Foreign Policy

Mything Iraq: Ten Years And Little Learning

By Steve Saideman

US and Iraqi soldiers, 2008. US Army photo by Spc. Richard Del Vecchio

US and Iraqi soldiers, 2008. US Army photo by Spc. Richard Del Vecchio

With the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq there has been and will be much pondering of what went wrong and why. Those that argued against the war can be smug about being right (yes, that would be me). Fans of the original invasion, in the Bush Administration or otherwise, either have to come to terms with what they wrought or they can argue that the invasion was a swell idea but the post-invasion efforts were poorly executed. This move usually involves two distinct but related myths — that the invasion itself went wonderfully, and that the big mistake was trying to occupy Iraq. They argue that the original intent of breaking the government, eliminating Saddam Hussein, and then pulling out was the right idea. In this piece, I will address the myth that the US had the option to leave quickly. I address the first myth — that the invasion itself was swell — elsewhere.

The basic claim is that in Afghanistan and Iraq the real mistakes were sticking around. Doug Feith is still making that argument:

“There was a lot of talk in the run-up to the war about basic strategic ideas, and one of the most basic was that we would have a strategy of liberation rather than occupation. We actually had a plan for political transition in Iraq that would have been a variation on what we did in Afghanistan, where we would not have set up a protracted U.S. occupation regime. In Afghanistan, as everybody knows, we overthrew the Taliban but didn’t set up a U.S.-led occupation government. But we wound up having an occupation government in Iraq despite the fact that there had been quite a substantial discussion and formal agreement at the NSC level that we were not going to have that.”* [emphasis added]

Why occupy Iraq? Why not follow the original Rumsfeldian plan of reducing troops and getting out over the summer of 2003? Well, the “Strategy of Liberation” was more of a wish than a plan, as the Iraqi exiles favored by the Bush administration had limited heft in Iraq. The administration could not hand over the reins of government to Ahmed Chalabi and other outsiders, who had no power and no legitimacy in the country. The second problem was that invading with insufficient forces left not enough troops to secure government buildings and weapons depots, which meant that the looting that occurred (“stuff happens” as Rusmfeld put it) damaged whatever capacity there would be for those that would inherit the country.

Still, the US could have fled as quickly as it arrived. Why not order the troops out of the country and let the locals handle the war? This is the question I hear all the time on Twitter and elsewhere. After all, in a more recent effort, the US and its NATO allies helped break the Libyan regime and barely planted a boot on the ground. Why could we not have done the same thing in Iraq — break the regime and then quickly get out? Two answers come to mind: failed states and Iran.

First, Iraq happened just two years after 9/11, and much of the post-9/11 discussion concerned failed states providing havens for terrorists. If the US had pulled out as quickly as Rumsfeld had hoped, Iraq would not have any real government but a civil war among and within the three major ethnic groups. This would have been seen as a re-play of 1990s Afghanistan — a bloody civil war creating an enabling environment for terrorists. So, in 2003, leaving Iraq to its own misery was not seen as an option.

Second, the US broke the country that balanced Iran. Leaving Iraq quickly and mired in civil war would have given Iran much influence in the region, while staying offset Iraq’s weakness and at least somewhat contained Iran.

Of course, in retrospect, it is clear to see that both of these fears played out anyway. American occupation initially fed terrorism in the country and beyond, and Iran gained regional influence (although perhaps less than if the US handed over the country to Chalabi). But in 2003 withdrawal seemed to provide a clearer path to these undesirable outcomes. Occupation was going to be problematic in any case, but who knew that the US and its agents would go on to make every poor decision possible, like disbanding the Iraqi military overnight?

Again, the point here is not that occupation would have been easy and fun, but that in 2003 a quick withdrawal would have been most problematic. For a country as important as Iraq, breaking the government and then running away was not really an option. It is easy to dream about the option today, but that overlooks the core problem of the invasion of Iraq. Once the invasion happens, all you face is a series of lousy alternatives. And each subsequent choice between the lesser of two or three evils would cost the American people the lives of its soldiers, a trillion or two dollars, tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, a better chance at victory in Afghanistan, and all of the political capital the US had gained on that fateful day in September 2001.

The fundamental problem when considering regime change is this: political order is incredibly hard to achieve. It is one of the most basic questions in Political Science. How do you get people to buy into rules and institutions? The people today pondering what the U.S. could have done better in 2003 should start with that question. The mystery is not about why the mission crept into occupation but why the government so poorly considered the likely consequences of its actions. One thing remains clear — hope is not a plan.

  *They also agreed in the NSC not to disband the Iraqi military.  Oops.

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