At first glance, March 19, 2018 seems like just another day on the calendar. In fact, it’s anything but ordinary.
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy decision since President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 escalation in Vietnam: the invasion of Iraq, a military campaign that ended up costing the United States trillions of dollars, killing more than 4,500 U.S. troops, and realigning the Middle East power structure to Iran’s advantage. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to argue that the sectarianism, terrorism, and Iranian expansionism that defines today’s Middle East can be traced back to that fateful decision in March 2003.
The Iraq war, in fact, has turned out to be such a calamity that an entire cottage industry has risen up to investigate the invasion, the occupation, and their aftermath. Dozens of books have been written by war correspondents and heavy hitter journalists like the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Gordon chronicling the decision-making process in Washington leading up to the conflict and the endless mistakes that occurred during the subsequent insurgency. The list of errors committed by U.S. officials is so long that one can easily imagine documentary filmmaker Ken Burns tackling the Iraq war as his next public service project for PBS.
We don’t need to reprise all of the hubris, stupidity, and neoconservative babble that helped tear Iraq apart—there is so much material available that it is difficult to determine which mistakes were catastrophic and which were merely devoid of common sense.
Before the “shock and awe” bombing campaign began, there were the laughably rosy predictions from senior Bush administration officials like Vice President Dick Cheney about Iraqis greeting American troops as liberators like Parisians in 1944. There was the wildly optimistic and inaccurate assessment from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that the war would be fought at minimal financial cost to the American taxpayer thanks to the Iraqis’ vast oil wealth. Experienced professionals who were more cautious in their appraisals—like Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who asserted that many more troops would be needed to secure Iraq than the Pentagon was letting on—were marginalized and forced out, discarded as dinosaurs who didn’t understand 21st-century warfare.
The pro-regime-change crowd in Washington didn’t exactly wise up during the war either. From the deployment of too few U.S. troops on the ground to the systematic terminations of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, the Bush administration made one wrong move after another. Rather than admit poor judgment, officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stubbornly clung to their own delusions, impervious to the chaos and anarchy that were unleashed by their faulty decisions. Even the 2007 U.S. troop surge, popularized in Washington as a turning point in America’s misadventure in Iraq, proved to be nothing but a band-aid: though sectarian violence went down considerably, the long-term reconciliation among Iraqis that the policy’s architects were hoping for never occurred. As soon as U.S. troops withdrew from the country in 2011, Iraqi politicians resumed their zero-sum contest for power and influence against one another—a game Iraq’s current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is struggling to tame to this day.
Fifteen years removed, it is incredibly difficult to point to anything positive that resulted from Washington’s decision to oust Saddam Hussein from power. Yes, a tyrant was kicked out of his palace in Baghdad, but the prime ministers who have since taken over have either been grossly unprepared for the job (Ayad al-Alawi); in league with Iranian-sponsored militias (Ibrahim al-Jaafari); intensely paranoid, conspiratorial, and selfish (Nouri al-Maliki); or left with no option but to play the game in the hopes of reforming it (Abadi). Not even the most diehard proponent of the invasion can argue with a straight face that the Middle East is better off now than it was before 2003, when Saddam Hussein served as a useful bulwark against Iran.
And what about the neoconservatives’ central rationale for the war, that regime change in Iraq would serve as a powerful example for the people of the Middle East to demand democracy and freedom in their own societies? To state the obvious, those arguments were disproven the moment the Iraqi state itself collapsed.
Has the foreign policy establishment learned the lessons of Iraq? Not at all, and now some of the same people who trumpeted the war in 2002 and 2003 are being seriously considered for senior national security positions in the Trump administration. The majority of Americans who are tired of the U.S. military serving as the sheriffs of the Middle East and who pine for realism, restraint, and a little humility in their foreign policy may need to wait a while for the elites to catch up.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.