Right and Wrong Lessons From the Iraq War

by Paul R. Pillar

It really rankles some people that Barack Obama was correct from the outset, before any unfolding of the history confirming he was right, that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a huge mistake. And one can understand how to some ears Mr. Obama’s subsequent references to the Iraq War may have a grating “I told you so” quality. Those most likely to be annoyed are the president’s most fervent political opponents, who include most of those who were the most fervent promoters of the Iraq War. Possibly there also is some unspoken annoyance among those who fit into neither of these categories but who allowed themselves to be swept up in the pre-war militancy that the war promoters skillfully exploited. These latter people include, as Washington Post editorial page chief Fred Hiatt reminds us, President Obama’s vice president and both of his secretaries of state, all of whom were among the majority of Democratic senators who voted—along with nearly unanimous Republican ranks—for the war resolution in 2002. Hiatt makes this observation in the course of acknowledging his own support for the war at that time and suggesting that the Iraq War ought not to be a “single-issue litmus test”.

Hiatt is right that no one issue should be such a test, but meaningful distinctions can and should be made between those who actively promoted the invasion and those whose offense consisted instead of insufficient attention to the consequences of what the promoters were promoting or insufficient political courage to try to stop the train that was hurtling down the tracks toward war. Moreover, correctness or incorrectness about the war today is not, as the headline of Hiatt’s piece on the Post‘s op ed page suggests, merely a matter of hindsight. Careful attention to the realities of Iraqi political culture and political demography provided ample basis for anticipating before the invasion the sorts of difficulties that would come after it, and multiple sources of expertise did anticipate those difficulties—but the war promoters ignored them. Belief that the invasion was a good idea (and not just going along with it for the political ride) was rooted in destructive patterns of thought that Mr. Obama referred to the other day as a “mindset” that is also destructive when applied to other issues. Even if a past position on a single issue does not disqualify one as a source of policy advice, repeatedly exhibiting such patterns of thought ought to be a disqualifier.

Hiatt, giving himself a pass for his own support for the Iraq War, offers us a couple of “lessons” from the war that he says should be applied to the issue of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The most obvious lesson, he asserts, “is that intelligence on nuclear capabilities is notoriously unreliable.” Maybe many people see that as the most obvious lesson, but it is certainly not the most important one, given that—as I have discussed at length elsewhere—intelligence on Iraqi nuclear capabilities did not drive the decision to go to war at all. I won’t repeat all the evidence that it did not, but suffice it to note that in the intelligence community’s comprehensive, annual unclassified statement of worldwide threats—and specifically the statement in 2001, the latest one before the war-selling campaign began—the possibility of an Iraqi nuclear weapon did not appear at all. It didn’t even make the cut of what the intelligence community considered to be worth mentioning in the statement.

Hiatt accuses President Obama of not taking Hiatt’s “lesson” to heart when the president expresses confidence that any Iranian cheating under the nuclear agreement will be caught. But regardless of whether one regards U.S. intelligence on such subjects as reliable or unreliable, any problem or challenge in following Iranian nuclear developments certainly would be no worse with the agreement than without it. In fact, the ability to follow those developments will be substantially greater with the agreement. That gets to what is actually the most important lesson from the Iraq War about understanding a foreign state’s nuclear capabilities: that there is no substitute for on-site monitoring and inspection. International inspectors were doing their job in Iraq in the weeks prior to the war. Their leaders expressed well-founded confidence that if they were permitted to keep doing their job they could reach accurate conclusions about what Iraq was or was not doing in the way of nuclear and other unconventional weapons. But they were not permitted to keep doing their job. The Bush administration kicked them out of Iraq to make way for the invasion. The war-makers had already decided what they wanted to do and were not interested in hearing any findings from international inspectors. The Iran agreement of today reflects a taking of the relevant lesson very much to heart by establishing the most comprehensive and intrusive international monitoring regimen ever applied to any nation’s nuclear program.

The rest of Hiatt’s piece seems to be saying that the usefulness of military force hasn’t been given a fair shake and that you never know when you might need more of it. He argues that President Obama has not used it, or persisted in using it, enough. He gives Mr. Obama a well-deserved slap for the way Libya has turned out, but then contends that the problem there was in not committing enough “U.S. resources for postwar stabilization.” Apart from the fact that the Libya situation has never gotten to a postwar stage, this seems to assume that nation-building in a badly divided and violent society would somehow go more smoothly in Libya than it has in Afghanistan or Iraq. It likely would have gone even worse, even with more application of U.S. military force, given the vacuum left with the removal of Qadhafi’s personalized rule. The problem was not in any follow-up but rather in the initial decision to join in a military effort to topple the dictator—which, by the way, sent a very unhelpful signal to the Iranians and others, given that Qadhafi had reached an agreement with the United States and Britain to completely give up his unconventional weapons programs peacefully and to forswear international terrorism.

The notion of insufficient military follow-up leads Hiatt to recite one of the most persistent myths about the Iraq War: that the war was won at the time that George W. Bush left office and that Barack Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by withdrawing U.S. troops too soon. It is not surprising that this myth has been relied on as heavily as it has. For the fervent crowd that was pro-Iraq War and is now anti-Obama, the myth is a twofer: a way to attack Obama as well as a way to relieve the mountain of cognitive dissonance that comes from having thought the invasion of Iraq was a swell idea but then seeing the violent mess that resulted from the invasion. It is remarkable how much purveyors of the myth express it in terms that are so patently divorced from reality. In a public debate in which I participated last year, the neocon pundit Bret Stephens stated that Iraq was “at peace” as of 2009. Hiatt’s formulation is that at the time President Obama was withdrawing troops from Iraq, the country had achieved “unity and relative stability.” To speak of Iraqi unity at this time is a joke; the country was at least as fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines as it has ever been. And as for being at peace, the number of Iraqis killed in the continuing civil war in the year 2009 was around 5,000—which by way of comparison is more than the total number of U.S. troops killed there in eight and a half years of war.

Iraq’s troubles are a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion. Toppling Saddam Hussein unleashed the civil war. The supposed alliance between Saddam and Al-Qa’ida that was one of the war-selling themes was another myth, but once the United States invaded, Al-Qaeda in Iraq became a reality and evolved into what we know today as Islamic State or ISIS. The “surge” of U.S. troops during the latter part of the Bush administration gets described by the myth-purveyors as a success, but as Peter Beinart aptly reviews that piece of history, it was not. It was a blatant failure regarding the objective of leading to political reconciliation among the contending Iraqi factions. It was a stopgap step, fortuitously coinciding with some other developments that reduced the intensity of the civil war, that enabled the war-makers in the Bush administration to slam shut the door on the mess they had created and to get out of town before it would be said that the war had been lost on their watch.

No one perpetuating these myths explains why there should be any reason to expect that keeping ten thousand or fifteen thousand or some such number of U.S. troops in Iraq for however long they would be there could have accomplished what 160,000 troops and more than eight years of war did not. Nor is it explained how any of this constitutes a criticism of the Obama administration when it was implementing a troop withdrawal schedule that had been negotiated by its predecessor.

Now the Republican presidential candidate who is the front-runner for the nomination among those whose name is not Trump has joined in the promoting of the Iraq War myth. The twofer becomes a threefer, with the added motivation being that it is a way of attacking the front-runner for the other party’s nomination, the idea being that she somehow should have done more to fix Iraq while she was secretary of state. Or maybe it is a fourfer, given that it is a way of dealing with the political liability that association with his brother’s war is for Jeb Bush. So expect to hear more of this in the coming months of campaigning.

Hiatt’s concluding application of his “lesson” about military force to the Iran agreement is that insufficient brandishing by Obama of the threat of military attack means Iran has not made as many concessions at the negotiating table as it otherwise would have. The Iranians, upon hearing this sort of contention, probably wonder whether, as far as lessons from the Iraq War are concerned, most Americans think the way Hiatt is thinking and whether disinclination to start another Middle East war is just a matter of wimpiness on the part of Barack Obama. Whether the Iranians wonder that or not, we should wonder why anyone should expect that a threat of armed attack would make the Iranians any more inclined to accede to U.S. demands on points on which the Iranians have shown firmness for reasons of pride, sovereignty, credibility, and internal politics. We should especially wonder that about a nation that endured what the Iranians endured with stoicism and determination for eight years the last time someone else attacked them. Hiatt also needs to explain how threats of military attack are supposed to reduce, rather than increase, any remaining Iranian interest in developing a nuclear deterrent, the very purpose of which would be to ward off such attacks.

Yes, let us not establish one-issue litmus tests. But let’s use the evidence from recent experience to identify where sound judgment has existed and where it has not. And as we draw lessons let’s make sure they are the right ones.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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