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The Decision to Invade Iraq Has not Aged Well
More and more are distancing themselves from their support for the invasion
In case you hadn’t noticed from all the news coverage and articles cropping up discussing the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it’s the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
As expected, foreign policy writers and former policy makers are flooding the major newspapers, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, think tank journals and websites, and any other venue with essays, retrospectives, and in some refreshing cases, mea culpas.
While there are still staunch defenders of the invasion who argue the world is better without Saddam Hussein (Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley recently defended the invasion during a conversation at the Brookings Institution), the narrative continues to bend toward a consensus that the invasion was a questionable idea that was poorly thought out and badly executed — mainly because it was poorly thought out — and that America is worse off today because of the invasion.
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More and more people who championed the war between 9/11 and March 19, 2003, are distancing themselves from the views they had. I still like to humblebrag that my hands are clean on the matter because I never supported the invasion, but I was not exactly a voice to be reckoned with at the time.
I was a bit player at best during the runup to the war. I was a producer for the NPR talk show The Connection, produced at WBUR in Boston. I was just one person on a team that produced two hours of live radio each weekday. I started working on the program in spring 2001, and it was my first real journalism job.
Still, to this day I point to our team as an oasis of sanity in a media frenzy feeding the Bush administration’s campaign to launch the Iraq war. We remained skeptical, as journalists should. We kept asking questions that no one from the administration wanted to come on the show to answer.
At first, we were questioning the arguments made for the need to invade. Show the proof, or at least preponderance of the evidence, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Provide something more substantive than simply asserting that he had “links” to al-Qaeda.
We never heard a satisfying answer, even when Colin Powell went before the United Nations and immolated his credibility and legacy by presenting a montage of half-truths, cherry-picked bits of intel, and dubious talking points. We remained unconvinced, and frankly saddened to watch in real time as Powell described aluminum tubes and mysterious images in satellite photos.
Once it was clear an invasion was a fait accompli, we asked, “What happens next?” No one doubted the ability of the U.S. military to topple a third- or fourth-tier power, but what are you going to do next, we asked.
Unfortunately, most of the media were placated by the Bush administration’s rosy answers that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators, and the Iraqi people would rise and embrace democracy. It sounded great in those rah-rah post 9/11 days, but it was beyond optimistic.
While we never embraced an official editorial line of opposing the war, we asked the tough questions until the first bombs fell, and we continued to ask in the months and years after.
I didn’t touch down in Iraq until summer 2008, when the tide had turned. I visited again in 2009, 10, 11, and 12.
In December 2011, I covered the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The moment the last troops crossed into Kuwait, then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — the pro-Iran, wannabe dictator who was so paranoid that he did not allow journalists to carry their own pens into the palace for press conferences — launched a crackdown against his opponents spawning years of political jostling and instability that would allow ISIS to grow and metastasize.
And in 2018 I would become the managing editor of the Lead Inspector General reports on Operation Inherent Resolve — the counter-ISIS mission in Iraq and Syria that began in 2014 when U.S. forces returned to Iraq.
So, 20 years after the needless invasion of Iraq, U.S. forces are still in the country (and Syria) helping Iraqi (and Syrian) forces battle a terrorist group that did not exist on 9/11 or on March 19, 2003. As the Lead IG reports have continued to state in the two years since I left that job, there is no long-term solution in sight, and U.S. forces face an indefinite deployment to contain ISIS.
I don’t write any of this to claim to be smarter than the media and pundits who supported the war, and to this day there is no satisfaction in being able to say I never saw evidence that the war was necessary. I’m lucky that at the time I was living and working outside the beltway — thus immune to the war pathogen that had spread among the D.C. elite — and I was rather naïve about international affairs at the time. I wasn’t yet steeped in Clausewitz, Bismarck, Niebuhr, Kennan, Huntington, Kissinger, or Kristol — OK, maybe I’m not steeped today, but they and others have been poured over me in the years after 2001. But initially, I was operating on instinct and observation, and what I was seeing and hearing wasn’t adding up.
Prior to 9/11, President George W. Bush and his team more than once floated the notion of regime change in Iraq. In the spring and summer 2001, I was hearing things that set off alarm bells that the administration wanted to put the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act into practice.
There were nuggets like his address to the National Defense University in May 2001:
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the world joined forces to turn him back. But the international community would have faced a very different situation had Hussein been able to blackmail with nuclear weapons. Like Saddam Hussein, some of today's tyrants are gripped by an implacable hatred of the United States of America. They hate our friends, they hate our values, they hate democracy and freedom and individual liberty. Many care little for the lives of their own people. In such a world, Cold War deterrence is no longer enough.
This segues into one of the major topics of discussion on this anniversary of the invasion: what was the real reason the Bush administration launched the war? Everyone has their favorite explanation: oil, revenge for trying to kill George H.W. Bush, unfinished business from 1991, the neoconservative ideology of using American power to spread democracy, or what came to be the primary argument — Saddam had WMD.
That’s where Max Fisher lands in his New York Times essay exploring the reasons for the war. (By the way, it’s great to see Max went on to make something of himself after getting kicked out of Rushmore.)
It’s not that there’s some still-missing puzzle piece or state secret. Quite the opposite: As time has passed, journalistic investigations and insider testimonies have explored nearly every facet of the invasion.
Rather, the record suggests something more banal: A critical mass of senior officials all came to the table wanting to topple Mr. Hussein for their own reasons, and then talked one another into believing the most readily available justification.
“The truth,” Mr. Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair in 2003, “is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction, as the core reason.”
Dr. Saunders, the Georgetown scholar, called the result “a log roll.”
“Each individual had their reasons and their biases,” she said. “And the absence of experience at the presidential level enabled those biases.”
Sometimes the answer is that simple. Most of the major players in the administration wanted Saddam gone, it was just a matter of settling on what would sell to the American public and, to a lesser extent, the United Nations.
What was perhaps the most surprising aspect of the campaign for war was how the media bought in so quickly. Journalist Robert Kaplan expresses his regrets for that in a Wall St. Journal essay: “What I Failed to Understand About Saddam’s Iraq—and American Power.”
He starts out discussing his reporting in Iraq in the 1980s: the brutality of Saddam’s regime and the trauma he experienced covering the country.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, these harrowing experiences led me to support the Iraq war. People forget that the principal argument for the March 2003 invasion by the U.S. and its allies—that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction—was easy to believe given the monstrous nature of the regime, which was something I knew intimately. I recognized the dangerous possibility of sectarian anarchy if we toppled Saddam, and I had even written about it. But at this key moment, when a balanced assessment was necessary, my judgment was clouded by my awful memories of the country under Baathist rule.
I hadn’t sufficiently understood that Saddam’s absolutist rule had destroyed every vestige of civil society in Iraq, from the family and tribe at the base of the social order to the regime at the top. He had made it impossible for any sort of order to succeed him. His tyranny was so extreme and unpredictable that it was itself a species of anarchy. This was a searing revelation for me. America’s military could accomplish many things, but reconstituting and reforming a brutalized, ferociously sectarian Iraq was not one of them. I should have known better.
One of the central arguments that I and other supporters of an invasion made was that regime change could trigger a broader democratic transformation in the Middle East. I now cringe when I read some of the articles I wrote at the time.
Who were Americans to think that they could transform an entire region with thousands of years of its own history? I am still kicking myself for not paying greater attention to a wise op-ed I ran in 2002, when I was the op-ed editor at The Wall Street Journal. Under the headline “Don’t Attack Saddam,” the experienced foreign policy hand Brent Scowcroft accurately predicted that an invasion of Iraq would require “a large-scale, long-term military occupation” and would “swell the ranks of the terrorists.” I discounted such warnings because I was dazzled by the power of the U.S. military after its victories in the Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan—and dazzled also by the arguments of neoconservative scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami that Iraq offered fertile soil for democracy. In hindsight, I am amazed and appalled that I fell prey to these mass delusions.
One of his conclusions is that there is a fundamental difference between “defending democracy” and “exporting democracy.” Critical to either effort is an indigenous population and technocracy (my word) willing and able to govern.
Both South Korea and South Vietnam were worth defending from communist aggression, but the Koreans showed greater skill and willingness to fight for their own freedom than the South Vietnamese did. The United States needs to be hardheaded in its assessment of where it has local partners that can be successful and where it doesn’t.
And he emphasizes that this is exactly why the United States needs to continue to support Ukraine:
Ukraine easily meets the test, because its government enjoys the enthusiastic support of its people, and its military has shown itself to be skilled and motivated. By contrast, the regime that the United States and its allies created in Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban never had sufficient popular legitimacy. As a result, the Afghan military had insufficient motivation to fight on its own.
Indeed, a U.S. Army study found that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” in the war.
Above all, combined with the United States’ earlier experience of losing in Vietnam, the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan proved beyond any remaining doubt that no amount of money and strength by a superpower will change the outcome on the ground without a legitimate government in place. And Washington has found itself unable to implement that in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq.
Amazingly, even the administration of George W. Bush, which launched the Iraq War, never gave “systemic thought to the fundamental challenge” of terrorism after 9/11, University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler writes in a new history, Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq. As then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote in a memo that was leaked in October 2003, “we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.”
No reliable “metrics” were ever found in the subsequent two decades. “We had all sorts of metrics and were constantly looking for more,” said Pfaff, who served in Army intelligence during the war, but “we could never figure out how to connect those metrics to strategic results.”
Ah metrics — the windmill at which I tilted while at the DoD Office of Inspector General. Every quarter, we asked the commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq to restate their strategic goals, end states, the metrics they used to track progress, and what the metrics said about the degree of progress toward the strategic goals.
It’s exactly as Pfaff stated, there were plenty of metrics because there were, and are, many things that can be measured. The metrics usually indicated activity but not results.
That’s the thing, you can find any metrics or data you want to support a conclusion, which the United States regularly did in Afghanistan when claiming Afghan forces were making progress toward becoming self-sustaining and defeating the Taliban.
Similarly, there were plenty of metrics and data that were aggregated to support the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In the years since, it has become abundantly clear that deciding on a course of action first and then backfilling the data to support the decision is a recipe for 20 years later having U.S. forces in harm’s way in a foreign land helping fight a terrorist group that did not exist on March 19, 2003.