later.
Twenty years ago this week, the United States committed one of the biggest strategic blunders in the last half-century by invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein, but the feeling in March of 2003 was quite different at the time. America was still reeling from the 9-11 attacks, and most of the country continued to rally around President George W. Bush and the broader government. Serious, serious people informed us that Saddam Hussain was a unique threat – a tyrant with regional and global ambitions plus plans to develop weapons of mass destruction to achieve them – and most remembered that we had warred with his regime barely a decade earlier. Even then, some claimed the President’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, made a mistake in stopping the Gulf War short of toppling Iraq’s leader. The time had come to right that wrong, protect America by removing a country that was considered part of the “Axis of Evil” along with Iran and North Korea, and establish a democracy in the Middle East that would be our ally for generations to come. The democracy part of the equation should not be underestimated. The establishment was convinced that Iraq was essentially a modern country with strong infrastructure and an educated populace, ready to live in peace and freedom. The only thing holding them back was Saddam Hussein himself, and once he was removed from power, the country would flourish like none other in the region, serving as a beacon for other oppressed, war torn nations. This informed the idea that we would be “greeted as liberators,” to use the phrasing of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and all would be well. This notion was not merely a conservative one. The decision to invade was duly authorized by Congress in an overwhelming vote on October 10 and 11, 2002. The House of Representatives passed the measure 296 to 133; the Senate 77 to 23. Prominent Democrats including Presidential candidates John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and future President Joe Biden all supported the invasion. There was broad public support as well, including by your humble author. I was young and naïve enough at the time to have no doubts that we were being told the truth about the situation, that the experts who spend their lives studying these matters no what they are talking about, and Iraq was ready to take its place on the world stage without Saddam Hussein.
By September 2003, a mere six months after the start of the war, the flaws in our overall strategy and efforts were beginning to become apparent, though it would take many years before a complete picture of the long-term effects emerged. The late Tim Russert interviewed Vice President Dick Cheney that very month, asking “Did the Bush Administration misjudge the level of organized resistance, the number of American troops needed, the cost of securing Iraq, and the existence of weapons of mass destruction?” President Bush had already declared Mission Accomplished from the deck of the USS Lincoln on May 1, in what would become an infamous misreading of the situation. (Technically, the Mission Accomplished phrase was on a banner behind him and President Bush never said those words, though he announced the end of major combat operations.) Mr. Russert noted that resistance in Iraq to our efforts was mounting even so, “Since that time, these are the rather haunting figures coming out of Iraq. We had lost 138 soldiers before May 1, and 685 wounded, injured. Since that time, since the president came on the carrier and said major combat was over, we’ve lost 158, and 856 wounded and injured. Those numbers are pretty troubling.” Over the next eight years, thousands more would die, some 4,932 Americans, 179 Brits, and 139 others along with tens of thousands wounded, a total of more than 32,275 across the coalition. The impact on the Iraqi people themselves was even more tragic, somewhere over 110,000 civilians and between 34,144 and 71,544 combatants. Nor was the brutal cost of the war in blood alone. Obscene amounts of treasure were also spent; in fact, no one knows precisely how much. Estimates place the figure at somewhere between $2 and $3 trillion dollars, much of it completely wasted. According to Congressional testimony that considered just a small slice of the spending, the “Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and his excellent team spent 9 years, countless hours, analyzing our efforts in Iraq in order to identify the challenges that we faced, what we did wrong, where we succeeded, and most importantly, what happened to the $60 billion in taxpayer money used to fund the rebuilding of Iraq. What was concluded painted a very grim picture of our ability to adequately plan, execute and oversee large-scale stability and reconstruction operations.” “Many projects in Iraq ran over budget and behind schedule because of a lack of oversight and a lack of accountability, like the Basrah Children’s Hospital. According to the Inspector General’s reports, this hospital was supposed to cost $50 million but ran to over $165 million and fell more than a year behind schedule.” The Special Inspector General found that up to 13.3% of the money was completely wasted, and to my knowledge no one in the government or otherwise has even attempted to calculate the total sum. The cost to the Iraqi economy was huge as well, some estimates put it at a loss of $1 trillion.
The collateral damage to American politics, prestige, and international relations are equally incalculable. First, the aftermath of the war and the failure of the United States government to deliver the results that were promised introduced a schism in American politics that has never been bridged. John Kerry infamously ran for President claiming he was for the war before he was against it as early as 2004. Barack Obama’s anti-war position was largely considered his entry point into the race against Hillary Clinton that would ultimately catapult him to the White House in 2008. Donald Trump effectively went to war with the Republican establishment over Iraq during this 2015 and 2016 primary campaign in a rift that has never truly healed. Second, the war was occurring while the government was building up a security apparatus capable of spying on all Americans, using the threat of terrorism as a pretext to confiscate the records of every mobile phone call in the country and then ultimately to embed government apparatchiks and NGOs in social media companies to further police speech. Third, our plan to isolate and defeat the Axis of Evil completely backfired. Iranian agents moved in swiftly after the invasion and the theocracy still has a major hold on the country, so influential that they were a primary factor in forcing us to withdraw in 2011 when a satisfactory Status of Forces could not be reached because Iranian backed politicians refused to support it. The result was so catastrophic we had to re-engage just a few years later, before withdrawing all forces in 2021. Fourth, the impact on our international prestige was nothing short of disastrous, weakening our influence in world affairs and emboldening geopolitical opponents from China to Russia. There is no doubt our adversaries looked at the resulting quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan plus our humiliating departure without achieving a single objective in either, and concluded that the United States was in decline. China and Russia swiftly moved into the region in the years since the invasion, allying with noxious powers like Syria. China, in fact, recently negotiated its first peace settlement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which was not likely to happen if we had been successful. Last, but certainly not least, the impact on the American people is not to be underestimated. I already noted the political schism, but there are other effects: Trust in government, faith in our leaders, hope for a better future, all of these things and more began burning up in the flames of war. We have not recovered yet and it is unlikely we will do so soon.
Overall, Iraq has the rare distinction of being disastrous in every way, from front to back, upside down and sideways. The war was promoted on false pretenses, intentionally or otherwise. After the initial invasion, it was grossly mismanaged. It cost more than anyone expected in lives and dollars, and yet still failed to achieve a single one of the objectives while empowering our enemies. These facts are indisputable. Some argue that it helped protect the American homeland because would-be terrorists fought there instead of here, but that is pure speculation, if not wishful thinking, and also assumes that there was not a more strategic way to handle the threat. Even if it were true, the costs would likely swamp any hypothetical benefit short of preventing another 9-11 level attack, which seems highly unlikely. In short, there is not a single meaningful reason why everyone who supported the war – myself included – has not admitted it was an embarrassing mistake. If we could do it over, we would not have done the same, and yet there are those among us, particularly in the establishment, who continue to insist they would do it all over again. Here, Bret Stephens, writing for The New York Times, takes the lead, claiming “20 Years On, I Don’t Regret Supporting the Iraq War.”
He arrived at this conclusion via a rather incredible means: He simply dismissed everything that came after the invasion, declaring those “are arguments about the aftermath of the war. What about its conception?” Needless to say, this is a rather odd way of looking at it, akin to accidently burning down your house, but insisting you would have started the fire anyway because it was nice and warm before things got out of control. Of course, the war and its aftermath cannot be so easily separated; there would have been no aftermath without the war. Sadly, Mr. Stephen’s other arguments fall equally flat. He identified the strongest case against the invasion as “empowering Iran,” which is ultimately what happened, and then concluded that “the case looks shaky on closer inspection” because the alternative plan was not to empower Iraq instead as if the two are mutually exclusive. We could just as easily have played one against the other, or done nothing considering the two countries were mortal enemies and would have likely been occupied thwarting each other. From there, Mr. Stephens blithely dismisses the notion that we bear “the brunt of moral blame for the misery the Iraqis endured” because “Iraqis suffered horrifically under Hussein and suffered horrifically under the insurgency, and the force that destroyed both was the U.S. military, with tremendous sacrifices by Iraqi security forces. American troops help Iraqis do so against ISIS to this day. Their courage and sacrifice should be saluted, not disparaged.” Again, these are not mutually exclusive. There is no doubt that both Americans and Iraqis fought bravely at times, but the end result is all that matters. One can acknowledge their sacrifice while still believing it wasn’t worth it. Indeed, one can argue that, morally speaking, this is precisely what is required. We owe it to the dead to fully acknowledge our mistakes even as we honor them, otherwise we are lying to both them and ourselves.
Likewise, Mr. Stephens continued to suggest that war was worth it because Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a legitimate geopolitical threat, which was true, but the same could be said of other countries, including Iran, and we have not summarily invaded them, nor is anyone recommending that we should. He believes this because Iraq could not have been contained indefinitely “in practice.” “The human misery caused by the sanctions against Iraq had become a fervent global cause by the late 1990s. They were internationally unsustainable. They were also easily flouted for the regime’s benefit, as the U.N.’s oil-for-food scandal laid bare.” This, however, is always the case. Russia, right now, is flouting our sanctions after they invaded Ukraine, causing untold misery. Why are we not invading Moscow? Mr. Stephen proceeded swiftly to present yet another false choice. “Ultimately, the choice for the United States and our allies in early 2003 wasn’t invasion or containment. It was invasion or, over time, the quasi-rehabilitation of Hussein’s Iraq.” The question for him is why are those the only two choices and why does this logic not apply elsewhere in the world? If this were truly the case, the US military should be deployed on every continent except Antarctica, but of course, we cannot end the world’s suffering or topple every tyrant, any more than we can cure every problem ailing our own country. Our power is limited and needs to be used wisely, at home and especially abroad. That is the real, humbling, embarrassing lesson of the war, though one that some appear incapable of learning.
Ultimately, Mr. Stephens ended with this astonishing, completely illogical statement. “Readers will want to know whether, knowing what I know now, I would still have supported the decision to invade. Not for the reasons given at the time. Not in the way we did it. But on the baseline question of whether Iraq, the Middle East and the world are better off for having gotten rid of a dangerous tyrant, my answer remains yes.” Of course, no one – and I mean know one – is insisting they want to bring Saddam Hussein back by any means. That’s not the point of expressing your regret, and never was. Mr. Stephens might as well suggest that we fire bomb US cities and then proclaim it was worth it because gang violence is on the decline. Do you want the gangs back? Do you? Or, closer to home, burn down your house intentionally because there are some raccoons in your attic, but – hey – at least we got rid of them! The collateral costs, all of them, necessarily need to be considered, the same as they would in any situation. To evaluate the policy and whether we should support it in retrospect, we need to consider whether all that came after worth was really worth it to remove one dictator among hundreds around the world, and the only way to honestly asses that is to ask: If we were to confront a similar situation in the future – like say with Iran or North Korea – and we knew it would cost thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and untold internal and external political capital, would we do it simply to depose a leader and not solve any other problem? The answer to that question is emphatically, completely, and totally no, not under any circumstances, no way, never, ever, ever. Mr. Stephens should know better. Admitting you were wrong is hard, but doing so has never been more essential.