Lessons From History Series: The U.S. Invasion of Iraq—Twenty Years Later

Monday, March 27, 2023

James T. Shotwell Professor Emerita of International Relations, Dean Emerita of the School of International and Public Affairs, and Special Lecturer in International and Public Affairs, Columbia University; CFR Member

Edward Stettinius Professor of American History Emeritus, University of Virginia; Author, Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq

White Burkett Miller Professor of History, University of Virginia; Former Director, 9/11 Commission; CFR Member

Lara Setrakian

Journalist and Cofounder, News Deeply; President, Applied Policy Research Institute; CFR Member 

Panelists discuss lessons learned from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, including the circumstances that led to Operation Iraqi Freedom and whether it was a necessary war, as well as the ramifications of the resulting war for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

The Lessons From History Series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.

SETRAKIAN: Thank you, and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Lessons From History Series meeting, “The U.S. Invasion of Iraq—Twenty Years Later.” The Lessons in History Series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.

I’m Lara Setrakian. I’m a journalist and the cofounder of News Deeply, and I will be presiding over today’s discussion.

We’re joined by Lisa Anderson, the James T. Shotwell professor emerita of international relations, dean emerita of the School of International and Public Affairs, and special lecturer in international and public affairs at Columbia University; Melvyn Leffler, Edward Stettinius professor of American history emeritus at the University of Virginia, also the author of Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq; and Philip Zelikow, White Burkett Miller professor of history at the University of Virginia and the former director of the 9/11 Commission.

We’re here to discuss what we’ve learned from history and at what cost. When you try to tally the cost of the Iraq War, any dollar value comes up cheap. There’s a solemn moral reckoning that is due. At the outset today, we should note with great respect and dignity the more than nine thousand U.S. soldiers and civilian contractors who lost their lives, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis directly killed in the fighting or by its consequences, and the 282 journalists who died in the course of the war, all of them individuals who could have otherwise been seated around this virtual table today. And while Iraq no longer lives with the heinous regime of Saddam Hussein, we must recognize what came with the breakdown in general security over the past twenty years: the sectarian civil war and growing influence of Iran, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the genocide of Yazidis in Sinjar province, a generation of Iraqis growing up in a highly corrupt and deadly violent country—roughly half of Iraq’s population today has grown up in this war; it has been twenty years of generational loss. The national newspaper and Vice World News launched special reporting projects that capture the voices of young Iraqis today. I recommend that we all listen closely.

My own industry faces a reckoning. After the media’s initial infatuation with the Iraq War, we chose to stop paying close attention. Just a few years into the war, weeks would pass without frontpage stories or coverage of the war on network or cable TV, and that did not help foster accountability or clairvoyance among policymakers.

There can be no glossing over factors like these in an honest conversation of this nature. Our well-esteemed and well-informed speakers today will help us draw wisdom from the facts and find our way forward. There are also extraordinary resources available on, including a comprehensive article on lessons learned by CFR Fellow Linda Robinson.

For today’s conversation, Philip, let’s start with you. Do you believe this war was inevitable, or does this go down in history as a war of choice?

ZELIKOW: I don’t think the war was inevitable, but I think the “war of choice” phrase is very misleading even though it was coined by the president of the Council under whose auspices we meet today. The war of necessity/war of choice binary is not helpful. With one exception, every single war in American history was a war of choice. Now, I—as a historian, I agree with many of those choices, but we should be clear every one of them was a war of choice. And the one exception was the attack on 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. move into Afghanistan. I really don’t think it’s reasonable to argue that the United States government chose to be attacked on 9/11, and I think once that attack had occurred there was just no situation in which America isn’t going into Afghanistan. But that’s really the notable exception.

Then, on the issue of whether, then, the war was inevitable and we—since we agree that it was a product of choice, it is really important to focus on what the key choices were and what was distinct about the Bush administration. I’d argue to you that any administration would have taken Iraq concerns more seriously after the 9/11 attacks for the reason that Professor Leffler explains in his book. So some kind of elevation of Iraq on the agenda, I think, was inevitable in any plausible administration.

So I’d call out at least a few key choice moments. One is actually in the spring of 2002 there is a decisive acceleration towards war. Second, after securing actually a(n) unanimously approved UN resolution to reinstate inspectors, the Bush administration made decisions in the end of 2002 and early ’03 to cut short the inspections process and proceed towards war. And third, the Bush administration devised a plan for the war that was singularly ill judged, as Professor Leffler points out, and actually because it was so obviously ill judged if one looked at it properly that itself might in turn have caused an American government under another administration to hesitate, stay with inspections longer perhaps. And of course, had they done that more and more doubts would have grown about whether the war was necessary at all. So I do think that there are some really distinct moments having to do with the Bush administration and its choices, making choices that not any administration would have made.

And the only final comment I want to make is I want to come back to that first episode that I alluded to, which I think has not gotten anything like sufficient notice. That’s the period in the spring of 2002 with the decisive acceleration to war. Why did that happen? If you have Leffler’s book—and I recommend it; everyone should have it—if you start, say, on page 132 of the book, he has this remarkable account of a meeting of the NSC on May 14, 2002, in which no less that Vice President Cheney, who rarely spoke out at NSC meetings, speaks out to question whether the U.S. should go to war with Iraq, whether—and questions the use of military power. That’s May 14. By two months later, mid-July, Cheney and a lot of other people are moving towards war very hard.

What has happened in the intervening two months? I saw some of this myself firsthand because I was working on the National Security Strategy. I had written a passage having to do with using preemption against terrorist groups. In June, right in the middle of this period, Condi Rice basically says, how about moving that passage on preemption against al-Qaeda into the section on weapons of mass destruction? I complained: Well, wait. That would—that’s a whole concept of preventive war. I objected to it. Objection overruled, draft was taken away from me, pulled into the NSC. That’s right in the middle of this period, so the question: What happened in the spring of ’02 that accelerated this push to war?

That’s ten pages in Leffler’s book, between 132 and 142. And what you see in there is actually an astonishing set of alarming intelligence reports. You really have to reread what those reports were. And I will tell you that what Mel has in his book is the tip of an iceberg, most of which remains classified to this day. But everyone who’s looked at this knows that the presidential daily briefs of this period were incredibly alarming. Those documents have not been released. What Mel describes about, well, al-Qaeda ’s in Baghdad, hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives are in Iraq; in fact, a CIA team has been inserted into Iraq. And this is the period in which a lot of the administration wants to go to war in Iraq immediately in northern Iraq to get at the hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives there. I think that intelligence had a singular role.

And here’s a thing to notice for the audience. In all of American history, they’re almost all wars of choice. At no time in American history, though, has there been another war more prompted by the quality of intelligence estimates than this war.

SETRAKIAN: Mal, you’ve been referenced a lot. I feel you should get the next word here. Do you agree with all that and with this framing of it as a war of choice, war of—yeah.

LEFFLER: I very much agree with Philip’s comments that for the most part in American history all the wars—except probably one, World War II—was a war of choice.

The policymakers in the Bush administration nowadays, like Steve Hadley, also object to the binary war of choice/war of necessity, and Steve Hadley and others like to call it now a “war of last resort,” quote/end quote. And the question, of course, is whether it was a war of last resort.

And a lot of that depends—I think the point that Philip raises at the end of his comments about the quality of intelligence is extremely salient. It’s also very salient because one of the cliches about America’s going to war, of course, is Bush lied and Americans died, and this raises the whole issue about the quality of the intelligence. And of course, when I wrote my book I did not have and nobody right now can have access to the presidential daily briefs, and that will help illuminate the threat perception that I do think is extraordinarily important.

But I think it’s important to realize a couple of things about the intelligence assessments, especially with regard to weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence was based on evidence that was far from incontrovertible. The policymakers, in fact, were absolutely aware of this. I have a—I think a very illuminating and evocative description in October 2002 when Donald Rumsfeld asks his chief of intelligence on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Shaffer—he asks him, what do we really know about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? And in a ten-page memo or so, the chief of intelligence on the Joint Staff writes back that: Well, with regard to chemical weapons, we know about 30 percent. With regard to biological weapons, 40 percent. With regard to nuclear issues, we know about 25 percent. So on and so forth. And the last sentence of the memorandum to Secretary Rumsfeld is, so you can see we don’t know how much we do not know. And the interesting aspect of this is that although Secretary Rumsfeld writes snowflake and sends this memorandum to General Myers, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and says, quote, “this is big,” what is compelling is that there is no overall reassessment within the administration of the quantity and quality and reliability of the intelligence.

And some people—of course, critics of the war—say this is purposeful and it reveals the fact that the policymakers, including President Bush, were committed to go to war from the onset.

SETRAKIAN: But apart from ascribing—apart from those projections or ascribing as such the—that many people think about or talk about this as a war of choice, it’s fundamentally because they feel it was the war of unwise choice or rash choice or premature choice. Do you think that’s fair?

LEFFLER: Well, as—in a sense, as we’ve just said, every war is a—almost every war is a war of choice. I think that the perceptions of the policymakers of the threat perception was legitimate and intense and sincerely felt. I do not think, however, that that means that going to war was a justifiable or smart extrapolation. I think what was missing, and perhaps is the most salient point to your question, is that there was an absence of systematic assessments of costs and consequences of going to war. So I think there was ample motivation to think that going to war might be a good idea, but there was a systematic absence of careful assessment of costs and consequences.

And I don’t just fault the top policymakers for this. I think that a burden of responsibility falls on middle-level officials who had an opportunity to carefully assess costs and consequences, and failed to do so in a very systematic way. So I’ll make one last comment. The best and most important memo with regard to reservations about going to war was one written in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs by Bill Burns and his subordinates. It was called The Perfect Storm Memo. And a lot of people reference this memo as illustrating the fact that, well, the State Department or key officials understood that this was an extremely unwise decision.

But if you read that memo, and the memo is available. If you read that memo, you will see that it was a terribly written memo. It is just a laundry list of all the things that could go wrong prewar, during the war, postwar. Nobody reading that memo would find a convincing argument one way or the other. I think the middle-level analysts—and Bill Burns has acknowledged that this was a very poor memo. So it’s not just critics saying this. He, himself, has acknowledged that it was a very poor memo. But the people above him, Secretary of State Powell and Condi Rice, who probably also saw the memo, should have asked for a thorough assessment of costs and consequences. And as far as I know, that never happened. And so any decision would be unwise if you haven’t carefully and systematically analyzed costs and consequences.

SETRAKIAN: Lisa, you led the American University of Cairo for many of the past twenty years. How did you see this war change America’s standing in the Middle East, especially with young people? And were moments like Abu Ghraib a watershed in that respect?

ANDERSON: Thank you, Lara. And thank you for including me. I’d like to suggest, in fact, that when we think about the lessons, lots of people drew lessons here, not just people who were in Washington. And in fact, it’s not clear yet to me what exactly the lessons in Washington have been. It may be that we could do better at middle-level management debates and so forth. I think that’s probably the case. But it would be worthwhile, looking at this from the perspective of the United States, really stepping back and saying, were we to find ourselves in a comparable position, would we make the same mistakes? And have we learned more lessons? So I’d like actually to turn that back to Philip and Mel.

But in the meantime, certainly people drew lessons about the United States in the region. And I think it is indisputable that the Iraq debacle contributed to the declining estimation of the United States in the region, across the board. It was by no means the only thing that contributed to that. Keep in mind that Iraq had been under sanctions since—all the way through the 1990s. It had already been degraded by American policy quite systematically and significantly. The debates around whether Iraq was involved didn’t strike anyone in the region as particularly sophisticated. And this was in a region in which Saddam had relatively few friends. So it wasn’t that they were rallying around the Iraqis.

But the United States didn’t look like it was thinking through the costs and consequences. And, of course, in the event didn’t manage the aftermath of the military invasion at all effectively. Did that contribute to subsequent skittishness on the part of later American presidents? Probably. Did that, in turn, contribute to a sense that American presidents are skittish and unreliable and you can’t really tell what they’re going to do and so forth in the region? Without a doubt. So I think there’s a—it’s not just Abu Ghraib, although indeed that was quite powerful as undermining American moral authority. But I also think there was an undermining of confidence in American competence which was equally damaging to American standing.

SETRAKIAN: On this wider question of how we make wiser decisions about when to wage war or make critical interventions, going to the Chilcot Report, the UK’s inquiry into its role in the invasion of Iraq, it stated that the U.S. declined offers of support from the British in planning for postwar operations. Now, the British have decades of experience in Iraq, since the mandate period in the 1920s. Do we have to rethink the way America integrates the wisdom and agency of its allies when making foreign policy decisions, plans, and, indeed, calculating cost? Philip, let’s start with you.

ZELIKOW: Yes. (Laughs.) We do. I think that’s a singular lesson. Actually, let me apply that lesson—this lesson is working right now. So right now we are in a fairly serious crisis with Iran. And if the listeners are not paying attention to what’s going on with Iran right now, they should. So in this situation, for instance, earlier this year the United States did some very highly publicized military exercises with Israel that were designed to demonstrate the capability of the United States to join with Israel in a possibly preventive war against Iran to head off its development of nuclear weapon. This is following through on a policy formulation that was devised mainly in the Obama years, mainly designed to restrain Israel and reassure our friends in the Gulf.

Now, our friends in the Gulf, meanwhile, are moving into a position of neutrality with respect to Iran. Studious neutrality, for a lot of different reasons. And then the question might arise, under what circumstances might the United States join in a preventive war once more in the Middle East to head off a WMD threat? In this case, in Iran. This is a live issue this year, 2023. Now then you might ask yourself, will the United States, in making this decision, take the views of friends, partners, and allies into account?

And I think the answer will be, yes. I think the United States will not simply unconsciously reenact the decisions of twenty years ago. There’ll be a lot of consultations and a lot of reflections, some of it having to do with the position of Israelis, people in the Gulf, but also with Europeans and others. Because one of the alternatives has to do with things like snapback sanctions and so on, and how Europeans judge the situation. So your question is right on point, and indeed is resonant in the present day.

SETRAKIAN: Mel, should there be accountability for poor decision making over the course of the Iraq War? And what would that look like?

LEFFLER: I definitely think there should be accountability. It would be nice to think that we might have a sort of 9/11 Commission Report. Philip, do you want to sort of go to work again on another report, looking into the causes of American intervention in Iraq and the reasons for the tragedy that ensued? Interestingly, of course, as you’ve just alluded, the British carried out an incredibly comprehensive assessment of why Tony Blair went to war on the side of George W. Bush. The interviews and the documents released from that investigation are extraordinarily illuminating and helped me tremendously in writing my own book.

I do think we must assess accountability. In my own book, I talk a lot about the decision-making processes, especially with regard to the immediate postwar situation. There was a failure to examine the planning for so-called Phase Four, the postwar stabilization phase. There were inadequate troops assigned, inadequate both in terms of their capabilities and in terms of their numbers. In my book, I hold Donald Rumsfeld responsible for a lot of these failures. And I carefully document why that was the case. But I also think it’s important to say that all decisions in the United States are overseen by the president of the United States. And I think ultimately it is the president himself who bears responsibility.

I demonstrate systematically in my book that the notion that neocons or Vice President Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld were responsible for the key decisions with regard to Iraq, that notion, widely believed, is erroneous. President Bush himself was responsible for the decisions, for almost all the key decisions with regard to Iraq. So, ultimately, I think the accountability rests there.

SETRAKIAN: Lisa, how do you think the Iraq War shaped American politics and life at home? How did it change us as a country? I believe you’re—

ANDERSON: OK, sorry. Let me go back to the previous question about accountability, because one of—and lessons learned, and so forth. So is it the case that lessons were learned about the importance of, call it, post-invasion planning? Well, a very different president, Obama, now regrets exactly the same mistake in Libya, that we didn’t think through what would happen in Libya after the fall of the regime. So I really—at some point, it can’t simply be, well, this is a different administration. So that was Bush’s fault, and this is Obama’s fault.

And there has to be some way of thinking about how the United States approaches its role in the world, whether it’s going to be simply we’re going to be going around the world knocking off regimes we don’t like and going after terrorists we don’t like, and so forth and so on, and really completely ignoring the consequences of that kind of policy more broadly. So here we have two countries, Iraq and Libya, where it’s pretty clear the United States played a very important role in the collapse of those states. So I think we need to—as I say, I think we need to think more broadly about that.

I think what happened, however, as a result of that, and it’s been bipartisan, if you will. The Democrats can’t crow about not having made the same kinds of mistakes because during the Arab uprisings, and particularly in Libya, many of the same kinds of mistakes can be found, I think it’s fair to say. So everybody’s making these sorts of mistakes. I think what’s happened as a result of that is a real—I used the word before—skittishness. I think there’s a real fear in the political—in political circles that this is, as Trump described it, a quagmire.

And the less you can be involved in local politics the better (an administrational theme ?). Maybe not this country. That’s a different question. But from the point of view of politics, the less you can be sort of deeply engaged, the better off your political fortunes will be. And I think that has become part of the—sort of, we want to withdraw, we want to pivot, we want to get out, we have other problems, and so forth and so on. Whether that’s a policy stance that reflects a sense of accountability I think is an open question. But I think that’s what’s happened as a result of these kinds of American adventures.

SETRAKIAN: Well, at this time I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. Kayla will remind you of how to join the question queue.


OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Ian Lustick.

Q: Thank you very much. Professor Leffler, I have not read your book. I will read it.

But I have written a book on this topic. And I was very active at the time, in the early aughts, with almost all—as a consultant—with almost all the agencies involved. And although I can agree that President Bush did have the responsibility, the question is why? How did he get captured? He and Condoleezza Rice were not powerful forces of thinking. They were—the pre-9/11 policy was very much pragmatic, Wilkerson, Powell, the uniformed military, the intelligence, not to see Iraq as a big issue in the war on terror. The question is not whether Bush made the decision, it’s why the group of people in the vice president’s office and the Department of Defense were able to capture them.

And for that, you have to talk about the Project for the New American Century, you have to talk about JINSA, you have to talk about the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. All of these groups put themselves in a place to win the battle in the beltway that caused the war. So they don’t have to be described as neoconservatives or anything else, but they were of one mind. And very specifically let me just say this, how would you explain the existence of somebody like Abram Shulsky running an office of special operations, unless it was in order to suppress—not just to ignore, but to suppress—Paul Pillar and any other expertise that would have raised questions about the advisability of making a war that Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, Doug Feith, et cetera, et cetera, Wolfowitz, Perle, all wanted? If you just focus on that one question about Shulsky, that would be very interesting.

Finally, I was at Carlyle for a huge tabletop simulation in the spring. And no one from the Department of Defense was allowed to attend. The uniformed military was there. Why? Because it was raising questions about the Shia-Sunni civil war that would erupt afterward. And no one would be—no one was allowed to think about it. It wasn’t just an absence of decision. It was a suppression of thought.


LEFFLER: Well, thanks a lot, Ian, for the question. And it’s an important issue to think about. Obviously your question relates to the massive number of books that have been written that argue that this—that this war was preconceived even in advance of 9/11 by the very people that you’re identifying. I show pretty systematically in my book that that was not the case prior to 9/11. And I tried to show very carefully why the momentum for intervention grew during the winter, spring and summer of 2002.

With regard to your emphasis about the Office of Special Plans, I think that has been hugely exaggerated. Yes, people like Doug Feith and Scooter Libby wanted to make the argument that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaeda. I show in my book that it’s pretty clear that President Bush himself did not believe that. I demonstrate that at this very moment in time that I think you’re referring to, especially in August and September of 2002, when the—when Shulsky and Dough Feith and others, like Scooter Libby, were pressing this argument very, very strongly, Scooter Libby makes an extensive presentation in the Oval Office to President Bush about this.

And President Bush rejects the—rejects it. And he actually says at the end, OK, Scooter, you know, keep on digging. Keep on digging. I’m not at all convinced by what you’re saying.

So I don’t think President Bush, who is indisputably the key decision-maker in all of this, accepted those arguments by the people that you’re identifying. I don’t believe that they are determinative. And I actually show, during this very critical moment in time in August and September of 2002, that Tony Blair and Secretary of State Powell are actually extremely influential in shaping the president’s thinking and in encouraging him to go back to the United Nations for an additional resolution. So I think that there’s a lot of exaggeration about the role of the so-called neocons and the Office of Special Plans, et cetera.

SETRAKIAN: Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jeh Johnson.

Q: Good afternoon.

I have a question for Professor Leffler, but perhaps others can answer it. I’ve been very interested in the vote in the Senate on the war resolution, 2002. You have people—you have Democrats like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, John Kerry who voted for the war. And then you have Democrats, led most notably by Robert Byrd, who voted against the war. And I’m curious, Professor, if you have any thoughts about what the thinking was. This was, of course, a hot issue in the 2008 primary. But if you have any explanation as to how those different camps got to where they were on the war vote.

LEFFLER: Well, I think that amongst Democrat—amongst most Democrats, there was an agreed view that Saddam Hussein represented a huge threat. And I show in my book that most of the critical Democrats were extraordinarily apprehensive about Saddam Hussein, and often talked about the need to go to war. Like Al Gore himself. What I think distinguished the more hawkish Democrats from the administration, and what led some Democrats, as you’re stating correctly, to oppose the resolution, was a general feeling amongst Democrats that it would be more desirable to pursue a multilateral approach to the war. And there was fear that the administration would ultimately act unilaterally. So some of the opponents of the war were not convinced by the evidence that Iraq constituted a(n) imminent threat. But they also were extraordinarily skeptical of the tactical approach of the administration, believing that Bush and Cheney had demonstrated a penchant for unilateralism by previous decisions.

But the truth of the matter is, ultimately, as I think Philip suggested earlier, if I recall, you know, a very substantial number of Democrats supported the resolution. And subsequently, they claimed that they were tricked into it in one way or another by the false evidence of the weapons of mass destruction. But I personally do not think that was the case. I think that many Democrats at the time, like Al Gore, were extremely—and like Joe Biden, who I, you know, talk about in my book, were extremely preoccupied with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. And felt that taking some sort of action, hopefully multilaterally, amongst these Democrats. Hopefully multilaterally. But that some action was necessary to deal with Saddam Hussein.

SETRAKIAN: Next question.

ZELIKOW: Can I jump in on this just to add a comment for Jeh? There was a really interesting set of maneuvers in Congress in September of 2002, in which Joe Biden was trying to come up with a counterresolution that would open the door up in the directions that Mel just alluded to. And the Bush administration effectively outmaneuvered him by working in partnership with Dick Gephardt on the House side. Gephardt was the House majority leader, if my memory is right. Or maybe the House minority leader. But Gephardt effectively made Biden’s position impossible.

Biden still wanted to go with the resolution. But Biden was trying to draft the resolution in a way that was a little different from what the administration wanted. And here, the problem then was the politics within the Democrats in Congress. That’s the only addition I wanted to make.

SETRAKIAN: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Gideon Rose.

Q: Hi there, guys. Gideon here.

I’m wondering—there was a lot of talk about the threat, and the nature of it, and the degree of it, and the intelligence about it. I wonder whether in this case, though, what you’re really seeing is less about the threat than about the power of the people, and that shaping threat perceptions. We were so strong we could do anything, and we got scared of potential future threats. Mel, I wonder how much this relates to preponderance of power, in the sense that both of the books that you’ve written on these kind of things are about policymakers at the peak of relative power, imagining future scenarios and going off chasing windmills to prevent them. And I’m wondering how much that’s part of the story of Iraq.

LEFFLER: Thanks, Gideon, for mentioning that. The theme of this present book, of course, is that to understand the decision to invade Iraq, you need to grapple with three factors. Fear, threat perception, is one. Power is two. And American hubris is three. Those three factors must be seen in relationship to one another. So I think that policymakers felt legitimate threat perception, both short term and intermediate term.

But, as you’re suggesting, Gideon, and I totally agree with, it was the sense that the United States had the power to deal with threat that they perceived that generates the—you know, ultimately generates the invasion of Iraq. Plus the fact that the policymakers, especially President Bush himself, genuinely believed that the invading army, American soldiers, would be met by, what he liked to say, chocolates and flowers by the Iraqis. There was hubris there in believing that Iraqis would welcome the—welcome the American presence.

They actually did want—you know, most Iraqis, unquestionably, wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But the notion that they would embrace an American invasion was questionable, especially as time progressed. And by time I mean just weeks and months, when the Americans could not preserve order and stability, which was totally disillusioning to the Iraqis. And the Americans seemed to think—American policymakers seemed to think that Iraqis cared more about freedom and democracy than they cared about order, and stability, and security of their personal lives. And there was a lot of hubris involved in that.

So, Gideon, I would say the key to understanding this is the synergy between fear, power, and hubris. And power also, again, to the key point you’re making, the sense of America power was tremendously increased after the administration successfully dislodged the Taliban from power in Kabul. That had a tremendous impact on the psyche of the policymakers themselves, especially because for two or three weeks they had been criticized roundly in the press that, once again, the United States, like in Vietnam, would be caught in a quagmire.

Then suddenly, over a two- or three-week period in late November/early December 2001, the Northern Alliance and American Special Forces really dislodged the Taliban from all the key cities in Afghanistan. That success infuses the policymakers with a greater sense of their power and their capabilities to deal with the threat perception that they’re increasingly seeing emanating from Iraq.

SETRAKIAN: Lisa, any reflections you want to add?

ANDERSON: Well, I just—it goes, I think—I don’t disagree with the importance of power. I’m just struck. Here we have three panelists, all of whom are presumably educators. Knowledge is supposed to be power. And somehow we went in and we had lots of threat perception, but we actually had almost no sense of what the consequences of what we were going to do were. And there were people in the academy, in Europe, people we could have been listening to about what the likely consequences of any kind of action might be. And we simply didn’t. And it was almost as if we were so powerful, we could conjure outcomes out of thin air. And that, it seems to me—(laughs)—is a significant part of the problem. And I’m not sure that’s a lesson we have learned. Again, subsequent behavior by subsequent American administrations seems to suggest that we still think we can conjure outcomes that we want, as opposed to try and work with what we have.

SETRAKIAN: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Maryum Saifee.

Q: Thank you. Maryum Saifee. I am with the State Department.

So when you were look at the State Department, my institution, it’s not a diverse place. And this—I believe this lack of diversity can sometimes lead to group think. Our career ranks are homogeneous and, even with political appointees, it’s largely the same people that are recycled back into the institution. So my question is, to what extent is the lack of diversity in our diplomatic corps—and, Lisa, you brought this up with your lots of—the chorus of other people that we could have been listening to. And also lack of culture where dissent is encouraged and uniquely valued, contributing to not just the failures of Iraq but also the very recent failure of our withdrawal from Afghanistan.

SETRAKIAN: Philip, you want to take that on?

ZELIKOW: Sure. I’m a foreign—former Foreign Service officer myself and have known many over the years. And in fact, one of our best experts on the Muslim world is Anne Patterson, actually, who does not reflect perhaps the full spectrum of diversity, but captures a little bit of it. But I don’t agree—it’s just hard to run the thesis. I’m just trying to think of what alternative voice would have made what argument at what time. I’m just trying to run the plausible counterfactual where if only person X had been—for example, supposed person X had been someone of, say, Middle Eastern ancestry living in the United States.

But, as Professor Anderson knows, actually quite a few people who had backgrounds in the Middle East but who were academics in the United States or making arguments in the United States were actually supporters of dislodging Saddam Hussein, and were supporters of the invasion. There were some spectacular cases, including some Iraqi exiles. So and then if you ask yourself, if you go along and look for, say, female voices, and if those voices had been heard. Now, maybe what you would be looking for is ideological diversity. But the people who make these diversity arguments seldom couch those arguments in terms of ideological range.

SETRAKIAN: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Christopher Isham.

Q: Thank you very much. Hi, Lara. Hi, folks. Interesting discussion.

But it’s mostly focused on the past and the decision to go into Iraq. My question is, where do you think Iraq would be today if the United States—and given everything that was happening it was probably unlikely—but if the United States had decided not to invade, and had left Saddam Hussein in power?

SETRAKIAN: Mel, you want to start with that?

LEFFLER: It’s a very difficult counterfactual to discuss. How long would have Saddam Hussein have lived? What would have happened after his demise? I find it difficult to grapple with that issue. But it’s certainly a consequential question to think about the counterfactuals. And indeed, many people who had high-ranking positions in the government during that time will actually make the case that Iraq today is better off as a result of the invasion that it otherwise would have been if Saddam Hussain had remained in power. That if he had remained in power, the sanction regime was falling apart, he would have resumed his weapons of mass destruction programs, he would have ignited a strategic arms race with Iran, and the entire Middle East region would have been worse off. I do not believe those arguments, but those are some of the arguments by the policymakers who worked for George W. Bush. So I really can’t answer that counterfactual in the way that you would find satisfying, and maybe Philip or Lisa have better thoughts about it.

SETRAKIAN: Lisa, any thoughts you want to add?

ANDERSON: I do think it’s an impossible—twenty years is a long time, so it’s very hard to tell what could have happened in those twenty years had the United States not invaded Iraq. But I do think that some of what we have seen in the intervening twenty years does suggest that a measure of stability would have been sustained by this tyrannical government, that you wouldn’t have had the opportunity for some of the things that were imagined as threats to be realized, so when you think about what happened in the development of ISIS and so forth and so on, that would have been much harder if Saddam had actually stayed in power. So it’s not clear that it would have been substantially appealing to any other—or to most Iraqis, but nonetheless, you can begin to think about what kind of difference not invading might have been because I think the likelihood that the sanction regime would have been—would have fallen away is pretty slim, so you still would have had a pretty damaging sanction regime and so forth and so on. But again, I think it’s very hard to tell, and of course, how the instability in Iraq contributed to the uprisings in other countries later in the decade and so forth is also a little bit hard to assess. So I think it is—it’s a fascinating question, but I don’t think we can answer it.

I just want to say, apropos Maryum Saifee’s question, just very quickly: I’m not sure that I disagree that the—that’s another counterfactual: how different would policy have been had there been a different kind of face to the State Department, but I do think—one of the things I’d just like to register is, the issue of threat perception has become almost built into the life of a Foreign Service officer, because they never leave the embassies. They have very, very restricted lives. I don’t mean never, but the point is that I think they are posted in places and live lives as if they’re living under constant threat, and that just is not a good way to gather informal intelligence, just what’s going on in the world. So how many times do, you know, Foreign Service officers actually go to, you know, showcasing small businesses, (venture labs ?)? How often do they go to, you know, artistic shows, and so forth and so on? Relatively rarely because it’s so complicated and so hard to do that. So when we talk about the kinds of things that shape how we understand intelligence, how we gather intelligence, how we do assessments, and so forth, I think the fact that the embassies themselves are increasingly designed to be bastions against threats is part of a whole stance that that’s the way we’re seen by people, that gets in the way of our understanding what other kinds of things may be happening in a given society. So of course we end up guessing wrong all the time because we’re looking for threats, we find threats, and we don’t see anything else.

ZELIKOW: I just want to jump in to second what Professor Anderson said. The issue of local expertise is vital and is deeply eroding. There was just a piece today by Dov Zakheim who just was up in Kurdistan in Sulaymaniyah, you know, and the embassy officers there didn’t even speak Arabic, which is just another reflection of kind of the fortress mentality and the insular perspective that Professor Anderson is calling out. I think that’s a—that is a really significant factor.

SETRAKIAN: Mel, anything you’d like to add?

LEFFLER: Well, I think one of the lessons—and there are many from this experience—is the importance of calculating threats carefully and modulating threat perception. One of the cliches during this period of time, of course, was that Saddam Hussein constituted an existential threat, and we need—and that term existential has, you know, become commonplace and we—our intelligence community, our policymakers, and we as citizens need to really carefully calculate what constitutes existential threats? What does that really mean? And at the same time, I think one of the things to learn from this experience is the importance of clarity about roles and interests. One of the most conspicuous aspects of the decision making process was the absence of clarity about goals. When the original war planning began taking place, the two goals specified by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks were regime change and WMD—regime change and WMD. Notice there was no talk about democracy promotion. When George W. Bush actually decided that for security reasons that it was necessary to invade Iraq, he actually did want to promote democracy and freedom, but the planners had really not focused on what would be the key ingredients? What would be necessary? What are the requirements to carry out the goal that President Bush actually had, but that Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks did not have? That’s lack of clarity about goals, and I fault the administration for not having greater clarity before invading Iraq.

SETRAKIAN: What does that mean about how we might change the way we gather or weigh intelligence now?

LEFFLER: Well, I think one of the important things to recognize is that intelligence gathering and analysis are extraordinarily difficult. There is always conflicting evidence, ambiguous evidence, and I don’t think that there are key lessons, except to really think through the accuracy of what you have and to reassess fundamental assumptions. So what’s really pertinent here is that the policymakers themselves understood that the evidence for weapons of mass destruction was not overwhelming. But what they also knew, what they also knew from the lessons of history, as they like to say, was that Saddam Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction, that he had used weapons of mass destruction, that he had lied about his weapons of mass destruction, that he had concealed them, and that they had previously erred in assessing the potency of his weapons of mass destruction. So in a sense, they believed that they were acting out of the lessons of history and they were unwilling to reexamine fundamental assumptions and axioms.

One of the lessons of this, and the intelligence community has learned this—one of the lessons is to reassess fundamental axioms. That’s easy to say, really easy for me to say, but how often do I reassess fundamental axioms? How often do you? How often does anyone reassess fundamental axioms? And that is a lesson.

SETRAKIAN: It’s a great, great endnote for us here today.

Mel, Philip, Lisa, thank you very much. And thank you to everyone for joining today’s virtual meeting.

Please note the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on the CFR website. Have a wonderful day.


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