The 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, which took place earlier this month, prompted reflections among many American foreign policy practitioners and observers, both those who supported and opposed the war in 2003.
Among those reflections were mea culpas, including from leading cheerleaders like Max Boot, who wrote in Foreign Affairs : “Regime change obviously did not work out as intended. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were, in fact, fiascos that exacted a high price in both blood and treasure, for both the United States and — even more, of course — the countries it invaded.”
There was, however, little sense of regret for the invasion on Monday at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, which hosted the second event in a series that “seeks to provide a fact-based analysis of the Iraq War.”
The AEI description of the event read that it would address “the object of mythmaking and politicized history” in the war. This, however, was not referring to the mis- and disinformations that led us down a path to war in the first place (and that AEI itself did so much to propagate in the media and via its well-attended “black coffee briefings'' and close association with Ahmad Chalabi in the run-up to the invasion).
Instead, the emphasis was on the question posed by panelist Robert Kagan: “Why we have spent twenty years treating this like the worst disaster that has ever befell the United States, which it most assuredly is not, by any measure?”
Danielle Pletka, senior fellow at AEI who, as AEI’s vice president of foreign and defense policy studies, moderated many of the “black coffee briefings'' 20 years ago, agreed it was important not to focus on the war through the “jaundiced” lens of twenty years of hindsight, but rather on understanding the temper of the times.
Predictably, the AEI panelists largely agreed that the invasion was justified at the time, and that, if there were any failures, they were limited to errors of execution, especially in the invasion and the subsequent occupation. In that context, a number of explanations for the war were offered by various speakers.
Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser at the time, focused on what Americans had “forgotten” in the twenty years since the invasion: the horror felt by the American public and the administration in the aftermath of 9/11, the anthrax attacks that followed it, the general fear of weapons of mass destruction, and how it had all combined to turn Bush into a wartime president. Furthermore, he added, “how brutal Saddam Hussein was in terms of his own people, in terms of a ten-year war against Iran, the  invasion of Kuwait, and the use of chemical weapons against his own Kurdish population.”
In Hadley’s telling, the alternative to an invasion would have been to give Saddam a “get-out-of-jail free card,” a counterfactual in which Hadley predicted sanctions may have been lifted, Baghdad could have developed WMDs, and Iraq might have again invaded Kuwait and possibly other countries, such as Saudi Arabia.
Kagan, who spoke on a separate panel alongside historian Melvyn Leffler, argued that the impetus for the war was neither Saddam’s alleged WMDs, nor a part of the war on terror, nor for control over Iraqi oil, but rather the pursuit of primacy, or, as he put it, “trying to solidify what seemed to be a democratic world order that we could support.”
Kagan argued that part of the reason the war has become unpopular among Americans over the past two decades is because they misunderstood it to be part of the global war on terror instead of a continuation of the late-20th century project of building and maintaining the so-called liberal world order.
When he was challenged by Leffler about whether, given the enormous impact of the invasion on the Iraqi people, American servicemembers and taxpayers, and regional stability, the war did in fact help maintain world order, Kagan responded:
“That’s not the question we’re grappling with. If we know the outcome of every action we take, in its entirety, before we take it, that would make it a lot easier to make decisions. The problem is we don’t know what the outcome is going to be. (...) We could imagine a worse historical future, even than the one that you just elucidated, if we had taken another route. The problem is not ‘can we weigh the costs and benefits of a war that we’ve already undertaken?’ The difficulty is deciding what do we do when we’re [on] the spot”
In the rare moments that the speakers did address the long-term implications of the war, Kagan dismissed concerns about how the war impacted Washington’s global standing, ignoring the neutral way in which much of the Global South has responded to the war in Ukraine, and other ways in which the conflict in Iraq had eroded confidence in the U.S.
“It’s affected Americans' feelings about their role in the world much more than it’s affected the rest of the world’s feelings about the United States,” he insisted. “The notion that the United States suffered a lasting blow to its position in the world is belied by what we’re seeing around the world today. All we’re hearing from the rest of the world, unless you’re Russia, China, or Iran, is they want more America, not less.”