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March 21, 2023

Iraq 20 Years Later

In retrospect, what can we learn from an invasion that most Americans now think was an awful mistake?

March 20 marked 20 years since the second U.S. invasion of Iraq – Operation Iraqi Freedom, which George W. Bush defined as a mission “to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.” One article can’t possibly sum up those two decades, or even come close to “The Conclusion” about the war and its aftermath, but we can offer an analytical look at the pros and cons.

Over the course of U.S. involvement in Iraq, 4,586 American service members paid the ultimate price, as did roughly another 3,500 contractors and civilians. Another 32,455 military personnel were wounded, some losing limbs or sustaining other lifelong serious injuries. That’s to say nothing of PTSD, broken families, and other ramifications. What did their blood and sacrifice achieve?

The Iraqi civilian death toll is estimated to be somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000. Many of them were Iraqi Christians, of whom there are now far fewer than before the war. Millions of people were displaced, often by the subsequent rise of ISIS. To be clear, Iraqi insurgents and others were responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths, not American military personnel. Nevertheless, what did this loss of life and possessions bring?

American taxpayers spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq. What did this expenditure of treasure buy?

The answers to those questions are complicated. They’re not black and white.

One result has been a dramatic shift in public opinion regarding foreign wars. As our Mark Alexander recently wrote about Ukraine, U.S. intervention at various levels can be a pretty mixed bag, and that yields vacillating public response. That was certainly the case in Iraq.

The war in Iraq was popular at the beginning. When Bush and his team, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, made the case that Iraq, part of what Bush called the “Axis of Evil,” had spent years violating international rules about weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorists, the overwhelming majority of the American people rallied behind them. We were, after all, still unified in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to take the fight to the enemy in what we dubbed Jihadistan rather than face them here on our shores.

There’s no question that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was an evil and brutal despot. His genocidal record and warmongering in the Middle East, as well as his attempt to assassinate George H.W. Bush, were tangible threats to U.S. national security interests. Since his execution in 2006, the world is better off, and Iraq is in many ways a better place now than in 2003.

More importantly, Iraq is no longer a threat to the U.S., though it’s true we’ll never know if that could have been achieved without war.

A year after the 2003 invasion came the 2004 election, and Democrats wanted to oust Bush. That meant turning — hard — against the war many of them had supported. Political division here fed what became a tough slog in Iraq as the insurgency dug in for a long war in which jihadis knew they could outlast fickle Americans. The insurgency is exactly why Alexander and others argued back in 2005 that “we should stay in Iraq — for decades.” An essentially permanent military presence there would help secure our interests.

Today, only about 2,500 American troops remain in Iraq in advisory and training roles.

Democrats failed to turn public opinion in 2004, though by 2008 the story was far different as the nation grew tired of war.

By 2013 and 2014, Barack Obama’s foolish withdrawal from Iraq led directly to the rise of the Islamic State. That caused more civilian death and posed as great a threat to U.S. security as did Hussein’s regime. It took years to crush the “caliphate.”

Obama’s malfeasance, coupled with failures in Iraq, also enabled the rise of Iran. The failures in Syria and Libya can be likewise traced to Iraq.

When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, it was largely seen as a repudiation of the Bush era, perhaps foremost in the arena of national security and foreign policy. Trump called the war in Iraq “a big, fat mistake,” and Republican voters supported him. Very few Americans today still stand by the decision to invade Iraq.

So, was it all a mistake?

In some ways, Bush and Powell thought so. Both men certainly lamented that the weapons of mass destruction key to justifying the war were never found. “I knew the failure to find WMD would transform public perception of the war,” Bush wrote in his memoir. “While the world was undoubtedly safer with Saddam gone, the reality was that I had sent American troops into combat based in large part on intelligence that proved false. That was a massive blow to our credibility — my credibility — that would shake the confidence of the American people. No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.”

By 2005, Powell called his February 2003 WMD speech to the UN a “blot” that “will always be part of my record,” adding: “It was painful. It’s painful now.”

Whether Hussein’s weapons were expended, squirreled away to some other location, or never existed in the first place is still the subject of some debate. What is not up for debate is that Saddam used chemical weapons against both the Iranians and the Kurds in his own nation, and he never gave up trying to produce or procure WMD.

Team Bush and its defenders largely tried to make the most of Powell’s “you break it, you own it” so-called Pottery Barn rule. Since we’d deposed Saddam, we might as well focus on building an allied nation. That turned out to be far easier said than done in the Arab/Islamic world. “Nation building” is now largely considered a discredited fetish of the establishment neocons, which helps explain the growing skepticism about involvement in Ukraine.

As we said at the outset, our object here isn’t the final and comprehensive case for or against war in Iraq. Mistakes were definitely made, primarily in ascertaining the truth about the war’s justification and in managing the post-invasion battle to stabilize Iraq. The war itself had consequences, and not all of them were good.

But it’s revisionist history to suggest that we should have known better or that nothing good came from U.S. intervention in the Middle East from 2001 until today. Moreover, it dishonors the sacrifices made by American military personnel — both the ones who came home changed and scarred, and the ones who never made it back home at all.

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