“There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, against us.”
-Dick Cheney, August, 2002
“The bulk of the funds for Iraq’s reconstruction will come from Iraqis – from oil revenues, recovered assets, international trade, direct foreign investment, as well as some contributions we’ve already received and hope to receive from the international community.”
-Donald Rumsfeld, October, 2003
“Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
-George W. Bush, May 1, 2003
The ten-year anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein will pass next week (April 9) without a big parade or much fanfare of any kind. The infamous quotes by the country’s leaders who took us into that conflict will be noted only in left-leaning screeds like this one. Everyone else has moved on, or is trying to. Most Americans are just happy to be out of that country and are anxiously awaiting withdrawal from Afghanistan as well, while the current president tries fervently to avoid a new military incursion in Syria or Iran.
The country and its current leaders, in short, have learned the lessons of Iraq. Or so the thinking goes.
But before we all congratulate ourselves for learning those lessons and moving on with our lives, some additional reflection, unpleasant though it may be, is in order. For openers, we might ponder how we, as a nation, were so easily led into a war we had no business fighting and then bungled so badly. Then we might consider whether the security of the U.S. is better or worse with the current dystopia that is Iraq than it would be with a continued Ba’athist regime. And finally, we might contemplate what would justify another war in light of what we’ve learned about the costs and consequences of engaging in one.
1. We were led into Iraq by an administration that had visions of American-style democracy spreading throughout the Middle East after Iraq quickly adopted one, courtesy of the U.S.-led liberation. It used faulty intelligence reports (that Saddam had amassed a nuclear capability) and phony conspiracy accusations (that Saddam was in bed with al Qaeda) to win popular support for the first war ever initiated by the United States. It was abetted in its efforts by a wholly pliant media and a cowered Congress, the former perhaps fearful of being blamed for another 9/11-type attack, the latter unable to stand up to a president who hadn’t even won the popular vote in the 2000 election.
The war was bungled by a military that was poorly prepared for the culture it was suddenly in charge of, lacking even in basic language skills, let alone an appreciation of the religious and ethnic rivalries that were and are what Saddam had kept under control with his ruthless regime. The only easy part about the war was unseating Hussein. Everything else was a mix of incompetence and ignorance, with the civilians in the Pentagon (Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al.) every bit the equal in their ineptitude as the succession of uniformed officers they put in charge of the actual fighting.
2. The Iraqi people may be better off without Saddam’s dictatorship, but even that is not a certainty, or at least is not true for everyone. Many Iraqis, those who are Sunni Muslims in particular, are now suffering from the centuries-long hostility with the Shi’a majority. And the Kurds are still clamoring for liberation, restive in the uneasy Shi’a-led government that is just as likely to seek the subjugation of the Kurds as it is to allow them their independence.
The United States is certainly no more secure with the current state of affairs than it was with Saddam. He was a tyrant, to be sure, but he also was fully contained as a threat and was so virulently opposed to al Qaeda that he would never have tolerated the sect of that movement (al Qaeda in Iraq) that exists there now. Moreover, while Saddam was hardly a friend of the U.S., he certainly was no pal of Iran, either. The current Iraqi government is at risk of becoming, if it isn’t already, a puppet for the Ayatollah and his anti-American theocracy.
And a good case can be made that the time spent, and largely wasted, in Iraq allowed al Qaeda to spread and morph well beyond its original birthplace in Afghanistan. When the hunt for bin Laden became irrelevant to President Bush in favor of the war in Iraq, al Qaeda was able to spread its dogma and spawn twins in countries like Somalia, Yemen and Mali, to mention just a few of the more notorious.
3. President Obama has been appropriately cautious about committing U.S. troops to another ground war, and even in the use of American air power, he has been restrained. He may be reading his electorate’s lack of will for another Iraq or Afghanistan or he may be truly setting out a new course of foreign policy for his country. He came close to engaging in a military incursion in Libya, but managed to get the tyrant there overthrown without our overt help. And he is certainly being tempted in Syria, where the humanitarian impulse is strong.
The country was similarly “gun-shy” following the debacle that was its experience in Viet Nam. That period of pacifism lasted until Saddam invaded Kuwait, at which point U.S. interests (i.e. access to oil) were directly compromised. In the end, that impetus (economic concerns) will most probably be the motivation for the next military misstep. We are a country that does respond to humanitarian causes, but we only go to war when our pocket book is threatened.
And when we do go to war again, we will act as if we have learned nothing from the last one, as if this one will be easier, will be less costly, will destroy the lives of fewer innocents, will somehow make the world a better place.
We will, in other words, create more history we’ll wish we’d been wise enough to avoid.