Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

Nearly ten years on from the Iraq invasion, what have we learned? The simple answer, I’m sorry to say, is not much. Lest it be forgotten, the Bush administration went to war to topple Saddam Hussein with broad bipartisan support from Congress, notably from the presumptive front-runner for the presidency in 2016, Hillary Clinton, who has sedulously refused ever since to concede that her support in favor of the October 2002 Iraq War Resolution was mistaken. The war was also supported by a great many of the most important national media outlets, most notably the New York Times, that on most other matters at the time tended to be critical of the Bush administration from a liberal-progressive perspective. Unlike former Secretary of State Clinton, most of these journalistic institutions have since recanted.

What is not obvious is how much, if indeed anything at all, should be read into these second thoughts. Meanwhile, although many neoconservatives and so-called national-greatness conservatives, both within and outside the Republican Party, would concede with benefit of hindsight that the Bush administration bungled the occupation of Iraq, few have reconsidered their support for military interventions abroad, not only to further direct US interests, or preempt or prevent war, but also to topple dictatorships in the name of human rights and humanitarian necessity.

To be sure, the difficulty of such interventions is now broadly acknowledged. It is inconceivable, for example, that were the Obama administration to decide to intervene militarily in Syria, a senior Pentagon official would adamantly insist before Congress that prosecuting such a war successfully, then securing a durable post-conflict settlement in its aftermath, would be comparatively easy and that the costs of both these enterprises would be negligible, in the way that Bush officials did repeatedly in testimony before both the House and the Senate in the run-up to the Iraq War. So perhaps one can say that American policymakers have learned that imposing democratic order at the point of a gun is more difficult than they assumed it was in 2003. But does this mean they have repudiated such projects altogether, let alone questioned whether it really is the business of the United States to go abroad and, to paraphrase John Quincy Adams’s celebrated formulations, use military force to champion and vindicate the liberty of others? The answer to that is an emphatic “No.”

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Lessons Learned: The Iraq Invasion

The lessons of the Iraq War now pass as conventional wisdom, but the intervention-averse policies of the Obama administration in Syria suggest the wrong lessons have been learned.

For despite all the complaints from the right about the Obama administration’s supposed retreat, the dominant view in Washington remains that version of the doctrine of American exceptionalism which holds, contra Adams, that if there are indeed monsters out there beyond the nation’s borders, then, within the bounds of feasibility, it is both the duty and the right of the United States to find and destroy them. To put it another way, the US intervention in Iraq soured policymakers and mainstream pundits on Iraq, not on intervention itself. To the contrary, between 2005 and 2013, the same powerful coalitions that were assembled to push for Saddam Hussein’s overthrow have reassembled unsuccessfully to press for military action in Darfur, successfully for a campaign to overthrow the Qaddafi regime in Libya (with the disastrous and entirely predictable blowback effects now unfolding in Mali and that will soon become evident elsewhere in the Sahel), and now in Syria, though there, despite pressure from both Republicans in Congress and liberal interventionists both inside and outside his administration, President Obama seems, as of this writing at least, to have dug in his heels. To put it starkly, with respect to interventions on the Iraq model, there has been no “Never Again” moment, except in the sense that—mirabile dictu !—there is indeed a strong consensus in Washington now that never again should an American army be sent to Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps none of this should be surprising. It took Britain and France a considerable time to get used to their reduced place in the world after the dissolution of their colonial empires (though the French have done this far more successfully than the British, whose elite—think of Tony Blair—continue to cling to the fantasy of the UK being Greece to America’s Rome). After almost a century of hegemony, the political elite in the United States are not yet ready to come to terms with the nation’s comparative decline and with what the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have actually revealed, which, former Vice President Cheney’s florid fantasies to the contrary notwithstanding, is not what we as a nation can do if we set our mind to it, but instead what we cannot do even if we have set our mind to it. Liberals and conservatives continue to want to speak as if it were the 1990s and the question is not whether we can intervene successfully, but only whether or not we will choose to do so. But instead, it is 2013, and the greatest nation in the history of the world, as American exceptionalists like to say, is certainly great in one respect: we are now the greatest debtor nation in the history of the world. And political structures seem to be decaying as fast as our physical infrastructure.

What should happen? The United States should learn to live within its means, not just economically, but militarily, and in terms of its ideological self-conception. That would mean no more so-called wars of choice, no more fantasies of omnipotence whose greatest manifestation is a military budget so much greater than that required for national self-defense and for essential national interests such as the capacity to keep the sea lanes and the skies open for global trade—yes, by force if necessary—and no more mortgaging of the nation’s future in the name of empire, idealism, or, in the American case, of both. But will this happen? Almost certainly not. Like the old Soviet Union, we cling to our old ways and our old conceits, pretending to ourselves that the world is still what it was when our word was law. It will take more than a failed war in Iraq and a stupid and wasteful occupation of Afghanistan to change that. Dreams die hard, and American exceptionalism, that is to say, the American dream, dies hardest of all.

David Rieff is a journalist and author. He is finishing a book on the global food crisis.

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