Learning the lessons of Iraq
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Sixteen years ago, the House and Senate paved the way for the military invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. They did not actually declare war. They simply voted to authorize the president to use force “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” to defend national security and enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions in Iraq. Members of Congress who backed this broad authorization, which was sought and supported by President George W. Bush, believed it would allow them to claim credit for the war if it was successful and to avoid blame if it turned out badly.

They were all wrong. Voting for the war turned out to be a major political liability. The key arguments and pieces of intelligence used to justify the intervention were a sham. And the mess it created continues to get bigger.

Looking back on the carnage, five basic lessons become clear:

  1. The Iraq War was a grievous mistake that continues to exact a dreadful toll on human lives and national security;
  2. Congress bears substantial responsibility for the Iraq War by authorizing it, funding it, and failing to exercise adequate oversight of it;
  3. Having overwhelming military might is not the same as having the power to determine the outcome of a war;
  4. Wars can’t solve - and in fact may exacerbate - the failures of governance that gave rise to them;
  5. Starting wars is easy. Ending wars is much more difficult.

The damage to Iraq and its people cannot be erased, and the war’s human, economic, and political costs will be felt for generations to come. But Congress does have an opportunity to show that it has learned the lessons of Iraq by preventing future wars.

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Indeed, the Trump administration appears to be laying the groundwork for a new and even more catastrophic war with Iran. It has unilaterally violated the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, and by Nov. 4 will re-impose all sanctions that had been lifted. After an International Court of Justice ruling that sought to ensure that these new sanctions would not block humanitarian aid to Iran, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard Pompeo2 US service members killed in Afghanistan after Pompeo visit The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? State Department need not be at odds with itself on Republic of Cyprus policy MORE announced U.S. withdrawal from a 1955 treaty that enabled normal relations between the two countries. 

At the U.N. General Assembly meetings in September, President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE gave a belligerent speech calling Iran a “rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos.” He vowed that “we cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities.” Once again, the United States is paving a dangerous road toward regime change – and this time, the president might not seek congressional approval before ordering military action.

Congress has a moral obligation to stand up to this campaign of threats and intimidation. On Sept. 26, Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart Udall2020 debates complicate Senate plans for vote on Trump's war authority Senate GOP to defeat proposal requiring approval for Iran attack GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats MORE (D-N.M.) and nine other senators, including Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House Senate Health Committee advances bipartisan package to lower health costs Senate GOP to defeat proposal requiring approval for Iran attack MORE (R-Ky.), introduced the “Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act of 2018 (S. 3517),” which would prohibit the United States from launching a war with Iran without prior authorization from Congress. The bipartisan legislation sends an important message that Congress will not be party to another march to war.

Even with this legislation, the Trump administration could still drag us into armed confrontation with Iran. Conflict could begin through accidental contact between U.S. and Iranian forces in Yemen, Syria, or in the Persian Gulf. Real or imagined provocations could lead to armed retaliation. Intelligence could be found or manufactured to suggest the presence of an “imminent threat.” That’s why it’s so important for Congress, on behalf of the American people, to take a stand now.

Congress may not be able to rule out war as an option, but it can refuse to be hoodwinked. It can give President Trump the same warning that national security adviser John Bolton gave Tehran: “If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.”

Diana Ohlbaum directs Friends Committee on National Legislation’s (FCNL) foreign policy lobbying team.