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The Lessons Not Learned From Iraq

Twenty years on, the war still shapes policy—mostly for the worse.

rines walk past a toppled statue of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. U.S. Marines walk past a toppled statue of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on April 10, 2003. [PATRICK BAZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES]

“War is a stern teacher,” Thucydides wrote nearly 2,500 years ago. Since then, great nations have often sought to learn lessons from the wars they waged, especially bad or stupid wars. But the same can’t really be said of the United States, which invaded Iraq 20 years ago as of Sunday. (March 19, 2003, marked the start of the “shock and awe” air war.)


Considering its long-term effects, the Iraq invasion amounted to one of the most consequential strategic misdirections in U.S. history. Yet there has been very little discussion about why that is—and why what happened two decades ago is not a history lesson at all but rather part of an ongoing class in current events.


The hubris and excess of the Iraq invasion—a later iteration of the “reckless audacity” that Thucydides, the Greek historian, ascribed to the warmongering Greeks in the Peloponnesian War—are still with us today, shaping our times. The aftereffects of Iraq dramatically reduced the position of the United States in the Middle East, most recently opening the way to China’s brokering of Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement. The unnecessary diversion into Iraq—and the drain on U.S. resources and attention that resulted from it—set the stage for Washington’s 20-year failure in Afghanistan, which left U.S. President Joe Biden humiliated when he precipitously withdrew all U.S. troops, declaring in August 2021 that he was putting an end to U.S. efforts “to remake other countries.”


The Afghanistan catastrophe in turn projected an image of panicky weakness from which Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have drawn false encouragement by invading Ukraine. (In speeches, Putin has also invoked the Iraq invasion to justify his own.) The self-created disaster of Iraq exposed U.S. military weakness, teaching the rest of the world how to outmaneuver and fight what was once considered an unassailable superpower. It arguably transformed American politics by helping to discredit the political establishment in Washington and open the way for former U.S. President Donald Trump and his “America First” neo-isolationism. Another little-noted domestic effect of the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was that they dramatically worsened America’s opioid crisis, as a poorly prepared Department of Veteran Affairs chronically overprescribed fentanyl and other drugs to wounded and traumatized service members.


So, did any good come out of the Iraq War—a worthwhile lesson or two? Yes, but they’re not terribly encouraging. Indeed, a U.S. Army study found that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” in the war.

Smoke covers the presidential palace compound in Baghdad on March 21, 2003, during a massive U.S.-led air raid on the Iraqi capital. [PATRICK BAZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES]

Certainly, at least, Iraq is no longer ruled by anti-American tyrant Saddam Hussein. Instead, it is loosely governed by a squabbling collection of corrupt politicians who would likely be anti-American except that if they were, they’d be overthrown (either by Iran or the Islamic State) were it not for the roughly 2,500 U.S. troops who remain there.


Some military experts also believe that the U.S. military learned valuable lessons about the serious limitations of counterinsurgency operations. Even if the original invasion was a mistake, the United States managed to defeat both the Iraqi insurgency and the Islamic State occupation that followed. Still, those were hardly models of success or future strategy, notes C. Anthony Pfaff, a retired Army colonel who teaches at the Army War College. “What I don’t see is turning those operational successes into strategic ones,” he said.


Ironically, the most important lesson to be learned from the initial success of both the Iraqi insurgency and the triumph of the Taliban is how effective insurgencies can be against invading powers, like the French and Norwegians during World War II. “But we don’t like to talk about that too much because then we would be the Nazis,” said David Kilcullen, author of the 2020 book The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West.


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.


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.


Even that lesson took a long time to learn, said Andrew Wiest, co-director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. Wiest argues that for too long, the United States repeated the same mistakes in Afghanistan—open-ended support to an unsustainable government—that it did in Vietnam. Moreover, “the diversion to Iraq greatly impacted and perhaps even doomed the war in Afghanistan,” he told me in an email. This, Wiest wrote, “has not been debated enough.”


The question is whether any of these lessons will stick since the war is rarely discussed. Even now, there is no serious public debate about what went wrong. This is hardly surprising considering that, starting with Biden, many of the same officials and pundits who supported the invasion are still running things in government and the media. (This includes not only leading Republicans and conservatives but also leading Democrats, such as John Kerry, who is now Biden’s climate envoy.)

Then-U.S. President George W. Bush meets with then-U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld outside the Oval Office shortly after authorizing Operation Iraqi Freedom in Washington on March 19, 2003. [ERIC DRAPER/WHITE HOUSE/GETTY IMAGES]

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.” Neither was any reason ever given for the Iraq invasion other than the administration felt an urgent need to reassert American power after the trauma of 9/11. After it turned out that fears of Saddam’s links to al Qaeda and his supposed cache of weapons of mass destruction were unfounded, the Bush administration pursued a vague, ill-thought-out plan of asserting American power and values in the region. That backfired too; by becoming an occupying power in the heart of the Arab world—often a brutal one, as the torture at Abu Ghraib and other prisons showed—Washington only touched off new waves of terrorism.


“Bush and his advisers never quite grasped that the anti-Americanism coursing through the Islamic world was not a result of Arabs hating American values but a consequence of their resentment of American deeds.”


“Bush and his advisers never quite grasped that the anti-Americanism coursing through the Islamic world was not a result of Arabs hating American values but a consequence of their resentment of American deeds—Washington’s support of repressive regimes, its embrace of Israel, its sanctions policy in Iraq, its military presences in Muslims’ Holy Land (Saudi Arabia), its quest for oil, and its hegemonic role in their neighborhood,” Leffler writes.


The Iraq invasion “certainly takes the prize for lack of preparation. Yet what preparation there was sucked the air out of the Afghan mission from its beginning,” said James Dobbins, Bush’s former Afghanistan envoy. Harold Koh, a former senior official in the Obama administration, calls this the “original sin” of the war on terrorism after 9/11. “If we hadn’t invaded Iraq—and had we used the resources elsewhere and correctly assessed the situation initially—a lot of this would not have happened,” he told me on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.


Kilcullen said another problem is that because so many senior government and military officials signed onto the invasion, there was very little or no accountability afterward. He contrasts this with how other great powers, going back to ancient Rome and the Battle of Cannae, learned from their mistakes. “But that only works if you recognize you’ve been defeated,” Kilcullen said. “One thing we don’t do is punish generals for losing wars.”

 

(c) 2023, Foreign Policy




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