Iraq War: Mission Accomplished?

operation-iraqi-freedom-patchTNR’s Marty Peretz argues that “The Verdict Is In On The Long American Excursion In Iraq. And It Is Favorable.”

He admits right at the outset that, “Of course, Iraq hasn’t turned out that well. Sunni jihadniks are still routinely murdering pious Shi’a on pilgrimage to Karbala.”  But, he contends, “There are three especially compelling personal testimonies arguing that Iraq is on its way to making its own inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian history, and it will be a relatively democratic history.”

  • Gordon Brown is sticking to his guns, saying “It was the right decision made for the right reasons” despite both himself and the war being highly unpopular on the eve of elections.
  • Fiasco author and longtime war critic Thomas Ricks now argues that “the best way to deter a return to civil war is to find a way to keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come.”
  • Fouad Ajami argues that “The American project in Iraq has midwifed that rarest of creatures in the Greater Middle East: a government that emerges out of the consent of the governed” and that “We can already see the outline of what our labor has created: a representative government, a binational state of Arabs and Kurds, and a country that does not bend to the will of one man or one ruling clan.”

But this is pretty thin.

  • Brown’s opinion is easily dismissed as the desperation of a politician insisting he was right all along (and having nothing to lose).
  • Ricks still maintains that our initial plans were “grandiose” and that  it has been “replaced by the more realistic goal of getting American forces out and leaving behind a country that was somewhat stable and, with luck, perhaps democratic and respectful of human rights.” Further, he attributes much of the progress to the fact that we “effectively put the Sunni insurgency on the American payroll.”    Yes, he thinks that, in hindsight, “the surge was the right thing to do.”  But “That said, the larger goal of the surge was to facilitate a political breakthrough, which has not happened” and that “the existential questions that plagued Iraq before the surge remain unanswered.”   He therefore figures that civil war will break out almost immediately if we leave.
  • And Ajami was an enthusiastic supporter of the war as early as the summer of 2002, when he was cited by Dick Cheney as predicting “after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are ‘sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.”   In a pre-invasion 2003 Foreign Affairs essay he was much more sober about the consequences of invasion but still thought it worthwhile.

I was a reluctant supporter of the war who rejected the early arguments by Paul Wolfowitz and others but ultimately persuaded by the “we can’t let Saddam get nuclear weapons” argument after Kim Jong Il did it.  But that rationale for the war proved unfounded.

Subsequently, my support for the war shifted to variations of “damn, it’s actually working” (during the euphoria after the second election and before the chaos spawned by the mosque bombing) to “we broke it, we bought it” and “we owe it to the Iraqis that got killed because they trusted us” as events developed on the ground.   I’ve never been a supporter of the “grandiose vision” for the war, thinking it both an extraordinarily unlikely outcome and a never-ending rationale for American empire.

Still, far, far later into this exercise than seemed fathomable in 2003, we’re still there with a large number of American troops.  We’ve lost 4380 dead and goodness knows how many permanently maimed.  But I’m still, reluctantly, with Ricks on this one.   Whether or not it was all “worth it” — a judgment that, sadly, it still remains too early to know — it makes sense to keep a reduced contingent of American soldiers there to prevent the unraveling of what has been accomplished.

But that’s hardly reason for celebration and gloating.  It’s just a calculation as to our least bad option.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    If we need to keep 50,000 American troops in Iraq indefinitely, with a mandate to police groups of Iraqis in order to ensure that Iraq remains “stable” and friendly to the United States, then we will have created a vassal state, and the United States will truly have stopped being a republic and become an Empire. The Romans used to set up puppet governments to keep the locals in line, too. They even used their legions to stop local civil conflicts.

  2. Bill H says:

    So if we have to keep 30-50,000 in Iraq to prevent whatever it will be that we are preventing, why are we not required to keep a like number in Somalia? The Islamic Courts had established a stable and relatively peaceful regime until we paid and assisted Ethiopia to kick them out, and that broken nation is to a very significant degree of our making, so why are we not saying, “Well, damn, we broke it so now we own it,” for the Somalis?

    And we seem to feel no sense of responsibility for the homeless and starving right here in our own nation. Why is that? We believe that in America we are self sufficient. We are the land of “Anyone can make it if govenment just stays off his back.” Not so much in Iraq. They need our Army boots on their necks.

  3. steve says:

    I am not sure they will let us keep that many there. I think nationalism will be a part of any attempt to keep the country unified. Hard to be a nationalist while inviting foreign soldiers to stay. While we may be able to prevent some conflicts, at some point we will be manipulated into favoring one side over another if we stay too long. I think we pan on leaving when SOFA is done. We only stay if they ask us and we demand concessions in return.

    Steve

  4. legion says:

    Gordon Brown is sticking to his guns, saying “It was the right decision made for the right reasons” despite both himself and the war being highly unpopular on the eve of elections.

    “Highly unpopular”? That’s kinda burying the lede, there James. It’s “unpopular” because it’s become apparent that Brown had definite plans & intention to invade Iraq with Bush _long_ before the decision was supposedly made, and then spent, what, a year? Year and a half? Flatly lying to his country – even his own inner circle about it – and _preventing them from making effective plans_ for actually running the invasion & occupation. That’s not just an error in judgment James, that’s willful, criminal negligence.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Brown had definite plans & intention to invade Iraq with Bush _long_ before the decision was supposedly made

    The chancellor of the British exchequer was plotting with the Bush Administration to invade Iraq? News to me.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Alex:
    We’ve had empire before — the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii. You could argue that our dealings with various Indian groups had some of the same characteristics. It’s been an on again, off again flirtation for the US.

    Bill:

    So if we have to keep 30-50,000 in Iraq to prevent whatever it will be that we are preventing, why are we not required to keep a like number in Somalia?

    I can think of three reasons: 1) No oil, 2) no geo-strategic importance and 3) no oil.

    Plus there’s no oil.

  7. Grewgills says:

    The chancellor of the British exchequer was plotting with the Bush Administration to invade Iraq? News to me.

    The plot ran deep.

  8. James, so if I understand your argument, you are claiming that Saddam never would have obtained nuclear weapons, and presumably, never again done what he had already done previously in obtaining and using chemical weapons. How do you know this?

    One can certainly make an argument with the benefit of hindsight, but with the knowledge available at that time, is this statement even remotely justifiable? And isn’t it something of a false dichotomy to have to fall into either the pro or con (or should I say neocon and con) camps?

    Also, even with the levels of violence still remaining, a lot fewer Iraqis are dying now than were dying under Saddam’s regimes. Not to mention Kurds, Iranians, etc. It would have been nice to have greater participation by the rest of the world, but to paraphrase Rumsfeld, we seem to have address the most difficulkt situations in the world with the allies we have.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s been an on again, off again flirtation for the US.

    Not only is that precisely the case but if you consider the historical record you’ll find that liberal interventionism has been at least as important a factor in America’s version of empire as has been mercantile adventurism. McKinley was a mercantilist; Wilson a liberal interventionist.

  10. john personna says:

    Iraq and Afghanistan have shown how hard it is to “give” another people democracy.

    At some point it becomes their responsibility.

  11. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    James, so if I understand your argument, you are claiming that Saddam never would have obtained nuclear weapons, and presumably, never again done what he had already done previously in obtaining and using chemical weapons. How do you know this?

    One can certainly make an argument with the benefit of hindsight, but with the knowledge available at that time, is this statement even remotely justifiable?

    Yes. The CIA’s primary sources of intelligence from Iraq, particularly Iraqi government scientists, categorically stated that Iraq had no chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons programs.

    See, e.g. – James Risen, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration. New York: Free Press, 2006, which discussed the Iraqi scientist sources.

    Additionally, Iraq’s foreign minister provided the CIA with documentary evidence that Iraq had no such programs.

    And remember, the U.N. weapons inspectors had concluded that Iraq had no stockpiles of such weapons and no programs. That’s why the Security Council would not authorize the use of force.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    charles austin does bring up an important point, too often ignored by critics of the Iraq War: even had we not invaded Iraq, which would have been my preference, we would have needed to continue containing Saddam Hussein. The cordon we’d been maintaining for the previous nine years was breaking down, which implies, at least to me, that we’d have needed to exert some sort of extraordinary effort in that regard even had we not invaded. That Saddam Hussein may not have had active nuclear, chemical, or bioweapons programs at the time of the invasion in no way ensures that he would never have had such programs in the absence of containment.

    I think that would have been doable and, indeed, it would have been my preference. That’s not hindsight: I said the same at the time and I’ve been saying so since.

    However, I also believe that disagreeing with that view is neither unreasonable nor irresponsible. It wouldn’t have been automatic.

  13. john personna says:

    Dave, we each have to make up our “containment counter-factual” because there is no reference.

    It strikes me thought that containment would look cheap, in blood and treasure, in any non-partisan analysis.

  14. steve says:

    “charles austin does bring up an important point, too often ignored by critics of the Iraq War: even had we not invaded Iraq, which would have been my preference, we would have needed to continue containing Saddam Hussein.”

    My take is that Saddam would have kept on pushing. We knew he did not have nukes. His days of mass killings of his own people occurred much earlier. We had no urgent need to invade. It would have made much more sense to first resolve Afghanistan, which of course meant resolving Pakistan. We were actually getting help from Iran against Afghanistan in the early stages. So, instead of tying up Afghanistan and possibly developing workable ties with Iran, we invaded iraq.

    I think we would have needed to invade Iraq eventually, but our timing was dumb. We also rushed in and were totally unprepared ignoring the Mattis war games and Shinseki.

    Steve

  15. Marty says:

    Wasn’t that the point all along? The PNAC missive in 2000 written by Wolfowitz, Bolton, Libby, et al called for a permanent base in the middle east from which to (potentially) attack Iran, and according to Wolfowitz, allow the withdrawal of US troop from Saudi Arabia.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    . . .but our timing was dumb.

    I blame God. I gather He told George W. Bush it was time. Unfortunately God didn’t mention where we’d get the troops to run two wars at once.

  17. davod says:

    “Yes. The CIA’s primary sources of intelligence from Iraq, particularly Iraqi government scientists, categorically stated that Iraq had no chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons programs.” Of course the problem with many CIA Iraqi sources in the past is that they were working for Iraq, especially the ones within the Iraqi regime.

    Then again, there is always Curveball.

  18. Franklin says:

    “It was the right decision made for the right reasons”

    Perhaps so, but apparently only a few people were privy to those “right reasons”. Bush gave us three reasons, and two of them are now known to be false (and many in the Administration knew that).

  19. davod says:

    “Perhaps so, but apparently only a few people were privy to those “right reasons”. Bush gave us three reasons, and two of them are now known to be false (and many in the Administration knew that).”

    ? Hindsight.

  20. Franklin says:

    I’m quite aware of the benefit of hindsight. Brown’s statement was last week, still claiming that they were the “right reasons”. I’m at a loss as to how you can still call WMD and Al Qaeda links the “right reasons”.

    Bush also mentioned before the invasion that Saddam was a bad guy. This was true, and remains the only “right reason” (singular) that I am aware of.

  21. davod says:

    Basic points in the Congressional (not White House) resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq:

    1. WMD
    2. Willingness to use WMD against his own people
    3. Oppression of his own people
    4. Violation of multiple UN Resolutions
    5. Attacks on US forces attempting to enforce UN Resolutions
    6. Attempt to assassinate Bush 41
    7. Harboring Al-Qaeda members/ other terrorists
    8. 1998 Congressional Resolution (under Clinton) of policy to support efforts to remove current regime
    9. Violation 0f 1991 ceasefire
    10. National security interests in Persian Gulf area

    How quickly we forget:

    “Iraq repeatedly made false declarations about the weapons that it had left in its possession after the Gulf War. When UNSCOM would then uncover evidence that gave the lie to those declarations, Iraq would simply amend the reports. For example, Iraq revised its nuclear declarations four times within just 14 months and it has submitted six different biological warfare declarations, each of which has been rejected by UNSCOM. In 1995, Hussein Kamal, Saddam’s son-in-law, and chief organizer of Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program, defected to Jordan. He revealed that Iraq was continuing to conceal weapons and missiles and the capacity to build many more. Then and only then did Iraq admit to developing numbers of weapons in significant quantities and weapon stocks. Previously, it had vehemently denied the very thing it just simply admitted once Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law defected to Jordan and told the truth.”

    “..Now listen to this: What did it admit? It admitted, among other things, an offensive biological warfare capability–notably 5,000 gallons of botulinum, which causes botulism; 2,000 gallons of anthrax; 25 biological-filled Scud warheads; and 157 aerial bombs. And might I say, UNSCOM inspectors believe that Iraq has actually greatly understated its production.

    Next, throughout this entire process, Iraqi agents have undermined and undercut UNSCOM. They’ve harassed the inspectors, lied to them, disabled monitoring cameras, literally spirited evidence out of the back doors of suspect facilities as inspectors walked through the front door. And our people were there observing it and had the pictures to prove it.”

    “We have to defend our future from these predators of the 21st century,” he argued. “They will be all the more lethal if we allow them to build arsenals of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver them. We simply cannot allow that to happen. There is no more clear example of this threat than Saddam Hussein.”

  22. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    I live in the San Francisco Bay area. One of things that struck me during last evening’s TV coverage of the Iraqi voting was the absence of any expression of gratitude to the US/allies for freeing them from Saddam Hussein and their own Arab/Muslim dark sides. It may very well be that those expressions ended up on the “cutting room floor”, but it sure put a damper on any celebration on my part.

  23. Alex, did you really provide a reference from 2006 in response to my comment about contemporaneously available information?

  24. Alex Knapp says:

    Charles,

    The book recounts the story of the available pre-war intelligence and how that fit into the decision to go to war. So yeah, the scientist sources were pre-war, and available to the CIA.

  25. davod says:

    Alex:

    1. “And remember, the U.N. weapons inspectors had concluded that Iraq had no stockpiles of such weapons and no programs. That’s why the Security Council would not authorize the use of force.”

    As I recall, the Iraqi submission to the UN was declared by the UN to be a copy of the previous submission. No proof of the destruction of stocks was provided.

    2. Reisen concludes the CIA hid the informaton provided by the relatives of the scientists.

    3. The no WMD and no WMD developmen programs begs the question of why Iraqis involved in the programs were being assasinated before they could be interviewed by the survey group.

    PS: You might want to read this review of “State of War”