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It was 20 years ago but the Iraq War folly could be our fate

Despite all we know about one of the worst US foreign policy blunders ever, with the right conditions, history is bound to repeat itself.

Analysis | Middle East

This is the first installment of our weeklong series marking the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, March 20, 2003. See all of the stories here.

Twenty years after the United States under the administration of George W. Bush invaded Iraq, it is undeniable that the war was one of the biggest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The war was entirely one of choice; Iraq was not posing any significant threat to the United States and U.S. interests. The costs were huge. Estimates by academic experts of the war’s long-term monetary cost to the United States — covering everything from bullets to medical care for disabled veterans — are on the order of two to three trillion dollars.

The human costs have included more than 4,400 U.S. military personnel killed and another 32,000 wounded, many of them grievously. The human costs to innocent Iraqis were much higher, including an estimated 275,000-306,000 civilians killed as a direct result of war-related violence. These were some of the same Iraqis whose “liberation” was supposed to be an objective of the war. The Iraqis who survived did get rid of one dictator but were left with a devastated infrastructure and an unstable country wracked by civil war and insurgency.

Supposedly part of a “war on terror,” the U.S. war in Iraq increased international terrorism. The group known as Islamic State, which later seized control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria, began under a different name as a direct response to the U.S. military occupation of Iraq and the sectarian strife that the war spawned. Sectarian conflict has been a large part of the instability that the U.S. invasion stimulated and that spread beyond Iraq. Among other regional repercussions was an increase in Iranian influence, with Tehran achieving a position in Iraq it never had while Saddam Hussein was in power.

It is easy to conclude that this war never should have been fought. The more useful rumination now, two decades later, is about the danger of a recurrence of the sorts of mistakes that led to this historic blunder. That danger, along several dimensions, is real.

Policy Without Process

Incredible as it may seem given the magnitude and consequences of the Iraq War, the decision to launch it was not preceded by any policy process. There certainly were discussions within the administration about selling the war, and some about implementing it, but there never was any National Security Council meeting, policy options paper, or anything else in the way of a policy process that addressed whether starting this war was a good idea. Hence there was no mechanism for bringing into a decision-making process all the considerations and analysis, including what the intelligence community provided, that assessed the invasion’s likely messy aftermath and constituted good reason to conclude that the invasion was a bad idea.

The fact that the Bush administration, which in other respects seemed to be at least as orderly as other administrations and had intelligent people occupying key positions, could launch a major offensive war in such a casual, process-free manner demonstrates how easily a damaging breakdown of order can occur. With other administrations, the danger of breakdowns of process and order leading to disastrous policies may be even greater. Not long ago, the nation spent four years under Donald Trump. Although “adults in the room” reportedly restrained some of Trump’s more destructive impulses, the picture of the Trump White House that has leaked out is predominantly one of chaos.

Congressional Inattention

With the Iraq War, the lack of a process to carefully examine the advisability of the invasion extended beyond the executive branch to the legislative branch. Congress did vote on a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Iraq, but the debate preceding that vote was cursory and included no committee hearings. Longtime West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd lamented this congressional passivity, observing, “You can hear a pin drop. There is no debate. There is no discussion. There is no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.”

The intelligence community had prepared at the request of Congress an estimate on the then-salient issue of possible weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but hardly any members of Congress bothered to look at it. One of the few who did, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, concluded from his reading of the estimate that the administration’s case regarding Iraqi weapons was weak. He was one of only 23 senators to vote against the war resolution.

Partisan politics played a role in Congress’s failure to seriously consider issues that should have been considered regarding the prospective war in Iraq. Most Democrats wanted to get past the matter quickly to return to domestic issues on which they felt more politically comfortable. Democrats who hoped to run for president did not want to be seen blocking an operation that evoked memories of their opposition to the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, a popular military victory, 12 years earlier. For most Republicans, party loyalty trumped any doubts they had about the administration’s case for war. “If I’d gotten the same briefing from President Clinton or Al Gore, I probably would have said, ‘Ah, bullshit,’” then-House Republican leader Richard Armey later recalled as his thinking after receiving a briefing from Vice President Richard Cheney that had left him unimpressed. “You don’t do that to your own people.”

Fast forward to the Congress of today, and there is scant ground for hope that in any comparable situation, its performance would be any better. While a Senate committee recently took a first step toward repealing the war resolution on Iraq that Congress rushed through 20 years earlier, that says little or nothing about what the congressional response would be about a different prospective war against a different enemy. Indeed, partisanship on Capitol Hill is as intense and all-consuming as ever. Any input from the intelligence community will not make an impression on at least one of the two parties, which, having disliked some politically inconvenient truths the community has voiced on other matters, has dedicated itself to discrediting the nation’s intelligence and security services rather than listening to them.

Persuading the Public

The selling of the Iraq War to the American public was an exploitation of mass gullibility. That feat was accomplished not so much through lies as through a rhetorical drumbeat that cultivated certain misperceptions among Americans. By August 2002, after several months of a pro-war campaign in which the administration’s rhetoric had repeatedly mentioned “Iraq,” “9/11,” and “al-Qaida” in the same breath, opinion polls showed a majority of Americans mistakenly believing that Saddam Hussein had been “personally involved” in the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Current circumstances give little or no hope that the public response would be much different to the selling of some future untoward war. If anything, the nation has sunk even deeper into a post-truth era, with lies by the tens of thousands at the presidential level having been a major part of recent American political history. But again, it does not take outright lies to induce public misperceptions that could provide the necessary support for a misbegotten war.

An example is public misperception about nuclear activities in the Middle East and especially Iran — an obviously close counterpart to the issue 20 years ago about supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Influenced by many expressions of concern about Iran’s nuclear program, and exacerbated by some sloppy journalism and commentary that sometimes refers to an Iranian “nuclear weapons program,” a 2021 poll found that 61 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that Iran has nuclear weapons — which, according to the most authoritative publicly expressed U.S. judgments, Iran does not have, nor is even currently trying to build. In the same poll, barely half of respondents said that Israel has nuclear weapons — which observers of the region universally agree Israel does have, and has had them for decades.

Thus, if the United States were to go to war against Iran on an anti-nuclear theme — or if Israel, nudged by careless U.S. statements, were to start such a war — many Americans would have as mistaken a view of the relevant circumstances as the mistaken views 20 years ago about Iraqi WMD. Backers of such military action against Iran undoubtedly would sell the war as an effort to keep nuclear weapons out of the Middle East, and many Americans would believe that sales pitch, even though that is not at all what would be happening. And just as a war in Iraq that supposedly was part of a war on terror ended up stimulating increased international terrorism, an attack on Iran that does not have nuclear weapons would likely provoke Iranian leaders to decide to build such weapons after all.

The selling of the Iraq War involved not just mass gullibility but also mass hysteria. The public outrage over the 9/11 terrorist attack provided the political atmosphere for neoconservatives to finally realize their dream of regime change in Iraq. The suddenly militant American public was in a mood to strike at foreign adversaries, even ones, like Iraq, whose supposed connection to the attack Americans had just suffered was fictional. The nationwide anger provided public support for aggressive actions that in more sober times would fail to gain such support.

It could happen again. Another big terrorist attack by foreign perpetrators on American soil is the most obvious, but not the only type of event that could lead to such a response. A less consequential but still suggestive recent episode concerns the Chinese spy balloon that overflew U.S. territory in February. Expressions of outrage and alarm on Capitol Hill and elsewhere pressured the Biden administration to respond not just with cancellation of diplomatic meetings but also with military force. It did so by using expensive air-to-air missiles three times to shoot down what probably were hobby balloons that had nothing to do with China.

Limits and Costs of Military Force

The Iraq War demonstrated hugely misplaced faith in what military force can accomplish. The neoconservative promoters of the war were trying to insert democracy into a foreign land through the barrel of a gun. As the ensuing violent sectarian strife in Iraq underscored, democracy does not work that way. To take root, democracy relies on the cultivation and practice of certain elements of political culture over years if not decades. And yet, dreams of salutary regime change continue to motivate hawkish voices calling for new offensive wars, most conspicuously regarding Iran.

Related to the absence of a policy process to consider the pros and cons of launching a war against Iraq was a failure by the war-makers to consider, fully and carefully, the follow-on consequences of invading and occupying that country, beyond toppling Saddam’s regime and what they assumed would be the smooth erection of a new and friendly regime. The resentment of a populace under foreign military occupation, with some of that resentment fueling insurgency, is historically more the rule than the exception. When the Bush administration reached a troop withdrawal agreement with the Iraqi regime in 2008, it was against a backdrop of increasingly forceful Iraqi demonstrations of anger over the humiliation and affront to sovereignty that the U.S. occupation represented. In any future war in which the United States struck offensively at a regime that it did not topple — as would likely be the case in an attack on Iran — the substantial follow-on costs would include forceful retaliation by that regime, at times and places of its choosing.

The Iraq War illustrated how resort to military force, regardless of what was the original political objective, makes security of the military force itself an objective and a source of vulnerability. In this regard, there is a direct line between the invasion of Iraq 20 years ago and much more recent tensions, punctuated by violent actions, between the United States and Iran. Iranian assistance to anti-occupation Iraqi insurgents — an insurgency that never would have occurred if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq — became a rationale for the Trump administration’s assassination of Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani in 2020. Iranian retaliation for the assassination included missile strikes against bases in Iraq where U.S. troops, notwithstanding that 2008 withdrawal agreement, continue to be stationed.

Damage to U.S. Credibility and Influence

The failure of the makers of the Iraq War to consider broader follow-on consequences includes not only insurgency and retaliation but also effects of the war on the global standing of the United States and its ability to influence other states on other issues. Relevant to this failure is Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine and the U.S. effort to sustain an international coalition in opposition. In defending his operation against U.S. criticism, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been quick to mention the U.S. invasion of Iraq and to accuse Washington of hypocrisy. To American ears, this rhetorical line is annoying whataboutism, but Putin has a point. What the United States did to Iraq in 2003 was just as much a war of aggression as what Russia did to Ukraine in 2022.

No amount of pointing out differences in objectives, circumstances, and conduct of these two conflicts can erase that fact. Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine, begun when nobody was attacking Russia, cannot be justified by any of the hypotheticals he raises about how Ukraine’s dealings with the West could somehow threaten Russia’s security in the future. But the selling of the Iraq War, begun when Iraq was not attacking any U.S. interests, also was based on hypotheticals. The main theme of President Bush’s sales pitch was that Saddam Hussein “could” give WMD to terrorists or “could” do something else scary.

Even more broadly, the failure to consider consequences for U.S. credibility and influence extends to the declared U.S. determination to uphold a “rules-based international order.” U.S. officials frequently invoke this phrase when criticizing or making demands of China. In no way can the offensive war against Iraq be seen as consistent with respect for a rules-based international order, or else the rules involved are strange rules. The Chinese, as well as others, would be justified in accusing the United States of hypocrisy.

US President George W. Bush delivers what is believed to be the final press conference of his presidency, from the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., USA on January 12, 2009. Bush mounted a defiant and emotional defense of his 'good, strong record', rejecting criticism of his 'war on terror' tactics and policy in Iraq and on the economy. Photo by Olivier Douliery/ABACAPRESS.COM
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