12 years of hard lessons on Iraq
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I spent a year in Iraq. As a captain in the Army and as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I served my tour in Baghdad from August 2005 to August 2006. It was a complicated and difficult year, but the opportunity to serve my country in combat left an indelible imprint on my soul.


While I am no longer an Army officer, I continue to follow and digest any news that I can about what is happening in that area of the world. I don't watch and read because I support or don't support our country’s presence there, necessarily. It's more personal than that.

Selfishly, I just want to believe that the work we did meant something.

This week's announcement that President Obama is weighing a decision to move United States troops back to the front lines in Iraq and Syria is, frankly, unsurprising. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now occupies a bulk of northern Iraq and has created the space and security necessary to effectively operate its radical Islamic state.

Much of the current political debate over Iraq has followed the decade-long tradition of the Iraq "blame game." Presidential candidates have flooded the record with denunciations and recriminations related to our 2003 decision to invade. Republicans have blamed Obama for withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, while the Obama administration has argued that the fundamental flaw of the war was the manipulation of intelligence and the subsequent decision to invade in the first place.

The reality is that the 12-year failure to develop, let alone articulate, any semblance of a strategic objective in Iraq has been remarkably bipartisan. We made the initial decision to invade Iraq based on concocted evidence of a fictional nuclear arsenal, followed by the misguided reconstruction of an ill-equipped and destructively sectarian "government" — one perhaps more corrupt than the one we replaced. We then made the decision to extract ourselves both militarily and diplomatically, while the mess we created swelled into a civil and religious war.

History and, most recently, 9/11, have taught us that if you don't engage the Middle East, the Middle East will engage you. Our foreign policy, however, has reflected an inexplicable disconnect with the intelligence meant to inform our relationship with the region.

In the wake of our initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, it became overwhelmingly clear that the official intelligence gathered to characterize the threat was manipulated in order to shape and enhance a predetermined agenda. Likewise, the decision to leave an Iraq that was still incredibly unstable in 2011 in order to fulfill a campaign promise also ran counter to intelligence assessments. There is little doubt that our withdrawal from Iraq is directly related to the rise of ISIS in the region.

Our ability to gather advanced, meaningful and timely intelligence is unparalleled in the world. And yet, our negligence in applying that intelligence toward a strategic objective is shameful, resulting in the most serious problem with U.S. intelligence today: It is corrupted by the policymaking process.

Our politicization of intelligence is decidedly bipartisan; it is wrong and it is dangerous.

The last 12 years have been filled with hard lessons. The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 is one of the worst foreign policy decisions in U.S. history.

But the invasion cannot be undone.

The most striking thing to me during my year in Iraq was how embedded we were in the Iraqi military and political systems. To simply unplug from that, as we did in 2011, was a gross miscalculation. The resultant void gave birth to a frighteningly lethal, and determined, terrorist faction.

Over 4,500 American soldiers have died in Iraq since 2003. Some of them were my friends.

As soldiers, we're conditioned to believe in our government's intelligence capability and to believe in our democracy. We put everything on the line, however, because we have a faith in the cooperation between the two.

Spatola is a West Point graduate and former captain in the U.S. Army. He currently serves as a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports and SiriusXM radio.