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America’s Self-Inflicted Iraq Defeat

As the United States once again slides down the slippery slope of Iraq intervention, it might be worth revisiting the reasons given for the 2003 march on Baghdad more than a decade ago. That war was sold as striking a blow against the forces that attacked us on 9/11 and preventing them from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction.

There were always significant problems with this narrative. Even if the hawks had been right about the scope of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs—which they were not—and prescient about his ambitions, how would overthrowing a relatively secular, if tyrannical and loathsome, regime harm al-Qaeda and other jihadists?

As it turned out, al-Qaeda became a much larger force in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown. It is only now, long after the Iraq War, that jihadists are in fact gaining access to government-scale resources, and that we can speak with a straight face about an Islamic state in the country. Iranian influence on Iraq has also since increased.

All of these things came to pass despite U.S. military forces fighting a war in Iraq of longer duration than World War II. Much of that blood and treasure was spent trying to keep Iraqis from killing each other, rather than keeping them from killing Americans.


Occasionally, Iraq hawks (some repentant, others rather less so) complain that counterfactuals in which the United States stayed out of Iraq in 2003 are unfair. Policy decisions need to be judged based on what was known at the time, not what we know now with the benefit of hindsight.

Well. As it happens, the U.S. leaders did contemplate what would happen if we continued on to Baghdad after expelling Saddam’s forces from Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War. They decided the occupation would be long and costly; that the broad international coalition they had assembled would be fractured; that they would then be on much shakier legal ground; and that the resulting power vacuum might be filled by the kinds of people filling Iraq’s power vacuum right now.

The leaders who made this decision weren’t isolationists or noninterventionists. While some might be described as realists, none of them were worried about America being too ready to serve as the world’s policeman. This administration frequently talked about a “New World Order.”

Among the voices of restraint was none other than Dick Cheney. Then-secretary of defense in the elder George Bush’s administration, Cheney speculated about what kind of government we would have set up to replace Saddam’s.

“Should it be a Sunni government or Shi’a government or a Kurdish government or Ba’athist regime? Or maybe we want to bring in some of the Islamic fundamentalists?” he asked. “How long would we have had to stay in Baghdad to keep that government in place? What would happen to the government once U.S. forces withdrew?”

Good questions, all. In August 1992, Cheney asked and answered what might have been the most important one of all.

“And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth?” Cheney began, concluding, “And the answer is not very damned many.”

The point of this trip down memory lane isn’t to suggest conditions never change or to engage in some gotcha search for flip-flopping Iraq War supporters. Rather it is to point out that the consequences of the Iraq invasion were foreseeable and that even many of the war’s most dogged supporters were capable of anticipating them.

All of this is relevant today because the usual suspects are pointing to the horrors inflicted by the barbarians of ISIS to promote re-engagement in Iraq—all while seeming more interested in fighting Iran and Syria, two countries in the region that are also fighting ISIS.

Perhaps this is just strategic confusion. But given recent history, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the John McCains and Hillary Clintons look first for pretexts to intervene in the region and ask questions later.

The people in Washington who wanted to stop al-Qaeda by going to war against Ba’athists, or fight Iranian influence while toppling Iran’s main regional counterweight, are at it again. Whatever course we choose next in Iraq and elsewhere, it is probably best that we not let them steer.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? [1]

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "America’s Self-Inflicted Iraq Defeat"

#1 Comment By James Leroy Wilson On August 18, 2014 @ 10:50 am

I can’t help but think Middle East policy is like the War on Drugs: designed to fail in order to keep throwing more money and personnel at it. If The State doesn’t continually manufacture chaos, it doesn’t have much reason to exist.

#2 Comment By NorEastern On August 18, 2014 @ 12:16 pm

To go to war is to admit past failures. Policy, diplomacy, sanctions must have all been incorrectly handled. It is always so very easy to start a war. To successfully conclude a war, especially with today’s asymmetric strategies is incredibly difficult.

#3 Comment By James Canning On August 18, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

We should remember that Osama bin Laden hated Saddam Hussein and wanted him killed.

Pretending that Saddam was somehow responsible for the “9/11” attacks was simply a way to deceive the American public.

#4 Comment By Sean Scallon On August 18, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

I think the questions which need to be asked is how and why the Dick Cheney of the Bush I years became the Dick Cheney of the Bush II years.

#5 Comment By Bill Jones On August 18, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

“Much of that blood and treasure was spent trying to keep Iraqis from killing each other”

And much was spent arranging for Iraqis to kill each other.

#6 Comment By Ed K On August 18, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

The Iraq war met all the neo-cons objectives in dividing and weakening Iraq. They also made money for their Defense contractors by designing it to fail and last longer than it needed to be. If they really wanted to succeed and have a stable Iraq, they would not dismantle the Iraqi Army but did minimal changes at the top, and they would protected all Iraqi government ministries and kept them functioning with minimal changes and improvements. The occupation would not lasted that long and many people on all sides would been alive today.

#7 Comment By tbraton On August 18, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

To pick up on Sean Scallon’s point, that is the same question that occurred to many who were very familiar with Dick Cheney and valued his judgment (such as Brent Scowcroft): what happened to Dick Cheney between 1991-92 and 2003? Another very good piece btw.

#8 Comment By balconesfault On August 18, 2014 @ 3:53 pm

what happened to Dick Cheney between 1991-92 and 2003?

Well, for one, Cheney got a $34 million exit bonus from Halliburton when he stepped down as CEO to take his job as VP.

Meanwhile, thanks in large part to their DOD contracts during the Iraq War, Halliburton’s stock price increased from around $10 in the spring of 2003 … to around $50 right before the economic collapse in 2008.

Remember that this is the man who explained his avoidance of military duty during the Vietnam War (which he supported) thusly: “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”

#9 Comment By balconesfault On August 18, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

@James Canning We should remember that Osama bin Laden hated Saddam Hussein and wanted him killed.

Pretending that Saddam was somehow responsible for the “9/11″ attacks was simply a way to deceive the American public.

This fact is also why any serious political analyst should have mocked the concern that Saddam was going to suddenly give nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons over to Al Qaeda.

Saddam didn’t last as long as he did by handing over to adversaries the tools to destroy his government. Or giving ANYBODY the tools to destroy his government, for that matter – since he pretty much assumed everyone was a potential adversary.

#10 Comment By tell me another On August 18, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

“The people in Washington who wanted to stop al-Qaeda by going to war against Ba’athists, or fight Iranian influence while toppling Iran’s main regional counterweight, are at it again. “

… and they’re “at it again” after having helped to create and arm ISIS, having connived at the failure of multiple failed states, and having made terror attacks on the United States more likely by applauding the Israelis use of US supplied heavy weaponry to kill Gazan civilians.

They spawn terror and then shriek that we must send troops to crush the terrorists. They must think we’re complete fools.

#11 Comment By Cold Hearted foreigner On August 18, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

During the first Persian Gulf War (or the second if you count the Iran-Iraq war), collective security was the regime in place against Saddam which indeed led to uncertainties and mistrust among the common goals. Rumors has, the UK wanted to push toward Bagdad while the US wanted to stop and to actually deliver only a proportional answer to the threat.
During the 2003 invasion, the objective was clear:get rid of the so called WMD and topple Saddam Hussein despite this latter having no connexction with 9/11 and being quite a strong wall against non state actors like Al-Qaida.

When most of the powers agree to overthrow someone, well..you just go with it!It gets passionate to almost an irrational point with..as the article shows, look for pretexes first and ask questions later. Saddam was becoming a burden and had lost all real support in the concert of the states:he invaded Koweit, had a massive UN-approved embargo and had the potential to build wmds, no wonder he had to go!!!!

Unfortunatly, Iraq is not Saddam’s HQ per se…it is a state with people, an economy, a culture, differences ect…..removing him could only be the beggining of the problems and not the end.

#12 Comment By James Canning On August 19, 2014 @ 12:10 pm

Noreastern – – Saddam Hussein destroyed most of Iraq’s WMD in 1991 after the Gulf War. Dick Cheney apparently did his best to keep this fact out of White House discussions regarding war with Iraq in 2002-2003.

#13 Comment By Barry On August 20, 2014 @ 11:03 am

Thanks for this article; it bears repeating forever.

#14 Comment By ELiteCommInc. On August 20, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

Allow me to be simplistic: 9/11 unhinged most citizens and it sent most politicians over the edge.

That’s how you get an Afghanistan that should have been a small covert op and that is how you get Iraq.

It forever changed my view of the certainty of elite leadership.

#15 Comment By Patrick G On August 25, 2014 @ 2:57 am

Great article!
Americans are pretty tired of these pointless wars. Rand Paul expresses these feelings. Watch the Neo-cons (and McCain and Graham) support Hillary as she cynically poses as the new hawk.