14 years later, have we really learned from Iraq?

Fourteen years ago this week, President George W. Bush addressed the American people from the Oval Office as the first U.S. bombs were being dropped on Baghdad in Operation Iraqi Freedom. U.S. forces, Bush declared, were leading the civilized world against a dictator in Saddam Hussein who committed so many human rights violations and crimes against his own people that he was a direct threat to human decency.

In the words of the president, “American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” The United States of America, the greatest country on earth, would bring the Iraqi people the freedom that all men and women are preordained for.

As we’ve learned over the intervening years, the invasion of Iraq, while well-intentioned, did not turn out as anticipated.

Although Hussein was deposed in less than a month, the picture of a clean, easy and historical achievement predicted by neoconservatives proved to be a grossly incompetent assessment that strained America’s armed forces and cost thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars. Iraq today is more volatile and dangerous than in 2003, and Iran has increased its influence in the country and throughout the region.

{mosads}The State Department’s comprehensive plans for Iraq and its projections of post-war strife and insurgency were quashed by ideologues in the White House and Pentagon who viewed the study as a threat to their war plans. As a senior defense official told The New York Times at the time, “It [the State Department’s assessment] was mostly ignored. … State has good ideas and a feel for the political landscape, but they’re bad at implementing anything.”


The problem, of course, wasn’t that the war was simply mismanaged; it was that the invasion shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The tactics were wrong, the strategy was wrong, and the idea that the United States could simply overthrow a regime and replace it with a Western-style parliamentary democracy with relative ease was so devoid of history that one wonders who would conjure up the thought.

By the time President Obama pulled out all U.S. combat troops from Iraq in December 2011, the U.S. nation-building project was for all intents and purposes an unmitigated failure.

The problem wasn’t that U.S. troops couldn’t perform at a stellar level. Far from it; the men and women who volunteered to serve their country did everything that policymakers in Washington ordered them to do, at a considerable cost to their own lives and their mental health.

More than 4,800 U.S. soldiers gave their lives to a mission that was strategically doomed to fail from the start. Twenty-something from the heartland were all of a sudden thrust into a highly charged environment and asked to build schools, pave roads, teach Iraq’s warring communities to stop shooting at each other; help manufacture an accountable, transparent and corruption-free government; and protect Iraqis from pervasive sectarian violence, some of which was enabled by their own government.

U.S. soldiers were ordered to act as social engineers and guidance counselors, hoping that just enough poking, prodding and pleading would guide Iraq’s political leaders toward the right path.

This is not to suggest that there weren’t accomplishments for the United States in Iraq — there were plenty at the tactical level. Al Qaeda was swept from Fallujah in the most intense urban warfare that the U.S. Marine Corps experienced since the Vietnam War. The infusion of 20,000 additional U.S. troops during the 2007-2008 surge helped temporarily decrease sectarian violence in Baghdad.

These tactical achievements deserve recognition, for they were only made possible due to the dedication and sacrifice of the corporals, sergeants and captains on the ground.

Unfortunately, all the tactical victories in the world could not and did not persuade Iraq’s political leaders to act responsibility and govern for the good of all Iraqis rather than for their own parochial and sectarian interests.

The zero-sum mentality of Iraqi politics persists to this day.

To many national-security hawks in Washington, both inside the U.S. government and in the think-tank universe, Americans have overlearned the legacy of Iraq. Yet the entire Iraq imbroglio was such a blunder and such a disaster to regional stability that it would be foolish for policymakers to discard the hard-learned lessons of that conflict.

History need not repeat itself.

The Iraq experiment was more than just an unfortunate chapter in American history. In fact, we ask for a repetition of the Iraq experiment if we take the hawks’ advice — going down the road yet again where regime change and democratic promotion at the point of a gun is viewed as a plausible policy option for the United States. 

Our elites fail to understand how the unwise Iraq invasion worsened America’s national security interests in the Middle East.

The lessons from this well-intentioned but misguided operation are numerous and applicable to this day. We dismiss them at our own peril: Blind hubris should never be substituted for clear-eyed analysis in our foreign policy deliberations. Understanding the proper use and limitations of military power would enhance our security and save us perhaps trillions of dollars.

War planning must constantly face rigorous questioning; policymakers must always think three steps ahead; assumptions must be challenged at every turn; and regime change, a failed and costly pursuit, should be avoided unless absolutely necessary and authorized by Congress.

Fourteen years after Bush declared a fight for freedom, democracy and humanity against a blood-curdling dictator, the legacy of Iraq still hovers over Washington like a dark storm cloud.

And hover it should. It is a clear example of noble intentions getting mugged by reality, and how dangerous it can be to let spreading democracy guide our foreign policy rather than a sober analysis of America’s vital national security interests.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a Middle East and foreign policy analyst at Wikistrat. He has written for The National Interest, Rare Politics and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @dandepetris.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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