It’s been a decade since we invaded Iraq in what may rank as the most calamitous foreign policy decision ever by this country. A few thoughts.
The selling of a war: The administration of George W Bush skillfully exploited the fear and insecurity engendered by 9/11 to push an attack on Iraq that, in normal circumstances, the country would never have countenanced. Obsessed with removing Saddam Hussein, the administration concocted a case for war from cherry-picked intelligence and worst-case scenarios; they then launched a sales campaign replete with dire warnings that conjured visions of mushroom clouds and poison gas that ultimately succeeded in bamboozling congress, the media and most Americans into acquiescence. Absent was even a minimally serious deliberative process within the administration to weigh the evidence, balance the risks and seriously consider opposing views to determine the right course, even assuming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (which they did not). That the nation fell for it despite the gaping holes in the administration’s case still boggles the mind.
The media aids and abets: With some honorable exceptions (such as McClatchy Newspapers whose solid reporting exposed the thin gruel constituting the administration’s justification, and the editorial pages of The New York Times) the media failed to challenge the administration’s case for war. There was certainly enough credible evidence and intelligence to cast serious doubt on the notion that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed WMD, or represented a genuine threat even if it did, that the media had a duty to forcefully question the administration’s rationales. It was also blindingly clear that the administration had given little thought to the aftermath of an invasion. Yet the so-called liberal media such as The Washington Post failed to hold the administration’s case up to the probing scrutiny that was critical and even suppressed contrary opinions and indicators.
An unprepared military that proved adaptable: Opponents of the war understood that the easy part would be the defeat of the Iraqi forces in the initial assault, a fact not fully grasped by the commanding general of the invasion force, General Tommy Franks, when he retired some months after the fall of Baghdad and the regime. He left behind a nascent insurgency for which the US military was completely unprepared. The eventual cost was appalling: more than 4,500 American servicemen and women killed and over 30,000 wounded. The vast majority of these casualties were incurred fighting the insurgency. In contrast to their leaders the volunteer military itself performed magnificently throughout the Iraq conflict, and continues to do so in Afghanistan. Even during the darkest days of the insurgency when salvaging anything resembling a victory seemed unlikely, the soldiers, sailors and marines never faltered. They are the heroes of the Iraq story.
Political hacks as administrators: The Provisional Coalition Authority under former ambassador Paul Bremer (now a painter) was established as an interim governing body following the invasion. The PCA was staffed primarily with GOP loyalists whose qualifications didn’t extend beyond knowing the right answer to whether Roe v Wade was a good decision. These ignorant bozos whose knowledge of Iraq could fit on a postage stamp then tried to micromanage the country by trying to graft ideologically driven public policy solutions onto a country that had just been administratively beheaded. They failed to see to the most basic needs of the people such as restoring the flow of electricity and clean water. Bremer himself committed the single biggest blunder by disbanding the Iraqi army and barring even mid-level Ba’ath Party members from government positions, a decision that inflamed and fueled the budding insurgency that soon was to devastate Iraq.
Cheney and Rumsfeld were really bad news: The combination of Dick Cheney as Vice-President and his old pal Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense was touted by the media as a Bush administration foreign policy and national security powerhouse of expertise. In reality, Rumsfeld’s tenure was marked by equal measures and copious amounts of bombast, bullying and bullshit. Competence on the other hand was largely absent and when Iraq descended into murderous chaos, Rumsfeld simply appeared befuddled and out of his depth. Only when Robert Gates became Defense Secretary did we see real competence come to that portfolio. Cheney was the driving force in the push for war and was also the instigator of employing torture as national policy. Ironically, the invasion of Iraq enabled al-Qaida’s establishment in Iraq and strengthened Iran as the primary regional power, outcomes very much against our national security interests. Cheney and Rumsfeld really were national disasters.
General Petraeus and the surge: In fact this was simply the adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy, the heart of which was to protect the civilian population in urban centers while deploying special operations forces to kill or capture key insurgents and their leaders. It was a welcome change but its effectiveness was greatly enhanced by the concurrent Sunni Awakening, in which tribes stopped fighting the Americans and turned on al-Qaida-in-Iraq’s murderous barbarism. This took out 70% of the most effective Sunni insurgents and turned them against the terrorists. In the end the US military pulled out a well-deserved victory of sorts but the cost was prohibitive.
Iraq today is a nascent but fragile and divided democracy. Majority Shiites hold most of the levers of power with ever more wary Sunni and Kurd minorities viewing the authoritarian government of Nouri al-Maliki with deepening suspicion and fear. While levels of violence are down from the war years, Iraq is still an extremely violent country. It is a work in progress and nobody can say for sure how it will turn out; whether it will become a thriving democracy, a beacon for the Middle East as war proponents once envisaged, or descend once again into strife and chaos as different factions vie for power. Maybe in another decade we’ll have a better idea. One thing we do know is that the price of the war for Iraqis was truly horrendous: at least 100,000 dead and many times that number injured.
For Americans I think the essential questions remain: How did we as a strong democracy with a free and unfettered media, ever allow our country to invade another with so little justification? And how can we avoid making the same mistake again? Even to this day I don’t believe we yet have the answers.