Iraq War: “Failure is a much better teacher than succes”

by Jasmin Ramsey

I wanted Iraq to dominate our postings this week, the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of the country. The work of Daniel, Jim and James received ample attention, though Americans don’t appear to have much of an appetite for remembering the disastrous decision that the war was. While nothing will do justice to the lives that the Iraq war took and irreparably damaged, I want to complete our coverage with the Iraq-focused portion of a jarring speech by Chas Freeman, a US diplomat and author who has decades of experience with the feats and failures of US foreign policy. Not more on Iraq, you may be thinking. After all, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re undoubtedly more aware of the reality of the situation than the majority of Americans. But this is something different. Read ahead or listen to find out why. (The full text of Amb. Freeman’s speech, “Change without Progress in the Middle East”, is available here.)

Almost a decade ago, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq.  Advocates of the operation assured us that this would be “a cakewalk” that would essentially pay for itself.  The ensuing war claimed at least 6,000 American military and civilian lives.  It wounded 100,000 U.S. personnel.  It displaced 2.8 million Iraqis and – by conservative estimate – killed at least 125,000 of them, while wounding another 350,000.  The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq will ultimately cost American taxpayers at least $3.4 trillion, of which $1.4 trillion represents money actually spent by the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and intelligence agencies during combat operations; $1 trillion is the minimal estimate of future interest payments; and $1 trillion is future health care, disability, and other payments to the almost one million American veterans of the war.The only way to assess military campaigns is by whether they achieve their objectives.  Outcomes – not lofty talk about a tangle of good intentions – are what count.  In the case of Iraq, a fog of false narratives about weapons of mass destruction, connections to al Qaeda, threats to Iraq’s neighbors, and so forth left the war’s objectives to continuing conjecture.  None of the goals implied by these narratives worked out.  Instead, the war produced multiple “own goals.”Those who urged America into war claim Iraq was a victory for our country.  If so, judging by results, the Bush administration’s objective must have been to assure the transfer of power in Iraq to the members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, all of whom had spent the previous twenty years in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The former “Decider” made doubly sure of this outcome when Sunni and Shiite nationalist forces, like those of Sayyid Muqtada Al-Sadr, threatened the pro-Iranian politicians the United States had installed in Baghdad.  Bush “surged” in additional troops to ensure that these politicians remained in office.  And there they abide.

The neoconservative authors of the “surge” claim to have produced an important American victory through it.  Certainly, in terms of its immediate objective of tamping down violent opposition to the regime, the “surge” was a tactical success.  Still, one can only wonder about the sanity of people who argue that consolidating ethnic cleansing in Baghdad while entrenching a pro-Iranian government there represented a strategic gain for our country.  The very same band of shameless ideologues, militarists, and armchair strategists who brought off that coup now clamor for an assault on Iran.  One wonders why anyone in America still listens to them.  Anywhere else, they would have been brought to account for the huge damage they have done.

If the United States invaded Iraq to demonstrate the capacity of our supremely lethal armed forces to reshape the region to our advantage, we proved the contrary.  We never lost a battle, but we put the limitations of U.S. military power on full display.

If the purpose was to enhance U.S. influence in the Middle East, our invasion and occupation of Iraq helped bring about the opposite.  Iraq is now for the most part an adjunct to Iranian power, not the balancer of it that it once was.  Baghdad stands with Tehran in opposition to the policies of the United States and its strategic partners toward Bahrain, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Iran itself, including Iran’s nuclear programs.  Iraq’s oil is now propping up the Assad regime in Syria.  Iraq bought a big package of American weapons and training as we withdrew.  But it’s already clear that its future arms purchases will come mainly from Russia and other non-American sources.

If the point was to prove that secular democracy is a viable norm in the Middle East, events in Iraq have borne savage witness to the contrary.  The neoconservatives asserted with great confidence that the fall of a corrupt and tyrannical regime would pave the way for a liberal democratic government in Iraq.  This was a profound misreading of history as well as Iraqi realities.  The Salafist awakening and the sectarian conflagration kindled by our attempted rearrangement of Iraqi politics have not abated.  Sectarian conflict continues to scorch Iraq and to lick away at the domestic tranquility of its Arab neighbors in both the Levant and the Gulf.

If the aim of our invasion and occupation of Iraq was to eliminate an enemy of Israel and secure the neighborhood for the Jewish state, we did not succeed.  Israel’s adversaries were strengthened even as it made new enemies – for example, in Turkey – and began petulantly to demand that America launch yet another war to make it safe, this time against Iran.  Mr. Netanyahu wants America to set red lines for Iran.  Everyone else in the region wishes the United States would set red lines for Israel.

If the idea was to showcase the virtues of the rule of law and American-style civil liberties, then our behavior at Abu Ghraib, our denial of the protections of the Geneva Conventions to our battlefield enemies, and our suspension of habeas corpus (as well as many other elements of the Bill of Rights) at home put paid to that.  These lapses from our constitution and the traditions of our republic have left us morally diminished.  They have greatly devalued our credibility as international advocates of human freedoms everywhere, not just in the Middle East.  We have few ideological admirers in the Arab or broader Islamic worlds these days.  Our performance in Iraq is part of the reason for that.

All this helps to explain why most Americans don’t want to hear about Iraq anymore.  A few weeks ago, the Congress failed to authorize funding for the continuation of the U.S. military training mission in Iraq, forcing the Pentagon to come up with the money internally.  Almost no one here noticed.

On one level, the failure to fund a relationship with the Iraqi military through training represents a shockingly casual demonstration of the willingness of American politicians to write off the many sacrifices of our troops and taxpayers in our Iraq war.  On another, it is an example of America’s most endearing political characteristic: our capacity for nearly instant amnesia.   (“Iraq war?  What Iraq war?  You mean we sacrificed the lives and bodies of over one hundred thousand Americans and took on debt equivalent to one fourth of our GDP to occupy and refashion Iraq?  Really?  Why?”)  They say the test for Alzheimer’s is whether you can hide your own Easter eggs.  Apparently, we Americans can do that.

Failure is a much better teacher than success, but only if one is willing to reflect on what caused it.  Our intervention in Iraq was a disaster for that country as well as for our own.  It reshaped the Middle East to our disadvantage.  Yet, we shy away from attempting to understand our fiasco even as those who led us into it urge us to reenact it elsewhere.

The military lessons we took away from Iraq have so far also proved hollow or false.  When applied in Afghanistan, where we have now been in combat for more than eleven years, they haven’t worked.  Analogies from other conflicts are not a sound basis for campaign plans, especially when they are more spin than substance.  “In for a billion, in for half a trillion” is no substitute for strategy, let alone grand strategy.

Communities engaged in resistance to the imposition of government control where it has never before intruded do not see themselves as insurgents but as defenders of the established order.  Counterinsurgency doctrine is irrelevant when there is no state with acknowledged legitimacy against which to rebel, no competent or credible government to buttress in power, and no politics untainted by venality, nepotism, and the drug trade to uphold.  Pacification by foreign forces is never liberating for those who experience it.  Foreign militaries cannot inject legitimacy into regimes that lack both roots and appeal in the communities they seek to govern.

Photo: English: US Marines cover each other as they prepare to enter one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Baghdad as they takeover the complex during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Credit: Lance Corporal Kevin C. Quihuis Jr. (USMC), 9 April 2003.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.