Home/Daniel Larison/Have We Learned Anything from the Iraq War?

Have We Learned Anything from the Iraq War?

DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby / Released

Seventeen years ago, the U.S. and some of its allies launched an illegal invasion for the express purpose of overthrowing the Iraqi government using the bogus justification of eliminating “weapons of mass destruction” that did not exist. This magazine was founded in 2002 in large part to oppose that war and the destructive, hubristic foreign policy ideas that fueled it. Seventeen years later, the U.S. is still fighting in Iraq. Now our troops are fighting against the jihadists who flourished in Iraq because of the invasion, and they are facing new threats to their safety because of the current administration’s reckless policy of pursuing regime change in Iran. Americans and Iraqis are still dying as a result of that criminal decision to invade, and the obsession with regime change has found a new target. As I said the other day, the U.S. lost the war, and there was nothing that the U.S. could have “won” when the war was completely unnecessary and unjust.

By all rights, the destructive, hubristic ideas that led to that war ought to have been thoroughly discredited by this failure, but they are still with us even now. We have seen how little accountability there is in foreign policy debates for those that advocate for disastrous, costly interventions. The architects of the war have faced no real penalties for the crime they committed, and the war’s most vocal supporters remain ensconced in their high-profile sinecures. The next general election will offer us a choice between two candidates who supported the war when it began and then pretended otherwise later on. Politicians and policymakers are still drawn to regime change and military intervention as “solutions” to international problems far too often. Our foreign policy debates have changed somewhat since 2003, and there is much more support for foreign policy restraint now, but overall Americans have still learned remarkably little from this debacle.

If there was one lesson to learn from the invasion of Iraq, it is that preventive war is both wrong and unwise. “Preventive” wars are not necessary and cannot be just, because the threat that they are supposed to “prevent” does not yet exist and may never exist. Preventive wars are nothing more than criminal aggression, but in the years since the invasion of Iraq preventive war has been normalized into just one more “option” to be considered. We see this in the repeated advocacy for attacking Iran, and we have seen it even in the more extreme case of advocating for attacks on North Korea. Those attacks have not yet happened, but there is an alarming amount of support for such wantonly illegal actions. The most important lesson that we need to learn from Iraq is that the U.S. has no right to decide who governs other countries, and we definitely have no right to force a change in a foreign government. The belief that the U.S. is entitled to act like the judge and executioner of other governments is dangerous and corrupting, and it has already had terrible consequences for tens of millions of ordinary people.

I opposed the war from the start, but considering how preposterous the case for war was I can’t take much credit for that. One of the first things I wrote against the war that was published was a letter to the editor of The Economist that appeared in July 2003. I have occasionally cited it before, but I will quote the full letter again:

Your continued defence of the war is grounded on the assertion that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was “dangerous” (“The case for war—revisited”, July 19th). Dangerous to whom? In light of the conviction of several former weapons inspectors that Iraq was substantially disarmed after 1998, the burden of proof has always been on those advocating intervention.

Yet The Economist has always given the pro-war arguments every benefit of the doubt and hawkish assumptions far more credibility than the evidence warrants, and in so doing has lent support to governments that have probably swindled the public and started an unnecessary war. Lacking in every hawkish argument has been the common-sense understanding that the chance of massive and overwhelming retaliation would deter any third-rate state from an attack.

You say that if George Bush and Tony Blair lied “it would be a huge scandal and would destroy their governments’ credibility for future interventions overseas.” What is Vice-President Dick Cheney’s claim that Iraq had “reconstituted nuclear weapons” if not an outright lie? What of Mr Bush’s claim that there was “no doubt” of the existence of the weapons that now cannot be found? Finally, considering the American public’s confusion over the real relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda, what else other than lies can you call Mr Bush’s repeated claims about Iraq’s “harbouring” members of al-Qaeda?

Maybe western intelligence agencies are so amazingly incompetent that they cannot provide correct information properly to inform a policy of pre-emption, in which case such wars are even more dangerous and wrong. Or perhaps the governments of Britain and the United States made a host of false statements without any suitable explanation for these errors, in which case a responsible democratic society must assume that the governments have lied and in so doing have abused their powers.

The letter holds up pretty well, but I did make the mistake of talking about the war in terms of pre-emption. That is exactly what the war wasn’t and never could have been. The idea that a weak, impoverished dictatorship on the other side of the world threatened us to such an extent that we “had to” invade was always barking lunacy. We need to remember just how crazy that idea was the next time that a president insists that “we must act” by attacking some weak state on the far side of the world.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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