Last Thoughts on Iraq


Since I was one of the first to try to write about the war in Iraq with some historical perspective , as well as one of the first to predict the success of the Petraeus surge (“How To Win in Iraq–and How To Lose,” Commentary, April 2007), I thought I’d take a stab at having the final word on the war’s tenth anniversary. 

First, while many commentators this last week compared Iraq with Vietnam, the biggest similarity between the two conflicts is that, once again, Democrats were happy to push a war before bailing on it. It was Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, who declared, “Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons” on December 16, 1998, while announcing a four day air bombing campaign to take out Saddam’s suspected WMD sites, and Clinton who authorized regime change in Iraq with his Iraq Liberation Act, and whose Pentagon in 1996 drew up the first plans for an invasion of Iraq.

Likewise, it was Senator Hillary Clinton who said after 9/11, “The time has come for decisive action to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s WMD’s,” and who joined more than half of the Senate’s Democrats, including John Kerry and Joseph Biden, in voting to authorize President Bush “to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” and to enforce all relevant UN Security Council resolutions. 

Second, Iraq’s biggest difference from Vietnam was that it’s a war we won twice. The first was General Tommy Frank’s Operation Iraqi Freedom launched on March 21, 2003, which military historian John Keegan described as one of the most successful campaigns on record. The second was the Petraeus surge that got underway in February 2007 (by which time, of course, virtually every Democrat who had authorized the war in Iraq had turned against it).

In between, our military had to undergo a staggering shift in strategic and operational thinking, from the Blitzkrieg-style war of mass mechanized forces backed by air power that won Iraqi Freedom, to the surge’s counterinsurgency strategy involving small-unit tactics, close cooperation with local civilians, and building things like roads and schools instead of blowing them up.

It’s hard to think of any military force in history that’s made so sharp a transition successfully while in the field, in so short a time. Yet that’s what our armed forces did.

Third, the president whose reputation is going to suffer most in future anniversaries of the war in Iraq won’t be George W. Bush, but Barack Obama.

President Bush left him with a war won (at a hard cost), a country liberated and pacified, and a pluralist democracy taking root–the first in the Arab world. In almost the time it took Bush to turn the Iraqi war around, Obama has managed to squander most of that legacy. He muffed the Status of Forces agreement with Prime Minister Nouri Al- Maliki (probably on purpose), thus ensuring that no substantive US forces remain in country, either to help secure the Iraqi peace or restrain its neighbor, Iran. 

Instead, Obama has sat back and let Iran’s influence grow and Al Qaeda’s rebound, even as the car bombings become more numerous and the growing political infighting in Baghdad threatens the country’s democratic future. Now Secretary of State Kerry can’t even get Al-Maliki to look for the arms Iran is sending to Syria’s Assad through Iraqi airspace, let alone intercept them. 

James Thurber used to say the saddest words in the English language were, “too late.” It may still not be too late for Iraq, but it is for those Americans who gave their lives in a long war so that good could prevail over evil.

All it takes is the wrong person in the Oval Office to guarantee the opposite result.

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There are 7 comments.

  1. Member

    I repeat earlier comments, John Yoo’s thread. Hindsight alternate history nonsense is not based on reality. You make strategic decisions with the knowledge you have at the time- and as Mr. Herman points out, this was a near consensus ddomestically, not a close call. Except for those who agreed that Saddam was that bad, but we should pretend otherwise.

    Since 1953, the US 2nd Infantry Division has been deployed in Korea. It has served as a local and omnipresent “tripwire” to deter the ambitions of not only Pyongyang but of all of the others in that neighborhood who need a reminder that the adults will stand in the way of excess.

    Iraq is in the most strategic location of the Middle East. Bounded by Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, with a prospering Kurdish state, ready access to the Gulf, it is the perfect place to base the SW Asia equivalent of the ROK military deployment. 

    ….. the larger goal…. is neither turning Iraq into Missouri nor Iran, but in having a ready force as tripwire and cop in the world’s most volatile region- all we needed to do after 5 years was complete a sensible status-of-forces agreement…….

    • #1
    • March 28, 2013, at 1:06 AM PDT
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  2. Thatcher

    In 2003, we pulled Saddam Hussein out of a spider hole. Muammar Gaddafi saw his brother dictator with a government-issue tongue depressor in his mouth, and decided that while being a lunatic despot with a peculiar wardrobe might be tolerable, being one pursuing nuclear weapons might not be. He opened up his facilities to examination, and made his weapons experts available for debriefing. Somewhere in all that, the name A.Q. Khan fell out. Dr. Khan was running a Nukes-R-Us out of Islamabad, selling technology and expertise to whomever could make the down payment.

    Maybe the Iraqis or the Libyans couldn’t unleash the nuclear genie in ten years, but they could be ten years closer right now if they hadn’t been shut down then. Would the sanctions still be in place against Saddam? They were starting to fall apart before 9/11.

    • #2
    • March 28, 2013, at 4:23 AM PDT
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  3. Contributor
    Arthur Herman Post author

    For Duane, here’s a piece of counterfactual history that isn’t fantasy. IfGeorge W Bush hadn’t sent troops in to take out Saddam and find those WMD’s Clinton, Gore, Mad Albright, and Nancy Albright warned us all about, the Democrats would have made his inaction the major foreign policy theme of the 2004 presidential campaign, attacking him for passivity bordering on cowardice and for doing nothing while Saddam and assorted terrorist groups worked toward an even more catastrophic repeat of the 9/11 attack.

    For Neolibertarian: thanks for the compliment, and I think I see your point! The fact that opposition or about the war was feckless and disingenuous after OIF doesn’t mean all of it was before.

    So stipulated. And yet….Looking back it’s hard not to see an overwhelming consensus running the other way, In March 2003 the Pew poll showed 72 percent of Americans supported Bush and OIF. That confidence that we were doing the right thing was especially strong after the stunning success of the Afghan operation which knowledgable critics said couldn’t be done–and yet Bush and Rumsfeld had been proved right and the critics wrong.

    • #3
    • March 28, 2013, at 6:44 AM PDT
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  4. Inactive

    Dr. Herman:

    Your piece for Commentary was extremely compelling and incredibly thorough; this post is equally compelling as a concise addendum to Why Iraq Was Inevitable.

    However, blaming the subsequently inevitable failure and loss of the hard won gains in Iraq on one man in the Oval Office, seems a mistake. A dangerous mistake.

    Your Commentary and Ricochet pieces are primarily answers to all the misguided objections (and obfuscations) of the American left in regards OIF. It’s important to answer any and all objections, obviously, and I sincerely wish I’d read you back during the peak of the Great Argument, rather than having to dig, mine and forge my own.

    What becomes apparent in all of your answers to all the objections and criticism, is the breadth of the groundswell of opposition which was behind all the objections and criticism.

    We can ignore for a moment the spokesmen, writers and predictably hypocritical politicians who became the faces of the opposition.

    What I’m referring to is the misguided opposition, itself. It grew because of spokesmen, yes, but spokesmen found fertile ground because OIF, and “the Global War on Terror” had never been adequately explained in the first place.

    • #4
    • March 28, 2013, at 8:06 AM PDT
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  5. Member

    My quarrel is with those conservatives- including, sadly, Jonah Goldberg- who were fine with the WoT until it seemed to take too long and cost more than they or their friend had anticipated. Our side needs to read this book.

    WWIII took 50 years and cost us trillions. Wasn’t it worth it? What if we had abandoned it because it was out of fashion?

    • #5
    • March 28, 2013, at 11:25 AM PDT
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  6. Inactive

    Dr. Herman:

    Yes, I remember a USA Today article either reporting on the Pew Poll, or its own poll, showing over 2/3rds of Americans strongly in favor of OIF on the eve of the invasion. Yes, much of this support was spurred by the spectacular successes of OEF.

    Speaking of support, consider this: between 9/11 and shortly after launching OEF, it’s hard to remember now, but President Bush was at 91% approvals in Gallup (92% approvals in other polls). That’s all of the Republicans and almost all of the Democrats. Remarkable in these days of near 50-50 split with the electorate on almost every issue. Even more remarkable considering a year earlier the Dubya had lost the popular vote.

    This was the spectacular success (not OEF) which spurred the opposition party to rise up in solidarity against President Bush. They even dusted off that old anarchist relic Seymour Hersh for their counter offensive. 

    • #6
    • March 29, 2013, at 8:46 AM PDT
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  7. Inactive

    Those with lingering remnants of patriotic dna, those last holdouts among the Democrats, well, when the Dubya landed on the deck of the USS Lincoln, a scene straight out of the Hollywood blockbuster Independence Day…it was just too damned much to bear. “This means war,” they grumbled.

    But that’s just the politics. The politics would have had little effect if it weren’t for Americans were so intellectually unprepared for the conflict.

    Those with good instincts, those whom Mark Levin calls “Real Americans” didn’t need your arguments. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, given to harboring terrorists and lashing out at the United States and Israel. After 9/11, these were definitely actionable offenses. Period.

    The problem is instincts, however good, will only carry you just so far. Americans were susceptible to the politics and the hypocritical politicians because the basis for the war as they understood it was completely in error, and still is today (though today the war and the enemy are somewhat better understood than before).

    Once you understand the actual basis, you understand exactly how Iraq was already a part of that war long before the Dubya assumed office.

    • #7
    • March 29, 2013, at 8:49 AM PDT
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