Iraq War: Five Years Later


I was going to write a post with the title “Iraq War: Five Years On” but the always astute Norm Geras beat me to it. Mr. Geras writes:

I do not understand how anyone who supported the war can look at that death toll (whatever its exact size), and at the injuries, and the numbers of refugees, and the extreme social dislocation, and the civil and ethnic conflict, that have followed upon the war, and say sincerely that they weren’t wrong in any way, that the hopes and/or expectations they had in supporting the war have not been dashed or had to be radically adjusted.

Jules Crittenden, in an identically titled article at The Weekly Standard concurs,

The errors committed in this war have contributed greatly to American frustrations. There was a failure to recognize the extent of the challenge ahead, even as ambitious plans were being laid starting in late 2001. The Bush administration could have had a blank check and recruits lined up around the block, but instead insisted on taking us into war with a post-Cold War military that is only belatedly being built up. The administration failed to seize control of Iraq with sufficient urgency and, when a complex insurgency was well underway, failed to move with sufficient skill to quell it until late in the day. The greater failure was to not adequately communicate the mission to Americans and to the world.

All wars go through evolutions, and it is unrealistic to expect no missteps. In this case, however, they are cited most frequently not as arguments to improve the war effort, but as excuses for abandonment. The Bush administration has made good at last with a counterinsurgency strategy that has hobbled Al Qaeda in Iraq and has the Shiite militias in a box. Iraqi military capabilities are improving, and the next president appears likely to inherit a somewhat pacified, reconciled Iraq; an enhanced American position of influence in the Middle East; opposing terrorist organizations that are sharply compromised; and a string of nascent democracies. At considerable cost of American blood and treasure, the United States is now in a position of marked if precarious influence in the most dangerous part of the world. The new president will have to consider how much of that he or she wants to throw away or build upon.

Unlike Mr. Geras, my position shifted from opposition to the war to support rather than from support to opposition. I agree that my hopes and expectations have been radically adjusted. However, I still think there were three options available at the time (regardless of arguments about WMD, etc.).

Option one was continuing the sanctions regime and no-fly zones. If we trust the figures coming from the lefties, the sanctions were killing 10,000 Iraqis a month. If we trust conservatives, the sanctions regime was not effective. We know Saddam was enriching himself through the Oil-for-Food program and all the rest.

Option two was dismantling the sanctions regime and no-fly zones. This was the policy preference of the radical left but was not supported by most centrists or conservatives.

Option three was war. War should never be the first option, but given the other two I think it was the only choice we had.

But Mr. Geras is absolutely correct about the need to question assumptions. American Enterprise Institute Vice President Danielle Pletka put it this way:

[W]hat about the mistaken assumptions that remain unexamined? Looking back, I felt secure in the knowledge that all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well. I was wrong. There is no freedom gene, no inner guide that understands the virtues of civil society, of secret ballots, of political parties. And it turns out that living under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny for decades conditioned Iraqis to accept unearned leadership, to embrace sect and tribe over ideas, and to tolerate unbridled corruption.

I thought similarly about Iraq. I know elections are no guarantee of freedom and liberty, that the institutions of civil society are the building blocks of any successful democracy, but I had hope that these organizations would develop over time. The emergence of a free labor movement was an especially encouraging development. But the insurgency made it extremely difficult for these fledgling movements. Nevertheless, it was an improvement over totalitarianism as evidenced by the testimonies of survivors of Saddam’s death camps.

President Bush recognized this in his recent speech:

What our troops found in Iraq following Saddam’s removal was horrifying. They uncovered children’s prisons, and torture chambers, and rape rooms where Iraqi women were violated in front of their families. They found videos showing regime thugs mutilating Iraqis deemed disloyal to Saddam. And across the Iraqi countryside they uncovered mass graves of thousands executed by the regime.

Because we acted, Saddam Hussein no longer fills fields with the remains of innocent men, women and children. Because we acted, Saddam’s torture chambers and rape rooms and children’s prisons have been closed for good. Because we acted, Saddam’s regime is no longer invading its neighbors or attacking them with chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. Because we acted, Saddam’s regime is no longer paying the families of suicide bombers in the Holy Land. Because we acted, Saddam’s regime is no longer shooting at American and British aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones and defying the will of the United Nations. Because we acted, the world is better and United States of America is safer.

When the Iraqi regime was removed, it did not lay down its arms and surrender. Instead, former regime elements took off their uniforms and faded into the countryside to fight the emergence of a free Iraq. And then they were joined by foreign terrorists who were seeking to stop the advance of liberty in the Middle East and seeking to establish safe havens from which to plot new attacks across the world.

The battle in Iraq has been longer and harder and more costly than we anticipated — but it is a fight we must win. So our troops have engaged these enemies with courage and determination. And as they’ve battled the terrorists and extremists in Iraq, they have helped the Iraqi people reclaim their nation, and helped a young democracy rise from the rubble of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.

The U.S. Defense Department recently released a study of 600,000 documents from Saddam Hussein’s archives concluding that he supported many terrorist groups, secular and religious. However, the report did find a “smoking gun” or direct connection with al Qaeda. The (redacted) report, Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents, is available here.

While many left critics of the war have correctly pointed out that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime was secular, this did not preclude the regime from finding common cause against the United States with a variety of radical Islamist movements after the 1991 Gulf War. Anthony Lake writing in The New York Sun notes:

• The Iraqi Intelligence Service in a 1993 memo to Saddam agreed on a plan to train commandos from Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the group that assassinated Anwar Sadat and was founded by Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

• In the same year, Saddam ordered his intelligence service to “form a group to start hunting Americans present on Arab soil; especially Somalia.” At the time, Al Qaeda was working with warlords against American forces there.

• Saddam’s intelligence services maintained extensive support networks for a wide range of Palestinian Arab terrorist organizations, including but not limited to Hamas. Among the other Palestinian groups Saddam supported at the time was Force 17, the private army loyal to Yasser Arafat.

• Beginning in 1999, Iraq’s intelligence service began providing “financial and moral support” for a small radical Islamist Kurdish sect the report does not name. A Kurdish Islamist group called Ansar al Islam in 2002 would try to assassinate the regional prime minister in the eastern Kurdish region, Barham Salih.

• In 2001, Saddam’s intelligence service drafted a manual titled “Lessons in Secret Organization and Jihad Work—How to Organize and Overthrow the Saudi Royal Family.” In the same year, his intelligence service submitted names of 10 volunteer “martyrs” for operations inside the Kingdom.

• In 2000, Iraq sent a suicide bomber through Northern Iraq who intended to travel to London to assassinate Ahmad Chalabi, at the time an Iraqi opposition leader who would later go on to be an Iraqi deputy prime minister. The mission was aborted after the bomber could not obtain a visa to enter the United Kingdom.

A long time skeptic of the connection between al Qaeda and Iraq and a former CIA senior Iraq analyst, Judith Yaphe yesterday said, “I think the report indicates that Saddam was willing to work with almost any group be it nationalist or Islamic, that was willing to work for his objectives. But in the long term he did not trust many of the Islamist groups, especially those linked to Saudi Arabia or Iran.” She added, “He really did want to get anti-American operations going. The fact that they had little success shows in part their incompetence and unwilling surrogates.”

A former Bush administration official who was a member of the counter-terrorism evaluation group that analyzed terror networks and links between terrorists and states, David Wurmser, said he felt the report began to vindicate his point of view.

“This is the beginning of the process of exposing Saddam’s involvement in Islamic terror. But it is only the beginning. Time and declassification I’m sure will reveal yet more,” he said. “Even so, this report is damning to those who doubted Saddam Hussein’s involvement with Jihadist terrorist groups. It devastates one of the central myths plaguing our government prior to 9-11, that a Jihadist group would not cooperate with a secular regime and vice versa.”

I recently heard Peter Feaver discuss five elements of the U.S. policy in Iraq:

1) Security
2) Reconstruction
3) Strengthening local government
4) Transparency in tax collection and resource allocation
5) Political Reconciliation

The surge has done a remarkable job in the first category. Progress has been made in categories two and three as well. But by the time you get to categories four and five, progress is minimal.


American Enterprise Institute: Iraq Five Years Later, What’s Next?

Brookings: Iraq Reports

Peter Feaver (former National Security Advisor, 2005-2007) on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal (March 20, 2008).

Victor Davis Hanson: Mirror, Mirror. On Iraq.

Christopher Hitchens: How Did I Get Iraq Wrong? I didn’t.

Oliver Kamm provides a nice roundup of Iraq commentaries here.

Reuters: Bearing Witness, Five Years of the Iraq War

Michael Weiss on Iraq (Pajamas Media).

2 responses »

  1. A nice roundup on Iraq War five years into it, and like folks who support this war I can’t look at all that has gone wrong and not feel guilt. I did not support the invasion, and only came around to openly backing it after the elections, but I don’t want that to be an out, or a way to avoid responsibility for the things that have gone wrong due to the liberation.

    And as you pointed out, there were really only 3 options available to us before March 03: we could continue the sanctions and no-fly zones (a de-facto war that still killed many), recognize Saddam’s regime as if it were no different than India, or go to war and end his rule. When presented with those three scenarios, I feel going to war is the best choice amongst a dire set of alternatives.

    Furthermore, these three scenarios don’t take into account the possibility that Saddam’s regime could have very well imploded (something I heard lefties like Ralph Nader say over and over again in 2004), leading to the ethnic violence and terrorism we see today. But I would have to agree with Hitchens when he says:

    “There is, however, one position that nobody can honestly hold but that many people try their best to hold. And that is what I call the Bishop Berkeley theory of Iraq, whereby if a country collapses and succumbs to trauma, and it’s not our immediate fault or direct responsibility, then it doesn’t count, and we are not involved. Nonetheless, the very thing that most repels people when they contemplate Iraq, which is the chaos and misery and fragmentation (and the deliberate intensification and augmentation of all this by the jihadists), invites the inescapable question: What would post-Saddam Iraq have looked like without a coalition presence?”

    And even if we had not previously been involved in Iraq with sanctions and such, would it be acceptable for the most powerful nation on earth to not involve itself in a country with such strategic and political importance? I think that there is plenty of blame to be given to Bush, the US, or the Neocons for what has gone wrong, but there is little indication that Iraq’s problems would have been resolved without America’s involvement in the post-Saddam Iraq.

  2. “And as you pointed out, there were really only 3 options available to us before March 03: we could continue the sanctions and no-fly zones (a de-facto war that still killed many), recognize Saddam’s regime as if it were no different than India, or go to war and end his rule. When presented with those three scenarios, I feel going to war is the best choice amongst a dire set of alternatives.”

    Hi, Roland. Thanks for the comments. I’m sure there are fourth and even fifth options out there but I didn’t hear them at the time and I haven’t heard anyone articulate them since then. To this day, the vast majority of the debate concerns WMDs and fails to take the previous (Clinton) administration’s dedication to regime change in Iraq seriously. Bush’s policies were largely a continuation of Clinton’s with one key difference. Bush was willing to use force beyond the no-fly zones in order to enforce the U.N. resolutions against Iraq. Without the use of force, the resolutions were meaningless. That’s what so many in the “we must go through the U.N.” crowd fail to understand.

    As far as things that have gone wrong, one that most liberals and conservatives agree on at this point is the failure of Rumsfeld’s notion that a small, light, force could move in, take Baghdad, and leave after an incredibly short period of time. Rather than listening to the generals who said securing the country would take a significant increase in force levels and that we would need to be there for a much longer time frame, Rumsfeld stuck to his plans. We know the rest of the story.

    “Furthermore, these three scenarios don’t take into account the possibility that Saddam’s regime could have very well imploded (something I heard lefties like Ralph Nader say over and over again in 2004), leading to the ethnic violence and terrorism we see today…”

    I think most of the people talking about this were assuming a continuation of sanctions (scenario one). I’m not an expert, but I don’t think the regime would have imploded for one primary reason, oil. Oil prices were increasing at this time. Even before the spike, we now know that the regime was staying afloat due to the Oil-for-Food scandal and other scams. Rather than providing an impetus for revolt, Saddam pointed to the “imperialist” sanctions system as the reason for all of the country’s problems, allowing him to take attention away from the failures of his regime. The U.S. embargo against Cuba has a similar impact.

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