Last week marked the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. I’ve been reading a lot of commentary reflecting on the near decade of conflict. While I think it may be decades before the full wisdom or folly of the war is understood, I had a few thoughts I’ve been spinning around on the subject.
Why We Fight:
I won’t try to pretend I didn’t support the war. I absolutely did. Remembering why exactly I supported the war is a bit more difficult. There were various reasons. But, in the end, I supported the war because I thought that Saddam’s fall was inevitable. If we could effect a relatively peaceful transition, it was possible we could create an ally in the region, something to balance out our “ally” Saudi Arabia, especially if the Iranian regime fell. We had the ability. We had a target nation that was isolated, fractious, vulnerable and supported terrorism. Toppling its vile malicious dictator and transitioning to a better if imperfect government seemed like something we could do.
In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was smoking. I spent too much time listening to starry-eyed idealists who thought the world could be changed through military force. Moreover, I was ignoring the reality that Iraq was never a country in a traditional sense. It was a country carved out of a bunch of tribes so that Faisal would have a place to rule. The nation of Shiites, Sunni and Kurds was only held together by the iron fist of Saddam. It is still possible that, in the end, a stable Iraq will emerge. But that’s a tenuous thread of hope on which to commit so much blood and treasure.
I was also persuaded by frankly flimsy arguments that we didn’t have to finish Afghanistan before we got into Iraq. After all, we fought on two fronts in World War II, didn’t we? But we didn’t have a World War-sized military or a World War-sized budget. And, as it turned out, not only was Iraq a much bigger task than we anticipated, Afghanistan was too. At the end of World War II, we were occupying two countries that had an interest in rebuilding and moving on (in Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, the men of Easy Company remember Germans cleaning bombed out cities and stacking up bricks for use in rebuilding). Many Afghanis and Iraqis wanted peace and prosperity. But the countries were dominated by those who gloried in chaos and destruction.
I also ignored the danger of realigning the regional powers. Before our invasion, the “Axis of Evil” consisted of two countries that hated each other and a backward country on the other side of the world. Now, as Malou Innocent has pointed out, Iran’s influence in Iraq is waxing — an utterly predictable development given Maliki’s association with Iran and the link between Shiite populations. Saddam counterbalanced Iran. Maliki is practically joining forces with them. Was this was what we wanted? Was this not inevitable no matter what happened?
But while I remain concerned about the region and worried that the long-term impact will be negative, I still can not descend into the depths of pure cynicism. The Left likes to think the War was all about seizing oil, enriching Haliburton and portraying the Democrats as cowards. Even if you assume that kind of thinking was in our leadership, the soldiers weren’t thinking that way. Our generals weren’t. Our State Department wasn’t. These people honestly believed they could save Iraq from itself. In the end, the problem of Iraq was not created by our supposed imperial ambitions being blunted; it was created by an idealistic view of what was possible.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Weapons of Mass Destruction. I never really bought that as a justification for the war. Saddam had them for decades and never gave them to terrorists. He was not so stupid as to think we wouldn’t be able to trace it. I warned conservatives at the time that playing the WMD angle — while good politically — was dangerous because it would blow up if we didn’t find any actual weapons. When it turned out that all Iraq had was a few stale sarin shells, that gave rise to the tiresome “Bush lied, people died” mantra. (One residual question I’m always asked is why Saddam didn’t allow inspections if he didn’t have the weapons. Cobra II answers this: he was relying on the uncertainty to keep his own people from rebelling and Iran from attacking). And there is plenty of evidence that our leadership at least suspected that the WMD’s did not exist. But I never bought it; I always saw it as a narrative to justify a war that was being fought for other reasons. But I don’t think those “other reasons” were a lust for oil and war profits. Those other reasons were a belief that we could fundamentally transform the region.
In that vein, I think that the war critics want to ignore something important: as bad as Iraq is now, it was worse under Hussein. To pretend that Iraq, as problematic as it is, isn’t better off than it was under Saddam is to ignore history. His torture chambers are gone. His brutal prisons are gone. He’s no longer paying blood money to the families of Palestinian terrorists who blow themselves up. People are in far less danger of being gassed, shot or starved to death. And there is still an outside chance that Iraq will eventually stabilize and become a fully functional nation. To suggest that Iraq would be better off or that the world be better off with Saddam still in power is a bit ridiculous.
(And let’s not ignore that Libya quickly got rid of their WMD program as a result of the war. Imagine the recent Libyan civil war had been fought with chemical weapons. Imagine those weapons on the loose, perhaps used at Benghazi.)
The war was not a total failure. Saddam is gone. That’s not a bad thing.
But the price. Was it worth the price? The cost is simply staggering: 4500 American troops dead, over 30,000 wounded and God knows how many with trauma that is driving them to horrifying rates of suicide and depression. Long-term costs, including care of veterans, estimated between $4 and $6 trillion. Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead. Had those numbers been placed in front of us in March of 2003 as the future outcome of the Iraq War, would we have done it? Was getting rid of that vile slime worth the price we paid?
The Failure of “No Blood for Oil”
No discussion of Iraq is complete without finding someone to blame for the problems we had. War supporters, neocons and the Bush Administration are the obvious targets and I agree that the lion’s share of responsibility falls on us. I’ll get to that in a moment. But there is one group that tries to pretend no responsibility falls upon them.
I know the Left bristles at any blame being thrown at them for the war. After all, they opposed it didn’t they? But the Iraq War illustrates a point that I have often made, in recent years, against Obama’s critics: mindless opposition is worse than no opposition. Had the anti-war protesters questioned the WMD intelligence, had they talked about the difficulty of nation building, had they talked about the ability to contain Saddam, it might have slowed the pace of invasion. And, to be fair, many smart anti-war people did make these points. But they were drowned in the “no blood for oil” and “Bushitler” campaigns that tried to make this out to be an expansion of America’s racist empire.
That didn’t persuade anybody. On the contrary, it solidified the determination of those of us who supported the war. And when thing began to go wrong, the Bush Administration and their supporters used the pre-war hysteria to dismiss legitimate concerns. People who tried to point out that the violence was escalating, that our methods were strengthening AQI, that we didn’t have enough troops were immediately thrown into the heap with those who though Bush was seizing Iraq’s oil. Legitimate reporting was dismissed as media bias. Human rights concerns were just another attempt to criticize our troops.
When you play tribal politics, you can’t pretend to be surprised when the other side responds in a tribal fashion. The Left tried to make the political side of the war an “us versus them” thing and then were surprised when it became … an “us versus them” thing. I don’t thing a smarter opposition would have stopped the war. But it might have gotten us to address the growing problem earlier and more effectively than we eventually did.
It’s hard to remember now but the initial stages of the war actually went extremely well. After some delays, our military broke through and overran Iraq with speed and determination. Saddam and his sons driven were underground (literally), a relative calm was established, elections were held. Remember everyone dipping their fingers in blue ink? For a time, it looked like we had done it: we had deposed a vile and evil dictator and established a democracy. A successful nation building!
And then, the pieces began to fall apart. The violence in Iraq never quite died out. Al-Qaeda established a presence in Iraq and terrorist attacks proliferated. A unified government could not be created.
And then it suddenly blew up, literally, with the Golden Mosque.
I do not think this was inevitable. We have chewed over these points before, but it’s worth talking about again. As documented in the must-read Cobra II, both the State Department and General Shinseki tried desperately to warn Rumsfeld that he didn’t have enough troops to control the country. But Rummy was determined to try out his long-haired theories about the military. At one point, he planned to invade with about 10,000 troops. He only agreed to more troops on the condition that the invasion start while some were still at sea so they could be turned around if not needed. The inner circles of power were almost entirely concerned with showing how easy it was to knock over a dictator. Managing the country afterward? Meh.
Bremer mismanaged Iraq as badly as could be imagined. Reconstruction, as documented by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, was oriented around giving contracts to Bush supporters and their children instead of those with experience in reconstruction (or knowledge of the region). Our response to the growing insurgency included torture authorized at the highest levels, which David Petraeus described as AQI’s most effective recruiting tool.
In that light, the collapse of Iraq after al-Askari bombing was not unexpected; it was inevitable. The success in Iraq was illusory, resting on a foundation of … well, sand. If it hadn’t been al-Askari, it would have been something that plunged Iraq into the abyss.
What followed was probably the most frustrating part of the entire affair. Iraq exploded in violence and it became obvious that we didn’t have enough troops to control the situation (actually, it had been obvious we didn’t have enough troops in 2003; 2006 just drove the point home). Throughout 2006, as violence rose, the need for more troops became obvious. McCain, to his credit, was among the first to call for a surge. But the President and his defenders insisted that everything was fine, that the problems in Iraq were simply a liberal media creation. They would ignore the growing horrific death toll and tout some school that had been built. No matter what was happening in reality, the bulk of the GOP and almost all of the conservative commentariat were committed to the pravda that all was well.
(Part of this was a Guns of August thing: fighting the political battle over the last war. Many war supporters — particularly the ones in the Bush Administration — had bitter memories of Vietnam and how the Tet Offensive was a disaster for North Vietnam but portrayed as a success by our media. But Iraq, even this respect, was not Vietnam. The collapse of the country was not a media creation.)
It was only after the Republicans got hammered in the 2006 election that the President decided to change course. Rumsfeld was canned, the surge was authorized and the situation improved. If you want to pinpoint when I finally broke from the Republican Party, that was it. That was the moment. When not just the President but every GOP commentator in the punditsphere suddenly turned a 180 and said, “Of course we need a surge! It’s obvious we need more troops! Why do you oppose more troops! Do you hate America?!” The sudden reversal of everything they had been saying for years without blinking an eye or even acknowledging how wrong they had been told me this was no longer a group of principled people, but an organization that was purely political.
That plays into another point. Several pundits have claimed that the Iraq War, in effect, gave us Obamacare. The idea is that the blazing incompetence shown by the GOP soured the public on them and gave us a Democratic President and enough of a Democratic Congress to get Obamacare passed. Like Doug Mataconis, I find that a bit glib. It’s yet another effort to hammer Iraq into a Vietnam-shaped mold to which it is ill-suited. The economic collapse was a much more important factor in the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama.
But it is true that Iraq played a big role in the 2006 election and it is true that the GOP’s foreign policy credentials were permanently damaged by the war. And those credentials remain damaged as long as many of the architects and supporters of that war remain in positions of authority and respect. Many of the same people who clamored loudest for Iraq and still insist it was a good idea are now clamoring for us to get involved in Syria. After the last ten years, it would be ridiculous to take them seriously. And as long as those jokers linger around the halls of power, we should still be skeptical of the GOP on foreign policy.
Dereliction of Duty
We’ve gone over the responsibility that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc. bear for both the war and its progress. And it’s been frustrating to see them evade that responsibility and insist that anything that went wrong was somebody else’s fault. But there is one body that I don’t think has ever really been held to account for their role in Iraq: Congress.
Our Constitution is very clear: only Congress has the authority to start a war. And on the eve of the Iraq War, our Congress … couldn’t be bothered. They essentially punted that decision to President Bush. In a decision involving — even in foresight — hundreds of billions of dollars and a risk to tens of thousands of American lives, Congress couldn’t be bothered to examine the case for war. Healey:
In 2002, very few of our elected representatives were interested in doing basic due diligence before exercising the solemn responsibility that the Constitution gives Congress in the power “to declare War.” From late September 2002 on, copies of the 92-page National Intelligence Estimate on the Iraq threat were available to any member of the House or Senate who wanted to review it. Only a handful even bothered. Then-Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.)—our current secretary of state and his predecessor—weren’t among the six senators who took the time to read the report before voting for war. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) explained that getting away to the secure room to read the NIE—a short walk away across the Capitol grounds—is “not easy to do” and that NIEs make for “extremely dense reading.”
Robert Byrd was an idiot but he did make one important observation. When the vote came up, there was almost no debate. There were very few comments made. Congress just shrugged and said, “um, OK”. They passed the law within a week by massive margins in both houses.
Congress didn’t want to take responsibility. They didn’t want to oppose the war because it was popular. But they didn’t want to actually declare war so that they would be held responsible if it went wrong. So they passed an “authorization” that essentially gave their war-making power to the President.
I won’t let them off. Giving up responsibility is the same as declaring war, as far as I’m concerned. There are 374 members of Congress who voted for the Iraq War. Every single one of them bears responsibility for what happened — for good or ill.
In the end, the Iraq War is the past. It officially ended in December 2011. Chewing the bones is an exercise for historians. The reason I wrote this post is to think what lessons we should learn going forward. What we do now?
First, we have to make sure we take care of those who were wounded, widowed or orphaned. It will be expensive — estimated by some as $3-5 trillion over the long term. But we owe it to them. Soldiers do not decide policy; they follow orders. We can never allow our disagreements over the war to impugn the honor of those who went or to cancel the tremendous debt we owe them. Regardless of the politics, they went there. Many of them went multiple times. And many bear the physical and emotional scars of one of America’s longest wars. The veterans of Iraq are just as deserving of our respect and support as all other veterans. And they’re not getting it.
Second, we can be more cautious about our future engagements. Both the President and Congress must take their war-making ability with the seriousness and solemnity it deserves. We can not go to war without a clear singular and doable objective. If you look at the successful wars in our time — Panama, Grenada, the Gulf War – these were carried out with a single and concrete objective. If you look at the unsuccessful ones — Iraq, Somalia — the objectives were nebulous. We can not build nations. We can not bring democracy to places that don’t want it. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things, not to be a guidance councilor to a nation of thirty million people.
And if Congress and the President can not take this responsibility seriously; if they insist on starting wars (or punting on wars) that are nebulous in their objectives, we must fire their asses. Republican or Democrat, any politician who can’t be bothered to think about whether or not we send our soldiers into harm’s way should be drummed out of office.
Third, we must return to the Powell Doctrine. If we go, we go all in. We send in more troops than we think we’ll need, more planes, more ships, more missiles. None of this “proportionality” bullshit. No more experiments to see how few troops we can use to accomplish a given mission. We overwhelm the enemy with sheer numbers. Completely overwhelming an enemy is not some blood-thirsty macho thing. It is the surest way for a rapid victory and minimal casualties … on both sides.
In my heart, I still think the Iraq War could have been as successful or more successful than it was if we had more competent management and a hell of lot more troops. Iraq might still be chaotic, but it would be a lot less so and have cost a lost less blood and treasure.
And, in the end, that is the greatest tragedy of the Iraq War: it didn’t have to go this way.