Politics & Policy

Iraq War Regrets?

Refugees fleeing advancing ISIS forces near Khazair. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Reflections on the present state of affairs

As Christians and other religious minorities are persecuted and forced to flee from Iraq, National Review Online asked a variety of veterans, theologians, academics, historians, and writers for their analysis: Should those who made the case for war in Iraq feel remorse, given the current situation there? How should we think about the recent past and future there and our involvement? Should people of religious faith who made the case for war feel a particular responsibility?

E. Christian Brugger

Few political blunders in the last 60 years have been more damaging to life and culture than the launching and prosecuting of the 2003 Iraq war. Aside from leading to the deaths of over 120,000 civilians and the “cleansing” of the Iraqi Christian community, it thrust our country into a debt crisis from which there may be no return; it discredited U.S. conservatism by linking it to the hawkish “Bush doctrine”; it alienated moderates and paved the way for the election of Barack Obama, which heralded social revolutions in sex, marriage, and anti-Christianity the successes of which I say the president himself could hardly have imagined when he first took office. 

Shame is the proper response to the judgment that we’ve done something wrong, not just to getting caught. But if nothing else works, public exposure can have salutary effects. Now that the definitive failure of our “nation building” experiment in Iraq has been devastatingly exposed, nobody but the most intrepid hawk would dare say we did the right thing in March 2003.

Defenders of the invasion should have felt shame long ago, certainly no later than September 2006, when the Senate released its second of two damning reports on Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs: There were no WMDs — anywhere! Many, however, including in my own house (i.e., among Christian conservatives), still clung to the conviction that at least the world was better off without Saddam. Is it now also better off without Iraqi Christians?

For our own souls and the souls of many thousands who depend upon our response, it’s time for people of religious faith who made the case for the 2003 Iraq war to confess publicly our error and unhinge our political carts from the horse of easy war.

— Dr. E. Christian Brugger is a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.


Robert Destro

All American politicians and pundits should feel remorse for the current situation in Iraq. By going into Iraq with no real sense of the ethno-cultural, religious, and political dynamics of the region, we unleashed forces that we still do not understand. We created — and our withdrawal guarantees — a power vacuum that hobbles the Kurds, disenfranchises the Sunni tribes, and treats the religious leaders of the Shia and the Sunni as if their views are irrelevant to the creation and maintenance of a pluralistic democracy. Small wonder that an Iraqi priest visiting Washington recently remarked: “Thank you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama, for destroying my country.”

Speaking privately in late May, a high-ranking Iranian politician observed that the United States does not think strategically. “The United States is dealing with terrorism tactically,” he said, and “the failure of your efforts can be measured empirically. Has terrorism increased or decreased?”  The Islamic State–led genocide answers that question in blood.

What now? There is a war going on for the soul of Islam. Groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram are the result. People of religious faith on both sides need to think strategically about one overarching question: What does a good outcome in Iraq look like?  Actively engaging the religiously motivated actors in the region — especially Iran — should be our first priority.

Robert A. Destro is a professor of law and the founding director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.


David French

I don’t feel remorse for advocating that America topple Saddam Hussein. I don’t feel remorse that Americans also fought long and hard to defeat the subsequent insurgency and create a stable (though highly imperfect) Iraqi state. In fact, we largely succeeded. The Iraq of 2008 was a more stable, more humane, and more peaceful country than the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. In 2011, even President Obama was proclaiming the progress.

I don’t feel remorse, but I do feel rage. I feel rage that President Obama threw aside the pleas of coalition partners in Iraq not to pull American forces entirely out of Iraq. I feel rage that he persisted in his hands-off approach even if it became abundantly clear that the jihadist threat was growing once again.

In this war, as in virtually every American war, we made serious mistakes — especially early — but we corrected those mistakes and brought our enemy to the very brink of ultimate defeat. But unlike in prior conflicts, our political leaders chose not to finish the job. They chose to abandon Iraq, forgetting a fundamental truth: Wars do not end simply because one side chooses to stop fighting.

— David French is a Senior Counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice and a veteran of the Iraq War.

Victor Davis Hanson

Saddam Hussein was a genocidal monster who was savage even by the savage standards of his region, attacking four of his neighbors and killing a million of his own. By 2003 he had been in both a hot and a cold war with the U.S. for the previous twelve years. The no-fly zones were crumbling along with the so-called oil-for-food embargo, plagued by U.N. corruption and French and Russian profiteering. Both houses of Congress with bipartisan support overwhelmingly voted to remove him, based on 23 writs, only two of which dealt directly with WMDs — in continuation of an official bipartisan policy of regime change as institutionalized by Bill Clinton through a prior congressional resolution. John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Harry Reid, among other liberals, gave impassioned speeches advocating his removal. They had access to the same intelligence as did the administration, and concluded that in a post-9/11 climate, Saddam’s various prior wars and his subsidies to and harboring of terrorists posed a threat to the U.S. and its allies.

The writs for his removal covered everything from genocide against the Marsh Arabs and attempts to assassinate a former U.S. president, to harboring terrorists, including the architect of the first World Trade Center bombing, and providing bounties to suicide assassins on the West Bank. The vast majority of such writs were unaffected by the later absence of large depots of deployable WMDs — which unfortunately the administration inordinately hyped, when there were equally or more valid reasons for removing Saddam, as the Congress had duly noted in its resolutions. Note that, quite unlike the Balkan War under the Clinton administration, the intervention in Iraq was approved by the Congress, and an effort was at least made to ask for U.N. approval. Clinton did neither before bombing. In Libya, Obama bombed without congressional approval and then vastly exceeded and distorted the U.N. mandates for no-fly-zones and humanitarian aid.

When Saddam was removed, Libya in reaction turned over its WMD program, Dr. Khan in Pakistan was put under house arrest, and Syria soon vacated Lebanon, as bad actors adjusted to the successful engagement of the U.S. — just as later U.S. failure and disengagement would have the opposite effect of encouraging efforts against moderate pro-U.S. regimes and interests.

Moreover, when the statue of Saddam fell, over 70 percent of the American people supported the effort, among them most pundits and politicians who later would denounce the war in one of the most stunning and self-serving reversals in political history. They did so on the grounds that, at best, their brilliant removal of Saddam has been nullified by someone else’s incompetent occupation, and, at worst, that they never really/quite/completely supported the war that they in fact so passionately advocated.

Despite the postwar errors of occupation (among them most prominently the dismissal of the Iraqi army and the failure to use sufficient force to ensure order) that had led to a huge loss of American blood and treasure, Barack Obama entered office with a mostly quiet Iraq (not a single American death in December 2009) thanks to the successful surge. Vice President Joe Biden appreciated that fact, and immediately took credit for the prior work of the U.S. military, declaring that Iraq likely would become the administration’s “greatest achievement” — a prognosis later echoed by Obama himself when he declared Iraq stable and secure after pulling out all U.S. troops. For all the slander of “no blood for oil,” Iraq’s oil industry for the first time was conducted in transparent fashion, the big winners being Russia and China, and not the supposedly oil-obsessed U.S. (Note how the mindless popular criticism went from a supposedly diabolical oil-hungry U.S. to a naive U.S. that allowed others to reap the fruits of its sacrifice.)

In 2004 Barack Obama, in pre-presidential-candidate mode, had expressed no major differences with Bush-administration policy pertaining to Iraq. A residual force of a few thousand American army and air-force personnel could have institutionalized our costly achievement and kept the Maliki government honest while controlling the skies over Iraq, preventing something like the Islamic State or the intrusion of Iranian influence. Instead, a 2012 reelection talking point of getting every soldier out of Iraq (in a way inconsistent with prior postwar U.S. policy of monitoring hard-won successes with peacekeepers, as in the Balkans, Korea, Germany, Italy, and Japan) trumped security concerns. (It should be also noted that candidate Obama had declared the surge a failure and advocated pulling out U.S. troops as early as March 2008.)

The tragic result is not just a surging Islamic State in Iraq — a country that, with U.S. military monitoring, had been constitutional and largely immune from the dramatic upheavals of the early Arab Spring movements — but a general sense of chaos similar to that in Libya, Egypt, Gaza, and Syria, and one at least in part predicated on the impression that U.S. Middle East policy is either incoherent or no longer exists.

Finally, we forget that an independent and free Kurdistan — with unprecedented security for a most deserving but oppressed people — that rose from the ashes of ruin and genocide was the stellar achievement of the Iraq War, a reality that is now also threatened by the Islamic State and the absence of American peacekeepers.

Had we pulled all U.S. troops out of South Korea by 1955 — a war every bit as unpopular as Iraq by 1953 and which had done to a lame-duck Harry Truman’s popularity what Iraq did to George W. Bush’s — we would have ensured that prior military successes were rendered null and void. A weak, authoritarian Seoul government would either have imploded or been overrun by North Korea. Without U.S. peacekeepers, there would be no South Korean miracle today, but only the horror of North Korea spread throughout the entire peninsula.

We have forgotten all this. Instead in smug fashion we now dismiss a complex war with a banal pejorative or two, assured that 51 percent of the public for the moment agrees and therefore further reflection is unnecessary.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.

Pete Hegseth

Those who made the case for war in Iraq — and defended the war throughout — should not feel the remorse of responsibility about recent developments. The Islamic State’s takeover, and the resulting slaughter of Christians, children, and minorities, is not the inevitable result of the 2003 invasion — but instead the unfortunate manifestation of American indifference toward Iraq since 2009.

Regardless of the merits of the 2003 invasion — which I still believe to be justified — the surge of U.S. forces in 2007 and 2008 created an environment in which a multi-ethnic, mostly moderate, and quasi-stable U.S. ally could (could!) flourish in the Middle East. If only we had shown the military and diplomatic patience to stick by them . . . imagine the value of such a state in today’s Middle East!

Instead, fulfilling campaign promises and ignoring military advice, President Obama rushed for the exits in Iraq and later shirked red-lines in Syria. As a result, Maliki marginalized political opponents in order to consolidate power and radical Islamists counterattacked to exploit resulting vacuums. The result is the disaster we see in Iraq today.

All of this was preventable, not by keeping Saddam in place in 2003, but by finishing the reinvestment America made in 2007. George W. Bush had the courage to double down in 2007 in Iraq to make it work. Obama undid his progress. And Iraq suffers today because of that latter choice.

— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, a Fox News contributor, and frequent contributor to National Review Online. He is also an Army veteran who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay.

Russell D. Moore

As I consider the plight of imperiled Iraqi religious minorities, I cannot help but think of the Vietnamese refugees who fled the chaos of their country after the fall of Saigon. The humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia coincided with an American mood tired of war, and the fierce debate over the rightness or wrongness of the war.

Singer Joan Baez, a critic of the American war policy, was one of the few Vietnam doves who would speak up for the “boat people,” and the murderous danger engulfing Vietnam and Cambodia and the surrounding areas. Some on her side saw even raising this issue as a politically mixed message about the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia. She saw faces and persons and lives.

I think a similar dynamic is at work here. The slaughter in Iraq is a humanitarian crisis, and America bears a special responsibility because we are, at least to some degree, complicit in the situation. Iraq War hawks will say it is because we failed to finish the job, and withdrew troops too early to secure a stable Iraq. Iraq War doves will say it is because our action plunged the nation into chaos in a misguided war, unwisely waged on the mistaken assumption of an imminent threat to our national security. This is an important debate to have, but not to have now.

Whatever our opinions on the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq War, and I suspect there are many of us who would have a different opinion on that in 2014 than in 2004, we can all agree that the United States has a moral proximity to the genocidal rage storming through the country right now. Whether our nation contributed to this by a too-hasty preemptive war or a too-hasty preemptive peace, we bear responsibility. To quote Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, we are here on the road to Jericho, and we cannot simply walk to the other side.

This means that now is not the time to reargue old decisions, but to hear the cries of real flesh-and-blood men, women, children, and families. This requires not hawks and doves, but owls — with the talons to fight injustice and the wisdom to know when to start, and when to stop.

— Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the moral and public-policy entity of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.


Michael Pakaluk

The term for the main virtue of practical intelligence, prudence, comes from a contraction of the word for foresight, “providentia.” So it should cause no surprise that in prudence, we should think about Iraq using two clear-headed statements from the past.

The first is Colin Powell’s “If you break it, you own it” statement. Expanding on the idea in 2002, Powell said, “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems.” Such a statement is implied by basic principles of responsibility. Once the U.S. intervened in Iraq to the point of becoming for a time its de facto sovereign authority, it would be responsible for Iraq’s future course until it developed an independence and sovereignty that were free and clear of that intervention. But in reality, Iraq never did develop that sort of independence; it was merely asserted to have done so on political grounds and given certain interests.

The second statement is John McCain’s famous one that the U.S. might need to be a police force in Iraq for 100 years or more. In making the statement, McCain was rightly bearing in mind our responsibility to Iraq. He explained: “Both Senator Obama and Clinton want to set a date for withdrawal — that means chaos, that means genocide, that means undoing all the success we’ve achieved and al-Qaeda tells the world they defeated the United States of America.” We have seen chaos; we have seen genocide; and we have seen the undoing of everything that was achieved, exactly as McCain warned.

It is hard not to conclude that we as a nation lack a sense of responsibility in our common character. Begin with spouses not being held responsible for unqualified promises that they make. Continue with parents not being held responsible for children they conceive, through specifically procreative acts which they undertake. Continue again with debts and expenditures we accumulate with no real plan ever to keep those commitments or repay those debts.  Now add not taking necessary responsibility of an intervention approved by Congress, endorsed by the president, and ratified at the time of the intervention by U.S. public opinion. It is all the same: trying to get out of a difficult situation by wishing it away, ignoring the past action, and blaming someone else.

— Michael Pakaluk, founder of Naples Ethics Group, LLC, is a professor and the chairman of philosophy at Ave Maria University.

Bing West

1. Should those who made the case for war in Iraq feel remorse, given the current situation there?

A majority of Americans, of the Congress, and of the U.N. believed in 2001 that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that he probably would transfer to terrorists. That same majority voted to invade to remove him.

What followed were five mistakes. First, the Iraqi army was demolished, allowing an insurgency to grow. Second, President Bush stayed because he believed we had an obligation to build a democracy. Third, he chose Mr. Maliki over the moderate Mr. Allawi. Fourth, confident that under his coaching Maliki had developed into a good leader, Bush agreed to a deal pulling all U.S. forces out — despite the strenuous objections of Generals Petraeus and Odierno. Fifth, Mr. Obama was happy to keep the terms of the deal, rather than bargain for the retention of any troops.

The case for war was genuine, and in genuine objective error. On that score, remorse is not called for. Mr. Bush, for his arrogance in assuming he knew best and could mold other people to his messianic view, should feel remorse. However, he has walked away, not defending his party or whatever principles he holds. Whatever he believed in, he did not think it was worth fighting for. He was a shallow and solipsistic leader. If he were a true leader, he would speak out forcefully for whatever it is that he believes in.

2. How should we think about the recent past and future there and our involvement?

Giving freedom as a gift was foolish. Every country has to fight and sacrifice to earn its freedom. Installing bad leaders like Maliki and Karzai, and then doing their bidding, was abhorrent. Tolerating and/or excusing terrible host-nation military officers was morally indefensible. Our policymakers and generals did a terrible job. Yet as in Vietnam, there were no resignations. Once people have power, they cling to it in civilian, political, and military life.

Our resolute troops had irresolute leaders. Toward the end in Afghanistan, we had no objective. None. The top leaders in Washington agreed the goal was to “diminish” but not to defeat the Taliban. Yuck. Why should a single American soldier die to diminish but not defeat the enemy?

In Iraq, both Bush and Obama deserve some blame. But most blame lies with Maliki, the sectarian Shiites, and, most repugnant, the Sunni Islamists.

What Obama must do — but will not do — is enter into a serious dialogue with the American people and the Congress, asking: Is the Islamist army a scourge upon civilization and a mortal threat to American values and security writ large? If the answer is yes (and I believe it is), then crush them by an unrelenting air campaign, aid to the Kurds and Iraqis with strings, and selected raids by American troops.

3. Should people of religious faith who made the case for war feel a particular responsibility? 

People of religious faith should feel a particular responsibility for ensuring that the press and the American people understand and feel the enormity of the persecution in Iraq by the Islamists.

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written six books about Iraq and Afghanistan, embedding frequently with frontline units. His latest book is One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War.

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