Tuesday, February 16, 2016

“Was The Iraq War A Mistake?”

     The question above has arisen as an element – perhaps a principal element – in the contest over the Republican presidential nomination. Apparently, it flustered Jeb Bush when put to him in the most recent “debate.” That should come as no surprise; Jeb is hardly “ready on his feet,” and the question suggests that his family linkages might impel him to pursue or defend policies out of familial loyalty rather than for objective reasons. Remember that Dubya was accused of making war on Iraq out of a desire to finish what his father had started.

     Yet the question whether the “Iraq War” – more precisely, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) – was a mistake is anything but simple. It demands to be unpacked: broken down into the more specific questions that lie beneath its surface:

  1. Was OIF a moral mistake?
  2. Was OIF a practical mistake?
  3. Was OIF a strategic mistake?
  4. Was OIF a geopolitical mistake?
  5. Was OIF’s aftermath – i.e., our “nation building” effort there – a mistake?

     Most Republican partisans never think to perform that unpacking. Most Democrat partisans are either cranially vacuous or terminally vicious. Yet even among those who remain, few possess both the ability and the inclination to disassemble the seemingly simple title question in this absolutely mandatory fashion.

     Which is why you, Gentle Reader, come to Liberty’s Torch.


1. Was OIF a moral mistake?

     In other words: Was the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 an assault on a morally justifiable regime that should have been permitted to continue unmolested?

     Answer: No. The Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein took the lives of approximately 30,000 of its subjects each and every year. It conducted pogroms of annihilation against specific sub-populations: the “swamp Arabs” and the Kurds. It used poison gas, a recognized weapon of mass destruction, against the Kurds. Elections were too obviously “stage events” to have any credibility whatsoever. And of course, the three “pinnacle” Husseins, Saddam, Oday, and Qusay, operated “rape squads” and “rape rooms” in which they gratified their vicious sexual proclivities.

     Toppling that regime was not only morally right; it approached being morally imperative.


2. Was OIF a practical mistake?

     This is a more complex question, which can be decomposed as follows:

  • a. Were the practical consequences of OIF so negative as to outweigh its benefits?
  • b. Did OIF impose an unacceptable opportunity cost upon the U.S.?

     In point of fact, the war itself was relatively inexpensive in both blood and treasure. As wars go, we cannot be said to have “overpaid” for our victory. The major costs arrived only with the reconstruction and “nation building” phase of our presence in Iraq, which will be addressed with question 5.

     More, the swift dispatch of the Ba’athist regime elevated America’s stature in the Middle East. It constituted a reminder to the regimes of the region that they exist upon sufferance – American sufferance – and that their pretensions to sovereignty are only as defensible as their militaries. When the largest and best equipped military in the region falls before American arms in barely three weeks, the facts cannot be effaced. Nations that might have harbored regional ambitions were – temporarily, at least – constrained to keep them in their heads.

     Concerning the “opportunity cost” of OIF, there are as many answers as there are scales of priority. Certainly, money spent on the war was therefore unavailable for other endeavors. As the Bush Administration had announced budget reconciliation as an important goal, OIF must be deemed a setback to it. Once again, the truly significant costs arrived after the Ba’athist forces had been defeated.

     But what of the military opportunity cost? Were there other missions, as important or more, that went unaddressed because of OIF? I can’t see it. True, we might have chosen to attack some other country – but why? On what moral grounds and for what practical end?

     The alternative to OIF, practically speaking, was not to strike Iraq or anyone else. That would have saved money and some dozens of American lives, but those expenditures did purchase the removal of the most vicious and oppressive regime in the Middle East. Choose your own position on this one.


3. Was OIF a strategic mistake?

     The regional strategic question about OIF is merely whether we achieved our military objective in Iraq. Of course we did. The global question is somewhat more involved:

  • Did our victory in Iraq leave us positioned better or worse for facing likely postwar developments in the region?
  • Did the commitment of forces required to prevail in Iraq weaken us in other parts of the world where we could be pressed and possibly set back?

     Once OIF had been won, we were unquestionably the dominant force in the Middle East. We would remain so as long as we kept significant forces in the country, though it can be argued that as time passed their withdrawal became steadily more desirable. The clash of priorities the American occupation faced was between the desire to bring our occupation forces home, so they might rest and refit, and the need to keep them in Iraq until the new government was capable of defending itself. As events have proved, we failed to satisfy either desire.

     Concerning the effects on our military posture in other regions, it’s difficult to be certain of anything. As previously noted, we weren’t about to go to war elsewhere. European NATO suffered no appreciable reduction in its military security. Our “hold the line” garrison in South Korea was not tested during the relevant period. However, there’s no way to be certain that unfriendly regimes such as Russia and North Korea were not emboldened by our commitments to Iraq, reasoning that “America can’t be omnipotent everywhere.” On this question, there can be no definitive answer.


4. Was OIF a geopolitical mistake?

     Our efforts in Iraq taught us a great deal about the actual attitudes, as opposed to their theoretical postures, of our European partners in NATO. The “Axis of Weasels” contretemps laid bare the chief priority of those nations: whether they could get oil and exploitable commercial opportunities out of our expedition to Iraq. It provided an important clarification...but sadly, one the Bush II Administration failed to exploit.

     The Atlantic Alliance is a relic of the post-World War II standoff with the Soviet Union. At that time, with most of Europe in ashes, spiritually and economically drained, it was mandatory. Nothing else offered as good a prospect of retarding westward Soviet expansion. But we must not overlook the cost, which became apparent only with the passage of the years.

     The nations of Western Europe, secure behind American forces and under the “nuclear umbrella” provided by NATO, allowed their own military capabilities to deteriorate to uselessness. The funding that would have allowed them to rebuild their own defenses went into welfare states of an unprecedented luxuriance. More, the desire of both France and Germany to get as much as they could out of the arrangement resulted in what geostrategic analyst Melvyn Krauss has called “defense feedback” through increased friendliness toward the Soviets. The U.S.S.R. expanded its political and commercial relationships with the NATO countries in ways that helped to fund the Soviet military, while simultaneously crafting webs of dependency that left the NATO nations ever more reluctant to risk Soviet good will by rearming. In consequence, except for American power, there was no power standing guard over Western Europe at all.

     (Note, by way of contrast, that this did not happen in Japan. Though the Japanese voluntarily limited the size of their armed forces after the American occupation, they did not expand their welfare state. Thus, the resources required to rebuild their military remained available, if unused.)

     Had the Bush II Administration used the revelations of European flaccidity to press those nations aggressively, demanding that they commit to military reconstruction of an order appropriate to First World powers that claim national sovereignty, NATO might have been wound down, to the great benefit of American forces, budgeting, and geostrategic flexibility. The Administration made a few token moves in that regard, but nothing nearly great enough to compel the nations of European NATO to reassess their priorities. To this day, those countries have essentially no means of defense independent of American power.


5. Was OIF’s aftermath – i.e., our “nation building” effort there – a mistake?

     To this question, a direct and unambiguous answer is possible: Emphatically Yes: one of the worst mistakes in the history of American international relations.

     America’s history of reconstructing nations it has defeated in war is relatively shallow: West Germany and Japan after World War II. In the former case, the German people, under the incredibly wise leadership first of Ludwig Erhard and then Konrad Adenauer, saw to their own economic revitalization, with some assistance from the Marshall Plan. In the latter, the absolute occupation of Japan under what was essentially an American military dictatorship saw the rebuilding of that nation’s ideological infrastructure, which underpinned its economic rebirth. The American occupation authorities largely succeeded in rewriting Japanese law while extinguishing the totalitarian shinto concepts that had propelled the Empire into war. On the success of our occupation of Japan, Barbara Tuchman is especially eloquent:

     The occupation of Japan according to a post-surrender policy drafted in Washington, approved by the Allies and largely carried out by Americans, was a remarkable exercise in conqueror’s restraint, political intelligence, reconstruction and creative change. Keeping the Emperor at the head of the Japanese state prevented political chaos and supplied a footing for obedience through him to the army of occupation and an acceptance that proved amazingly docile. Apart from disarmament, demilitarization, and trials of war criminals to establish blame, the goal was democratization politically and economically through constitutional and representative government and through the breaking up of cartels and land reform. The power of the huge Japanese industrial enterprises proved in the end intransigent, but political democracy, which ordinarily should be impossible to achieve by fiat and only gained by inches through the slow struggle of centuries was successfully transferred and on the whole adopted. The army of occupation ruled through offices of liaison with Japanese ministries rather than directly. The purge of officials brought in juniors perhaps not essentially different from their predecessors but willing to accept change. Education and textbooks were revised and the status of the Emperor modified to that of symbol “deriving from the will of the people in whom resides sovereign power.”

     The contrast with our “nation building” in Iraq could hardly be starker. Political chaos was a fact from the first. Except for a paltry few of the most visible, there was no purge of Ba’athist officials; indeed, they were eventually welcomed into the reborn government. The new Iraqi constitution explicitly incorporated Islam as a principal source for Iraqi law. Massive American funding flowed into the country without any provisions for monitoring and controlling its employment. Significant pockets of resistance to the new order remained unbroken on June 28, 2004, when Paul Bremer delivered the “recognition of sovereignty” note to the new regime. Those pockets were eventually co-opted by ISIS.


     As I noted earlier, priorities will differ. Many whose priorities are to the left of center will deplore OIF merely because it was a war. Others will rant that “we should have spent the money at home.” Still others, Barbara Boxer notably among them, raved against the war and the occupation on the grounds that there were deaths involved (though Senator Boxer seemed rather indifferent about who was doing the dying).

     To the Right, many will defend OIF strictly on the grounds that America went to war in a good cause and won. They’ll blame the subsequent collapse of the new Iraqi regime on the Obama Administration and its determination to abandon Iraq while it was still unstable. Though there is an element of truth in that allocation of responsibility, the notion that our occupation should have continued an indefinite period longer would be resisted by many, especially those whose children had been deployed there for several consecutive tours.

     My positions and arguments for them are above. What are yours?

9 comments:

Dystopic said...

I agree on all particulars. I used to say that America should never engage in nation-building, but your example of Japan proves that it is not categorically impossible. Nonetheless, it may be impossible in the Muslim world, and it certainly could not work as designed in Iraq.

America's military is not as strong and powerful as people assume. William S. Lind's musings on 4th generation warfare make that clear. We are ill-equipped psychologically, morally, and physically for long-duration occupations. What we can do well, however, is maneuver warfare and rapid force deployment. We could level pretty much any place in the world, take it over, or scour it of human life on more or less a whim. We could annihilate all defenders, sweep aside any resistance, and utterly destroy any place on Earth that we choose to. Think of it like the German Blitzkrieg style of warfare. Combined arms, rapid movement, and the perception that your forces are everywhere.

So OIF was a rousing success.

But we don't have the manpower for long-term occupation anymore. And, more seriously, we don't have the political will for long-duration conflicts. America quickly demoralizes and tires of war. This motivates enemies to simply try to hide and outlast the attack. So when we leave, the weeds immediately pop back up, almost as if we weren't there at all.

There is a solution to this, of course. We should have left immediately after OIF was complete. And if another totalitarian, anti-American cesspit of a government reasserted itself and caused trouble, we go and kill them too. Then go home again.

You may have to repeat a few times, but eventually the weeds will learn to keep their heads down permanently.

Tim Turner said...

If I could go back in time to the week before the Congressional vote giving Bush the go-ahead, I'd encourage politicians, the military and every concerned American to spend at least a couple of hours studying the occupation of Japan after WWII. That occupation lasted 6 1/2 years and was undertaken with the stated purpose of restructuring Japan's political and economic structures.

I understand Fran's breakdown of, "Was the Iraq War a Mistake?" into several sub questions. In *HINDSIGHT* I'd say this:

1) It was morally questionable to invade. My recollection is that most of the pre-invasion debate concerned the existence of WMDs. I don't recall much discussion of regime change, per se, though Saddam's misconduct was discussed. But we certainly didn't invade countries to get rid of Mao, Pol Pot, Chavez, Kim or several others we held morally wrong.

In retrospect, if our concern was weapons of mass destruction, perhaps air strikes and special forces raids against suspected sites would have served our purpose. To address Fran's points, these would have been practical and served our strategic and geopolitical interests. I understand, however, that there would have been downsides to this approach as well.

2) To me, the overarching question is, "Was the aftermath - nation building - a mistake?" The answer is - to me, at least - yes. And the results of that mistake are so domestically and globally
tragic that it outweighs every other consideration.

Before starting a war, it seems prudent to ask, "What does victory look like?" I was in regular online correspondence with a 20 year old student who lived with her family in Baghdad. She agreed that Saddam did "bad things," but held that Saddam was responsible for the (admittedly coerced) peace between Shia, Sunni, Kurds, etc. that resulted in social and political harmony that allowed most Iraqis to thrive.

I doubt that many Americans, prior to the invasion of Iraq, considered the large effort that would be required to implement "nation building" there. Even if we'd all studied the occupation of Japan beforehand, how many of us would have understood that Japan was FAR more homogeneous than Iraq, thus creating severe problems not faced by the forces occupying Japan?

And how many of us would have understood that:
we would be making a 5+ year commitment?
Iraqis were FAR more armed than the Japanese?
thus, it would have required more occupation forces?
we would need to become involved in ALL levels of civil administration?
*IF* we were hoping to make inroads into the suppression of Islamic terror, such hopes were probably doomed the instant Islam was written in the Iraqi constitution?

So, if any politician is asked, "Was the Iraq invasion a mistake?" the answer should be, "Yeah. But if you want to discuss 'why' or 'what we should learn from that?' then set aside some time for serious discussion instead of these media circuses you call debates."

Andy Texan said...

One thing about wars is that success of failure can be judged by the passage of time. World War 1 was a failure; World War 2 was a success; all other of the wars since then have been failures. OIF was a major failure irrespective of the initial invasion (a complete mismatch). I disagree that one can judge that engagement along the multiple lines you delineate. It was a failure from top to bottom.

sw sumner said...

I'm sorry, but I'm still not convinced that OIF was morally right. Back then I thought it was, but not any more. Especially since there are other regimes that are every bit as heinous as Saddam's was, but our government has done nothing about them. Some of them even have favored trade status.

Francis W. Porretto said...

That's not a moral argument, Steve; it's an argument from priorities.

tjbbpgobIII said...

Read today on the internet they found nuclear material in Iraq. Does that mean
Bush II was correct in invading? Will the libs change their tune about Bush II? I doubt it.

sw sumner said...

I'm not trying to make a moral argument Fran, I thought you were. You alluded to one, but I'm not seeing it. The way I see it, the only morally right use of this nation's armed forces are for defense within our proximate location, not halfway or a third of the way around the globe. Defense of another is indeed morally right, when in proximate location to one's self. Traveling across the globe to "defend" another is not defense, it is revenge.

Francis W. Porretto said...

It's possible to argue that a war to liberate others from an unjust regime is a misuse of the funds provided to train and equip our armed forces, Steve. That's a point a lot of libertarians have made. But I was more concerned with whether the war was morally acceptable: i.e., whether the target of the war could claim that it had a right not to be attacked and deposed. Your original objection:

-- ...there are other regimes that are every bit as heinous as Saddam's was --

-- suggested that we should have targeted some other regime, which is a question of priorities rather than whether the Ba'athists in Iraq had a right to be left alone.

So let's frame the question somewhat differently: If we could establish that Americans were preponderantly in favor of toppling Saddam Hussein's regime, would that eliminate any moral objection to doing so? That would eliminate the consent of the governed as a consideration. I still maintain that there was no moral objection to striking the Ba'athists, who were outright villains with no moral claim to their rule over Iraq. Otherwise, it would have been morally unacceptable for the U.S. to go to war in Europe in 1941.

sw sumner said...

Okay, let's look at the presupposition that Americans might have been preponderantly in favor of toppling Saddam Hussein's regime and consider whether or not for the most part Americans in general have sufficient moral grounding to determine whether such an action is morally objectionable or not. I for one do not believe that we do, nor did we at that time. Sure, you've removed consent of the governed as a consideration. Is that a proper consideration in a determination of whether some action is morally objectionable? Again, perhaps if Americans had sufficient moral grounding it could be a proper consideration, but again I object to saying that we do or did at that time.

Personally, I think that our own government long ago lost any moral claim to rule over us. They just aren't as villainous as the Ba'athist regime... yet.