Even those who initially supported the war now reluctantly accept that the consequences of invading Iraq were perverse and that attempts to replace tyranny with political order there have been futile. President Obama has taken the lessons of futility and perversity to heart and they may be shaping his overriding policy ambition—to end his second term with no American combat troops in harm's way anywhere in the world. This would certainly be a popular presidential legacy in a country that feels the fiscal reality of imperial overstretch more deeply than at any time in its recent history.
The problem with the lessons of the past is that they can be true and still not offer a reliable guide to the future. The question that hovers over the tenth anniversary of the ill-fated invasion of Iraq is whether the lessons of perversity and futility learned there are the right guides for U.S. policy next door. Both Iraq and Syria are a fissile mixture of ethnicities and religions thrown together after Versailles by departing French and British imperialists and only kept together by Baathist tyranny and violence. Now, 80 years later, both of them are coming apart, Syria in a bloody uprising against the last remaining Baathist tyrant, Iraq in a slow motion civil war among Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis. No one can predict whether either state will survive as a state or fragment into ethnic enclaves, but if they do fragment, the Middle East as a whole is bound to be a different—and less stable—neighborhood. The U.S. has an interest in stability, but the failures in Iraq seem to counsel against trying to create order in Syria. Certainly, if a ground invasion and combat troops failed in Iraq, they will fail in Syria. Departing Defense Secretary Gates was surely right that no president in his right mind will ever want to commit ground troops to the Middle East again.
But does this exhaust the lessons that Iraq holds for Syria? Has American policy become so risk averse that no action in Syria is possible? It is one thing to take futility and perversity to heart, another to conclude that doing the least you can is the only safe option. And there are robust things that can be done, even when we acknowledge the weaknesses of the Syrian opposition, the risk of inadvertently aiding Islamist combat units, and the likelihood that anything America does now is unlikely to give it much influence over the Syria that emerges after Assad’s last stand. Actively helping the exhausted municipal councils in the free zones of Syria to keep the lights on, feed their people, repair infrastructure and get economic activity moving again are all actions that would speed the desired end. Since there is a NATO ally on Syria’s border, delivering aid to the insurgents’ hinterland is feasible. Telling Assad that if he uses Scuds, helicopter gunships, and jets to bomb his own people, they will be shot down by the Patriot batteries is a risk-filled step and will be opposed by the Russians, but are no risks ever to be taken? Should the U.S. stand by until the regime and the opposition are fighting it out house-to-house in Damascus? What exactly does the U.S. gain by standing by as the Syrian people are pulverized from the air? For all the talk about futility and perversity in interventions, it is well to remember that not all of them have failed. No one is dying in Bosnia.
Michael Ignatieff teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto and the Harvard Kennedy School.
Ten years ago, the day after the U.S. invaded Iraq, I published an op-ed in The New York Times with the completely inaccurate headline: “Good Reasons for Going Around the U.N.” I did not think that the U.S. had good reasons for going around the U.N.; indeed, I was politically naïve enough to believe right down to the last minute that the Bush administration would not act without U.N. approval. Once the invasion was underway, however, I argued that although illegal, it could still be made legitimate if: 1) U.S. troops found weapons of mass destruction; 2) the Iraqi people greeted the troops as liberators; and 3) the U.S. then went back to the U.N. Security Council and sought a post-hoc approval of the action by majority vote, as NATO did after the intervention in Kosovo.
None of these three conditions were met; the Iraq war is thus both illegal and illegitimate in the eyes of the vast majority of nations. Looking back, it is hard to remember just how convinced many of us were that weapons of mass destruction would be found. Had I not believed that, I would never have countenanced any kind of intervention on purely humanitarian terms. Many dictators brutalize their populations; they have to conduct the equivalent of active war against their own citizens to reach the threshold of the responsibility to protect doctrine. Nor is it permissible to use military force to establish a democracy, even assuming such an outcome were likely or even possible. But if you did think that Saddam Hussein had an illegal WMD program, then the terror and torture that many Iraqi civilians suffered served as an additional justification for using force.
I now see the decision to invade Iraq as cynical, tragic, immoral, and irresponsible to the point of folly. I do not think that the thousands of U.S. and allied lives lost were lost in vain: Only time can tell what Iraq will become; how the Iraqi people will look back on the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing ten years of violence; and what role Iraq will play in the larger Middle East. It is very difficult to imagine any transition from Saddam to post-Saddam without some violence and political upheaval in a nation as fractured religiously and ethnically as Iraq. But in hindsight, the U.S. decision to spend tens of billions of U.S. dollars; to ignore all knowledge, planning, and expertise about Iraq with regard to what should happen when the bullets stopped flying; and to ignore the opposition of many of our closest allies in deciding when and how to take action is virtually indefensible. And I could not in good conscience look an Iraqi widow, parent, or child in the eye and tell them that the tens of thousands of Iraqi lives lost served a larger purpose, which is a burden that every American who did not actively demonstrate against the war must carry.
In the end, Iraq served as my political coming of age in the way that the Vietnam was a coming of age for the generation ten to fifteen years ahead of me. Never again will I trust a single government’s interpretation of data when lives are at stake, perhaps especially my own government. And I will not support the international use of force in a war of choice rather than necessity without the approval of some multilateral body, one that includes countries that are directly affected by both the circumstances in the target country and by the planned intervention. If the situation on the ground in a country is not bad enough to mobilize at least some of its neighbors to action, then it should not mobilize far away military powers.
Iraq remains a country in pain. The United States will be paying its financial and human debts from the Iraq war for decades to come. If I could re-roll the film, I would stop the invasion. Instead we should mark a sober anniversary by reflecting on all that the U.S., its allies, and the Iraqis have lost. We can only hope we have gained a lesson in humility.
Anne-Marie Slaughter is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. She was previously the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department.
The Iraq war began wrongly and ended rightly. (The Afghan war began rightly and will end wrongly.) Those of us who supported the Iraq war ten years ago because we believed that Saddam Hussein—who had already used chemical weapons—possessed weapons of mass destruction must forever ponder the fact that he did not possess them. That we joined, or helped to establish, a near-universal consensus does not exonerate us from the unpleasant truth that President Bush took the United States into a major war on fraudulent grounds. Consensus, like dissent, requires evidence; there is no truth in numbers. Then the war started growing rationales. It was only after no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq that the invasion of Iraq came to be justified as a war of democratization.
But here is where things get complicated. In its effects upon Iraq, it was a war of democratization. Let us be, then, empirical. A vicious and unscrupulous dictator—whose much-vaunted “secularism” would hardly have prevented him from forming all sorts of alliances with jihadists and terrorists—was overthrown. Institutions of representative government were established. Elections were held. There is a sense in which the emancipation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein was the pre-history of the Arab Spring, though it would be crazy to conclude that war should be our preferred instrument of democratization.
Of course I do not mean to idealize the present situation in Iraq. Ethnic and confessional conflict sharpens by the day; there is an increase in sectarian violence; Maliki is behaving like a Shia autocrat. But here is where things get still more complicated. When you liberate people from tyranny, or when they liberate themselves, it is the actually existing people who are liberated. They are suddenly freed for the expression of their previously suppressed identities; and those identities are often intensely tribal and religious. People are not liberalized by freedom. The overthrow of a dictator is the prelude to the establishment of democracy, not the establishment of democracy itself. The new conditions of liberty attract the enemies of democracy as well, who see an opening in the confusion, and in the lack of the society’s preparedness for democratic structures. While the end of a dictator may be beautiful, the social and political realities that are revealed by the opening in his absence may be ugly.
So the work of democratization does not end with the attainment of freedom. Quite the contrary. That is when it begins. The social conflicts that were unleashed by the war in Iraq—the competition for power among the Sunnis, the Shia, and the Kurds—come as no surprise to anyone with a realistic understanding of the difficulties of democratization. The argument can be made that the mess is not worth the price, that the stability of despotism—the social peace that comes with the repression of cultural difference—is preferable to the miseries of liberalization. I cannot make such an argument, for two reasons: historically, because there was no social peace under Saddam, there was only vast social pain, and because the stability of despots is always temporary, even if it feels like an eternity; and morally, because the ideal of democracy is universal or it is a sham. The people of Iraq are now experiencing their war of national identity. Many societies, including our own, have experienced such a war, which can be exceptionally savage.
I would not have gone to war to democratize Iraq, but I hope that we do not blind ourselves to the extraordinary changes that have taken place there, and to the possibility of a decent outcome. It is an outcome upon which we might have had an influence. The important thing is that we, the United States, stay engaged: there are pluralists and democrats of all ethnicities and confessions whom we must support, not least because Iran has other plans for them, and for Iraq. But this is precisely what we are not doing. Staying engaged is not what President Obama does best. His policy toward Iraq is goodbye and good luck. But the compromised origins of the Iraq war are not all, or even most, of what we need to know about Iraq now. Cursing George W. Bush is not a strategy. The region is convulsing, and we are pivoting.
DAVID RIEFF: "Could anyone who supported this war today encounter a relative, spouse, or friend of one of the American soldiers who was killed or grievously injured in Iraq and tell them with a straight face that this war was worth their sacrifice?"
I opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and nothing that has occurred since has caused me to alter my view. To the contrary, every claim advanced at the time to justify that evil and pointless war has since been proved to be an immoral falsehood, an exercise in wishful thinking, a textbook case of geostrategic stupidity, or some ignoble combination of the three. The Bush administration insisted there were weapons of mass destruction, but there were no weapons of mass destruction. Supporters of exporting democracy at the point of a gun, and here liberal interventionists and neoconservatives and so-called national greatness conservatives were largely singing from the same hymnbook, claimed that destroying the Baath dictatorship would usher in a democratic Middle East. Instead, we have an increasingly theocratic Shi’ite dictatorship, a sullen and resentful Sunni minority, and the Kurds who have in all but name seceded from Iraq. And geostrategists insisted that the war would deal a major blow to Iranian power in the Middle East by counter-posing a democratically inclined, Western-leaning Iraq. But Iran has been the real victor in Iraq, perhaps the only victor apart from the Kurds.
And the losers? Apart from the Sunnis, whose hegemony was shattered by the force of American arms, that would be the United States. 4,487 dead, 32,223 wounded, 20 percent of whom have catastrophic brain or spinal injuries, and this is not even counting psychological injuries. A trillion dollars spent. The systematic torture of prisoners that, as we are now learning seems to have been sanctioned at the highest levels of the chain of command in Iraq. Corruption both by U.S. uniformed personnel and contractors, which, from the report of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, seems to have existed to a degree unparalleled in American military history. And all this so we can have Maliki ruling Iraq instead of Saddam Hussein! Could anyone who supported this war today encounter a relative, spouse, or friend of one of the American soldiers who was killed or grievously injured in Iraq and tell them with a straight face that this war was worth their sacrifice?
Everyone who regularly takes positions on the great political and moral questions of his or her time is likely to be wrong on many occasions. To pretend otherwise is narcissistic preening pure and simple. And having been right about a specific question, no matter how momentous—as I believe those of us who opposed the war in Iraq from the start (and not, as so many did, only when it began to go badly) can legitimately claim to have been—obviously does not in any way confer some special aura of authority to one’s views on other questions. But by the same token, is it really too much to ask that those who supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq so enthusiastically at the time, and whose second thoughts have been far less fierce and full-throated than their initial enthusiasm, not deploy virtually the exact same crusading rhetoric about the necessity of the use of U.S. power in the name of overthrowing tyrants, and of America serving as an armed midwife to the birth of democracy in the Middle East, with regard to Syria as they did a decade ago with regard to Iraq?
David Rieff is writing a book on the global food crisis.
Somewhere in the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency, when it became clear to almost everyone that the war was a catastrophe, a purge mentality took hold among its most strident critics. Politicians who voted for the war were deemed beyond the pale, as if this one bad call outweighed whatever good sense or courage they might have otherwise shown in their careers. As much as anything, Hillary Clinton’s vote for Bush’s October 2002 use-of-force resolution crippled her 2008 presidential bid. Columnists who cheered the invasion, meanwhile, were scorned, spoken about as if they should be denied a platform forever after because of the misjudgment. Even in recent months, it was argued that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice shouldn’t be made secretary of state because her stance on the invasion, circa 2003, couldn’t be pinned down with sufficient precision—even as many on the left actively favored the pro-invasion Senator Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, Hagel having since recanted his support. I suppose it’s possible to repent of having been wrong, but not to repent of having been unsure.
I opposed the invasion of Iraq at the time, and I still have contempt for the smug faith of Bush and his lieutenants who rushed to invade rather than waiting to see if the U.N. inspections would uncover the nuclear facilities that Saddam Hussein was widely, and wrongly, thought to be hiding. I recall listening ambivalently to Ted Kennedy’s stirring antiwar speech at Harvard’s Sanders Theater in October 2002. I say “ambivalently” because I shared Kennedy’s premonitory fear that Bush had already made up his mind about war, despite insisting otherwise; but I nonetheless had to admit that only the threat of armed force seemed likely to coerce Saddam into readmitting the weapons inspectors he had illegally evicted a few years earlier. Of course, it was only after Congress passed the resolution and the inspections resumed that my worst fears—that Bush had no intention of waiting out the year to eighteen months necessary to determine the truth—were confirmed.
At times I felt certain, even righteous, in my judgment, and holy in my indignation toward Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. But in other, more pensive moments I saw that even though Bush had been recklessly unreflective and unrigorous in his consideration of the evidence, and of the risks, and of the costs of war, the decision was still a hard call.
It was a call that Americans debated heatedly in the newspapers and magazines and online for months, with strong arguments volleyed back and forth. Anyone who claims that there was “no debate” in the news media is flat wrong—probably, to be fair, misremembering; the unconscious is good at rationalizing our misjudgments or those of our fellow citizens, and who easier to blame than the amorphous “media”? It’s true that in that post-9/11 moment of national vulnerability and fear, the majority of pundits, like the majority of Americans, went along with the invasion; but there were lots of dissenters, too, whom I read attentively. And it’s true that the New York Times and other news outlets hyped some bad and misleading intelligence; but these selfsame outlets also cast doubt on many of those same claims, if not always with the same prominence. The only reason I disbelieved that “aluminum tubes” business—besides by congenitally skeptical disposition—was that independent experts were quoted in the newspaper pointedly questioning Condoleezza Rice’s statements.
Looking back after a decade, some today proffer the “lesson” that anyone of hawkish inclinations should be kept far from the reins of power. Some insist that American military interventions are bound to fail. But I suspect these aren’t really lessons we’re taking from history; they’re lessons we’re taking to history. In truth, Iraq tells us relatively little about what to do in Libya, or Syria, or Iran. Maybe we shouldn’t be taking advice from Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard, but—truthfully—how much did you heed their advice before? What the Iraq war debacle teaches me is not that certain pundits should be read out of the profession, or errant Democrats brought to heel, or that capital-R Realism again become the order of the day. Rather it suggests that we should approach these difficult decisions with humility, patience, and rigor, bringing to light as much information as possible. The same certainty that got us into so much trouble then is precisely what we should steer clear of now.
David Greenberg, a contributing editor at The New Republic, is a professor of journalism and media studies and of history at Rutgers and the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (Norton), among other books.
Was the Iraq war worth it? In hindsight, with all the damage done to Iraq, the United States, and the region, the answer is obviously no. But judging the war ten years later is not just a matter of weighing costs and benefits. It also means remembering how tall we stood after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Our adversaries—Iran, North Korea, Libya, even China—feared not only our overwhelming military power but our ability to lead the world into action. After the botched occupation of Iraq—and the subsequent economic crisis—that power and respect seems long gone.
As for the war itself, by any measure it was a calamity. For Iraq, there are the tens of thousands dead, the infrastructure destroyed, the years of chaos, brutality, mass murder and civil war, even the rise of Al-Qaeda. For the United States, the price includes our many thousand dead and seriously wounded, some one trillion dollars spent, the lost admiration of our friends and allies, as well as the shame of Abu Ghuraib.
True, most Iraqis cheered the end of Saddam Hussein’ s tyranny as a godsend. But the “product” the Bush White House said it was bringing to market in August of 2002 was not democracy by invasion, but ending the clear and present danger of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. To the surprise of nearly everyone, even the war’s opponents, those weapons were just not there. The judgment of history will be harsh indeed.
But what was the alternative? At the time no one really doubted the intelligence reports showing Iraq with substantial stocks of deadly viruses, germs and toxins (By contrast, the nuclear threat, “the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud,” was irresponsible scare-mongering by the Bush team). It’s hard to remember it now, but 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks created justifiable fear, verging on panic, in America of terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction.
What makes it all so confounding is that we know now, from jailhouse interrogations, that it was all a bluff. Saddam wanted his neighbors—and even his own military—to believe he had such weapons. Hence, the conundrum: Given his actual use of chemical weapons on the Kurds and the Iranians, how could any White House believe that the weapons were all destroyed years earlier?
The first lesson then is that Iraq’s WMD—real or imagined—was a problem to be managed not an urgent threat. The rush to war was an invention of the Bush-Cheney administration. Those WMD, even if they had been there, were not an imminent threat. That’s why the biggest loser was Afghanistan. That country should have been stabilized before Washington even considered redirecting its massive military power to deal with Baghdad. Now, instead of a mission reasonably accomplished in Afghanistan, after thirteen long years of war there’s a good chance it will revert to chaos soon after we leave.
For policy makers, other lessons learned have to do with the difficulty of doing nation-building without admitting it, the risks of going it alone, and the enduring need for diplomacy backed by force.
But generals and historians are not the only ones who learn lessons from the last war. Politicians do too. And in the political realm, one huge unintended consequence of the war is the damage done to America’s confidence, to its willingness to lead. In much the same way that the British people and their leaders turned isolationist after the horrors of World War I, for too many Americans the Iraq war has become a rationale to turn inward, a reason to leave Afghanistan to its fate, to let the Europeans handle Libya and Mali, and to watch Syria burn.
The war not only weakened America in the eyes of the world, it also launched an entire debate here at home about American decline. The Vietnam syndrome was almost gone when the Iraq effect took its place.
James P. Rubin was Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs during the Clinton Administration.
America’s experience in Iraq looks to me like a large and exceptionally miserable episode within a far vaster civil war, which is taking place across broad swathes of the Arab and Muslim world. The vaster war was brought about by the rise of mad ideologies, and it will end when the ideologies expire or evolve into ghosts of their previous selves. A gigantic civil war of this sort tore Europe apart in the last century, with fascism and communism as the culpable doctrines, and the conflict proved to be a prolonged business, though not always violent; and this will be true of the larger Arabo-Muslim catastrophe of our own time.
America was drawn into these conflicts of past and present because, in both cases, the isolationist alternative was fantastical nonsense. In the Iraqi instance we have been drawn in because, if I may lay out the reasons, during the first Gulf War, and then after the war, and then during the Clinton years, and then, and then—until, by 2003, the removal of Saddam was the only way to end the stand-off that resulted from all those other “and thens.” And then came the bad news that everyone knows, as well as its opposite: elimination of the region’s most murderous tyrant, prosperity for our ever-overlooked Kurdish friends, and so forth. Some people argue that al Qaeda in its global version underwent its most grievous defeats during the Iraqi surge, and other people insist that Saddam’s overthrow opened the door for the early liberal moments of the Arab Spring, and fervently I hope that these claims are correct, though really I have no idea.
But the Iraq war has not proved to be the decisive turning point in the vaster conflict. So there will be further developments and further American participation, too, though in forms that seem to me unpredictable—a point that is pressing upon me because, by peculiar happenstance, I am scribbling these words right now in a town in the western Sahara, where I have been meeting people who speak almost casually of gigantic personal and political transformations that no one would have dreamed possible, until they had taken place. Just yesterday I met a mayor who warned that some Polisario separatist rebels from his own Saharan region have joined the Islamist terrorists in Mali. I met a sympatico old Polisario Marxist who told me that he himself, instead of taking up the global jihad, has come out in favor of Moroccan royalism, which he confessed with a wry smile—all of which has reminded me that, in an age of wild ideologies, ideas and affiliations resemble (please pardon the cliché, which right now is no cliché to me) the enormous sand dunes that surrounded me an hour ago and that are said to migrate constantly and change shape under the pressure of invisible and invincible winds.
There are, of course, the facts on the ground: the hundreds of thousands dead; the country, even ten years afterwards, in worse shape than before; the revival of deadly tribal and religious rivalries; and from the American standpoint, the replacement of manageable balance of power in the region by a tacit alliance between Shi’ite Iran and Iraq. But leave those considerations aside and consider the more ethereal subject of international law.
International law is more honored in theory than practice, but has nonetheless served a useful purpose in suppressing certain odious practices and justifying international action against countries that violate its prohibitions. American support for international law dates from Theodore Roosevelt and was continued through every administration until that of George W. Bush.
It was originally hoped that international law would be enforced by the conscience of mankind; but that hope expired after two world wars. What replaced it was enforcement through international and multilateral institutions and, if those failed, through the power of a hegemon, the United States. And international law had some success after World War II, evidenced most clearly in the alliance the United States was able to fashion in 1991 against Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait.
But the Bush administration violated two of its axiomatic provisions. First, the U.N. Charter barred military action against another country action except in immediate self-defense “against an armed attack.” When countries violated this provision, as Iraq did in invading Kuwait, the Security Council could authorize force against it. The U.N. provision was intended to rule out wars of conquest or preemptive wars like that of Germany against Russia in World War I. But there was a gray area where a nation attacked another that it believed, with good reason, was planning to attack it, as appeared to happen during the Six Day War in 1967.
The Bush administration, however, went well beyond this. In Bush’s 2002 speech at West Point, he justified “preemptive action” when intelligence revealed “threats hidden in caves and growing in laboratories.” The latter was a clear reference to Iraq. Bush was arguing that even if Iraq had not attacked the United States or any other country, but was merely developing weapons in “laboratories,” the United States was justified in taking preemptive action. That justification, if universalized, could lead to decades of war.
The Bush administration also brazenly violated the United Nations’ convention against torture, which the Reagan administration had signed. By violating it in Iraq, and most likely in Afghanistan, the United States created a situation where another country would no longer feel bound to adhere to the convention when dealing with American prisoners. In both cases, the Bush administration offered Byzantine justifications, but it seems to me that there were two kinds of motives behind the administration’s rejection of international law.
The first was the narrow nationalism of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney. According to this view, the U.S. could and should do whatever was in its national interest. Period. That was, for instance, the view that imperial Germany took before World War I. In endorsing the U.N. charter, Harry Truman spoke very clearly against this view. “We all have to recognize—no matter how great our strength—that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.”
The other rationale, voiced by neoconservatives inside and outside the administration, was that America was an exceptional country whose actions came out of a higher morality. “As the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom,” Bush declared in justifying American intervention. “That is what we have been called to do, as far as I am concerned.” This kind of rhetoric about America’s special role, which Mitt Romney echoed in the 2012 campaign, may seem to be boilerplate patriotism, but applied to foreign policy, it most resembles the kind of moral-ideological rationale used by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to advance their own interests in the world.
The former kind of justification (“might is right”) led to World War I, and the second (“our might is right”) to World War II and the Cold War. In the twenty-first century, this kind of jaded reasoning led to America’s worst foreign policy disaster since the Vietnam War. And if the Obama administration is not careful in its attempt to discourage Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, it could lead to a new quagmire in the Middle East.
John B. Judis explored these themes in The Folly of Empire, which appeared in 2004.