Reckoning With the Costs of Iraq 20 Years On
Next month will mark the two-decade anniversary of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. If the last twenty years are any indication, it is likely that the mainstream media and the political establishment on both sides of the aisle will continue to miss the major lessons from this pivotal chapter in American history.
There is unlikely to be much celebration or commemoration of the event. Perhaps a few neoconservative outlets will host a seminar in an effort to relive the glory days when they bestrode the Republican Party and (so they thought) the world, but they are already relics of a bygone age. On the left, there will be pieces highlighting the death toll, but anti-interventionism, especially on grounds of principle, is out of fashion. It is unlikely that President Joe Biden, who voted for the 2003 invasion as a senator, was vice president to the man who botched the withdrawal, and then presided over his own fiasco in Afghanistan will want to draw attention to the anniversary. So, odds are, it will pass without notice, consigned to oblivion along with trillions of dollars and countless lives.
That is unfortunate. The dead deserve a real debate about what happened, and the taxpayers deserve an accounting of where their money went. Every American also deserves a government that can examine both its successes and failures to ensure that they do not repeat themselves in other countries at other times.
Instead, discourse about Iraq has bifurcated into two echo-chambers, each with their own distinct reasons for why it “failed.” For the left, the war was a moral failing, an act of imperial hubris which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, totals which are sometimes inflated into the millions by overzealous online commentators. Even this argument produces a split around current politics. Those skeptical of intervention in Ukraine argue that intervention is inherently immoral. Those supportive of it who govern the Democratic Party argue instead that the problem in Iraq was not the death toll but the cause of the invasion. Invading Iraq, they say, was immoral, and hence the deaths that followed were murder. Ukraine’s fight is moral, hence, anything done in pursuit of victory there is justified.
The dangers with this line of argument are that it can be used to justify almost anything.
Republicans have had little interest in engaging with the moral arguments, especially since 2016, when the party definitively rejected the legacy of the Bush family. It would be hard to find a senior elected Republican today who would defend George W. Bush’s handling of the war, even if some will argue it was the correct decision at the time. Nor do they spend much time thinking about the losses of non-Americans, especially in regions of the world where life is viewed as nasty, brutish, and short.
Here they are somewhat supported by the events of the last twenty years. The lines from the left regarding Iraqi death tolls and the destabilization of the Middle East are frozen in time from the Bush years. They ignore the rise of ISIS, the collapse of Libya, Syria, and Yemen into fratricidal violence, with refugee counts ten times those of Iraq, or the actual counterfactuals. Saddam’s Iraq was slowly bleeding to death under sanctions, which according to many of the same activists who chronicled the death toll of the war, had killed half a million Iraqi children. Saddam’s sons were not viable successors, and his army was unable to control much of the country, preferring to back different Kurdish and Shia militias against their rivals. If the same crop failures which produced the Arab Spring in 2011 occurred, his regime was far less well-equipped to deal with them. It is almost impossible to imagine Saddam not facing a brutal uprising as in Syria, or not resorting to chemical and biological weapons as he had in the past. This would have meant millions of refugees, Iranian intervention on behalf of Shia Muslims, Arab intervention for the Sunnis, and Turkish movement against the Kurds.
Perhaps the U.S. might have been able to avoid direct involvement if history had gone this other way, or played a secondary role of restraint behind regional actors. But it is at best unclear whether more people actually died as a result of U.S. intervention. For all of its problems, Iraq today has multiple political parties, elections, a thriving media, and a civil society that allows protests without massacring the citizens as they do in Iran. Iraq, in 2023, looks positively functional compared to many of its neighbors.
It is no surprise that no one on the left wishes to engage with this counterfactual, this “what if” of history. To do so would require even the more hawkish elements to reckon with the failures of the Obama administration in the region, which were perhaps as deadly, if not more so. It would also require considering the possibility that, as in Syria and Libya, situations that were spiraling out of control under Obama are today out of the news entirely, in large part because Donald Trump stabilized them and did so in ways that were cost effective and reduced American involvement.
It’s not only the left that wants to ignore Donald Trump’s successes in the region. Both hawks and many within the America First wing of the Republican Party deny or misunderstand what he did. The hawks see Donald Trump as an isolationist, and charge him with abandoning Syria, “appeasing” Putin, and trying to make a deal with the Taliban. They see his declaration at the 2016 South Carolina debate that the invasion of Iraq was a “big, fat, mistake” as an argument against American involvement anywhere, and his charge that “trillions of dollars” have been wasted to give Iran control of the region as a sign that his objection was primarily about dollars and cents.
Sometimes Trump’s own supporters have been unhelpful in rebutting this, by attacking intervention in general as inherently wasteful. But President Trump bombed Assad for crossing red lines in a way Obama did not. He killed Soleimani, the commander of Iranian forces in Iraq. What Trump advocated was smart, cost-effective interventions that set reasonable objectives and asked what they were worth to American interests. The neocons never wanted to consider whether removing Assad with 500,000 U.S. troops over ten years and holding elections was really preferable to allowing Assad to remain but making clear he would be bombed if he stepped out of line. Trump asked whether we could live with the latter, and if so, whether the former was really worth the cost.
The American right sorely needs to apply that approach to its thinking on Iraq. Rather than engaging with the left in a moral debate, they should ask, what precisely did the U.S. want from Iraq? Secondly, what did it need? Thirdly, how much would each option have cost?
The irony of much of the discourse on the left is that Iraq as a whole is probably much better off than it would have been had the U.S. not invaded. The Kurds have built an autonomous region with a flourishing economy. While Iraqi politics is deadlocked, it is livelier than Lebanon, with multiple parties, newspapers, and an independent court system. The Christians and other minority communities have suffered, but likely would have done poorly in any post-Saddam civil war. If oil money is being siphoned off, that is normal government corruption in the region, but at least it is not all going to build palaces for one man.
If you could turn back time and show most of those involved in the 2002-2003 debate about the invasion what Iraq looks like today in 2023, while they would find aspects troubling, odds are they would see it as a success story. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq has not collapsed, even without American troops. The ulcer of Saddam is long gone. Iraq now hosts 2,000 U.S. troops, not the tens of thousands required before the war to deter Saddam and enforce a leaky sanctions regime. Regionally, Israel has normalized relations with the Arab states. The Iraqi government, while uncomfortably close to Iran, is not sponsoring terrorism or palling around with North Korea. If you could have told them that they would turn Iraq into Pakistan, except less supportive of America’s foes and without exporting weapons of mass destruction, almost everyone would have agreed that was a worthwhile goal.
But was it worth $2 trillion?
If there is a clear loser from the invasion of Iraq, it is not the Iraqis, but the United States. The United States is trillions poorer. That amount could have covered U.S. aid to Ukraine nearly twenty times over. The United States focused its attentions on the Middle East for a decade, neglecting a rising China during a critical period. The reaction to the Iraq War in Europe, quaint in hindsight, convinced the Obama administration that the critical goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to apologize and conciliate the Chancellor of Germany above all else, abandoning the concerns of countries like Poland and the U.K., which had supported the invasion in favor of those, like France and Germany, which had not. The invasion also greatly extended Iranian influence in the region.
All of this holds implications for contemporary debates about the issues we see today. Too many American First skeptics of support for Ukraine ape the left of yesterday on Iraq, cloaking their arguments under the guise that support is actually harming the Ukrainians and a quick Russian victory is in Ukrainian interests. This is absurd. On the other hand, perhaps too many on the center-left and neocon right have adopted George W. Bush’s suggestion that no price or burden is too great to support those fighting for freedom.
In the real world, something can be morally justified — and actually make many people better off — but yet still the cost or the risks can be too high to accept. Adults wrestle with decisions like all the time and ultimately make a choice. So do companies.
These are the questions we face again today. The answers are not easy or obvious—and as Iraq shows, the judgements we must make may not even be so decades from now. But as we approach the anniversary of the historic Iraq invasion, it would be a step forward for both sides of the foreign policy divide to sincerely grapple with the lessons of that conflict, perhaps for the first time.