Examining America’s war in Iraq after 20 years

On March 20, 2003, what was officially one of America’s shorter wars began with an airstrike on Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace in Baghdad. U.S. armed forces, 160,000 strong, moved out of Kuwait and across Iraq, and after overcoming a few small roadblocks along the way took the capital city within three weeks. On May 1, President George W. Bush declared victory from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, off the coast of San Diego. With combat over, “our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country,” Bush said. “In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world.”

As it turned out, neither the U.S. military mission nor the broader cause of liberty and peace were accomplished by May 2003, nor were they in the months and years to follow. What the Bush administration sold as a grim but necessary surgical strike for democracy and stability in the Middle East and the world has been revealed over the past two decades as one of the most grievous errors in superpower history. Mendacious in its beginnings, incompetent in its aftermath, and downright criminal in the death and civilizational wreckage it caused, the Iraq War was a catastrophe America has not yet properly reckoned with.

Mangled Bodies From Tangled Lies

To understand war, your vision must focus on details more intimate and specific than geopolitical generalities and great-power prerogatives. This particular war began with human bodies split open with bombs from the air and shells from the ground and bullets from every direction. In some cities, more than half of the accomplishments that make us civilized—buildings and homes and the complicated machinery that brings us safe water to drink and electricity to light up the darkness and power machines—were damaged or destroyed.

Because of the “kinetic actions,” in bloodless militaryspeak, that the U.S. government initiated in March 2003, for many years Iraqis would view the common automobile—usually a symbol of industrialized society meeting basic human needs—as a potential harbinger of violent death. The vehicles would, with a frequency too horrible to accept, explode, shattering the glass that kept homes and stores secure from the elements and intruders; tearing the skin and arteries that kept human bodies alive; robbing children from parents and parents from children and breadwinners from families and merchants from the customers who relied on them; sending shockwaves of grief and rage that set up motive and opportunity for the next violent assault on life and on the orderly operation of bourgeois society that constitutes the good life.

The invasion eliminated a brutal dictator, something many Iraqis were grateful for in itself. But it also for years eliminated even the distant vision of that good life. As one Iraqi woman told journalist Nir Rosen for his 2010 book Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World, “My message to the American people after five years, they destroyed us and didn’t help us, they didn’t reconstruct the country, they even added more destruction to us. The days during Saddam were better. Now there is killing and nothing good. Before there was security and life was going on easily…now things are getting worse and worse, killing in the streets.” As late as 2016, 93 percent of polled young Iraqis considered Americans their enemies for a war that Bush and his team framed as their liberation.

War of Choice

The boys doing Bush’s foreign policy thinking had a prewar paper trail planning Saddam’s overthrow that stretched back a decade. It had become an article of neoconservative faith by the turn of the century that Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, should have deposed the Ba’athist dictator as the capper to the 1991 war that expelled his armies from Kuwait. In 2001, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), full of folk who would forge W.’s foreign policy, made it clear that this grand plan was much larger than a single tyrant: It was about a “need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf [that] transcends the…regime of Saddam Hussein.” The government’s official National Security Strategy for 2002, issued in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, incorporated PNAC’s thinking, pushing the principle that any country seen as credibly threatening U.S. interests should be brought to heel with hard military power, not just the softer stuff of cultural influence and diplomacy and trade.

Even before September 11, Bush Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill would later report, one of the administration’s highest priorities was finding a way to topple Saddam. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, most any military act, no matter how severe or reckless, could be framed as an urgent fight against terrorism, even if not related to 9/11 itself. The prospect of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)—deploying them, selling them, maybe just handing them over to Osama bin Laden—was a bedtime story with terrifying potency for a rattled public. Newspaper publisher Knight Ridder reported as early as February 2002 that the White House was clandestinely planning to invade a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11.

Saddam had been pushing back against a United Nations WMD inspection regime imposed on Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. The Clinton administration bombed him directly for this in 1998 (it had already been bringing routine death from the air via anodyne-sounding “no-fly zones”) and made his ouster official U.S. policy with that same year’s bipartisan Iraq Liberation Act. Iraq was also under an international economic sanctions regime, one that U.N. humanitarian aid coordinators had decried as destroying the country in concert with the previous war’s destruction of the nation’s power, food storage, oil, sewage, road, and railway systems—$232 billion’s worth.

Buoyed by claims mostly from self-interested Iraqi exiles that Saddam’s roads were crawling with mobile biowarfare factories and that his emissaries were scouring the globe to buy tubes and uranium for his active nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration told Americans and the world that safety and justice required preemptive conquest. Those claims were based on intelligence that was almost comically false in retrospect, some from pure fabricators and some from people who were tortured. Officials did their best to keep such more-than-reasonable doubts from the public, but they were well-known within the U.S. intelligence community.

Bush and his British ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, considered as a possible casus belli for an invasion ginning up a confrontation, such as flying a U2 reconnaissance aircraft over Iraq “with fighter cover…painted in U.N. colours,” according to a memo written by a Blair aid who was present for the conversation. But ultimately the legal basis for this dubiously legal war was that America said so. Congress in October 2002 authorized a bipartisan measure allowing Bush to invade Iraq, with then-Sen. Joe Biden voting for it despite believing that the WMDs “do not pose an imminent threat to our national security.” Like many in Washington, he saw such a war as part of a “march to peace and security.”

In March 2003, the destruction of Iraq began. Bombs dropped and bullets flew and bodies (and a civilization) were annihilated. Saddam’s armed forces, presumed to have numbered around 400,000, barely fought, a phantom menace that in great numbers took off their uniforms and tried to fade back into Iraqi society, such as it remained.

As a military operation, Bush’s invasion did everything it needed to do, nearly flawlessly. And thus an American and Iraqi disaster began.

Reconstruction Blues

The WMDs were not found. They were not there. Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force, gave it to us straight: Nothing was found to justify the war on its own terms. “It’s not for lack of trying,” Conway said in a May 30, 2003, Defense Department briefing from Baghdad. “We’ve been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwait border and Baghdad but they’re simply not there.”

The administration fell back on the argument that Saddam never gave up “aspirations and intentions” toward obtaining such weapons. (Of course, nothing would inspire him more to use them if he had them than invading his country to overthrow him. But not much was said about that.) Very thin accusations that Saddam had allied with or aided Al Qaeda before 9/11 were floated and similarly did not hold water.

As head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer by then was essentially viceroy of Iraq; to flex how deeply we were obliterating the cause and memory of Saddam Hussein (who was executed in December 2006), Bremer disbanded the old Iraqi army and barred nearly all Ba’ath Party members from participation in government. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of aggrieved and unemployed young men were stalking the country, and nearly anyone with experience running schools or hospitals or water treatment facilities or oil refineries or electrical plants weren’t allowed to work on any of those things.

By the end of 2004, Iraq had become so violent that most U.S. officials—no matter how much their tasks might require seeing, understanding, and speaking to Iraqis (though the vast majority could only do so through translators)—just hunkered down in the area around Saddam’s old Republican Palace. In an act of bloody irony, the U.S. had made this its headquarters, known as the Green Zone. Projects from generating electricity to distributing food were stymied or halted because it simply wasn’t safe to be anywhere or to do anything in this nation cursed by U.S. liberation; nervous contractors hired armed guards, who too often killed Iraqi civilians merely for not stopping their cars when warned.

Guaranteed profits for well-connected corporations (some of them run by absurdly underqualified conman cowboys who knew the right people) were more common than improvements to the average Iraqi’s life. Marquee state-of-the-art hospitals favored by D.C. got more cash and attention than basic clinics to deal with more mundane but still deadly problems, such as the diarrhea that afflicted Iraqi children who often lacked access to clean water.

A pivot to security in late 2004 meant that near-majorities of planned water and electricity projects never got finished; the funding for them was diverted to trying to keep Americans and their employees alive. (Some that got finished were better left undone, like the series of natural-gas-powered generators erected in places where there were no conceivable pipelines to deliver the gas.) Nor did Iraqis seem prepared to step up: When the U.S. handed over control of the Health Ministry in March 2004, for example, 40 percent of medicines the ministry declared “essential” were not in stock in hospitals, and public clinics dealing with chronic diseases were out of 26 of 32 needed drugs. Three years later, the Iraqi health minister faced trial for such crimes as selling pharmaceuticals meant for his citizens to Iran (at a discount) and to foreign firms (for profit)—and ordering the deaths of guards from a Commission on Public Integrity that was investigating. He was acquitted, an event that a later Governance Assessment Report from the U.S. declared “a signal that those in government are above the law.”

As an occupying army, the U.S. was understandably afraid to hire many Iraqis, which left more unemployed people angry at that occupying army in a nation awash with weapons. Even those employed in the Iraqi military or police would frequently sell their bullets and guns for walking-around money. In the meantime, Washington was widely perceived as propping up Shiite Muslims (who had been suppressed under Saddam’s government) in their increasingly violent dealings with Sunni Muslims. The new Iraqi government, run by a Shiite, was torturing Sunnis, even in hospitals. Many Sunnis crawled into the arms of Al Qaeda in Iraq and began shooting back at the Shiites.

Things got bad, and things got worse. The Syrian border became a pathway for foreign militants to come in and make trouble. Iran’s influence over the Shiite government of Iraq deepened, and it has continued to this day. The Sadrist Movement withdrew from normal governance and became its own insurgent army. Insurgent courts would administer acid baths for unveiled women, and electric prods and hot irons for Sunni men who insisted on continuing to live where their families had long been living.

After seven years of U.S. occupation, Rosen writes in Aftermath, “hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had been killed. Many more had been injured. There were millions of widows and orphans. Millions had fled their homes. Tens of thousands of Iraqi men had spent years in American prisons. The new Iraqi state was among the most corrupt in the world. It was often brutal. It failed to provide adequate services to its people, millions of whom were barely able to survive.”

Mission Accomplished! Lessons Learned?

With negotiations complicated by Washington’s insistence that its troops must be able to act with complete legal impunity in Iraq, Bush, and later Obama, agreed to pull out all armed forces by the end of 2011. But with the rise of more militant chaos in the 2010s from the Islamic State group, American troops were back fighting throughout most of the 2010s. With that mission now officially over, about 2,500 troops still remain there, allegedly to merely assist and advise the Iraqis (who recently spent nearly a year trying to pull together a government, an effort marred by the usual factional rivalries, mass protests, arrests, and murders).

By some metrics, modern Iraq has shown improvement since 2003. Life expectancy is up, if only by two years, and gross domestic product has increased sixfold (while still barely half what it was prior to the first Western wreckage of Iraq in 1991). Crude oil production (nearly 90 percent of the nation’s income) has more than doubled. But it is dangerous to let economic growth fool us into deciding, decades past the daily piles of bodies in the streets, that it all seems to have worked out well enough in the end.

Beyond all the misery and chaos caused in Iraq itself, the U.S. came nowhere close to the neoconservative dream of a democratic domino effect in the Middle East. What resulted from the Iraq adventure was greater power and influence for America’s sworn enemy Iran, plus weapons and experienced jihadists and sectarian rivalries spreading around the region.

“Rather than being inspired by what happened in Iraq after the invasion,” former Middle Eastern CIA man Paul R. Pillar wrote in The National Interest in 2011, “Middle Easterners were repelled by it. If the violence, disorder, and breakdown of public services in Iraq were the birth pangs of a new Middle Eastern order, most people in the region wanted nothing of it.”

Even after Iraq, the U.S. has not given up on its hegemonic hunch that it can expend treasure and kill strangers to push the Middle East in desired directions. But it is now doing this more with mechanized drones in the air and less with American soldiers on the ground. While American bombardment helped topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, leading to still more chaos and instability and death, and we have troops and drones acting to this day in Syria, the U.S. since then has had the general sense—or the exhaustion—not to again try to invade and reconstruct a Middle Eastern nation from the ground up. In the post–Donald Trump GOP, support for the Iraq War has largely become anathema.

Yet the U.S. has still not fully internalized that war’s lessons. The Iraq debacle should have taught the U.S. it can never again scare itself into war based on guesses about how sinister some enemy is or will be. It should have taught Americans the damage that can be done by treating a foreign bogeyman as inherently intolerable—whether it’s Saddam Hussein or Vladimir Putin or the mullahs of Iran, a nation whose feared pursuit of nuclear weapons has vexed Washington for many years. Instead, President Joe Biden declared in November 2022 that “we’re gonna free Iran!”

In 2007, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D–Texas) summed up America’s bloody, buffoonish attempts at conquest and reconstruction. “This war,” he said, “was launched without an imminent threat to our families” by “radical know-it-all ideologues here in Washington” who “bent facts, distorted intelligence, and perpetrated lies designed to mislead the American people into believing that a third-rate thug had a hand in the 9/11 tragedy and was soon to unleash a mushroom cloud.”

Even the commingled scents of burning rubber, plastic, and flesh from car bombs dissipate with time. But the lessons of the folly that destroyed so many lives should never fade.

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