Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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The Iraq War Ten Years Later

CAMBRIDGE – This month marks the tenth anniversary of the controversial American-led invasion of Iraq. What has that decision wrought over the last decade? More important, was the decision to invade rightly made?

On the positive side, analysts point to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the creation of an elected government, and an economy growing at nearly 9% per year, with oil exports surpassing their pre-war level. Some, such as Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House, go further, arguing that, while “the US certainly bit off more than it could chew in Iraq,” America’s intervention “may have shaken the region out of [a] stagnation that has dominated the lives of at least two generations.”

Skeptics reply that it would be wrong to link the Iraq War to the “Arab Spring,” because events in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 had their own origins, while President George W. Bush’s actions and rhetoric discredited, rather than advanced, the cause of democracy in the region. Removing Saddam was important, but Iraq is now a violent place governed by a sectarian group, with one corruption index ranking it 169th out of 174 countries.

Whatever the benefits of the war, skeptics argue, they are too meager to justify the costs: more than 150,000 Iraqis and 4,488 American service members killed, and an estimated cost of nearly $1 trillion (not including long-term health and disability costs for some 32,000 wounded US soldiers.)

Perhaps this balance sheet will look different a decade from now, but at this point most Americans have concluded that the skeptics are right, and that thinking has influenced current US foreign policy. In the next decade, it is very unlikely that the US will try another prolonged occupation and transformation of another country. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it shortly before stepping down, any adviser recommending such action “should have his head examined.”

Some call this isolationism, but it might better be called prudence or pragmatism. After all, President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused in 1954 to send US troops to save the French at Dien Bien Phu because he feared that they would be “swallowed up by the divisions” in Vietnam. And Ike was hardly an isolationist.

While a decade may be too soon to render a definitive verdict on the long-term consequences of the Iraq War, it is not too soon to judge the process by which the Bush administration made its decisions.

Bush and his officials used three main arguments to justify invading Iraq. The first tied Saddam to Al Qaeda. Public-opinion polls show that many Americans accepted the administration’s word on the connection, but the evidence has not sustained it. Indeed, the evidence that was presented publicly was thin and exaggerated.

The second argument was that replacing Saddam with a democratic regime was a way to transform Middle East politics. A number of neoconservative members of the administration had urged regime change in Iraq well before taking office, but were unable to turn it into policy during the first eight months of the administration. After September 11, 2001, they quickly moved their policy through the window of opportunity that the terrorist attacks had opened.

Bush spoke often of regime change and a “freedom agenda,” with supporters citing the role of American military occupation in the democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II. But the Bush administration was careless in its use of historical analogies and reckless in its inadequate preparation for an effective occupation.

The third argument focused on preventing Saddam from possessing weapons of mass destruction. Most countries agreed that Saddam had defied United Nations Security Council resolutions for a dozen years. Moreover, Resolution 1441 unanimously put the burden of proof on Saddam.

While Bush was later faulted when inspectors failed to find WMDs, the view that Saddam possessed them was widely shared by other countries. Prudence might have bought more time for the inspectors, but Bush was not alone in this mistake.

Bush has said that history will redeem him, and compares himself to President Harry S. Truman, who left office with low poll ratings because of the Korean War, yet is well regarded today. Will history really be so kind to Bush?

Truman biographer David McCullough warns that about 50 years must pass before historians can really appraise a presidency. But one decade after Truman left office, the Marshall Plan and the NATO alliance were already seen as solid accomplishments. Bush lacks comparable successes to compensate for his mismanagement of Iraq.

History tends to be unkind to the unlucky, but historians also judge leaders in terms of the causes of their luck. Good coaches analyze their game and their opponent’s game, so that they can capitalize on errors and benefit from “good luck.” By contrast, reckless reality-testing and unnecessary risk-taking are often part of “bad luck.” Future historians are likely to fault Bush for these shortcomings.

Even if fortuitous events lead to a better Middle East in another ten years, future historians will criticize the way Bush made his decisions and distributed the risks and costs of his actions. It is one thing to guide people up a mountain; it is another to lead them to the edge of a cliff.

Read more from our "Ten Years in Iraq" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedJames Scott

    Clinton, Bush Obama all these men should be held accountable for their actions in that region. There will be those that argue that terrorists are to blame for our current activities in that region. That's just nonsense, We created that mess based on a lie. When we discovered the lie did we even attempt to hold any of the men accountable. You want to know how history will judge us? I will tell you. You can impeach a president for getting his willy tended to but not for invading a country based on a lie and then murdering 150,000 Iraqis. Martin Luther King once said a man should be judged by the content of his character not by the color of his skin. I submit that the character of those in charge has been judged found wanting.

  2. CommentedWaleed Addas

    Those who were illuded and those who illuded others for going to war in Iraq are still paying the heaviest of prices. And its not over yet: chapter1 the fuel crisis, chapter2 the food crisis , chapter3 the financial crisis and chapter4 the future (western) crises...and on and on and on...
    Will President G. W. Bush ever get a peaceful night of sleep?!

    Without any doubt, justice is on its way for all the innocent peoples of Iraq in the Here (Now) and also in the Hereafter (the Next life) and Allah is Swift in Account.

  3. Commenteddan hitt

    Others commenters make the point very well about what a bad decision this was for the people of Iraq.

    But two other points need to be made: (1) it was very costly for us and, more as a nit, (2) Truman is a very poor example of a president, regardless of what his biographers may think.

    The costs to us are not just the trillions of dollars and thousands of soldiers' lives of those killed immediately and tens of thousands of those injured for life. There are also institutional costs such as scaled back training for our Air Force officers and other parts of the military bled for the conflict, and all kinds of people steering clear of the military who would have made good soldiers and officers. What thoughtful, rational person would want to join when the Commander-in-Chief was lying so brazenly?

    Surely it was the biggest setback to our country since the Civil War.

    Finally, Truman, who unnecessarily incinerated hundreds of thousands in Japan, and got us involved in the Korean conflict (from which we have yet to extricate ourselves), and created decades of entanglement through NATO, is no model worth imitating.

    Surely Eisenhower would be a much better model ---- and recall that one of the first things he did was to scale back Truman's overgrown military.

  4. CommentedBrent Beach

    On reflection, these last few paragraphs appear to be a get out of jail free card, not for Bush, but for all the pundits and think tanks who created his positions and argued so forcefully for those positions, and for the mainstream media who published those positions.

    Bush was the microphone for positions created by the neocon cabal who ran Washington during his tenure and to some extent still do.

    While Bush takes the fall for delivering their lines, the people behind all those lies continue to influence policy today - even with a Democrat president and Senate.

    Why does anyone still listen to them?

  5. CommentedStephen R. Ganns

    I won’t cover whether or not the U.S. should have gone into Iraq; as there are valid arguments for both points of view. But regardless, the key phrase in this article happens to be: “…and reckless in its inadequate preparation for an effective occupation.” It’s as if our foreign policy under both President Bush and President Obama has been: take a full understanding of every successful principle in Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and then do the exact opposite.

  6. CommentedBen Leet

    If you visit the Wikipedia page Casualties of the Iraq War you'll find a 2012 report from UNICEF stating that between 800,000 and 1 million orphans, all under 18 years old with either one or both parents killed, were created in the Iraq war. You'll also find 2 reports stating that 600,000 civilian violent deaths were created as early as 2006, and the estimate goes up to 1 million by 2010. Not all civilian violent deaths occurred to parents with children. My point, it is likely that the estimates of the Iraqi civilian violent death count are under-estimated. Hans Blix was the chief of the UN agency looking for weapons of mass destruction; Blix stated that the Bush administration was on a "witch hunt", and the facts did not matter. No WMD were found. The threat was non-existent, it was a war of aggression cloaked as a pre-emptive war to prevent aggression. In an article recently I read that 85% of U.S. soldiers believed in 2005 that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9-11 attacks. The costs in dollars are not as great as other costs. The Pope called it immoral, the UN Secretary General called it illegal. Wikipedia's article Opposition to the Iraq War points out that most of the world condemned the war, and 54 nations formally protested it. A former Nuremberg Trial prosecutor called for the criminal prosecution of GW Bush. A long list of U.S. highest-ranking military officers opposed the war.

  7. CommentedRenny RC

    E.

    It is very difficult to read this article with the necessary awareness to understand innerly the burdens of the invasion of Irak. After reading Joseph Nye view, there is no wonder how the contemporary world has continued its pace without noting the huge pain selfish political actors excerpt upon powerless populations. This article is a sad demonstration about how public intellectuals are frequently public for their capacity of speaking with fear.

    Mr. Nye.
    The invasion was not "controversial". It was illegal. It was clearly a crime committed by a few group of people, affected by interests in Washington, who decided over the lives of thousands of people from the US and the middle East.

    The question is not "Was the decision to invade rightly made?

    The questions public intellectuals and scholars should ask is:

    Is it possible to design an international legal architecture capable enough to contain, prosecute, punish and dissuade crimes committed by heads of states such as George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Bashar Al Assad, Tony Blair or Muammar Gaddafi? among others?

    Moreover, what is democracy?

  8. CommentedStefan S

    Bin Laden caused more damage than he ever could have imagined in his wildest dreams. We've thrown the Constitution out the window and instituted a costly new "security" state. Our economy is a shambles. Our leadership talks in cliches. And we have wasted ten years of national consciousness, preoccupied with things that do little or nothing to help us build our nation. In the eyes of the rest of the world, we have become the "evil empire." Bush and Cheney have a lot to answer for.

  9. CommentedOlanrewaju Kamil-Muhammed OSENI

    Nothing will ever justify going to iraq.Remember Bush went their alone. many of the Western government never believed the presence of WMD.Let ths iraqis solve their problem,which by the way might take them another decade to do but when all this is done,they will still remember how the american armies and government killed their families and citizens for no justifiable reason. Do they have to go to war and kill many civilians to effect a regime change.History and propeity will judge Bush and the Americans.

  10. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

    While the question may arise if an intervention without (prolonged) occupation (cmp. Libya) would have been cheaper and easier we find less and less old school dictators for new regime change experimentation. Now that we all became fearless of weapons of mass destruction the leadership of North Korea has to try harder to get our attention. Yet, it could become the first military confrontation to be settled with milk and zwieback.

  11. CommentedJ St. Clair

    this is one example...and many more like this in all of past history...not only usa but all countries within their country and outside of their countries

  12. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    Did Bush personally actually ever really make these three arguments in some sort of articulate way? Did he understand any of these three arguments? Or was he just mouthing talking points put under his nose by his many manipulative underlings. I mean the Bush Oval Office was underling heaven!

  13. CommentedRobert Winter

    I believe you give too much credit to Bush on this point. You first have to clarify what type weapons of mass destruction are you speaking about? Chemical weapons, biological or nuclear? Moreover, the need for war was sold to the American people on the basis that Saddam's alleged possession of mass destruction was an imminent threat to the United States. I do not believe that was a view widely shared by other countries.

      CommentedBrent Beach

      To claim widely shared by other countries without naming those countries or providing any link is to admit failure of the argument.

      The only country that supported Bush in these claims was Britain, and in Britain only the benighted Blair agreed with Bush. Two peas in a pod on this.

      There is also very strong evidence that even Bush did not believe that Iraq had WMD.

      http://www.salon.com/2007/09/06/bush_wmd/

      By making this claim, the author loses any pretense of objectivity.

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