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What the Iraq War Wrought
Two decades on, the war in Iraq remains a strategic albatross for the United States
It’s hard to explain just how crazy the early 2000s were—even for those of us who lived through those years. Much the same will certainly be said of the madness that erupted with Donald Trump’s ride down a gilded escalator to announce his presidential candidacy in June 2015, a madness that’s ebbed significantly since Trump left office though one that unfortunately remains present in our national life. Even two decades later, however, it’s hard to truly grasp the febrile and profoundly insecure atmosphere that gripped American society in the months and years from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to around President George W. Bush’s second inauguration in January 2005.
Nowhere else did that atmosphere manifest itself more than the invasion of Iraq, launched two decades ago this coming Sunday. The war overthrew a truly heinous dictator in Saddam Hussein, one of the most sadistic tyrants to plague the world since the Second World War. But it replaced Saddam’s murderous dictatorship with a highly sectarian, corrupt, and dysfunctional quasi-democracy run largely by and for political parties beholden to Tehran. It also gave rise to the Islamic State, perhaps the most brutal and vicious of all the jihadi terrorist groups spawned by al Qaeda.
For the United States, though, the war in Iraq had three main strategic consequences over the long haul—all of them damaging.
Opportunity costs in time, attention, and investments
The war in Iraq didn’t bankrupt the United States. Nor did the financial cost of the war prevent the country from pursuing domestic priorities, whether tax cuts and a new Medicare prescription drug benefit under President Bush or massive post-financial crisis economic stimulus and health care reform under President Obama. In other words, America could afford the war in Iraq—at least financially.
But the war and its aftershocks consumed the time and attention of our political leaders, policymakers, and pundits well into the 2010s. More importantly, the war caused the country to direct its foreign policy and defense investments into highly specific and niche areas—all at a time when time, attention, and money could have been spent preparing for the world we now find ourselves in.
Take defense spending: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates halted production of the F-22 Raptor at just over 180 aircraft on the grounds the stealth fighter didn’t have anything to contribute to the counterinsurgency campaigns the United States was waging in the late 2000s. “Overall,” he argued, “the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today.” With the threats and challenges the United States faces from Russia and China today, however, it’d be great to have more than the limited number of F-22s available to us now.
To put it another way, the United States made important decisions on the basis that Iraq-style wars would preoccupy us indefinitely. This assumption was rarely if ever examined in detail at the time, though some in the armed forces warned as early as 2008 that the Pentagon was sacrificing core military competencies like artillery to make do in counterinsurgency campaigns. In effect, the U.S. military lost a decade of preparation for the more conventional challenges it now faces in Europe and the Pacific due to a short-sighted focus on counterinsurgency above all else.
At a broader level, constant attention to Iraq prevented policymakers and political leaders from examining and preparing sufficiently for developments that would shape the future—most notably, the rise of China’s power and influence around the world.
Still-unrepaired blows to American credibility and standing around the world
The way America went to war in Iraq in 2003 dealt a blow to our national credibility and standing in ways that have yet to fully heal. In particular, the Bush administration’s use and abuse of America’s intelligence community to support of its contention that Iraq remained in active pursuit of chemical, biological, and especially nuclear weapons still haunts the United States. In late 2021 and early 2022, for instance, the French and German governments remained skeptical of American and British intelligence warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine—largely due to the Iraq experience two decades before. American intelligence may have gained credibility over the past year (French and German intelligence certainly lost credibility in the eyes of their own governments), but the fact that the specter of Iraq remained alive and well at such a late date says much about the damage the war did to America’s international standing.
Similarly, the Iraq war has given anti-American voices a get-out-of-jail-free card whenever the United States criticizes another nation’s aggression. It’s become a license for whataboutery on an industrial scale; question Russia’s war against Ukraine, for instance, and receive a lecture on America’s invasion of Iraq. South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations, for instance, “took a moment from a [March 2022] debate in the U.N. General Assembly about the humanitarian fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to scold the United States for its past military follies, including in Iraq”—all while disingenuously denying she was engaging in whataboutery. It's certainly true that whataboutery springs eternal—America’s foreign policy record is far from morally pristine, after all—but the shadow of Iraq looms exceptionally large here.
More broadly—and concretely—a war that was supposed to demonstrate America’s overwhelming power wound up illustrating its impotence and incompetence. Iraq may not have been the most damaging example of American ineptitude in the twenty-first century; the 2008 financial crash and the Trump presidency were likely more significant in convincing China, for instance, that America was past its prime. But the Iraq war failed spectacularly from almost the beginning: the U.S. military could successfully topple a brutal regime in less than a month, but the whole of the U.S. government failed to adequately prepare (if at all) for the enormous reconstruction project that followed. The United States could put a man on the Moon in the 1960s, as the saying goes, but it couldn’t manage to keep the lights turned on in Baghdad almost four decades later.
The United States has done little to repair the image of an ineffectual and hapless nation first created by the Iraq war, an image reinforced by both the 2008 financial crash and the Trump presidency. It’s important to remember just how high America was riding before the war, both at home and abroad: the United States had successfully prosecuted wars in the Gulf and the Balkans, brokered peace deals in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, and fostered widespread and widely shared prosperity at home. There’s a reason nostalgia for the 1990s has become so pervasive in our own day and age.
In short, Iraq dealt the first of a series of crippling blows to America’s international prestige and global standing, one from which we have yet to fully recover.
An increasingly dysfunctional and defeatist domestic politics of foreign policy
It’s no exaggeration to say that much of America’s domestic political debates on foreign policy in the 2010s revolved around how the country could retroactively stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In that respect, the foreign policy debates of that decade resembled those of the mid-1930s—what the historian John Milton Cooper aptly called “a case, not of fighting the last war, but of something even more common, trying to stay out of that war.”
This desire to reverse the flow of time and somehow stay out of the war in Iraq fueled elite political and intellectual sympathy for a form of neo-isolationism that sailed under the banner of “restraint.” Florid rhetoric about supposedly “endless” or “forever” wars like Iraq proliferated largely unchecked, while restraint advocates received respectful hearings from their supposed opponents in the foreign policy establishment and their arguments featured prominently in leading newspapers, magazines, and journals. The restraint camp’s influence—such as it was—has waned in recent years, especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But its leading voices can still be heard in mainstream publications, warning ominously against the phantom menace of escalation in Ukraine and counseling appeasement of China.
More significantly, though, Iraq injected a deeper, more corrosive sense of cynicism and fatalism into our public life than had previously existed—the incompetence and ineptitude on stark display in Mesopotamia convinced many Americans that the United States couldn’t do anything right, either at home or abroad. That sentiment was only strengthened by the 2008 financial crash and the slow, grinding economic recovery that followed, compounded by self-inflicted wounds like the 2011 debt ceiling showdown and a series of pointless government shutdowns. Over time, the cynicism and fatalism Iraq bred narrowed our horizons and left America without any real party of national optimism and possibility. President Obama may have campaigned on hope, for instance, but in practice pessimism defined his foreign policy.
On a more quotidian level, Iraq has become a way to short-circuit our foreign policy thinking and dumb down our debates. Invoke the specter of 2003 in any discussion of a complicated foreign policy issue and utter magic words like “endless war,” and you don’t have to articulate—much less defend—your own stance. It’s easy to see this dynamic play out in today’s elite arguments over China policy, where critics of the Biden administration’s approach allege that a dangerous groupthink has taken hold in Washington akin to run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003. But it’s also occurred in Ukraine, where some voices even somehow manage to frame America’s support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia as a “forever war” that demands an exit strategy and negotiations. When confronted with difficult problems like Syria’s civil war, Russia’s war against Ukraine, or a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, far too many pundits and policy analysts respond with admonitions not to invade Iraq in 2003.
Over the past several years, the rise of an aggressive and coercive China, the Trump presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine have all combined to finally reduce the salience of the Iraq war in our national political and foreign policy debates. America simply has more important and urgent problems to deal with both at home and abroad, ones that endlessly relitigating a disastrous decades-old decision to invade Iraq can’t and doesn’t help us solve.
Still, many of those involved in our foreign policy arguments today founded their careers and indeed their underlying worldviews on opposition to the Iraq war—and that makes it hard to let go of the issues involved. The defeatist and pessimistic tendencies midwifed by the war persist in American public life, but the country and its foreign policy debates have moved on to more consequential and immediate questions.
It's time we all did the same.