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Unlearned Lessons of the Iraq War

Ten years since the Iraq war began, many of the most important lessons from the debate before and during the war have yet to be learned. Most Americans are now well aware of the Bush administration’s terrible mismanagement of the war, its dishonest pre-war propagandizing, its utter lack of planning for Iraq after the invasion, its ideological blindness to the culture and history of the country, and its delusional vision of the regional democratic transformation that would follow regime change. There are valuable lessons to be learned from all of these failures, but these things can obscure the deeper flaws in U.S. foreign-policy debates that greatly increase the chances that the U.S. will make similarly disastrous blunders in the future.

Following the end of the Cold War, American hawks have felt compelled to build up every minor threat as a new global menace to replace the vanished Soviet Union. That has inevitably required grossly exaggerating the danger to the U.S. and the rest of the world from third- or fourth-tier states. The fear-mongering about Hussein’s Iraq in 2002-03 was one of the more extreme and absurd examples of this since there were few states in the world that posed less of a threat to America than a broken-down, disarmed, impoverished, and internationally isolated dictatorship. The idea that the U.S. was being “forced” to go to war was preposterous at the time, and in hindsight it appears even more so.

Unfortunately, the experience in Iraq hasn’t taught most Americans to stop imagining manageable threats to be intolerable, “critical” ones. A recent Gallup poll [1] found that over 80 percent of Americans believed North Korea and Iran’s nuclear programs represent a “critical” threat to “vital” U.S. interests. The Iraq War likely wouldn’t have happened if there were not a broad, bipartisan tendency to exaggerate the scale and nature of foreign threats, and that tendency has not noticeably weakened in the last ten years. Despite the reality that the U.S. is more secure now [2] than it has been in many decades, our foreign-policy debate is filled with as much alarmism and threat inflation as ever.

Instead of learning that containment and deterrence are wiser—and cheaper—than preventive warfare, American leaders seem to have concluded that “prevention” is the only possible way to respond to possible Iranian nuclear proliferation. As long as “prevention” remains official U.S. policy towards Iran, it will be difficult to avoid war at some point in the future. The Bush administration bears most of the responsibility for invading Iraq, but it couldn’t have done so without the overwhelming, pre-existing consensus in favor of regime change. Just as making regime change in Iraq official U.S. policy laid the groundwork for the later war, ruling out containment of Iran puts the U.S. on the path to another unnecessary and costly conflict.

The lack of Iraqi WMDs made a mockery of the official justification for the invasion, but it obscured the truth that Iraq was at most a minor threat to the U.S. even if it had possessed the weapons programs it was accused of having. Overthrowing Hussein then gave other “rogue states” strong incentives to try to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent. While American hawks have seemingly lost all faith in the power of deterrence, pariah states have concluded that Hussein’s mistake was in disarming. Far from bolstering the nonproliferation regime as its supporters claimed it would, the Iraq War did enormous damage to it by confirming would-be proliferators’ worst fears that the U.S. will first seek to disarm them and then topple them.

Most Americans have yet to learn that preventive wars aren’t a legitimate form of self-defense. Advocates for military action against Iran may describe it as “anticipatory self-defense,” but there is no way to distinguish between a preventive war waged in “anticipatory self-defense” and an unprovoked war launched to batter another state into submission or to overthrow its government. Endorsing preventive war as self-defense means that the U.S. reserves the right to attack another state that might potentially threaten it in the future. Americans have not yet grappled with the implications of what this means.

The pre-war debate should have taught us that moralizing in foreign policy is no substitute for sound analysis and argument, but it hasn’t. Moralizing rhetoric was often the bludgeon that war supporters used to quash skepticism and impugn the motives of opponents, and it remains the same now. To doubt the wisdom of waging a war of choice for regime change was treated as the equivalent of celebrating Baathist dictatorship and apologizing for Hussein’s atrocities. The same moralizing frequently dominates our foreign policy debates whenever authoritarian governments are involved: opposing unwise, interventionist policies directed at a certain country is equated with sympathy for the regime and hostility to America. There is almost nothing more detrimental to rigorous and informed policy debate than this despicable tactic, but, as the spectacle of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings showed, American politicians and pundits still use it as freely and often as if the Iraq War had never happened.

Most politicians, policymakers, and pundits continue to have huge blind spots that cause them to overlook the humanitarian consequences of coercive U.S. policies. When assessing the costs of the Iraq War, the 130,000+ dead Iraqi civilians, the millions of Iraqis displaced or forced to flee their country, and countless others adversely affected by the war are often left out of the story altogether. They and their countrymen will continue to bear the costs of the war long after Americans and Europeans have turned their attention elsewhere. Perhaps the most important unlearned lesson from the war is that many Iraqis are worse off today than they were ten years ago.

Daniel Larison [3] is a senior contributor to TAC and blogs here [4].

Follow @DanielLarison [5]

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Unlearned Lessons of the Iraq War"

#1 Comment By Northern observer On March 20, 2013 @ 6:36 am

And this mistake is being repeated in Syria. Where the US has been led by the nose by its Gulf allies to topple Assad and aid in the religious and ethnic cleansing of that country for the benefit of Sunni Islam. American interventionist policy makers only see liberalism and democracy promotion but facts on the ground speak of sectarian murder and religious intolerance. If the US wa interested in peace and stability it would join with Russia and China on this file and place it’s thumb on the scales in favour of continuity and stability as unfree as it may be. How a country changes I to a new regime matters, armed revolution should be discouraged as the end result is often Hobbesian ethnic chaos, American history may prevent policy makers from seeing this being born of an armed insurrection themselves, but the American revolution was a very distinct event do to the players, their Protestantism and the technology of war at the time. Enough with the armed liberalism.

#2 Comment By Roberto Severino On March 20, 2013 @ 7:32 am

This article resonates within me so much. I have been talking to various people who have served in the armed forces and when you start thinking about how much of a failure the Iraq War was and how it ended up leading to other rogue states trying to invest in nuclear programs, it’s no wonder that many of these people lose their respect for the military and develop a resentment for the armed forces despite the insistence upon certain groups that supporting these programs is “patriotic” and in the country’s best interests. Too bad the establishment “conservatives” don’t want to look at the issues in such an empirical way.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 20, 2013 @ 9:03 am

Hey,

I still love my team. I am looing forward to seeing, “Dick Cheney: in His Onn Words”

And I do believe there are those that absolutely and sincerely believe in the war against Saddaam Hussein. I disagree, but I would not challenge their integrity on the matter.

They were really angry about 9/11’s luck strike and wanted to send a message.

#4 Comment By Rob in CT On March 20, 2013 @ 10:10 am

One potential scary outcome is that as time passes, it will become majority opinion that the war was mismanaged (which it was) but fundamentally not a terrible idea. To me, much of the mismanagement was due to the whole mission being a bad idea.

Libya worried me deeply. Not really b/c of Libya in particular, but because it showed me that Pres. “against stupid wars” Obama – despite getting solid advice from his inner circle that we should stay out – will intervene in conflicts that are no threat to us. I understand why he did what he did, and that’s just it: that’s the problem. I get it. It’s still so… easy, I guess, for an American President to talk himself into interventions. Happily, Libya was a small affair even if you pin all that’s happening in Mali on it (which I think is a bit of a stretch) in comparison to Iraq or Syria (man, what a mess). But the decision-making process and congressional response (stamping of feet along partisan lines, with no real attempt to stop it) was dismaying.

In short, I agree I don’t think our leaders have learned what they should have learned. And so “it” will happen again. Hopefully not in Iran.

#5 Comment By Mike On March 20, 2013 @ 10:10 am

Turnabout is fair play.

Defending the integrity of the deceitful charlatans who led us into the Iraq debacle is unpatriotic.

#6 Comment By Michael N Moore On March 20, 2013 @ 10:12 am

Iraq is not a one-off situation. In my opinion the US is economically and politically addicted to war. The pressure for war is always there. It just a matter of the loudest lobby chosing the site.

Prior to Iraq at the beginning of the Bush-Chaney Adminstration there was pressure for a war with China. This was stopped by soy bean exporters and financial services executives who all profited from dealing with China.

The companies forming the military-industrial complex, like all businesses, are always on the alert for sales growth protential. Right now, the Middle East looks like their best bet. All they need is the alliance of the national security Republicans and the Zionist Democrats. This is their winning formula for the Iraq War and they seem to be sticking to it for the Iran War.

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 20, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

“Defending the integrity of the deceitful charlatans who led us into the Iraq debacle is unpatriotic.”

Integrity presumes that their motives and methods were dishonest. I am not sure it is that clear. Many are and were genuinely committed to the endeavour and made both their motives and methods quite clear.

While, it seemed a dubious proposition to me, I have no doubt that others genuinely believed otherwise.

What I disparage beyond the conflicts is the war made upon those who opposed. And by oppose, I am not talking about pacifists, but those who upon listening, reading and watching the case and strategy —

Said no case exists and the strategy is more than questionable.

#8 Comment By FN On March 20, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

@EliteCommInc.

So wanting to send a message is a good enough reason to start a war?

#9 Comment By James Canning On March 20, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

Great piece. One might note, however, that Gaddafi decided to destroy his fairly feeble effort to develop nukes, after he saw what was going on in the US in the wake of “9/11”.

Gaddafi noted that nuclear weapons are dangerous for the country that possesses them.

I continue to think the western military intevention in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi, was a blunder.

#10 Comment By James Canning On March 20, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

EliteComInc – – Paul Wolfowitz and the neocons packing the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans knew Iraq had not tried to buy “uranium” in “Africa”, as falsely stated by George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address.

Neon warmongers lied to the American people. Full stop. Intentionally deceived the American people.

#11 Comment By cdugga On March 20, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

I guess it is possible that some politicians have not learned anything from Iraq. The majority of americans, many who sent their best and finest to fight , did not have a lesson to learn beyond what their leaders were telling them, but they will do their homework with skepticism next time. So I do not worry about a conspiracy drawing us into unjustified conflict despite neocon hawk survival in the political arena. There is massive money involved with the merchants of death so it is not that surprising that they still can sponsor policy and candidates. Admittedly the slaughter of school children being used as a call to arming ourselves with more AR’s was a bit of a shock, but americans are unlikely to attend any pre-emptive war rhetoric. If there is something to worry over, it might be the pundits who still claim that Vietnam, ah, I mean Iraq was a good idea, just poorly executed. If that is the lesson learned then at least in the next pre-emptive war started under false pretenses we should be able to rest easy that at least it will be managed better? And perhaps after we make more and more of creation extinct, and fight wars of resources and survival, we may learn our lessons, pay attention to science and what is actually happening around us, and manage our existence on the next planet much better.

#12 Comment By Bill On March 20, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

Fear has always been the best tool to get the salus populi to follow an agenda they normally would not support.

We dont have a representative of the people in DC we have a band of demagogues, elected and not, with hidden agendas.

#13 Comment By Michael N Moore On March 20, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

On to the next war:
According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, Israel does not have the conventional weapons to knock out Iranian nuclear facilities. Does this mean that their threats to attack Iran unilaterally will include the use of Israel’s nuclear weapons?

[6]

#14 Comment By sglover On March 20, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

“Great piece. One might note, however, that Gaddafi decided to destroy his fairly feeble effort to develop nukes, after he saw what was going on in the US in the wake of “9/11″.”

That interpretation doesn’t ring true. As you say, Gaddafi never seemed to have any serious nuclear ambitions. Giving up whatever minor strides he made in that area, in exchange for better relations with an endlessly antagonistic superpower, looks to me like one of the more obvious and lopsided bets in recent history. He got a lot more from the Bush-Cheney gang than he gave up. In essence, he suckered them — though as we know, that wasn’t exactly difficult.

#15 Comment By Nick K. On March 20, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

Good essay. Mr. Larison’s remark about the US foreign policy elite’s fixation on the “threat” posed by third-rate powers is so spot on. The alarmist nonsense about North Korea and Iran is incessant, and in the case of North Korea, being escalated at every opportunity (admittedly, Kim makes it too easy). Russia, not a third rate power by any means, and a natural ally to boot, is continuously regarded with suspicion and insulted by the US. Meanwhile, we continue to fund the military development of the one country that does pose a real threat to the US and to our allies in NE Asia: China. We are proposing more sanctions on the starving population of North Korea, while there is no apparent plan to contain the growing power of the New Han Empire.

Containment is a forgotten concept for the US; it has been replaced by hysterics and bullying. Not only have our foreign policy elites not learned anything from Iraq, they appear to be even dumber than ever.

#16 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On March 20, 2013 @ 6:11 pm

@Elitecomminc-
Still love your team? This isn’t a GD college football game. Thanks to the mass brainwashing in America for the last 25 years I have had so many co-workers who would have voted for Charles Manson if he had been the GOP candidate. (To be fair the left has their own version of this.). These “never-say-die” non-thinkers could never look objectively or critically at their political affiliation, because if they found anything objectionable they would probably consider it a personal defeat. I am guessing these are the thoughts (or absense of thought) of the “team” after the approx. 20 year Rush-Hannity-Etc. pep rally that we have been subjected to. But, Elite, I will not be so arrogant as to claim to have read your mind.

#17 Comment By Orville On March 20, 2013 @ 11:55 pm

I do disagree with Mr. Larison’s remarks on morality in foreign policy. Many argued against the war precisely for reasons of morality.
Still this article is spot on. It’s a shame that the bipartisan consensus still stubbornly hangs on to the reins of power in government and media, while the honest ones are shunted out of debate.

#18 Comment By OldVet On March 21, 2013 @ 1:28 am

Letter to Bush and Cheney From a Dying Veteran-

[7]

#19 Comment By ghouri On March 21, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

American will not, can,t learn from their history. They know only to destroy peace and the world for their ego and power.

#20 Comment By James Canning On March 21, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

Michael N. Moore – – I think Israeli leaders comprehend using nukes against Iran would be insane.

#21 Comment By James Canning On March 21, 2013 @ 7:55 pm

Dick Cheney continues to claim Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. Amazing. (?)

#22 Comment By Michael N Moore On March 22, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

@James Canning

According to Fortress Israel by New York Times foreign correspondent Patrick Tyler, page 410:

“To add water to Netanyahu’s ship, the generals whispered to the news media examples of his recklessness… There were rumors that Netanyahu had made intemperate comments in private about employing Israel’s nuclear arsenal against Syria during a period of tensions.”

#23 Comment By Michael N. Moore On March 22, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

Also from “Fortress Israel” by New York Times foreign correspondent Patrick Tyler, page 164, regarding the Six Day War:
“…(Levi) Eshkol had been persuaded by the small group of experts that Israel should prepare the option of exploding a nuclear device within sight of the Egyptian forces as the ultimate deterrent against attack. A so-called demonstration shot could also be fired to stop an Arab army that had already broken through Israel’s defenses.”

#24 Comment By Jim Houghton On March 22, 2013 @ 11:46 pm

Rich people with easy lives are typically more resistant to the idea of their own death than those who have found life to be harsh or unfair. America, as a country, is the national equivalent of a rich person who’s had it pretty easy, and as a result we do not deal with danger/fear very well. Clearly, we put our own safety above most moral considerations, otherwise Bush/Cheney wouldn’t have been able to talk us into invading and destroying Iraq. Are we going to continue to be a country that values our own personal comfort and safety above the right of other people to go on living in other places? Time will tell. But something will have to change before Americans stop reacting violently to the truth that everyone dies.

#25 Comment By Michael N Moore On March 24, 2013 @ 11:23 am

It apears that in 2007 Israel leaked a story about using nuclear weapons on Iran’s nuclear facilities:
[8]

This is the best leverage that Israel has over the US. “If you don’t do it with conventional, we will do it with nuclear” – An offer you can’t refuse.

#26 Comment By D. Saul Weiner On March 25, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

Excellent article, but I disagree on what the foremost unlearned lessons were.

Americans need to learn that the federal government and the mainstream media are the enemies of the common man.

Those are the only learnings that will provide the kind of skepticism that could prevent the next fiasco.