Top 10 Lessons of the Iraq War

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Top 10 Lessons of the Iraq War

Foreign Policy

Stephen Walt

March 2o, 2012

This month marks the ninth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Regardless of your views on the wisdom of that decision, it's fair to say that the results were not what most Americans expected. Now that the war is officially over and most U.S. forces have withdrawn, what lessons should Americans (and others) draw from the experience? There are many lessons that one might learn, of course, but here are my Top 10 Lessons from the Iraq War.

Lesson #1: The United States lost.
The first and most important lesson of Iraq war is that we didn't win in any meaningful sense of that term. The alleged purpose of the war was eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, but it turns out he didn't have any. Oops. Then the rationale shifted to creating a pro-American democracy, but Iraq today is at best a quasi-democracy and far from pro-American. The destruction of Iraq improved Iran's position in the Persian Gulf -- which is hardly something the United States intended -- and the costs of the war (easily exceeding $1 trillion dollars) are much larger than U.S. leaders anticipated or promised. The war was also a giant distraction, which diverted the Bush administration from other priorities (e.g., Afghanistan) and made the United States much less popular around the world.

This lesson is important because supporters of the war are already marketing a revisionist version. In this counternarrative, the 2007 surge was a huge success (it wasn't, because it failed to produce political reconciliation) and Iraq is now on the road to stable and prosperous democracy. And the costs weren't really that bad. Another variant of this myth is the idea that President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus had "won" the war by 2008, but President Obama then lost it by getting out early. This view ignores the fact that the Bush administration negotiated the 2008 Status of Forces agreement that set the timetable for U.S. withdrawal, and Obama couldn't stay in Iraq once the Iraqi government made it clear it wanted us out.

The danger of this false narrative is obvious: If Americans come to see the war as a success -- which it clearly wasn't -- they may continue to listen to the advice of its advocates and be more inclined to repeat similar mistakes in the future.

Lesson #2: It's not that hard to hijack the United States into a war.
The United States is still a very powerful country, and the short-term costs of military action are relatively low in most cases. As a result, wars of choice (or even "wars of whim") are possible. The Iraq war reminds us that if the executive branch is united around the idea of war, normal checks and balances -- including media scrutiny -- tend to break down.

The remarkable thing about the Iraq war is how few people it took to engineer. It wasn't promoted by the U.S. military, the CIA, the State Department, or oil companies. Instead, the main architects were a group of well-connected neoconservatives, who began openly lobbying for war during the Clinton administration. They failed to persuade President Bill Clinton, and they were unable to convince Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to opt for war until after 9/11. But at that point the stars aligned, and Bush and Cheney became convinced that invading Iraq would launch a far-reaching regional transformation, usher in a wave of pro-American democracies, and solve the terrorism problem.

As the New York Times' Thomas Friedman told Ha'aretz in May 2003 : "Iraq was the war neoconservatives wanted... the war the neoconservatives marketed.... I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office [in Washington]) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened."

Lesson #3: The United States gets in big trouble when the "marketplace of ideas" breaks down and when the public and our leadership do not have an open debate about what to do.
Given the stakes involved, it is remarkable how little serious debate there actually was about the decision to invade. This was a bipartisan failure, as both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats all tended to jump onboard the bandwagon to war. And mainstream media organizations became cheerleaders rather than critics . Even within the halls of government, individuals who questioned the wisdom of the invasion or raised doubts about the specific plans were soon marginalized. As a result, not only did the United States make a bone-headed decision, but the Bush administration went into Iraq unprepared for the subsequent occupation.

L esson #4: The secularism and middle-class character of Iraqi society was overrated.
Before the war, advocates argued that democracy would be easy to install in Iraq because it had a highly literate population and a robust middle class, and because sectarianism was minimal. Of course, the people who said things like this apparently knew nothing about Iraq itself and even less about the difficulty of building democracy in a country like Iraq. This failure is especially striking insofar as Iraq's turbulent pre-Saddam history was hardly a secret. But a realistic view of Iraq clashed with the neocons' effort to sell the war, so they sold a fairy tale version instead.

Lesson #5: Don't listen to ambitious exiles.
The case for war was strengthened by misleading testimony from various Iraqi exiles, who had an obvious interest in persuading Washington to carry them to power. Unfortunately, U.S. leaders were unaware of Machiavelli's prescient warnings about the danger of trusting the testimony of self-interested foreigners. As he wrote in his Discourses :

"How vain the faith and promises of men who are exiles from their country. Such is their extreme desire to return to their homes that they naturally believe many things that are not true, and add many others on purpose, so that with what they really believe and what they say they believe, they will fill you with hopes to that degree that if you attempt to act upon them, you will incur a fruitless expense or engage in an undertaking that will involve you in ruin." Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.

Lesson #6: It's very hard to improvise an occupation.
As the Army's official history of the occupation notes dryly: "conditions in Iraq proved to be wildly out of sync with prewar assumptions." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Co. assumed that standing up a new Iraqi government would be quick work and that the light U.S. force would head home almost immediately. But when conditions deteriorated, U.S. leaders -- both civilian and military -- were extremely slow to realize that they faced a wholly different situation. And, as FP colleague Thomas Ricks has documented , once the U.S. military found itself facing a genuine insurgency, it took years before it began to adjust its tactics and strategy in a serious way. We tend to think of the U.S. military as a highly intelligent fighting force -- after all, we've got all those intelligence services, think tanks, in-house analysis operations, war colleges, etc. -- yet this case reminds us that the defense establishment is also big and unwieldy organization that doesn't improvise quickly.

Lesson #7: Don't be surprised when adversaries act to defend their own interests, and in ways we won't like.
This lesson seems obvious: Adversaries will pursue their own interests. But the architects of the Iraq war seem to have blindly assumed that other interested parties would simply roll over and cooperate with us after a little bit of "shock and awe." Instead, various actors took steps to defend their own interests or to take advantage of the evolving situation, often in ways that confounded U.S. efforts. Thus, Sunnis in Iraq took up arms to resist the loss of power, wealth, and status that the collapse of the Ba'thist regime entailed. Syria and Iran took various measures to strengthen anti-U.S. forces inside Iraq, in order to bog us down and bleed us. Al Qaeda also tried to exploit the post-invasion power-vacuum to go after U.S. forces and advance its own agenda.
Americans had every reason to be upset by these various responses, because they helped thwart our aims. But we should hardly have been surprised when these various forces did what they could to resist us. What else would you expect?

Lesson #8: Counterinsurgency warfare is ugly and inevitably leads to war crimes, atrocities, or other forms of abuse.
Another lesson from Iraq (and Afghanistan) is that local identities remain quite powerful and foreign occupations almost always trigger resistance, especially in cultures with a history of heavy-handed foreign interference. Accordingly, occupying powers are likely to face armed insurgencies, which in turn means organizing a counterinsurgency campaign. Unfortunately, such campaigns are extremely hard to control, because decisive victories will be elusive, progress is usually slow, and the occupation force will have distinguishing friend from foe within the local population. And that means that sometimes our forces will go over the line, as they did in Haditha or Abu Ghraib. No matter how much we emphasize "hearts and minds," there will inevitably be abuses that undermine our efforts. So when you order up an invasion or decide to occupy another country, be aware that you are opening Pandora's Box.

Lesson #9: Better "planning" may not be the answer.
There is little question that the invasion of Iraq was abysmally planned, and the post-war occupation was badly bungled. It is therefore unsurprising that U.S. leaders (and academics) want to learn from these mistakes so as to perform better in the future. This goal is understandable and even laudable, but it does not necessarily follow that better pre-war planning would have produced a better result.

For starters, there were extensive pre-war plans for occupying and rebuilding Iraq; the problem was that key decisionmakers (e.g., Rumsfeld) simply ignored them. So planning alone isn't the answer if politicians ignore the plans. It's also worth noting that had Americans been told about the real price tag of the invasion -- i.e., that we would have to send a lot more troops and stay there longer -- they would never have supported the invasion in the first place.

But more importantly, better plans don't guarantee success, because trying to do "statebuilding" in a deeply divided society is an immense challenge, and opportunities to screw it up are legion. As Minxin Pei and Sara Kasper of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded from their study of past attempts of "nation-building," "few national understakings are as complex, costly, and time-consuming as reconstructing the governing institutions of foreign societies."

For example, having more troops on the ground might have prevented the collapse of order, but the U.S. army could not have kept a sufficiently large force (350,000 or more) in Iraq for very long. Morever, an even larger U.S. presence might have increased Iraqi resentment and produced an insurgency anyway. Similarly, critics now believe the decision to disband the Iraqi army and launch an extensive de-Bathification process was a mistake, but trying to keep the army intact and leaving former Bathists in charge might easily have triggered a Shi'ite uprising instead. Lastly, state-building in countries that we don't understand is inherently uncertain, because it is impossible to know ex ante which potential leaders are reliable or competent or how politics will evolve once the population starts participating directly. We won't know enough to play "kingmaker," and we are likely to end up having to prop up leaders whose agendas are different from ours.

In short, as Benjamin Friedman, Harvey Sapolsky, and Christopher Preble argue here , better tools or tactics are probably not enough to make ambitious nation-building programs are smart approach. Which leads to Lesson #10.

Lesson #10: Rethink U.S. grand strategy, not just tactics or methods.
Because it is not clear if any U.S. approach would have succeeded at an acceptable cost, the real lesson of Iraq is not to do stupid things like this again.

The U.S. military has many virtues, but it is not good at running other countries. And it is not likely to get much better at it with practice. We have a capital-intensive army that places a premium on firepower, and we are a country whose own unusual, melting-pot history has made us less sensitive to the enduring power of nationalism, ethnicity, and other local forces.

Furthermore, because the United States is basically incredibly secure, it is impossible to sustain public support for long and grinding wars of occupation. Once it becomes clear that we face a lengthy and messy struggle, the American people quite properly begin to ask why we are pouring billions of dollars and thousands of lives into some strategic backwater. And they are right.

So my last lesson is that we shouldn't spend too much time trying to figure out how to do this sort of thing better, because we're never going to do it well and it will rarely be vital to our overall security. Instead, we ought to work harder on developing an approach to the world that minimizes the risk of getting ourselves into this kind of war again.
Niccolo and Donkey

Walt is insightful sometimes, and he's plain spoken on taboo subjects (American elite collusion with China, Jewish dominance of foreign policy under Bush, AIPAC, etc.) but he's got a problem with taking State Dept. propaganda at face value.

Other than sinecured amateurs like Hillary Clinton, abject fools like John McCain, and some of the political generals like Wesley Clark, nobody actually cares what kind of government Iraq has, how many Iraqi civilians die in these creedal wars sparked by US meddling in the country, whether or not women have collective ''rights'' in Islamist states, etc., or whether or not Saddam Hussein was in possession of WWI-type nerve gas artillery shells.

Buchanan and Scheuer both made a convincing case over the years that the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Syria as well but for different reasons) had grave concerns about Iraq's looming military hegemony in the region as well as the manner in which the Iraqi B'athists had redeemed the political legitimacy of Arab Socialism by shouldering the burden of the war with Iran - a pointless war that nonetheless assuaged the profound anxieties of the Arab street about the ''Persian threat''.

For all of his ineptitude, Saddam by the end of the 1980s seemed to be on a course to achieve what Nasser couldn't - uniting the Gulf Arabs under a secular and militaristic penumbra that would stand to nullify Jewish and Saudi power in the Near East. Thus, B'ath Iraq was targeted for destruction. Claiming that Bush didn't know what he was doing and went to war to stop ''WMD proliferation'' is similar to the old canard about LBJ being a weak and foolish man who was somehow ''duped'' by the Pentagon and simply went to war in Asia because the Communists fired upon a patrol ship in Tonkin Gulf. Its both really naive and it also exonerates Bush of any kind of malfeasance. Its also simply not how US defense policy has been oriented for the last 30 some odd years.

Ultimately, America doesn't really care about Islamic extremism - it cares about preserving the balance of power in favor of Israel and KSA, it cares about keeping Arab states from developing any kind of theater-wide geostrategic ambition that would harm Britain's ability to assert petroleum rights, it cares about challenging Russia by proxy in the Near East and Central Asia to undermine its ability to throw its weight around as an energy superpower, and it cares about having terrestrial staging points with men on the ground and airbases in these theaters to maintain an axial pivot of sorts to impose its will by force when needed.

So yes, the Iraq war was highly unsound strategically in a lot of ways, but that's because America's grand strategy is unsound. Bush and his men achieved what they wanted to in Iraq - Iraq is a permanently divided society at present that appears to be permanently on the cusp of civil war and is likely to become a failed state. Its no longer any threat to Anglo/US/Jewish/Saudi stakes in the region.

America doesn't actually kill huge amounts of people and conquer their countries ''for freedom'' even if White House press releases say so. I'd expect Walt to have a bit more of a grown up perspective.

This is perfect, especially on how the White House and Pentagon are disingenuous in justifying foreign policy on humanitarianism, democracy spreading, nation building, or national security.
But I disagree on Iraq no longer being a threat to those parties you list, or that Bush and Friends got what they wanted. They wanted Iyad Allawi to run Baghdad as an anti-Iranian who would throw contracts at the coalition countries and not back Palestinians against Israel. Instead Sistani threatened a Shia uprising, and to avoid it they handed the country over to pro-Iranians who deliberate against the coalition military presence and sign contracts with.. not who the White House wanted them to. Iraq is in the Syria-Russia-Iran-China camp, opposed to the GCC and NATO. It doesn't pose the threat Saddam did on his own, but with Tehran and Damascus together they pose a bigger danger than tanks rolling into Kuwait.

He makes the point that relative isolationism is the default position of the American populace and rightly so. Sure, engage with the world at every level bar military but the American people know that the last time there was an existential threat in terms of foreign troops occupying continental US soil was in 1812. The problem is there's enough ingrained ... fuck knows what you call it ... melange of martial pride and gullibility that the whole Remember The Maine meme can be re-hashed every decade to MANUFACTURE CONSENT for wars of aggression that only serve the plutocratic elite.

The best possible thing the US could do is remove the fetishisation of the military from the culture. You're like shit Prussians at the moment.

Its difficult to discern the American view of the military from without, and I've noticed that people in foreign countries (especially but not exclusively Europeans) seem to misunderstand it.

Americans actually don't particularly like the military - and outside of the South, there isn't any meaningful popular military tradition in America and the military has no monumental cultural power or significance like it does in societies that developed out of Feudalism.

One reason why there is this thoughtless faith in the military solutions to political problems in policy circles is because nobody in America outside of a few narrow demographics really serves in the armed forces. Thus, the general public as well as the elites who manage public opinion have no real understanding of the military, its limitations, its strengths and weaknesses and what have you. Americans revolted against the draft two generations ago, and since then, the armed forces are viewed by most middle class people as a dead-end job or something poor people do in lieu of attending college. Nobody really cared when it came out in the 92 election that Clinton had boasted about his contempt for the Army in his student days for this reason - its normal for middle class people to hold that view. In other countries, where there is actually a strong cultural reverence for military life, this would have been considered outrageous.

Secondly, the military is something that liberal societies actively disdain - its authoritarian, it doesn't produce any direct economic benefits, its an institution steeped in a whole mythos about manly virtue and the purported valor of combat, and it appeals to pre-modern traditions to justify its continued existence.

Finally, the entire liberal theory of politics is premised on a notion than war is somehow ''incorrect'' - or that its a social problem that must be remedied by scientific social intervention, therapeutic education, the cultivation of ''democratic'' institutions, etc. - and this worldview can't abide institutions that are premised on an instinctive belief in the permanence of war and conflict as one of the psychological bases of human life.

So in America, there is this bizarre attitude towards the military, expressed by pols who do things like claiming that the military needs to provide more ''careers'' for women - or that it should work harder to do things like building schools for Pashtun children or that it should stop killing so many people and should be some kind of giant police department.

The maudlin and idiotic sentiment about ''supporting the troops'' needs to be understood as a reflexive belief in American moral exceptionalism, the proponents of which view the armed forces as an instrumentality to be used to implement this illogical moral vision. Its not a reverence for the 'culture of war' and macabre heroism or anything of a fascistoid nature.

Everybody has/can have nukes now, so the only way civilization can survive is by imposing a global government. Rogues must be crushed. I support the West's brave military adventures against the enemies of commerce.