The Long Shadow of the Iraq War: Lessons and Legacies Twenty Years Later
from Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy, National Security and Defense Program, and Women and Foreign Policy Program

The Long Shadow of the Iraq War: Lessons and Legacies Twenty Years Later

A man looks at a mural of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein inside his damaged former palace in Mosul, Iraq, February 19, 2023.
A man looks at a mural of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein inside his damaged former palace in Mosul, Iraq, February 19, 2023. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

March 20, 2023 9:36 am (EST)

A man looks at a mural of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein inside his damaged former palace in Mosul, Iraq, February 19, 2023.
A man looks at a mural of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein inside his damaged former palace in Mosul, Iraq, February 19, 2023. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

On March 20, 2003, I found myself bobbing offshore along Iraq’s tiny coastline in a raging sandstorm, as a reporter covering the U.S. Navy SEALs and Polish special forces’ operations in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Over the next two decades, I traveled to Iraq more than thirty times to examine the subsequent efforts to stabilize the country and build a democratic government, writing two books and multiple assessments of the war. On this twentieth anniversary, amid attempts to rationalize the decision to go to war, I offer this short list of lessons that should be ingrained in the collective memory to avoid future blunders.

The Decision to Go to War

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The decision to go to war was the initial and most grievous error, though a subsequent series of poor decisions greatly compounded its effects. As was subsequently discovered, the justification for going to war was based on scanty and deeply flawed intelligence: Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, and the U.S. intelligence community knew that “Curveball,” a principal source of that bad intelligence, was not reliable. Senior regional experts warned of the perfect storm [PDF] that could ensue if Saddam were toppled, and of the massive years-long reconstruction project that would be required to restore stability. Nevertheless, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a stitched-together case for war before the United Nations, claiming that “what we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”

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Groupthink infected the U.S. government to an alarming degree. It is tempting to ask what if Colin Powell, the most likely candidate, had stepped down in protest? He voiced reservations but neither he nor any other principal explicitly argued against going to war. A former four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who presided over the earlier Desert Storm operation to evict Iraq from Kuwait, his resignation could have set off a chain reaction of resignations and congressional opposition sufficient to stop the invasion. He could have insisted on abiding by the Powell Doctrine, which was violated in every precept. The Iraq War did not involve a clearly demonstrated vital interest; clear and obtainable goals and an exit strategy were not established; the risks and costs were not fully analyzed; and nonmilitary means were not exhausted. If the executive branch cannot apply these guidelines, Congress should.

Lesson: Adopt the Powell Doctrine and vigorously debate all your decisions. Listen to your experts and do not go to war when intelligence is weak.

The Decision to Stay

The error of the invasion was immediately compounded by the absence of an agreed exit strategy and the decision to embark on a massive, open-ended nation-building project. The occupation authority’s first acts were to disband the Iraqi army and the Ba’athist governing party, igniting what would become a lethal, long-running insurgency and eventually a multinational terrorist organization that took over most of the country. A sectarian government stacked with elite politicians took root, along with a patronage system to divide the spoils of the hydrocarbon industry, further supercharging the insurgency.

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Lesson: Do not engage in regime change. Again, Powell tartly summarized the consequences: “If you break it, you own it.” The alternative was to engage in a surgical operation to seek and destroy identified WMD facilities.

The Decision to Surge

By 2007 Iraq was on fire, and after numerous deliberations, the third major erroneous decision was reached, to double down on a military strategy with a “surge” of U.S. troops. This effort achieved a short-lived effect of dampening the violence but did not address the root causes of violence, which was the lack of a governance arrangement that Iraqis would accept. The overarching lesson is that foreign militaries are ill equipped to serve as social engineers, and societies only evolve at a generational pace.

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The use of military force deserves to be carefully circumscribed and large-scale counterinsurgency eschewed. Foreign militaries may successfully eject invading forces, as occurred in Desert Storm, but an even more effective approach is to help the national forces defend their own country as currently in Ukraine. The military’s record in intrastate counterinsurgency suggests that it often does more harm than good: Soldiers adopted the term “COIN math” to refer to the proliferation of enraged surviving family members who take up arms to avenge those who have been killed by foreign forces.

Lesson: Do not use the U.S. military to conduct large-scale counterinsurgency or nation building.

The Decision to Withdraw

The decision to withdraw in 2011 was also beset by a series of errors. In 2008, the U.S. government negotiated a bilateral strategic framework agreement that was intended to pave the way for a more normal relationship with this significant Middle Eastern country via trade, cultural, and educational exchanges, with political and diplomatic ties taking precedence over military ones. This agreement has not been robustly implemented to this day.

Instead, the U.S. government decided to back sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bid for continued power, despite the fact that Iyad Allawi won a plurality in the 2010 election with broader support. Maliki’s sectarian and personal ambitions were well known, and his subsequent actions in purging and politicizing the military and government set the stage for the advent of the Islamic State and the collapse of the Iraqi army, which had been built with billions of dollars of U.S. security assistance.

Lesson: Back democratic processes and leaders with broad-based support.

The Empowerment of Sectarians, Not Democracy

Iraq moved farther away from the goal of reforming the 2005 constitution, which did not address major issues of governance and resources that divided Iraq’s Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish population. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad acknowledged its flaws by proclaiming its revision as his priority in order to persuade Iraqis to ratify the document. In the eighteen years since, the substantial human capital and immense oil resources of Iraq have been diverted into corruption and patronage politics rather than much needed electricity, water, health care, and education for the people. A vicious five-year battle commenced in 2014 to uproot the Islamic State from half of Iraq’s territory, subjecting its people to yet more war. In this renewed spasm of violence, the United States felt compelled to intervene once more, although it had learned enough to back the Iraqi forces with advisors and material aid rather than attempting to lead the fight itself.

As of today, the political imperative of a functioning and responsive government remains unmet. In late 2019, the country’s young population—the majority of Iraqis are under age twenty-five—exploded in frustration. Months of protest were met by violence, mostly from Iranian-backed militias who have gained a strong foothold in the security service and in a segment of the Iraqi Shi’a political parties. High abstention rates in the last two elections indicate an alarming disillusionment with Iraq’s democratic experiment. Modest electoral reform may be reversed by sectarians, and the government has yet to agree on a hydrocarbons law, resolution of disputed territories, and a truly democratic system.

Lesson: Make sure assistance supports democratic processes and needs of the population. Congress must be more aggressive in terminating programs that fail to achieve intended aims.

The Effects on U.S. Democracy

The costs of the Iraq War have been calculated at $8 trillion if the veterans’ health-care costs are included; some 300,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, over 9 million displaced, and 4,598 U.S. troops and 3,650 contractors were killed.

The long shadow of Iraq extends beyond these quantifiable effects. The toll the war’s decision-making has taken on U.S. democracy has been equally grievous. The absence of any formal reckoning eats at our soul. No leader has stepped forward with a full and honest mea culpa, as Robert McNamara did after the Vietnam War. Instead, a Vietnam era–like erosion of public confidence continues, stoking a current of isolationism that calls for no foreign involvement at all, and even more corrosive, a culture of brazen, arrogant mendacity that infects American politics.

Unlike in Britain, where the Chilcot inquiry forced all senior officials to testify in an exhaustive investigation and exposed the decision-making that led to the rush to war, the absence of sound rationale, and lack of preparation for the aftermath, there has been no effort in the United States to hold senior U.S. officials accountable for the failure to conduct a deliberate process. Sadly, none of the principal officials have publicly regretted the invasion and the enormous toll it took on both the United States and Iraq.

Lesson: Take measures to hold officials accountable and restore public confidence in government when you fail.

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