The Iraq War is the war that never ended. That’s true literally, in that U.S. troops are still in Iraq some 16 years after the American invasion, and figuratively, in that recriminations over Iraq — why the United States invaded, what went wrong, whether different outcomes were possible — continue to influence U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics to this day. The Iraq War has been a significant issue in every presidential election since it began in 2003. It has cast a shadow over every subsequent discussion of whether, where, and how the United States should use force. It has inflamed debates over whether America should recommit itself to an ambitious internationalism or pull back from the Middle East and perhaps the broader world. It has haunted American statecraft.
But it is not clear what America has actually learned from Iraq. Former Iraq War supporters — mostly but not exclusively Republicans — have hesitated to admit some hard truths: that the war was a strategic mistake, that it was flawed not just in initial execution but in conception, that it inflicted an enormous human and financial toll (far beyond what its supporters predicted), and that it set off a cascade of damaging consequences that plagued U.S. policy in the Middle East and far beyond.
Yet critics of the war — mostly but not exclusively Democrats — have also failed to face some inconvenient facts: that the war was not based on lies or malevolent motives, but rather on a good-faith effort to confront a significant if overestimated threat; that the surge of 2007–08 succeeded in bringing the strategic goal of the war — a stable, friendly, democratic Iraq — within reach; and that the precipitate withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was an avoidable strategic blunder that undercut American policy in the Middle East and far beyond. A more honest reckoning with the Iraq War begins with the long-overdue recognition that neither the war’s supporters nor its critics have had a monopoly on either wisdom or folly.
Such a reckoning is critical to getting U.S. foreign policy right today. Understanding the limits of U.S. power and the dangers inherent in major military interventions — something that supporters of the war failed to do — is a prerequisite to keeping America engaged and effective in a world where new dangers abound. Yet understanding that squandering the hard-won gains in Iraq was also a blunder — and that the dangers of overlearning the lessons of that conflict are as grave as the dangers of underlearning them — is equally fundamental. For years after 2003, some of America’s biggest foreign-policy headaches could be traced to the decision to topple Saddam Hussein regardless of the consequences. For years after that, however, the desire to avoid another Iraq, regardless of the consequences, produced major headaches of its own. The costs of both mistakes have been far too great.
What Republicans Need to Admit about Iraq
There are no two ways about it: The Iraq War was a tragic mistake. The war was waged on premises that proved to be faulty or false: that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs was growing and urgent, that the post-war stabilization and democratization of Iraq could be accomplished quickly and on the cheap, and that taking down Saddam’s regime could cause a democratic chain reaction throughout the Middle East. It was also informed by a hubris that resulted from the unexpectedly quick and seemingly decisive victory over al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which led the Bush administration to dismiss many warnings from outside observers about the impending showdown with Iraq. As these premises and illusions collapsed following the invasion, the United States found that it had stumbled into a conflict in which the benefits were lower than expected and the costs were far higher. Those costs, in lives and treasure alike, made punch lines of the Bush administration’s pre-war optimism. Matters only got worse for years after March 2003, as the administration’s failure to adequately prepare for or rapidly adapt to the challenges of stabilizing Iraq left American forces stuck in an intensifying maelstrom.
In fairness, not every post-invasion decision was wrongheaded or disastrous. Against formidable odds, U.S. officials managed to keep the prominent Shia ayatollah Ali al-Sistani from urging his followers to violently oppose the American occupation, which would have made matters in Iraq vastly worse. And some of the decisions that backfired most severely by alienating the Sunnis — such as disbanding the Iraqi military and pursuing aggressive de-Baathification — were rooted in an understandable need to appease Iraq’s majority Shia population. But the mistakes were numerous, and debilitating in their cumulative effect.
As the United States became bogged down in Iraq, a range of other foreign-policy problems worsened. U.S. officials had hoped that invading Iraq would further defang the terrorist threat and deter would-be sponsors of terrorism. Instead, the Iraq War served as a rallying point for al-Qaeda and its partners, reviving a jihadist movement that had been pummeled in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Iran achieved unprecedented influence within Iraq and throughout much of the Middle East, filling the vacuum the war had created. After briefly pausing when the Iraq War looked like it might be a rapid success and Iran might be the next target, Tehran also accelerated its nuclear program, taking advantage of American distraction. The regional Sunni–Shia split became fiercer and more violent, exacerbating a conflict that continues to threaten regional stability. And as the military situation deteriorated in Afghanistan, the United States — increasingly consumed by the turmoil in Iraq — could not spare the resources or attention to stabilize that country, either.
The spillover effects of the Iraq War reached far beyond the greater Middle East. North Korea drew the lesson that Saddam’s mistake had been in moving too slowly to develop nuclear weapons. The Kim dynasty ramped up its nuclear program, confident that a distracted United States could not make it stop. Because of the U.S. commitment in Iraq, President Bush found his options limited in dealing with several other major crises that erupted on his watch, from mass atrocities in Sudan to Russia’s invasion of Georgia. The fact that the Iraq War had caused bitter disputes within NATO, and dramatically depleted American prestige and soft power, made these and other problems still more difficult to manage. Not least, Iraq diverted resources — including the most precious resource of a senior leader: focus — from the Bush administration’s effort to hedge against the rise of an assertive, autocratic China.
Fortunately, the Iraq quagmire and associated distractions did not bring America fully or permanently to its knees. The Bush administration eventually restored functioning relations with key European allies, made important strategic moves, such as building a friendship with India, and laid some of the groundwork for policies that the Obama administration later rebranded as the “Asia pivot.” Greatly revitalized aid and development programs, especially the unprecedented U.S. efforts to fight malaria and AIDS, offset some of the soft-power setbacks caused by Iraq. And by the end of his tenure, Bush had significantly weakened al-Qaeda in Iraq — all while avoiding another mass-casualty attack on the U.S. homeland. Nevertheless, for years after the invasion in March 2003, the Iraq War was the geopolitical wound that kept on bleeding, weakening American foreign policy across issues large and small.
Yet perhaps the greatest damage was done not abroad but at home. Over time, the struggle in Iraq contributed to a growing doubt about America’s capacity for competent leadership and effective action, pessimism about the vitality of American values and ideals, a weakening of foreign-policy bipartisanship in Congress and among the public, and a powerful feeling of exhaustion and even decline within the country as a whole — a sense, as Condoleezza Rice later acknowledged, that America was simply “out of steam.” All this was before the Great Recession added its own body blow to the confidence of Americans and further weakened domestic enthusiasm for a globally engaged foreign policy. The Iraq War was not — as one critic has alleged — as disastrous a blunder as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. But it certainly qualifies as one of the costliest U.S. foreign-policy decisions of the post–Cold War era.
For many Americans, of course, these critiques of the Iraq War are not controversial. After all, the two presidents who have followed George W. Bush — one Democratic, one Republican — both ran on foreign-policy platforms that treated the war as strategic folly. Some prominent individuals who initially backed the war — from both inside and outside government — have subsequently acknowledged that they erred in doing so. And a majority of the American public long ago concluded that the Iraq War was a mistake. Even so, a number of Republicans — both Bush-administration veterans and others who supported the war — have hesitated to face up to its legacy. This failure has been apparent in the positions taken by National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Both officials continue to argue, explicitly or implicitly, for regime change in Iran — perhaps even forcible regime change — despite the danger that such an endeavor could prove even more costly than the American misadventure in Iraq. And the Trump administration spent much of 2018 and 2019 dramatically ramping up tensions with Tehran, despite the danger that doing so could provoke another damaging conflict America cannot afford.
What Democrats Need to Admit about Iraq
The fact that the Iraq War was wrong, however, does not mean that all critiques of it are right. For starters, many members of the anti-war camp are wedded to a false narrative about the origins of the war — a simplistic “Bush lied, people died” myth that is highly misleading about the threat Iraq posed, the inherent limits of pre-war intelligence, and the Bush administration’s motives in launching the war. They say it was done to distract the American public from domestic failures, or as a payoff to the oil industry. They use evidence developed after the invasion, when the United States had unimpeded access to Iraqi territory and regime insiders, to pretend that it should have been obvious that pre-war intelligence estimates were overstating the Iraqi threat.
Barack Obama captured this distorted view well in the oft-invoked 2002 speech that launched him to national prominence:
What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income — to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.
Not all of the war’s initial critics alleged bad faith and outright deception by the administration, of course. Some were simply unpersuaded that the use of force was the best available option for combating the Iraqi threat. Nonetheless, the more extreme version of the anti-war critique was prominent at the time — and remains prominent more than 15 years after the fact.
It is a gross misrepresentation to claim that the Bush administration did not sincerely believe that Iraq posed a serious threat to U.S. interests, or that the Iraq War was a cynical attempt to deflect attention from Enron or weak stock-market numbers. On the contrary, the Bush administration believed the consensus view of our intelligence community (and those of key allies) that Iraq still possessed significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and retained ambitions to reconstitute lost WMD capabilities, and that the problem was getting worse the longer Saddam was not subject to U.N. inspections. The evidence uncovered by the invasion and the subsequent interrogation of Iraqi officials showed that the administration was wrong to believe the more pessimistic estimates about the nature of that arsenal. But the evidence also showed that the administration was right to believe that Saddam was gaming the system, that he was planning a WMD build-up once he got out from under the sanctions (which were rapidly eroding), and that Iraq had explored ways of cooperating with al-Qaeda (and vice versa) — and had indeed cooperated with myriad other terrorist organizations — in the years prior.
In 1998, these assessments had led the House of Representatives to vote 360–38, the Senate to pass by unanimous consent, and President Clinton to sign into law the Iraqi Liberation Act, which stated that “it should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” This was not an authorization for war; the assumption was that regime change would be pursued mostly through covert operations and diplomatic pressure. But it was an unambiguous statement that Saddam was a threat and that regime change was America’s goal.
In the post-9/11 environment, of course, concerns about Saddam’s intentions and capabilities were understandably even greater. In hindsight, we now know that the Iraqi threat was not as urgent as the Bush administration claimed in 2002. Yet we also know that it was a threat that would have gotten worse as the inspections-and-sanctions regime collapsed — and that before the Bush administration decided to confront Saddam directly in mid 2002, non-military means of solving or even containing that problem, such as tightening sanctions or seeking to overthrow Saddam by means short of war, were becoming ever less promising.
To be sure, critics inside and outside the administration who warned that the war might go poorly turned out to be prescient in many respects. Some of the many crippling problems — the creation of a security vacuum after the collapse of the Iraqi state, the failure of occupying forces to rapidly provide key services to the Iraqi people, and others — might have been avoided with better pre-war planning and wiser decision-making following the invasion. The searing official history produced by the U.S. Army points to many tantalizing what-ifs that might have produced better outcomes. But it seems likely, as scholars such as Daniel Byman have argued, and as anti-war critics warned at the time, that the invasion itself was such a high-risk endeavor that it was almost certain to encounter serious difficulties of one sort or another.
Later decisions by President Bush, however, most prominently the decision to undertake the so-called surge, which adopted a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy supported by 30,000 additional troops, put the Iraq War on a much more promising trajectory. The most systematic study of this turnaround, conducted by the political scientists Stephen Biddle, Jacob Shapiro, and Jeffrey Friedman, is unambiguous. It shows that the surge was critical to exploiting other positive developments — namely, overreach by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the resulting “awakening” of Sunni tribes. The outcome was to break the cycle of sectarian violence, deal severe blows to AQI and the broader insurgency, and create space for the nascent political reconciliation and progress that had begun to occur by 2007–08. The Iraq War may have been a strategic mistake, but it was a mistake that the United States had gone some distance toward correcting by the close of Bush’s presidency.
Here is where the anti-war side of the debate has yet to fully reckon with the facts. Bush’s surge decision was a gamble, but it was a gamble that paid off much better than the critics claimed. Moreover, it was a gamble that was opposed by virtually everyone who had opposed the Iraq War initially — people who argued strenuously that holding that position gave them special wisdom on all matters relating to the war. Some opponents, in Congress and the anti-war movement, did not just warn that the surge might not pan out; they also mobilized all the weapons in their political arsenal in an attempt to thwart the surge in 2007 before it could even be tried.
Much of this opposition to the surge was based on sincere beliefs and reasonable (or seemingly reasonable) premises: that the war had been a mistake from the outset, that the Bush administration had so badly mismanaged the conflict before late 2006 that it had lost credibility on the subject, that the infusion of another 30,000 troops was unlikely to dramatically alter the course of events, that no amount of military success could make a meaningful difference given the broken, sectarian politics of Iraq, and therefore that the best course was simply to end the war as quickly as possible. Politics were also involved: As two prominent critics of the surge, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, later acknowledged in a private conversation described in Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s memoirs, they opposed the surge with an eye to the 2008 presidential election.
Yet motives aside, war critics were wrong to so quickly oppose the surge — and were especially wrong to advocate a U.S. withdrawal that almost certainly would have led to intensifying sectarian violence and a dramatic setback for American interests in the Middle East. The country and, ironically, Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, were fortunate that the anti-surge effort failed and Bush’s gamble was given a chance to succeed.
Because of that success, Obama inherited a situation in which Iraq was stabilizing and habits of political tolerance and compromise were slowly but clearly emerging. The government of Nouri al-Maliki, while far from perfect, was exercising power in a much more constructive and non-sectarian way than it would later, once American influence had dissipated and the U.S. security blanket had been pulled away. The trends were indisputably positive, and it was becoming possible to achieve the goal of an Iraq that could “govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself” — the objective, repeated in multiple speeches, that Bush set for his second term. The success of the surge also allowed Obama to relax his campaign promise to get out of Iraq as fast as possible. Instead, he adopted — at least initially — a slower drawdown plan quite similar to the one Bush had developed in 2008.
Unfortunately, the gains in Iraq, while real, proved to be reversible. Subsequent mistakes by the Obama administration eroded the achievements of the surge and contributed to an unraveling that brought Iraq, in 2014, to the brink of a collapse even more catastrophic than what had been conceivable in 2006. The problem arose because Obama ultimately abandoned the policy trajectory he had inherited — a gradual drawdown to be followed by a sustainable, long-term presence of U.S. military forces to advise and assist their Iraqi partners — and instead implemented a complete withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.
At the time, Obama boasted that with this complete withdrawal, he was “leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq.” When the withdrawal backfired and Iraq slipped back into chaos, with invading columns of the Islamic State (formerly AQI) knocking at Baghdad’s door, Obama-administration officials claimed they had had no choice but to go down to zero because U.S. government lawyers had insisted on guarantees that U.S. forces would not be subject to prosecution in Iraqi courts — assurances that the Iraqi parliament did not provide. (The assurances were, instead, guaranteed only by the Iraqi prime minister, a level of protection that U.S. lawyers believed was deficient.) Defenders of the administration also claimed that Obama was merely fulfilling the terms of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which supposedly bound the United States to withdraw its troops at the end of 2011.
The latter justification is unpersuasive, given that Obama himself initially sought to negotiate an extension of the SOFA, the same course of action the Bush administration had always envisioned. The former justification lost some of its persuasiveness when Obama ordered U.S. troops back into Iraq in 2014 under essentially the terms that had been on offer in 2011. What seems obvious in retrospect, however, is that the president’s longstanding opposition to the Iraq War drove his desire to be done with that conflict in 2011 — and that the understandable and sincere desire to avoid the mistake of “doing another Iraq War” contributed to his reluctance to counter the resurgence of the Islamic State prior to its devastating romp across western and northern Iraq in 2013–14. Having regenerated and grown rapidly as a result of the Syrian civil war, AQI rebranded itself and surged back into Iraq. Without U.S. backing, the Iraqi security forces collapsed in Mosul. By the time the United States reengaged in Iraq in the summer of 2014, only the significant use of American combat power (as well as the more problematic contributions of Iranian-backed militias) could forestall defeat.
By the time the U.S. intervened, however, the damage was done. ISIS had reinvigorated the global terrorist movement. The goal of countering Iranian influence in the region had suffered a major setback: Iranian sway in Iraq and beyond had become even more pervasive, reversing the gains Washington had made as a result of the surge. American partners in the region had grown skeptical that the United States was still committed to playing a decisive role there. Nor did the problems in the Middle East stay in the Middle East. ISIS conducted or inspired a new wave of terrorist attacks in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States; those attacks, combined with the flood of refugees created by the Syrian civil war, triggered a populist backlash that continues to roil European politics. And for all the talk of a pivot to Asia, U.S. policy was once again mired in an effort to play catch-up in the Middle East, sucking up time, attention, and resources that were needed elsewhere. The subsequent campaign against ISIS repaired some of this damage, but only belatedly and at significant cost.
If war supporters should admit their errors in breaking Iraq, war opponents should admit that once the war started and Iraq was broken, it was critical not to lose or walk away prematurely. For although the decision to topple Saddam had negative consequences that flowed far and wide, so did a U.S. withdrawal that was rooted at least partly in an abiding opposition to the decision to go to war.
Why Iraq Is Still Important
Getting the Iraq story right is not simply a matter of historical accuracy; it is a matter of national security today and in the future. Bad arguments about the Iraq War contaminate the marketplace of ideas at just the moment when America needs a robust, healthy debate about how best to meet foreign-policy challenges, from surging great-power revisionism to the decline of democracy and the ascendance of authoritarianism. Lingering rancor and polemical arguments over the Vietnam War continued to undercut American statecraft for years after that conflict ended. Until the United States arrives at a more balanced — and honest — assessment of the Iraq War, it will be hobbled and divided as it faces an increasingly dangerous, fracturing world.
Skeptics of American foreign policy within the academy continually refer to the Iraq War as an example of hubris and hegemonic tendencies that can be controlled only by pulling back significantly not just from the Middle East but from the wider world. Within the political sphere, figures as diverse as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump have used the domestic anger and disillusion sown by the war as an opportunity to impugn the broader, more constructive tradition of American internationalism. These critics have discovered that reductio ad iraqum is an effective debating ploy: Claim, regardless of the merit, that a proposed policy is “another Iraq” or is “supported by those who supported the Iraq War,” and no reasoned argument is needed.
Yet having a healthy debate on U.S. foreign policy will also require politicians and public intellectuals to stop perpetuating the myth that the Iraq War was not simply a mistake but a conflict that was launched on the basis of lies and deplorable motives. This sort of historical revisionism bears obvious similarities to the “merchants of death” thesis about World War I — the idea, which took hold in the 1930s, that the United States went to war to serve the interests of arms manufacturers and lending houses. That school of thought contributed to American isolationism and inaction as dangers gathered in Europe and Asia. The “Bush lied, people died” thesis similarly undermines support for the engaged foreign policy America needs in dealing with looming threats today.
Finally, getting U.S. foreign policy right requires acknowledging that the “no more Iraqs” impulse, understandable as it is, can itself be harmful to American interests. That type of thinking ran through much of Obama’s foreign policy, not just his decision to withdraw from Iraq. It influenced his decision to couple the surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2009 with a simultaneous announcement that those troops would begin withdrawing 18 months later; his determination to avoid U.S. military commitments for the stabilization of Libya in 2011 after overthrowing Qaddafi’s regime; his resistance to intervening more forcefully in Syria; and his general sense that America needed a more restrained foreign policy to ensure that it did not once again do “stupid” things.
The merits of these various policies can be debated. Reasonable and well-informed people disagree, for instance, on whether earlier and more robust intervention in the current Syria conflict would have led to a better outcome or just failure at a higher price. What can be said, however, is that the policies Obama pursued in the shadow of the Iraq War had real costs in their own right: undermining the efficacy of the U.S. surge and the prospects for successful negotiations in Afghanistan; decapitating the Qaddafi regime without taking prudent measures to put Libya back together; losing the ability to meaningfully mitigate the geopolitical and humanitarian catastrophe in Syria or prevent Iran and Russia from gaining the advantage there; and putting the United States in a comparatively passive posture as the international environment deteriorated from Europe to the Asia-Pacific.
Today, the Trump administration’s policies in the Middle East are so chaotic that America may be in danger of ignoring all the key lessons of the Iraq War. The administration’s hawkish posturing toward Iran has raised concerns that Washington may launch (or stumble into) another major war in the Middle East. And yet the president’s own behavior toward the region suggests that he is simultaneously courting the opposite error: failing to pursue the reasonable, prudent policies that might protect U.S. interests in an age of enduring terror. Trump has openly talked about walking away from Afghanistan, undermining his own negotiating team as it seeks a diplomatic bargain that would allow disengagement on tolerable terms. Likewise, he announced on Twitter his desire to conduct an unplanned, uncoordinated, and unconditional withdrawal from Syria, thus handing Iran and Russia a major geostrategic advantage and dissipating any U.S. diplomatic leverage.
Of course, there are credible arguments to be made in favor of winding down U.S. military operations in the greater Middle East at a time of surging great-power rivalry; there are also sure to be damaging consequences, from a probable ISIS resurgence to declining American influence in a region of continuing strategic importance. Yet in defending these moves, Trump talks breezily about not fighting “endless wars” and repeatedly invokes the reductio ad iraqum of mentioning the invasion of Iraq, blithely ignoring how the reckless attempt to “end” the Iraq War without leaving behind a stable Iraq produced many of the very strategic threats that bedevil the region today. His administration calls this “principled realism,” but it is really just debating tricks. It is understandable to wish that the United States had never invaded Iraq; it is foolish to allow an exaggerated Iraq syndrome to prevent us from dealing with the world as it really is.
We still have much to learn about the Iraq War. As historians write and rewrite the history of that conflict in the coming years, some issues that looked black-and-white at the time will come to appear in shades of gray. We do not pretend to have a monopoly on wisdom about the Iraq War ourselves. But we are certain that the prevailing debate distorts the historical record and harms American foreign policy.
When President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he outlined as America’s goal an Iraq that was at peace with its neighbors, an ally against terrorism, and reasonably stable and democratic. One of the most remarkable — yet unremarked — aspects of the Iraq debate is that for all the errors that plagued U.S. policy in 2003 and after, this goal may actually still be reachable. Iraq in 2019 is for the most part at peace with its neighbors and an ally against terrorism. It is reasonably democratic, although illiberal and sectarian tendencies remain prominent and stability remains precarious. Iraq is certainly not a U.S. ally against Iran, as some Bush-administration officials hoped it would be, but neither is it a lost cause in the struggle to contain Iranian influence.
Admittedly, what progress has been made in these areas has been modest, tenuous, and vastly more expensive than President Bush promised. And none of this necessarily justifies the original decision to go to war. But Iraq in 2019 is far closer to the objective America initially sought than was the case in, say, Vietnam in 1979. What all this means is that America may still have the chance to turn Iraq into a muddled and partial success that cost far too much, rather than — like Vietnam — a decisive and even more costly defeat.
Vietnam haunted U.S. foreign policy for decades and arguably still casts its shadow to this day. The stakes are too high to let polemical, politicized, or problematic arguments about the Iraq War similarly contaminate the public debate. Simply put, if it was a tragic error to invade Iraq, it would be equally tragic to allow overheated critiques of the war to distort U.S. foreign policy at a time when dangers are gathering and the pax Americana is experiencing severe pressures both at home and abroad. With a little more candor on both sides, America might still avoid this fate in time to meet the real threats and opportunities we face, not just in Iraq but around the world.
— Mr. Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. From 2015 to 2016, he served as a special assistant to the secretary of defense for strategic planning. Mr. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and the director of the Program in American Grand Strategy at Duke University. From 2005 to 2007, he was a special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform at the National Security Council.