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:
- Was OIF a moral mistake?
- Was OIF a practical mistake?
- Was OIF a strategic mistake?
- Was OIF a geopolitical mistake?
- 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?