The Iraq War at 20 years
We need an honest accounting for this war and its legacy
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Twenty years ago this week, the United States led a multinational coalition of forces in invading Iraq. Two decades later, what is known as the Iraq War remains a source of intense division and trauma for the United States. Just consider how as the word “Vietnam” functioned for a previous generation, today even mentioning the single word “Iraq” wields a multitude of meanings about wars gone awry, overwrought American idealism, hubris and incompetence, and Middle Eastern misadventures.
With the divisions and disasters that ensued from the war, it is easy to forget the overwhelming support the military action in Iraq enjoyed at the time. Prominent Democratic senators such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chuck Schumer voted in favor of the war, and a strong majority of the American public supported it.
Many myths about the war persist, and this mythology contributes to the war’s enduring toxicity. These lies include claims that President George W Bush lied about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction. But back then the entire U.S. intelligence community, most other intelligence services in the world, and most Congressional Democrats all believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. Or the claim is made that Bush believed Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks. Bush did not. Some make the claim that Bush invaded Iraq in order to transform it into a democracy at gunpoint. The truth is that he decided to invade because he believed Saddam Hussein posed an acute security threat. (For a judicious and insightful history that refutes these myths, I recommend University of Virginia professor Melvyn Leffler’s new book Confronting Saddam Hussein).
Such myths should be dispensed in part because the truths about the war are painful enough. Its costs were legion, and many are still felt today. Over 8,200 American soldiers and contractors killed, tens of thousands more wounded or maimed, over 200,000 dead Iraqi civilians, trillions of dollars, an emboldened Iran, acrimonious divisions in our body politic, and severe damage to America’s international credibility.
A full accounting of the war should also include the positive side of the ledger. A vicious, genocidal dictator was removed from power, no longer pursuing his weapons of mass destruction program, and no longer threatening neighboring states or destabilizing a strategic region. Iraq itself is now—for all of its many challenges and shortcomings—a demonstrably better place than it was under Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, Bush’s original war aims were largely accomplished in Iraq today. It is a nation that governs itself, does not menace its neighbors, does not support terrorism, and does not pursue weapons of mass destruction. As Iraq veteran and former NSC official Doug Ollivant writes, it is now a country that American Christians should visit, with its biblical sites of Ninevah, Ur, and Babylon.
And while the enormous costs and errors of the war are well-known, the costs of inaction should not be ignored. Had Saddam Hussein been left in power, he had every intention of restarting his weapons of mass destruction program, and continuing to menace the region as well as the United States. He would also have continued to brutalize his own people and potentially resume his genocide against the Kurds. No one should lament his loss.
This is not to say that the war was worth the terrible price, but rather to remind us of the tragic dimension of statecraft. In our fallen world, with imperfect information, few policy choices are clear or cost-free.
In that sense, almost everyone (including myself) has been wrong in some way or at some time about the Iraq War. President George W. Bush—for whom I was honored to work on the National Security Council staff—and his senior team were wrong about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction, and wrong in their optimism that the post-war rebuilding of Iraq could take place quickly, with minimal cost and without substantial destabilization.
Four years later, when Bush made the controversial decision to “surge” substantial forces in a new counterinsurgency strategy, his many critics were wrong to say it would not work. It did, and finally put Iraq on a path to stability and self-governance. Then in 2011, President Obama was wrong to withdraw the few remaining U.S. forces from Iraq, despite many warnings from the Iraqi government and others that doing so would risk Iraq’s fragile stability and invite the return of jihadist terrorism. The Islamic State’s genocidal campaign and near-takeover of Iraq three years later proved these concerns. Only after American forces returned to Iraq was ISIS defeated.
What does this mean for today, on the war’s 20th anniversary? We should begin with gratitude for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who served in the war. Some of them supported it, others did not, but all willingly answered the call to service—often at great sacrifice and ongoing trauma to themselves and their families.
We should also learn from this history, being humbled at our nation’s hubris and errors, yet not overreacting by withdrawing entirely from the world. Iraq may exhibit the downsides to American overreach, but the new challenges from the likes of Russia and China today show the downsides to a world without American leadership.
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