Iraq Anniversary: 10 Lessons from America's 'Dumb War'

By in Washington

Polish special forces and US Navy Seals pose for pictures under a portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the port of Umm-Qasr in southern Iraq in March 23, 2003. Zoom
REUTERS

Polish special forces and US Navy Seals pose for pictures under a portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the port of Umm-Qasr in southern Iraq in March 23, 2003.

A decade on, polls suggest that a majority of Americans view the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a mistake. Right or wrong, the war has immensely influenced how America sees itself, is seen and conducts itself on the global stage.

The United States fought in Iraq for nine years. With the exception of the war in Afghanistan, it was America's longest combat engagement ever: longer than the American Civil War, the two World Wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Any country that enters into a war emerges from it changed. It is inevitable that there is a before and an after. There are the dead, the wounded, the survivors.

But that's not all. There are wars that are just and necessary, like America's fight against Nazi Germany. And there are wars that are senseless and wrong, like the war against Iraq. Society, politicians and the military have drawn lessons from both wars. They recognize and welcome these lessons to varying degrees, whether they are right or wrong. War transforms a nation.

Bruce Riedel, formerly a senior CIA official and presidential adviser, views the transition as such: "The Iraq War elected Barack Obama and transformed American foreign policy. There is a national consensus (that) it was a dumb war, (that) the costs were enormous and that it was one of the country's biggest mistakes." The shadow of this war, he continues, "weighs heavily" on the stances that America is now assuming toward Iran, Syria and Libya. The war's legacy "will haunt America for years."

Ten years ago, on March 19, 2003, then-President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war, saying that America "will accept no outcome but victory." Eight years and nine months later, on Dec. 18, 2011, the last US soldiers pulled out of Iraq. President Barack Obama declared: "The tide of war is receding."

What remains from the war? How has it changed America and Americans? And how has it altered American policies. Here are 10 lessons for the 10th anniversary of the launching of combat operations against Iraq:

1. It was a "dumb war"

The phrase comes from Barack Obama. In the fall of 2002, then-Illinois state senator Obama told a crowd of people protesting against an impending invasion of Iraq: "I'm not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." A total of 1.5 million US soldiers served in Iraq. An estimated one-third of them suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. Over 30,000 of them were injured. And 4,422 died. What was the point? In January 2002, President George W. Bush declared: "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." On Feb. 5, 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell sat before the UN Security Council and assured its members (and the world) that: "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more." But the dictator's suspected weapons of mass destruction were never found. In his 2006 biography, Powell characterized his UN presentation as a "blot" on his record. Today, many Americans are critical of the war. A poll conducted in early January by YouGov found that 52 percent of American's think the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, while only 31 percent still believe it was the right thing to do.

2. The war damaged America's image

America's invasion of Iraq isolated it in the world. President Bush's policies were viewed with greater skepticism in the West and created new enemies in the Arab world. In summarizing the moral damage the war inflicted on the US, SPIEGEL wrote: "For this war, America has broken international law, defamed allies and made the United Nations an object of derision." The torture scandal from Abu Ghraib, a prison on the western edge of Baghdad, has caused lasting damage to the proud democracy's moral reputation. US soldiers viewed themselves as liberators who uncovered the dictator's violations of human rights. But they were seen as occupiers, as a power that threw the country into chaos and a civil war that cost more than 100,000 Iraqis their lives.

3. The war discredited the CIA

Under pressure from the Bush administration, America's foreign intelligence agency provided the supposed proof that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. When Colin Powell went before the UN and gambled away his credibility, then-CIA chief George Tenet was sitting behind him. In 2011, Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed "Curveball," who had provided key testimony to the CIA, revealed that he had lied and purposefully provided false information about Iraq's biological weapons. "They gave me this chance," al-Janabi told the Guardian newspaper. "I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime."

4. The war divided the nation

One of the reasons that the Democrats and Republicans in Washington have become such bitter rivals can be traced back to their conflicting stances on the war. Democrats threw their support behind Bush at first, but they would later come to feel tricked. The massive degree of residual antagonism recently surfaced in the battle over Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee to become his secretary of defense. Hagel, a Republican himself, had once branded the 2007 surge in Iraq as the "most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." His fellow Republicans didn't forget what he said -- and tried to block his appointment for weeks.

5. The war fueled Obama's victory in the presidential election

He may have lacked experience, but during the Democratic primaries of 2008, Barack Obama had one clear advantage coming out of the gates: Unlike his fiercest rival, Hilary Clinton, he had never voted for the invasion of Iraq. In fact, he could even point to his 2002 statement about how it would be a "dumb war." In a television debate held in Cleveland in February 2008, Obama accused Clinton of having been "ready to give in to George Bush on day one on this critical issue." This allowed him to score points among war-weary Americans, first with Democrats and later during the presidential campaign against the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain. Obama promised to "end the Iraq War in a responsible fashion."

6. It was the war of the neocons

For years, toppling Saddam Hussein had been a goal of the neocons surrounding Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and William Kristol, the intellectual godfathers of the movement. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld helped win acceptance for neocon fantasies about using the military to foster democracy around the world. The hawks surrounding Bush viewed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as legitimizing an attack on Iraq -- despite the fact that there was no connection between Hussein's regime and al-Qaida. Indeed, in his 2004 memoir "Against All Enemies," former Bush counter-terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke wrote that bombing Iraq after being attacked by al-Qaida "would be like our invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor."

7. The neocons learned little from the war

The neocons haven't disappeared at all. William Kristol, for example, the founder of the conservative political magazine The Weekly Standard, continues to gush praise on the decision to invade Iraq. And these freedom fighters have had another target in view for a long time: Iran. Kristol scoffs at the idea that anyone would believe an Iranian nuclear bomb could be controlled. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld and Cheney have both published memoirs, but one would be hard-pressed to find any hints of self-criticism. Nor have their ideas about waging preemptive wars been abandoned. To a certain extent, President Obama is doing the exact same thing with his drone war against terrorists: taking out potential opponents before they have a chance to strike.

8. The Iraq War paved the way to the shadow war

The Iraq War shaped US policy on waging war. At first, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld focused on having a "light footprint" by having only 145,000 US and Allied soldiers take part in the invasion of Iraq. The result was chaos. The soldiers succeeded in conquering the country, but they failed to establish peace. After Rumsfeld resigned in November 2006, General David Petraeus implemented a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy that involved dedicating more soldiers to protecting the civilian population and coordinated fighting against insurgents. The situation in Iraq grew calmer, and newly elected President Obama let the COIN strategy be used in Afghanistan, as well. But when it met with failure, Obama placed his bets on shadow warfare: drone attacks against suspected terrorists and militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen; deploying elite combat units; and waging cyber warfare against Iran's nuclear facilities.

9. The war shaped America's stance toward the Arab Spring

One of the most important lessons that Obama derived from the war in Iraq was: just don't get caught up in a second dumb war. This led the United States to hold back during the tumult dubbed the Arab Spring. In the case of Libya, for example, America only supported the rebels for a short time with aerial attacks and allowed the Europeans to lead the West's intervention in the war. Obama's advisers described the policy as "leading from behind." The hawks from the Bush administration were stunned. In a SPIEGEL interview in September 2011, former Vice President Dick Cheney criticized Obama's policy, saying that to "leave it up to others… (was) not necessarily a good way to do business." When it comes to the ongoing civil war in Syria, Obama is facing growing pressure to allow insurgents to at least be provided with direct military assistance. But there are great misgivings about whether getting involved in Syria could eventually become a second Iraq. "Indeed, Syria is Iraq's twin," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned in July 2012, "a multisectarian, minority-ruled dictatorship that was held together by an iron fist under Baathist ideology."

10. The effects of the war pervade the country

Young men and women with amputated limbs are not a rare sight on American streets. The war is everywhere. Everyone knows a veteran, and many lost relatives or friends in Iraq. People put oval bumper-sticker decals on their cars that say "IRQ" (for Iraq) with "I SERVED" in smaller letters below. This is usually a sign of defiant pride given that veterans of the Iraq War are often pitied for having served in a war fought for the wrong reasons, just like their fathers were after Vietnam. Many veterans are having trouble finding jobs, and the suicide rate is high. The nation is unsettled and tired of war. Many Democrats and Republicans alike don't want to hear about military missions abroad. Instead, there is widespread support for "nation-building at home."

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1. Iraq Anniversary: 10 Lessons from America's 'Dumb War'
KhanZubair 03/21/2013
Very good analysis but did some one learn lessons? No US and its allies committed the same mistake in Afghanistan. Likelyhood might try same thing with Iran and Pakistan. Very rare are leaders these days who learn lessons from hitsory.
2.
Swiss Frank 03/21/2013
There's hardly any of this that is actually correct. Before we even get into the countdown, lets look at the header: > fought in Iraq ... longer than ... the two World Wars No. The US started fighting WWII in 1939 and secured victory in 1945: 6 years. The US started fighting in Iraq on 20 March 2003 and secured victory on 1 May 2003: 6 weeks. If you want to compare the total length of military presence, the US left Germany in... wait a minute, they're still there 70 years later. Meanwhile they left Iraq in about 8 years 9 months. So choose your method: if you really want to compare the actual fighting, Iraq lasted 1/50 as long. If you want to include occupation, its 1/8 as long. Its comparing apples and oranges to compare 6 years until military victory, in WWII, with ~9 years of military presence in Iraq. Even "apples to apples" still wouldn't be quite a fair comparison as the Allies were content to let Germany break up, rather than fight longer to keep it together. Had the US/UN simply divided the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis into separate nations the military would probably have been out much faster. Alternately, had Truman and Stalin fought across Germany to keep it together, the US's occupation of Germany would have been far bloodier. But why even mention the wars' durations? I think Der Spiegel brings it up because it wants to paint a picture of Iraq War truly draining the US. But just looking at time ignores the manpower and intensity. Since the casualty count actually is a product of both time, manpower, AND intensity, would not body bags give a much clearer picture of the relative cost to the nation? In fact the US lost 420,000 in WWII and 4,500 (from over twice the population) in Iraq. Thus we see comparing the durations, even when we are comparing apples to apples, is at best meaningless and at worst purposefully misleading. As America lost 1% as many in Iraq as in WWII, mentioning the two in the same sentence is clearly farcical. > Bruce Riedel: "The Iraq War elected Barack Obama ... There is a national consensus (that) it was ... dumb ... costs were enormous and ... one of the country's biggest mistakes" First, lets say the election WAS in fact totally decided on this issue. The popular vote was split 52.9% vs. 45.7%. This is NOT a consensus. Even a 75% landslide wouldn't really be a consensus. Not only is Riedel is mistaken about a consensus, Der Spiegel is doubly so in trotting him out as an apparent expert whose views we should heed. Riedel is also wrong in implying that the election was a plebiscite on the US presence in Iraq. The Iraq war was NOT uppermost in most people's minds at the time. The real battle, starting in the primary season, was "change" vs. "experience", and this was a battle that Hillary Clinton lost to Obama on, as did McCain. Don't forget that universal health was also a critical issue. McCain campaign suffered a number of serious setbacks unrelated to war: the unfortunate selection of Palin as VP, saying the economy was strong the day Lehman declared bankruptcy, and the perception that he was out of touch with normal Americans when he couldn't say exactly how many houses he and his wife owned. To the extent voters even cared about Iraq their views weren't necessarily negative: McCain gained votes thanks to his support for Petraeus's "surge" that appeared to improve the situation in Iraq. Now onto the "Lessons of the War." Note that none of these are lessons per se, that future leaders can profit from. As a counter-example, consider "Don't Get Bogged Down in a Land War in Russia with Winter Coming". That's an actual lesson from Napoleon that could have been learned and heeded by Hitler to his possible benefit. In contrast, "It was a dumb war" isn't something you can apply to future situations. But practically all ten of these are as amateurish as the preamble, so I'll consider them all in turn.
3.
Swiss Frank 03/21/2013
(continued) > 1. It was a "dumb war" The article doesn't actually attempt to support this statement, so there's nothing really to rebut! > 2. The war damaged America's image. America's invasion of Iraq isolated it in the world. Again the article doesn't actually attempt to support this statement, such as by listing countries that are no longer dealing with the US thanks to its action in Iraq. Let me take the opposite tack, of actually listing a few countries from which the US is NOT isolated. (Note that even one counter-example was demonstrate Der Spiegel's blanket description of isoloation to be false. I supply more examples to show its REALLY false.) In the "G2" world of today, where it is argued that only China and the US matter, look at a map of Asia and color in Myanmar and North Korea red--those are China's friends from which America is "isolated." Except that Myanmar is recently swinging back into the US camp. Meanwhile you can color pretty much everyone else in Asia blue: hardly the isolation Der Spiegel describes. The US has military ties and supports South Korea. Mainland Japan. Okinawa. Taiwan. Even military exercises with Vietnam. (Are you still looking at the map? Pretend you're China. Do you feel caged in by America? How would that be possible if America were isolated??) Add in support for "isolated" America by the countries who dislike China's territorial claims in the South China Sea (Brunei, Vietnam again, Malaysia. Phillipines, Indonesia) and other countries lined up to join the TPP with the US: Brunei, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, and Vietnam. Add in demands for help from European countries that needed logistics and airpower during their adventures during the Arab Spring (hmmm, which may not have even occurred without Iraq!?) How can you be isolated and when you have European countries begging for air transport? Sounds more like SELF-isolation if anything. Except the logistics support was provided, so no. > 3. The war discredited the CIA Finally a claim with supporting evidence! There was, apparently, ONE GUY from the CIA sitting on a stage, and ONE GUY who gave the CIA wrong information. Wow, after that its a wonder anyone gives them any respect at all. Can't Spiegel more than two bad apples in a 20,000 man organization? I mean, we can find more than two plagiarists just inside the German cabinet!!! But you know, the CIA doesn't actually operate on respect. It's ONLY REASON TO EXIST is to get information people don't respect the US enough to give it openly. > 4. The war divided the nation. One of the reasons that the Democrats and Republicans in Washington have become such bitter rivals can be traced back to their conflicting stances on the war. Here, Der Spiegel refutes itself. The sentence immediately after the "lesson" says the war did NOT divide the nation, it was only ONE OF the reasons. Had Der Spiegel been to the US before 2003, though, they'd have found it pretty divided already, and now, the troops have been back over a year and, yep, still divided. Hey, German politics is quite divided too. Maybe that's also due to Iraq? Or is it maybe simply the nature of countries to be divided? > 5. The war fueled Obama's victory in the presidential election I debunked this already, see above.
4.
Swiss Frank 03/21/2013
(continued--why does the Spiegel have a 5000-character comment limit, when it writes articles that are so bad they require more than 5000 characters of commentary to set straight?!) > 6. It was the war of the neocons Der Spiegel should read the Woodward books (and learn what Journalism actually is supposed to be). He makes clear the war was GW's baby. > 7. The neocons learned little from the war Could be, who cares? Is it the war's fault that people didn't learn? I've had teachers in university from which I learned nothing but that wasn't the teachers' fault; I'll take that blame. (Maybe the neocons didn't learn much because they're reading Der Spiegel?) > 8. The Iraq War paved the way to the shadow war No, this so-called shadow war is predominantly against Al Qaeda, in retaliation for 9/11, the bombings in London and Spain, along with many other activities. If Der Spiegel thinks the US would be handling the Al Qaeda threat in some other way, had it not been for Iraq, what other way would that be? I seriously don't understand if Der Spiegel thinks that, without the Iraq War, the US would not be attacking Al Qaeda operatives at all? Or do they think the US would be attacking with conventional armies? > 9. The war shaped America's stance toward the Arab Spring This part of the article is true. Kind of sad, when you look at the literally millions suffering in Syria, that the US is too shy to even declare a no-fly zone. But part of the reason its reticent to do so is because of poorly-thought-out, reflexive criticism the likes of this very article! One could summarize the US opinion as being to some extent: if world press is going to give unfair and/or inaccurate summaries of Iraq, why should the US even bother in Syria? Of course that's not the total or even main line of reasoning, but the US would find a slightly easier time playing at least a somewhat larger role in Syria et al, were US actions presented in a bit more factual and/or balanced way by the world press. > 10. The effects of the war pervade the country Young men and women with amputated limbs are not a rare sight on American streets. Wiki states as of 2008 (when the bulk of the injuries had occurred) that between 500 and 1600 servicemen had become amputees. Lets estimate high and say it was maybe 3000 by 2011? That's one out of every 100,000 Americans. In a city like New York, you'd have about 80 war amputees out of 8 million residents. You could fit them, in their wheelchairs, into about two classrooms. In fact, as a point of pride, one of the reasons you see people in wheelchairs and so on out in public in the US isn't the war, its the outstanding building accessibility, handicapped parking, and so on. Handicapped in other countries I've lived in, such as Switzerland, UK, Hong Kong, and Japan, often just stay at home because if they left the house they wouldn't be able to get into the place they want to go to, even providing they could get to it.
5.
coiaorguk 03/21/2013
Sebastian Fischer said, "The hawks surrounding Bush viewed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as legitimizing an attack on Iraq -- despite the fact that there was no connection between Hussein's regime and al-Qaida." Sadly Sebastian did not have the fortitude to express the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as permitted to proceed by certain people in a position of power. That global realization is foremost in the demise of trust and the principle reason the American image has evaporated on the world stage.
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