Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

The Iraq War teaches many things, but near the top of the list of lessons that Americans ought to learn (or relearn) is this: It’s not a black-and-white world. Statecraft is not a contest pitting innocence against evil. It never has been and it never will be. Any nation choosing to ignore this fundamental reality courts disappointment at the very least and may well invite full-fledged disaster.

From time to time decisionmakers in Washington have chosen to believe otherwise (or have made a pretense of doing so). When he announced in 1917 that war against the German Reich had become an imperative, Woodrow Wilson not only abandoned the policy of neutrality that he had steadfastly pursued over the previous two and a half years, he also invested the Allied cause with vast (and largely undeserved) moral significance. Germany was not just the enemy; it represented a threat to civilization itself. Presented with Wilson’s eloquent appeal to wage a war that would end all wars, Americans swooned. Yet although the nation’s doughboys—“crusaders,” Wilson called them—pitched in to defeat the Hun, the results fell well short of those that the president had envisioned.

Twenty-five years later, with the onset of a second world war, the good-versus-evil paradigm came roaring back. To judge from the line coming out of Washington by 1942, the Axis powers represented all that was evil, while the Allied cause embodied all that was good—freedom and democracy, respect for human dignity, and adherence to the rule of law. The problem with this formulation lay less with the first half than with the second. Sustaining it obliged the administration of Franklin Roosevelt to soft-pedal the totalitarian and imperialistic tendencies of our chief allies, while sweeping American racism under the carpet altogether. Crimes against humanity committed by the other side received appropriate condemnation. Crimes against humanity committed by our side? Not so much. Given the urgency of the situation, the tendency to permit a double standard was all but irresistible.

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Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

While Iraqis may have been unprepared to manage affairs of state after Hussein’s removal, it would have been preferable for Iraqis to make governing mistakes, rather than American occupiers.

Once again, the white hats prevailed. Yet here too the expected happy outcome failed to materialize. Indeed, with the passing of World War II, Washington wasted no time in replenishing the ranks of evildoers, moving the Soviet Union from the column headed “allies” to the column headed “adversaries.” In short order, China followed, along with a motley crew of lesser nations, all said to take marching orders from the Kremlin. By the time the Korean War erupted, US policymakers—helped along by another Red Scare at home—had once more cast the world in unambiguously black-and-white terms.

However useful as a device for mobilizing the American people, this Manichaeism also underwrote a penchant for mischief by US policymakers that exacted heavy costs. Persuaded that the freedom of the Free World was at stake in Vietnam, the United States committed itself to a catastrophically unnecessary and ultimately unsuccessful war. Persuaded that anyone opposed to communism must necessarily possess some redeeming qualities, Washington threw in with a long list of unsavory autocrats from Somoza and Batista to Marcos and Chiang. Persuaded that commie sympathizers posed a threat to vital US interests in places like Iran and Guatemala, Washington toppled governments not to its liking—and then professed surprise at the unanticipated adverse consequences.

Again, the urgency of the postwar situation—European weakness combined with Stalin’s demands for accommodation as a prerequisite for “peace”—may have provided a partial justification for depicting the situation in terms that were “clearer than truth,” as Dean Acheson once put it. Yet implicit in Acheson’s remark was this assumption: Ordinary Americans lack the capacity to deal with nuance and complexity; hence, the need to address the public in dumbed-down, oversimplified terms.

Has there ever existed a more useful bogeyman than “monolithic communism,” the figment of fevered imaginations employed to enforce the Cold War foreign policy consensus? Well, yes, actually. That would be “global terrorism,” the product of equally fevered imaginations employed to similar effect in the wake of 9/11.

Immediately after the September 11th attacks, whether acting from instinct or out of calculation, George W. Bush framed the problem at hand as something both frighteningly novel and yet reassuringly familiar. The nineteen hijackers had initiated a new round of an old fight, he told Americans. Once again, the forces of light stood toe-to-toe with the forces of darkness. The enemy represented and drew inspiration from values that threatened freedom’s very survival. That enemy—not al-Qaeda alone, but the much larger enterprise of which al-Qaeda represented the radical vanguard—intended to impose those values on the entire world. So once again, it was us against them in what was going to be—could not be other than—a fight to the finish.

“We have seen their kind before,” the president declared. “They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions—by abandoning every value except the will to power—they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

Ipso facto, it followed that targeting the organization actually responsible for the 9/11 attacks would not suffice as a war aim. Much, much more was needed. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s immediate response, a cryptic note written on September 11th itself, captures the administration’s mood. “[G]o massive—sweep it all up, things related and not.” Two days later Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz identified “ending states” involved in sponsoring terrorism as a primary US policy objective. As for President Bush, he was intent on eliminating tyranny and, indeed, evil itself, while inter alia removing any last remaining constraints on the exercise of American power.

This describes the context in which the administration devised and promulgated the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. Bush and his lieutenants quickly identified Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as an ideal locale for giving that doctrine a trial run. Yet Operation Iraqi Freedom turned out to be a costly bust, with the reputations of Bush, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz among the lesser casualties.

How did they get away with perpetrating such a preposterously stupid war? Through means not dissimilar to those that Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy once employed to perpetrate an unnecessary and ill-advised war in Vietnam. Simply put, they snookered us. They employed demagoguery to frighten and seduce. To scare the American people, they portrayed Saddam Hussein—uninvolved in the 9/11 plot and himself on Osama bin Laden’s enemies list—as the equivalent of Adolf Hitler. To seduce their fellow citizens, they painted America’s intentions toward Iraq as selfless and benign—part of the nation’s providential mission to liberate the oppressed and spread the blessings of democracy. They either ignored or were themselves oblivious to vast historical, religious, sectarian, ethnic, and national complexities that soon enough made a mockery of Washington’s portrayal of dragon-slayers pitted against dragons.

For Americans, one big lesson of the Iraq War should be this one: When policymakers and pundits purport to explain what the United States “needs to do” by resorting to hoary old comparisons drawn from some mythic past, don’t believe them. Their aim is to manipulate and deceive. Whatever problem you’re talking about—did someone say Iran?—it’s not simple. And the nation’s purposes, whether measured by past actions or future aspirations, do not qualify as altruistic.

Alas, Americans are unlikely to learn this lesson for one simple reason. Rather than subjecting the Iraq War to the critical scrutiny it deserves, Americans are keen to forget this latest painful episode in their history. For that very reason, they can count on being snookered yet again.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. An updated edition of his book The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War will be published this spring.

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