The Iraq War

Second thoughts about the Iraq War


You can add me to the long list of people offering mea culpas over support for the Iraq War. There’s no good explanation for it, other than I was caught up in the idea that we needed to react aggressively to 9/11. Was it a sensible reaction? No. However, I actually believed the Bush Administration when it said it was sure there were weapons of mass destruction in the country.

I ran a small blog called Insults Unpunished and from my small perch I banged the drums for war. I wish I could say that I was cautious, but assertive, but there was no caution there. I had not only bought in to the notion that Iraq possessed WMD, but I had largely bought the neocon hypothesis: creating democracy in Iraq would lead to democracy elsewhere in the Middle East. Needless to say, I was mistaken.

I turned against the Iraq War in 2005, before the surge. It was apparent to anyone at that point that it was a mistake. It was apparent to others earlier.

Looking back on it, the one takeaway I have is that the use of war needs to be rare. I still support the initiating of the Afghanistan War, though even at the time I saw no way to win it short of a WW2-style mobilization. Afghanistan has been a graveyard for great powers since, well, forever. I thought then, and still do, that not to respond to 9/11 would have been like ringing the dinner bell for terrorists. Will we win the Afghanistan War in any substantive sense? Probably not, though the efforts of our military won’t be the reason. As always, they have behaved courageously.

At a minimum, our enemies won’t view us as shrinking violets who are incapable of responding to an attack. It’s thin gruel, but there’s that.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Middle East, National Security, , , , , ,
Robert Prather
About Robert Prather
Robert Prather contributed over 80 posts to OTB between October 2005 and July 2013. He previously blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished. Follow him on Twitter @RobPrather.


  1. ernieyeball says:

    “The wisest were just the poor and simple people. They knew the war to be a misfortune, whereas those who were better off, and should have been able to see more clearly what the consequences would be, were beside themselves with joy. Katczinsky said that was a result of their upbringing. It made them stupid. And what Kat said, he had thought about.”
- Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front 1929

    (Italics mine.)

  2. Rob Prather says:

    @ernieyeball: Thanks for that.

  3. ernieyeball says:

    @Rob Prather: Don’t thank me. All credit is due this guy:

  4. Foster Boondoggle says:

    Unfortunately, we really haven’t learned the lesson of Iraq, any more than we did the lesson of Vietnam. Having an enormous standing army far in excess of what’s needed for anything truly resembling “defense” allows our fearless leaders to demonstrate “toughness” by starting (or escalating) wars far from our shores, willy nilly, and in utter indifference to the impact on the poor peasants who happen to be there. And then we’re shocked — shocked! — at atrocities like Abu Ghraib, My Lai (and see Nick Turse’s recent book on how this was just the tip of the iceberg) or the Nisour Square shootings by Blackwater.

    What we need to do is radically reduce the size of our military. Then it will be much more difficult for some pusillanimous future president to decide to win the next election by starting a nice little war. We do not need to be responsible for 50% of the entire globe’s military spending. More like 70%+ if you include our European allies. It’s completely ridiculous, not to mention a colossal waste of resources and — far too often — lives.

  5. ernieyeball says:

    “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
    –Lyndon Johnson, Oct. 1964

    Lyndon Johnson assumed the United States Presidency on Nov. 22, 1963 the day President John Kennedy was assassinated.
    That same year 122 American Soldiers were killed in the Vietnam War.
    In 1964, 216 American Soldiers were killed.
    In 1965, 1928 American Soldiers were killed.
    In 1966, 6350 American Solders were killed.
    In 1967, 11,363 American Solders were killed.
    In 1968, the last full year of Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency,
    16,899 American Soldiers were killed. 1400 a month.

  6. swbarnes2 says:

    This is nice, but it’s still shallow. Which is ultimately more important; to endlessly go over all the reasoning that led you to the wrong conclusions, or to go over all the information that would have led you to the right conclusion, had you believed it, or known about it?

    Stuff like “I should have been following the results of Hans Blix, but I didn’t care what people on the ground were saying, I was so sure that I was right.” “The Neocon plan for invading Iraq was common knowledge for years, I should have been aware of it, and realized its implications, but I didn’t.”

    There were people who were right about what was happening, and what would happen. A lot of them. And it’s not because they were magic, or just lucky. It’s because they were paying attention to the right information, and you were informed by the wrong info, and your vengeful feelings.

    And funny how 100,000 dead and a million refugees aren’t worth mentioning. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. If your country were invaded, wouldn’t you leave? Did a mass exodus of the Iraqi middle class enter your thoughts, when musing over how wonderful Iraq would be with all that new infrastructure, and civic institutions, because whom did you think would run all those things?

  7. Rob Prather says:

    @Rob Prather: I was being somewhat sarcastic, but point taken.

  8. Tran says:

    What made me really mad at the US was the fact that the Iraq war threw away all chances of winning in Afghanistan. Many Europeans supported Afghanistan, but could not support Iraq (because our media told us there was no proof for WMDs, and they could never reach the US in any case). Iraq made Afghanistan toxic. Just imagine what would have been possible if all those troops in Iraq would have been sent to Afghanistan!

  9. michael reynolds says:

    Liberals (my people) are leaning too far forward in the attempt to declare that this war was never winnable and we all should have known better. The facts do not support that all-encompassing a narrative. It’s not as simple as saying “Had we only listened to…” The truth is a lot of the people who opposed the war were spouting nonsense along with their (eventually) correct conclusion.

    Among the warnings were that the Iraqi Army was formidable and would kill lots of Americans on our way into Iraq. This turned out to be wrong. The Iraqi Army was a collapse waiting to happen. The actual invasion was the proverbial cake walk. We were also warned that we would alienate the Arab world and that the Arab street would erupt. It did not. The Arab street didn’t erupt until the Arab Spring, long after it was clear we were leaving. There are other examples of the “prophets” being wrong

    It was not on its face absurd to suspect Saddam of having WMD. He absolutely had possessed chemical weapons, and apparently he was intent on sending the message (to Iran) that he still possessed them. In fact he may have believed he had them. Personally, when I think WMD I think biologicals and nukes, not gas, but since the generally-accepted definition does include chemical weapons it’s absurd to pretend that we had some certainty that he no longer possessed them.

    It’s also a good idea to recall just who Saddam Hussein was. He was a fantastically brutal, vicious creature who murdered vast numbers of his own people and started wars that killed Iranians and Kuwaitis as well. He was an evil man by any standard. He was an evil and ambitious man with a great deal of ready cash. So can we please stop pretending that Iraq was never dangerous and that Iraq was Vermont until we came along? It was a sh!thole run by a madman.

    None of that alters the conclusion that the war was a mistake. But the effort by liberals and libertarians to present this as some sort of cosmic tragedy which must form the basis for an isolationist foreign policy is taking the matter too far.

    Before I write this next part, let me say that I am very well aware of the suffering that has occurred. Say what you will about me, I do not lack for imagination. I said from Day 1 on this that we needed to understand that we would be killing innocents along with the bad guys; that we would be making widows and orphans; that soldiers with shattered lives would be sitting neglected in VA hospitals when it was all over But with that said (in hopes of forestalling the inevitable ‘you monster!’ reactions) this was a minor war in the history of the United States. We lost 4500 dead out of a population of 300 million. That’s roughly a third of the American dead on Okinawa against a much smaller population. Or a third of what was lost on both sides of Antietam. Okinawa and Antietam are single battles taking place over days.

    This was not some cataclysmic, defining event. This was a bad idea badly executed. It does not prove that war never works, and it does not prove that occupations never work, and it does not argue for us to pull back into our turtle shells unless you want to take the position that all war proves all war is bad, which I think we can all agree is a given.

    It is important to learn, but when we over-learn the wrong things we end up making matters worse. We “learned” from WW2 that our wars are moral and just and end with parades. That hubris eased our way into Korea and Vietnam. Europe “learned” from WW1 that isolationism and pacifism and disarmament were the path going forward. Unfortunately, the Germans learned a different lesson.

    Let’s not over-learn this. Lets try to assess what happened without partisanship or emotionalism because it is important that we understand. It’s important that we deal in truth and not in facile demonization or after-the-fact self-justification.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    There’s no good explanation for it, other than I was caught up in the idea that we needed to react aggressively to 9/11.

    Everybody screws up sometime.

    I still support the initiating of the Afghanistan War, though even at the time I saw no way to win it short of a WW2-style mobilization.

    You still support invading Afghanistan even though you knew then just how hopeless a quagmire it was going to become? If you had a mosquito on your nose would you use a baseball bat to squash it? “This is going to hurt me more than you, but if I let you bite me all the other mosquitoes will see that I am fair game and will do nothing to stop them.”

    9/11, as tragic and traumatic as it was, pales in comparison to the self inflicted damage we have done to ourselves since then.

    We never should have invaded with the intention and purpose of taking out the Taliban. Punish them? Yes. Get Al Qaeda? Yes. Remake that sh!thole into a modern country? HA! Replace the Taliban with a stable government? However loathsome they are, the Taliban were the stable government the Afghans had been denied since before the USSR invaded.

    Stupid. I knew it then and I know it now. We never should have gone in, and the best we can do now is get out.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    You can add me to the long list of people offering mea culpas over support for the Iraq War. There’s no good explanation for it, other than I was caught up in the idea that we needed to react aggressively to 9/11. Was it a sensible reaction? No. However, I actually believed the Bush Administration when it said it was sure there were weapons of mass destruction in the country.

    Everyone should have come to be suspicious when, actual weapons inspections showed there to be no WMDs. Bush was getting nervous too, so nervous in fact that he made sure that nothing was going to get in the way of his plan to go to war. So he hurried things up and ordered the invasion.

    There were other things that should have bothered Americans too – such as the sort of important fact that Iraq – neither as a government, nor with individual Iraqis – has nothing to do with the attacks of September 11th. We might just as well as have gone to war in Angola.

    Americans have only ourselves to blame for this. We, as a people, seem to always get caught up in a patriotic whirlwind when presidents start selling an external threat to us.

  12. Tony W says:

    @michael reynolds: The information about the lies was there from the beginning for those willing to see it. I was at the candlelight vigils and protests while my son fought in both wars.

    I am not opposed to war in principle, but I have been opposed to every war the United States has waged in my lifetime (~50 years) – except for the first Iraq, which I felt was necessary to liberate Kuwait and protect our oil interests. The elder Bush is to be commended for limiting his “wimpy” instincts and stopping at the right time, even if his son would later go in and F things up.

  13. Dazedandconfused says:


    I’m pretty sure most, had they known how difficult it would be, would have not been for it, as they would have paid enough attention to notice the obvious flaws in the narrative they were being fed.

    The apparent ease of GW1 factored huge in your mind, IMO.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    I suspect the single biggest factor was that we were all looking at War and very few were looking at Occupation. The war was easy. The occupation was hard.

  15. Gustopher says:

    I was opposed to the Iraq war not out of some pacifism, or even a belief that Sadaam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, but because I thought we needed to finish Afghanistan first.

    Sadaam was a brutal, murderous dictator. Even if we were wrong about WMDs — and there were plenty of signs that we were — he was a pretty crappy guy so I wasn’t going to worry about him.

    I don’t fault the Neocons for deciding to get rid of him. I fault the Neocons for doing such a crappy job of it — not enough forces, destroying what order there was in Iraq, and distracting us from Afghanistan.

  16. anjin-san says:

    There were people who were right about what was happening, and what would happen.

    I have friends who predicted exactly what was going to happen when Bush started beating the war drums. They knew all about PNAC, and they knew the WMD claims were bogus. They knew there was no cake walk waiting for us in Iraq.

    Sadly, the number of people that were that well informed was far too small to make a difference – but the information was out there, for those who cared to look for it.

  17. george says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I suspect the single biggest factor was that we were all looking at War and very few were looking at Occupation. The war was easy. The occupation was hard.

    Something that interestingly enough the Pentagon pointed out beforehand. I wonder how it might have turned out if we had gone in with the 500,000 soldiers for occupation as they’d initially requested? I suspect keeping order would have gone much easier.

    Of course that was a non-starter, because no one wanted to pay for that size of an occupation. So we tried to do it on the cheap, with predictable (ie the Pentagon’s predictions for example) results. Most of reasoning for going in with a small force was based on what the public would accept, rather than what was required. Far better not to go in the first place rather than go in with less than what your own experts recommend.

  18. Rob in CT says:


    There were plenty of us who pointed out that winning the war was likely to be easy, but then we’d be occupying a large, populous country with deep ethnic and sectarian divisions that had been under the thumb of a dictator (whose people were a minority) for decades and had been under US-led sanctions for a decade.

    There was no “OMG the Iraqi Army is sooo formidable” from me in 2002. Unfortunately I do recall some saying that and that helped the hawks out (because it was a ridiculous thing to say).

    Regarding not “overlearning” – ok, sure. How about we try not overreacting to things as well? Like when ~3000 of our people are killed by criminals, hows about we try taking a deep breath and thinking things through before we fuel up the bombers and send in the Marines?

    You point out that 4500 KIA (also ~35k wounded, yes?) is not a huge number, especially when compared to our population. True, as far as it goes. The same is true of 3000. But those of us who advised caution on 9/12/01 – and I did – were met with incredulity and outrage. I distinctly remember my boss at the time ranting about turning the ME into a sheet of glass. The reaction I got from another co-worker when I pointed out that only 1 country has ever actually used nuclear weapons was… well, let’s just say we didn’t see eye to eye.

    I was as upset and angry as anyone on 9/11/01. By the next day, my rational brain re-engaged. And seriously, anyone thinking rationally would immediately ask about the plan for occupation/reconstruction of Iraq (and some did, only to be ridiculed or ignored).

    [about casualties, obviously there are also the ~120,000 dead Iraqis plus a few hundred thousand wounded. Also, when tallying the cost of war, there are the trillions of dollars spent. Sure, some of that cycles back through our economy, but it was still a massive misallocation of resources]

  19. john personna says:

    For what it’s worth, I (or my evil twin) argued in these pages that the containment and no-fly zones were working, and were the best option going forward. I was told in these pages that the containment was too expensive, and that a war would end things definitively (and less expensively).

    Perhaps I will be even less accepting of that kind of assurance in the future.

  20. Dazedandconfused says:


    The “Pentagon” may be technically correct, Wolfowitz was working there, but that is a damn misleading way to put it. The Army at the time knew better, and when Shinseki told them so they cut his head off. He was “Pentagon” too.

    Meanwhile, the Executive Branch canned Lindsey Lawrence for suggesting it might cost as much as $200 billion.

  21. Pharoah Narim says:

    I think it was pretty clear within the the circle of career intel analysts that actually do the work that the WMD charge was a farce. Of course, none of those reports would ever have seen the light of day in the mainstream media–1st because they were classified and 2nd because it contradicted the storyline the Administration wanted to feed to the public. Look, monied interests will always need a bucket of kool-aid drinkers to provide the human capital they need to wage war. War is never about the ideological storylines they are purported to be about. At the highest-level of understanding–war is about one group of powerplayers seeking to to initiate, maintain, or expand they’re money-making capability over another group. Of course, if both sides came out and admitted this to the people that are going to fight and die–those folks might want a bigger piece of the action for the risk they are taking or maybe they’d forego fighting at all. In the case of Iraq, Saddam’s gravest sin was his challenge to the Petro-dollar. Once he decided to try and take Euros and gold for his oil his ticket was punched. Hmmmm I wonder what other dictator decided to dick with how payment for oil was taken and is now dead? There are really only 2 deadly sins in this world order: Don’t screw with the PetroDollar and have a national central bank. Guess who has resisted having a central bank that perennially remains in Western cross hairs? The people that touch off these conflicts don’t give a rats patooty about some tin-pot dictator being brutal to “his people”…Saddam had had to be that way to maintain order. “Iraq” is 3 countries and had stably existed as such for over 4 centuries until British colonialism came to the rescue. Its been a basket case ever since–which makes no never mind to monied interest as long as business is still profitable. Iraq was done to send a message to the Arab leaders that they better not get out of line or face the consequences.

  22. michael reynolds says:

    @Rob in CT:

    There’s a key difference between 3000 dead in NYC and DC and 4500 dead in battle. Location. We did not know on 9/11 how many more such deaths might be coming. Had AQ been able to continue mounting such attacks our society would have been transformed. Look at the reaction the first attack caused. No imagine how this country would have reacted to two or three more similar attacks.

    It was vital to topple the Taliban and to attack Al Qaeda. You deplore what we did following one really bad day? Imagine weeks and months and years of it. Have you seen what’s happened to Israel? That would be us.

    I think it’s become cool to take a blase attitude toward 9/11 and to say we overreacted. We did not overreact. A failure to stop similar attacks on this country would have been devastating to our daily lives, to our Constitutional rights, to our foreign policy and our domestic politics, and to our economy. We were also able to limit similar attacks on our allies. You want to see the effects on a democracy of terrorist attacks? Look at Israel.

    We avoided turning this country into a paranoid armed camp by exporting the fight back to Afghanistan. Could Afghanistan been better handled? LIke everything the Bush administration did, the answer is yes. But was it necessary to crush the Taliban? Yeah. Unfortunately that war was put on hold so we could take on Iraq and did both with far too few resources.

  23. Pharoah Narim says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I disagree with your framing of what our response in Afghanistan should have comprised. We knew then that the Taliban was only the local equivalent of our redneck militias. These guys couldn’t care less about anything that happens outside of their tribal areas. They have no interest in achieving any sort of geo political effects on the world stage. As long as they control local resources and can impregnate their child brides for male heirs and pleasure themselves with their rental boy toys– life doesn’t get much better for this group. Where they went wrong is in aligning with well financed foreign Arab elements of Al Queda who do have an interest in achieving geo political effects against Western interests. The quandary is that the boots on the ground Al Queda has in places like Afghanistan and Yemen are nothing but blue collar professional mercenaries. They needed killing but we could have co-opted internal assets inside Afghanistan to do most of that heavy lifting. Al Queda is, at its core, a movement driven ideologically and financially by educated, middle-class Arab religious zealots who aren’t anywhere near a battlefield. Because there is massive wealth inequalities in the middle east however, these rich brats have a very large pool of miserable people to exploit to wage a proxy war against the West or what they view as west friendly Arab governments. This whole thing could have been tidied up with about 20% military/para military operations and 80% law enforcement over 2-3 years. What we ended up doing was what was best for business and monied interest however.

  24. Rob in CT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Look at the reaction the first attack caused. No imagine how this country would have reacted to two or three more similar attacks

    This is circular. I point out that we overreacted, and you talk about how our overreaction justifies overreacting. Think this through, please.

    I’m arguing for a more stoic reaction from both leaders and the public. Keep Calm and Carry On. In that alternative universe, where people managed to keep their heads, there would be less reason to worry about attacks on our liberties and turning ourselves into an armed camp (which are, of course, entirely self-inflicted wounds). Here on Earth Prime, unfortunately, far too many Americans panicked.

    It was vital to topple the Taliban and to attack Al Qaeda.

    I didn’t say otherwise. Apologies if that was unclear. I think the use of force in Afghanistan was justified and likely the best choice available. The collective freakout post-9/11 really helped the Iraq war proponents sell their war. I was referencing that.

    I think it’s become cool to take a blase attitude toward 9/11 and to say we overreacted. We did not overreact.

    Sorry if that’s “cool” to say and you’re too Serious to be cool.

    I think we did overreact with our “War on Terror.” Now again, I was really talking about how the post-9/11 freakout helped gin up the Iraq war (you know, the topic of this thread?), but even if we remove the Iraq war from the discussion, I think we overreacted. There was overreach with the Patriot Act, the absurd color coded terror alerts from the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA and our detention policies (Gitmo, various other prisons around the world we sorta-kinda know about, and of course the use of torture – which I’ll remind you was used to extract bullshit intel to bolster the case for war with Iraq). I think the overreach was of degree rather than kind: it made sense to create something like DHS to coordinate our intel given the missed clues pre-9/11, it makes sense to capture and interrogate suspected AQ fighters/operatives, and so on. But the atmosphere of fear that followed 9/11 allowed certain people to get away with racheting these things up too far.

  25. Rob in CT says:

    Damnit. I screwed up my tags. Much of my quote/response is reversed. I trust that Michael, should he check this thread again, can figure it out.

  26. john personna says:

    @Rob in CT:

    I’m arguing for a more stoic reaction from both leaders and the public.

    I’d like to see that as well. Perhaps the way to sell it is that we’ll make “an appropriate response, against the perpetrators.”

    The “war on terror” blew that out of control, grouping people with merely the suggestion of association as active enemies.

  27. Rob in CT says:

    @john personna:

    Right, exactly that.

    A response was certainly warranted. But then we got “War on Terror” and “Axis of Evil” and “Islamofacists” and so on. Talk about mission creep!

  28. Dazedandconfused says:

    @Pharoah Narim:

    I’m in full agreement with your description of the Taliban.

    I hold the opinion that the prime driver of our efforts to transform Afghan and Iraqi society is a deeply assumed, widely held, but nevertheless completely false view in US academia that everybody is “just like us”, and/or aspires to be like us. That other society’s might not wish to be like us and that view does not stem from simple ignorance does not seem to register.

    This is not intended to refute what you have said, that is, to say that there weren’t moneyed interests who hopped on for the ride and even cheer leaded this, there certainly were. And there were some folks in high circles whose prime motive appeared to be making the ME safe for Israel as well. They both needed this doctrine to push their aims forward though.

  29. Jack Rapier says:

    I cant wait until we start reenacting some of more recent wars. We can use airsoft guns instead of replicas with blanks so it can be fun for the reenactors as well as the spectators. Check out to see the oodles of options that well have to choose from.