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What Has Washington Learned from Iraq?

Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: Washington sees through a glass darkly and often gets it wrong.

Memorial Service For Marine Killed In Iraq
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Good news in Iraq, notes pundit Eli Lake. Cell phone use is up: “As of 2021, 86 percent of the country had a wireless telecom plan.” Even better, opined former military officer Christian Orr, Iraq now “is also an important trading partner in the Middle East.” 

The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon adds that America’s tenure in Iraq demonstrates Washington’s willingness to stay the course, contra the claim that the U.S. is hyper-sensitive about casualties. So what’s not to like about America’s invasion two decades ago?


Iraqis now enjoy the services of squabbling elected corrupt politicians. And Baghdad plays a positive diplomatic role, having hosted talks between Riyadh and Tehran. No, wait—the Iraq hawks most likely to defend the invasion are horrified by the Sunni-Shia rapprochement. After all, they also wanted war with Iran, having insisted at the time that while “boys go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran.” Attacking Iran would be another opportunity to spread America’s goodness, as well as cell phone use!

The Iraq debacle requires a significant rethinking of Washington’s promiscuous use of force. War, both initiating acts of war and entering a state of war—the first need not always lead to the second—should be reserved for instances when U.S. security is threatened. Americans have a lot of interests in the world. They range widely in importance. But most of them, even valuable ones, cannot justify unleashing death and destruction upon other peoples. 

Military action should not be treated as just another policy option. Rather, war should be seen as unique and apart from other tools of statecraft, including diplomacy, trade, sanctions, soft power, public relations, the bully pulpit, and such. In terms of cost and risk, as well as the responses provoked from other nations, war is different and requires the highest justification possible.

That was nowhere near the case when the Bush administration invaded Iraq. In their enthusiasm for war, the neoconservatives and right-wing nationalists who drove the Bush administration’s decision lost all sense of proportion. It takes more than some economic or political advantage to justify, practically and morally, a decision to loose “the dog of war.” The U.S. cannot justify invading another country to increase cell phone use, bump up the GDP, or even give a push toward democracy. Something truly vital needs to be at stake for this nation to warrant risking the lives and futures of Americans, including those doing the fighting, in a world of terrorism and expanded nuclear capacities.

Even when security is implicated, the stakes must be great to warrant war. In the case of the Iraq invasion the cost, financial and human, was enormous. By the time the last veteran of that conflict passes, Americans will have consigned more than $3 trillion to the equivalent of a massive bonfire. That is money that could have been returned to those who earned it, spent on social programs, invested by businesses, used to transform the military, put into preparation for future pandemics, or all of the above. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a worse use of people's money than financing an aggressive war based on false pretenses that caused widespread death and destruction.


Even more horrendous is the human toll. U.S. policymakers long have had a notably casual and callous attitude toward the death of others. Madeleine Albright cheerily spoke for the Blob when she responded to the complaint that sanctions on Iraq had killed a half million children: “we think the price is worth it.” The only surprise is that she didn’t go on and insist that Iraqis should have felt honored to die on behalf of Washington’s policy objectives.

Some 4,400 Americans died in the fighting. Tens of thousands were wounded. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died. Certainly, at least 150,000 were killed. More likely at least a half million. And perhaps more than a million. The latter number is breathtaking, more than the number who died in America’s four-year Civil War. And the vast majority of those killed were innocent civilians who were not consulted by Washington over their desire to become gambit pawns in one of America’s foreign chess games.

For them, and many they left behind, the argument that “Iraq is better off today than it was twenty years ago,” as Eli Lake assures us, is scant comfort, even if true. And not everyone shares his optimism. Wrote Responsible Statecraft’s Connor Echols:

Indeed, it is difficult to find any measure by which life in Iraq has improved over the last 20 years. Rolling blackouts have made summers unbearable in much of the south, and the government remains far too weak to do much about it. (The daily high rarely drops below 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Baghdad’s warmer months.) Once a regional leader in medicine and education, Iraq has now fallen far behind most of its neighbors. A recent poll found that 37 percent of Iraqis want to emigrate, and 81 percent say their country is headed in the wrong direction.

Finally, don’t forget the geopolitical toll. Wrecking Iraq and allowing creation of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which mutated into the Islamic State, had horrendous consequences for both Iraq and Syria. A second wave of death and destruction rolled over much of Iraq, again ravaged minority religious communities, and threatened Kurdistan. By extending Tehran’s reach into Iraq, the U.S. invasion opened up an entirely new front for Iranian proxy strikes against America and Iran’s adversaries, especially the Sunni Persian Gulf monarchies. Tehran also was better able to operate in Syria, drawing in Israel, which now regularly attacks Iranian forces and materiel there. Washington’s war was an all-around disaster.

Against such a toll, any case for war would have to be serious and well-founded, not a collection of fantasy predictions about what might happen. Oddly, policymakers who claimed an all-powerful America appeared to worry more than anyone else, putting forth a long daisy-chain of “coulds” and “mights” as dubious as those offered by Vladimir Putin about Ukraine. Saddam Hussein might survive in power, reconstitute his nuclear program, assemble a nuclear arsenal, and take over the Middle East, if not the world. Well, maybe. But he might die or be overthrown, accept his neutered status and seek to rebuild, fail to develop nukes, or do nothing more than deter another U.S. attack. Hussein was an aging dictator with two ambitious, violent sons presiding over a hobbled economy and rising population amid generational change facing a region united fear of him. He was an unlikely regional hegemon.

This uncertainty inherent to geopolitics reinforces the case for humility and caution, and for not creating new and exacerbating old problems. The presumed problems that military action is supposed to foreclose are speculative, built upon a series of uncertain contingencies, some of which look like “nonsense upon stilts,” to borrow Jeremy Bentham’s brutal phrase. A rational gambler would bet that America’s next attempt at military intervention capped by nation-building will founder.

Despite Albright’s hilarious claim—real nonsense upon stilts!—that Americans stand taller and see further, consider how often Washington has gotten policy wrong. U.S. participation in World War I on behalf of one set of imperial combatants made no sense and had disastrous consequences. Promiscuous intervention abroad inflamed foreign hatred and encouraged terrorist attacks on Americans. The U.S.-backed coup against Iranian democracy set in motion forces that resulted in today’s Islamic Republic. Support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran helped convince him that Washington would not oppose his attack on Kuwait. Taking an active role in Lebanon’s complex, multi-sided civil war ensured that Americans would become targets. And so it went. 

Upon failed prophets like those who promoted such schemes should not depend the decision for war. We see through a glass darkly and often—usually—get it wrong. Wars tend to turn out far worse than expected. The first Gulf War was a lonely exception. Far more often, predictions of short conflicts and quick victories—Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Russia in Ukraine, Hussein’s attack on Iran, the Civil War, World War I, and of course Bush’s invasion of Iraq—have been dramatically and disastrously wrong. 

Of course, fans of war-making warn that not acting also could lead to calamitous results. True, though it is difficult to imagine when U.S. intervention likely would have forestalled something equally terrible. The argument that Washington should have occupied Europe in 1919, when the French, British, and other entente members reigned supreme, is bizarre. It might be true that in 1936 “someone” should have stopped Hitler from remilitarizing the Rhineland, but that “someone” would have been a combination of France, Britain, and Belgium, not America. Similarly with Czechoslovakia in 1938. The problem for them was lack of will, not ability; the U.S. frankly could not supply either. 

The Korea challenge in 1950 reflected Washington’s decision that the peninsula was not critical for U.S. security and not worth defending. If America instead had been prepared to go in, it probably should have left a garrison rather than withdraw in 1949. The correct lesson: Make a decision and stick with it. Claims that Washington should have done more to advance such peripheral interests as Syria and Afghanistan to scare Russia from attacking Ukraine and China from threatening Taiwan make no sense. Both Beijing and Moscow would much prefer the U.S. to be entangled in such areas rather than focusing on issues of interest to them.

Washington policymakers should set a much higher burden of proof before sending Americans into combat. Although certainty is impossible, acting militarily should require a significant degree of confidence that the proposed action will both succeed, reasonably defined, and do so at affordable cost to all concerned. It is impossible to prevent an ideologically driven administration like Bush II from cooking and cherry-picking the evidence, but citizens as well as policymakers should employ a studied skepticism and insist on proof of claims made. It is important to scrutinize the role of interest groups and especially emigres, such as Ahmed Chalabi, an accused criminal on the CIA payroll hoping to replace Hussein who fed fictitious claims about Iraqi WMDs to credulous American officials and journalists.

When Lord Acton famously warned that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was referring to the Catholic Church. His aphorism has much broader application and is more commonly applied to politics. Although most people probably think of dictatorships when making such an observation, the temptations and abuses of power are common to democracies as well. Especially when the political process has been deformed by years of arrogant, sanctimonious behavior that ignores the constitutional framework upon which the nation’s economic and political development was based.

The twentieth anniversary of the Iraq invasion should be somber. One of the worst foreign policy decisions by any president, Bush’s choice of aggressive, unprovoked war to remake a country about which he knew little and understood even less turned into a geopolitical failure and humanitarian disaster. The “deciders” at the time should be held accountable. At the very least, future policymakers should learn lessons from the past and implement the “humble foreign policy” that Bush advocated before succumbing to far more grandiose ambitions.