It is remarkable how the 20th anniversary of Iraq invasion has occasioned so little soul-searching and commemoration. The Iraq War was the main media and political event for a decade. Today, after a few op-eds, everyone is ready to move on. There were no parades. There is also no memorial to the campaign in the national capital. It seems as if most of our national leadership simply wants to forget.
There is a lot to forget and regret. The Iraq War did not make America safer from terrorism. Rather, it led to the deaths of 4,431 Americans and perhaps several hundred thousand Iraqis, and the instability it unleashed likely contributed to the rise of ISIS. Like many former supporters of the campaign, I can now say without qualification that the Iraq War was a mistake. Even when considering only what we knew then, I realize it was still a mistake.
Beyond its immediate horrors, the Iraq War sucked up all the oxygen from the Republican-dominated federal government in the early 2000s. The war was President George W. Bush’s primary concern. Everything else—culture wars, immigration, the debt, our shrinking industrial base, stagnant wages, crime, the Supreme Court, and other Republican concerns of yesteryear—took a backseat. When one-party Republican governance came to an end in 2006, Bush and his compatriots had very little for which to claim credit.
The Iraq War also distorted the perceptions of right-leaning Americans. Normal, nationalist views of the citizenry were channeled in two contradictory directions: first, particularly from the online Right, there was increasingly rabid hostility to Muslims in general, which led to indifference about things like torture and the creation of a technology-enhanced security state at home; second, political leaders cultivated a totally idealistic notion that we could export American democracy to Iraq, the start of a “reverse domino effect” of positive political change.
We were told, especially by George W. Bush, that it was racist to suggest Iraq’s culture was not ready for American freedom. This false humanitarianism confused our right to defend our society with a duty to make other societies more like ours. We eventually learned that we have little ability to export such changes even if we wanted to.
The Iraq War and the broader War on Terror distracted us from the reality that bad immigration policies are the chief reason we were vulnerable to the 9/11 attacks. The only way the militarily impotent Middle East can project power into the West is by entering through the front door in the disguise of students or tourists.
Liberalism informed Bush that people are all the same. Thus, he could not see any reason to exclude low-skill, hostile immigrants from the Third World. He also could not see why people with a different history, religion, values, and social structure could not easily recreate the results obtained by the Christian West the minute they copied our outward political forms.
Partly a Reaction to the 9/11 Attacks
It is worth recalling the national mood to understand how the Iraq disaster unfolded. Practically the entire country was incandescent with rage after the 9/11 attacks. Most of us were in no mood to explore “root causes.” The attacks brought the fight home, killed thousands of innocent people, and made everyone feel very vulnerable. Americans wanted revenge.
Soon after the attacks, our forces scattered al-Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan, and we devoted a skeleton crew to continue counter-terrorism operations there. But the speed of the campaign, and the fact that Osama bin Laden and his terrorist army were on the run, made that victory seem incomplete and inadequate to the moment. There was also a strong, pro-Israel lobby within the administration more concerned with the Arab world than with the Muslim world’s periphery, and they sought to embed America in the Middle East deeply and permanently.
After 9/11, our risk tolerance changed. Before, we might have simply monitored a hostile, but weak, power like Saddam Hussein. This was no longer tolerable.
In addition to concerns about danger, and even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, many Americans seemed to support the Iraq War as rough justice, a collective punishment of Arab Muslims for their coethnics’ and coreligionists’ sins. This was rarely said out loud, but I remember this tribal view seemed to be motivating a lot of support for the campaign.
Finally, we were told repeatedly that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and an advanced nuclear weapons program; this understandably made people nervous. After all, if 19 maniacs with box cutters could kill over 3,000 Americans, what could Saddam Hussein and his proxies do with nukes? This premise turned out to be entirely unfounded. The main justification of the war, WMDs, did not exist.
There is an ongoing debate about how much of this WMD intelligence was a knowing lie rather than a mistake. Who knows? That said, intelligence has a way of turning out the way the decision makers want it to. Today, hardly anyone trusts the “intelligence community,” not least because of the Iraqi WMD debacle.
Iraq Was a Neoconservative War
The neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party during the Bush presidency was a major precondition for the Iraq War. Bush, unlike his father, had no significant foreign policy experience before becoming president, and he apparently did not think about it much before, other than in his expressions of unease with nation-building during the 2000 campaign.
Bush did what one would normally applaud an inexperienced executive for doing: he hired well-respected, experienced advisors. This included former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to be his vice president, Ford-era Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld to return to his old job, and the moderate Gulf War general Colin Powell to be his secretary of state. He also had some younger voices as advisors, such as Condoleezza Rice, as well as ideological fanatics like Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle.
Like the country as a whole, Bush was angry and confused after the 9/11 attacks. Turning to his advisors, they were nearly unanimous—with the exception of Powell—that we should attack Iraq. As documented in Bush at War, Rumsfeld was calling for this even before our forces had uprooted al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld Tried to Prove His Pet Theories
While Republicans and the Bush Administration supported the troops, they did not defer to their leadership on military matters. The run up to the war featured an extended debate between Donald Rumsfeld and the uniformed military.
Rumsfeld wanted the military to do more with less. He thought his view of the “Revolution in Military Affairs” had been vindicated by the swift fall of the Taliban through a combination of Special Forces, JDAMs, and local proxies. Rumsfeld did not apparently learn any lessons from the escape of bin Laden and thousands of his fighters at Tora Bora, nor from a similar escape of enemy forces in early 2002 during Operation Anaconda. Both of these failures were partially the result of inadequate numbers of blocking forces.
Army Chief of Staff General Eric K. Shinseki was apparently pushed out after proposing a minimum of 300,000 men to invade Iraq. While lower numbers proved adequate for the invasion, that turned out to be the easy part. The Iraqi military crumbled under the massive weight of American conventional forces. But after we dispersed the Iraqi army—it never really surrendered—leaderless disorder evolved over time into a nasty and persistent insurgency.
While Colin Powell famously applied the Pottery Barn rule—“you break it, you buy it”—this was also a choice. America broke Serbia in 1999, and we never did much to help rehabilitate it. But the entire American foreign policy and defense establishment seemed incapable of thinking of the Iraq War as anything other than a showcase for American power and a means of exporting universal American values. More modest concepts of operations, like a punitive raid, were never given much consideration. I hoped in vain this democracy stuff was just soft talk for the soccer moms, but they actually meant it.
In spite of these grand ambitions, the powers that be under-resourced the entire affair and barely planned for the postwar governance of the country. The military leadership—Tommy Franks and then Ricardo Sanchez—were supremely unimaginative. Nothing they said or did connected with the broader strategy, in which civil affairs, internal security, and postwar governance should have been the main effort.
Rumsfeld waved off concerns about the nascent insurgency as things turned for the worse, saying unconvincingly that “freedom’s messy.”
Perhaps Rumsfeld was making a virtue of necessity. If he wanted to use more troops, the U.S. military was not very big. It barely grew after the 9/11 attacks, and there was no move to reinstitute a draft. The military’s budget is huge, but the numbers are a fraction of Cold War levels. The highest number of U.S. troops at any one time in Iraq was about 160,000. By contrast, in Vietnam, the United States had more than 500,000 men deployed at the height of our commitment.
Numbers alone will not win a war, particularly one whose strategic concept—the missionary export of Western values to an alien, Muslim-dominated country with no such traditions—was deeply flawed. Even before I fully opposed the war, I opposed this utopian nonsense.
High on their own rhetoric about the universality of American values, American political and military leaders seemed blind to the fact that it might matter to Iraqis that all of this change took place under the auspices of an American occupation. American leaders forgot that nationalism is a nearly universal impulse, and that movements seeking national liberation have been the chief driver of war over the last 75 years.
The Iraq War dragged on, through ups and downs, including an overrated “surge,” until John McCain won the Republican nomination in 2008. A dull and bellicose man, his only claim to fame was his extreme war-hawkism, even as many Americans concluded that Iraq was not winnable. Obama’s primary victory against Hillary Clinton and his general election victory against McCain were, as much as anything else, a thorough repudiation of the Iraq War and the utopian adventurism that gave rise to it.
Obama withdrew our troops in 2011. A much smaller number returned at Iraq’s invitation to assist the Iraqis in fighting ISIS in 2014, but that deployment is nearly at a close as well.
Twenty years on, we can begin to see at least some of the war’s historical significance.
First, the United States failed in its strategic objectives. The Bush Administration rightly saw that al-Qaeda was just one facet of broader Islamic extremism and anti-Western hostility in the Middle East. Bush thought turning Iraq into a liberal democracy would begin to “drain the swamp” of militant Islamist energies. But after the war, the Middle East remains a violent and chaotic hellhole.
It isn’t all bad news. While low-grade wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria are ongoing, America has experienced no repeat of an attack on the scale of 9/11. After the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, there have been almost no large-scale terrorist attacks in either Europe or the United States. It appears we accomplish more, and inspire less hostility, the less we are involved in certain parts of the world. There are such things as strategic patience and strategic avoidance.
Another important consequence of the Iraq War has been the end of the neoconservatives’ hold on foreign policy, particularly among the Republicans. Donald Trump and his America First agenda was the antithesis of all things neoconservative, and disenchantment with the war fever of the Bush years had a lot to do with this.
Hints of the neocon persuasion remain in the figures of Nikki Haley and John Bolton, for example. But they find almost no support among voters. Trump showed a different way. He started from a strong suspicion of going to war, coupled with basic recognition of national differences. His watchword was not abstract liberalism or equality or democracy, but the tangible interests of the American people in safety and prosperity.
Probably the most consequential outcome of the war is the present inability of the United States to pursue a large-scale war with American troops. After Iraq, people across the political spectrum lost whatever appetite for war they once had. This is why more recent adventures like Libya, Syria, and Ukraine all involve proxy forces or a very small U.S. footprint.
After Iraq, national unity and trust went down across the board. Whatever deference and support the Bush Administration mustered in support of the Iraq War also used up that same social capital. The recent mass surrender of our Afghan proxies only reinforces Americans’ perception of dishonesty and incompetence among our military and foreign policy leadership.
Some interpret this rejection of foreign wars as a sign of Americans being casualty-averse, a modern-day incarnation of Vietnam Syndrome, but I think this misunderstands the mood. Americans have proven resolute when national survival is at stake, but they are averse to wasting young Americans’ lives in a war with no apparent progress and for which no clear relationship exists to the nation’s interest. Proponents of American empire never account for most Americans’ skepticism and indifference towards this pursuit.
As it did after Vietnam, the American military has tried to refocus on conventional conflict in the wake of the unsuccessful counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. But other regimes also learn lessons from these wars. Most countries around the world know they will not do well head-to-head with the American military in a conventional conflict. So they are emphasizing asymmetric warfare: cyberattacks, drones, and, as a means of national defense, preparations for insurgency.
Perhaps these foreign powers are also fighting the last war. It is not entirely clear that the U.S. military could accomplish today the same conventional campaign it masterfully executed in 2003. Recruiting shortfalls, a sclerotic procurement system, a reduction in human capital, and a deficient industrial base likely would present challenges absent in the early 2000s.
Thinking About War
There is a broader lesson that has yet to be learned among the foreign policy and defense community. The American military has rightly been described as having excellent weapon systems, training, tactics, and operational art, including the use of combined arms techniques and sophisticated logistics support. But the end state of recent wars has been either negative or mediocre.
While our soldiers, NSA staff, and Pentagon officials are apparently very good at thinking about the operational level of war, there does not seem to be much thinking—or much good thinking—about war, as such. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that stringing together enough victorious battles translates into victory in war. But we won nearly every large engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but still failed to achieve victory in either campaign.
A similar deficiency of imagination seems to be behind the current campaign in Ukraine. The United States is throwing mountains of money and resources at the Ukrainians, but what does victory look like and how are these resources going to achieve that victory? Moreover, no one seems to be thinking about whether any such victory would be a strategic benefit, since our support for Ukraine has drained our arsenals, while pushing strategic competitors Russia and China closer together.
We need generals and statesmen worthy of the sacrifices of the young Americans in uniform, who rely on the wisdom of those above them to ensure their service supports the national interest. In Iraq, our leaders let them, and all of us, down.