Not only has the most important “lesson” to arise from the invasion of Iraq a decade ago not been learned, it has gone largely unnoticed. The lesson is this: Without a political strategy to deal with our adversaries, any last resort to force, when it comes, will cost more, achieve less, and diminish or even destroy the prospects for victory.
From Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the 9/11 attack in 2001, what passed for an American Iraq policy was a misplaced belief that an increasingly shaky sanctions regime could “contain” Iraq and render Saddam Hussein harmless. Successive American administrations had shown no interest in working with Hussein’s opponents inside or outside Iraq and when, despite administration opposition, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, President Clinton gave lip service to its call for regime change while doing nothing substantial to bring it about.
When George W. Bush took office, top officials recognized that the Iraq sanctions were losing international support, and that the risks of maintaining “no flight zones” over Iraq were increasing (Hussein’s forces were firing daily at the US and British aircraft patrolling the zones and it seemed a matter of time before they would score a lucky hit). This compelled a review of Iraq policy. Some officials wanted to reaffirm the policy inherited from the Bush senior and Clinton administrations: no interest in bringing down the regime, no alliance with Hussein’s opponents. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1991 had preferred leaving Hussein in power to removing him by continuing the Desert Storm offensive, proposed no alternative to the status quo containment policy. If he had his way, the United States would make no real effort to work with the regime’s opponents. He hoped that Hussein would be contained, notwithstanding the well-known Pentagon maxim that hope is not a strategy.
Having failed to anticipate any attack on the scale of 9/11, however, we were suddenly faced with the danger of the next attack, perhaps with weapons of mass destruction. So the administration did the obvious thing. It made up a list of all the terrorist organizations and terrorist-supporting states who had both motive and means to inflict a devastating attack on the US, and searched for policies that could protect us against them.
Iraq was high on the list. Saddam Hussein had vigorously applauded the 9/11 attack. He had actually used weapons of mass destruction already, killing thousands in an infamous chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988. He had extensive relationships with terrorists—Abu Nidal, for example, was living and working in Baghdad. All Western intelligence organizations believed that Hussein had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear weapons program, and his government made reliable international inspections difficult or impossible. Could he—would he—make WMD available to terrorists for use against the United States? The question had become urgent. The Iraqi expatriate and Kurdish opposition that we had failed to assist or organize was not sufficiently coordinated or capable to counter the threat for us. It was too late to deal with Iraq by political means. After months of additional fruitless diplomacy (building on nearly a dozen years of less-than-effective “containment” efforts by the UN Security Council), President Bush concluded that only the military option remained.
Unwilling to leave Hussein in place and simply hope for the best, the administration decided to remove Saddam and his sons from power, using a multinational coalition that eventually numbered forty-nine countries but did not include a significant Iraqi opposition force alongside the US and coalition forces.
We will never know whether a political strategy of regime change could have succeeded in the years before 9/11. We never tried. But we do know that we were hopelessly ill prepared for the costly occupation that followed the war. Having failed to develop a working relationship with Hussein’s opponents before the invasion, and knowing little about Iraqi culture, society, and politics, we made one mistake after another as several thousand well-intentioned Americans, some of whom had never traveled outside the United States, descended on and remained isolated in the protected “Green Zone” in Baghdad, sent there to govern a country of which we knew little.
For many of us who believed the risk of leaving Hussein in place after 9/11 was unacceptable, the American occupation of Iraq was excruciating. The insurgency mobilized against it took the lives of thousands of brave Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians. The insurgency might never have gotten off the ground (for five months after Baghdad fell, there was no insurgency) if we had turned governmental authority over to the Iraqis soon after grateful Iraqis pulled down Hussein’s statues and monuments. But we hardly knew the Iraqis, and the State Department and CIA officials who had long opposed working with them distrusted them with far more passion than reason. An Iraqi government would surely have made mistakes, but I doubt it would have proved as inept as the ineffectual occupation leadership sequestered in the Green Zone.
For years before 9/11 made invasion our only option in Iraq, we failed to develop a political strategy for dealing with Hussein. And for years after Baghdad fell, we compounded that failure as occupiers.
Far from learning from that bitter experience, however, we repeat it with alarming frequency, especially now, after uprisings have remade the Arab world. In Libya we were not even thinking about a political strategy when the anti-Qaddafi uprising drew us (albeit leading from behind) into yet another Middle Eastern military operation. We dithered until the situation was desperate, then jumped in without connections to Libyan allies that we knew and could trust. Administration officials explained our delayed response, which made the outcome more costly and the eventual consequences less predictable, by saying that we didn’t know who among the rebels we should back. Of course we didn’t—just as we had not known who to work with in Iraq.
And now Iran. We have an obvious interest in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapons capability and ending Iran’s support for international terrorism. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime is intensely unpopular. Yet, astonishingly, our government has no political strategy for Iran. President Obama’s response to the massive (and potentially regime-changing) protests in June 2009 was one of studied indifference. Eventually the sheer size of the protests and the regime’s bloody response elicited a reluctant statement criticizing the government’s brutality. But we should have begun to work with the Iranian opposition years ago, just as we should have worked with the oppositions in Libya and Iraq.
As in the case of Iraq a decade ago, we are again facing dangers for which we lack a sensible political strategy, leaving us either to accept the unacceptable, a nuclear-armed Iran, or turn to a costly “last resort,” to military operations. Lessons learned may be painful, but lessons unlearned are inexcusable.
Richard Perle is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He served as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy from 1981 to 1987 and afterward as a member of the Defense Policy Board, including three years as chairman.