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Judging the Iraq fiasco

The moral case for the war fell apart under the weight of incompetence and the consequent suffering of the Iraqis.

Apr 02,2013
A few days ago in these pages, I argued on this decade anniversary of the Iraq invasion, that there was a logic to it that enjoyed American/Western public support, contrary to popular notions that the invasion was an oil grab or an insider conspiracy. The Iraq invasion was to serve two “neoconservative” purposes: First, it was to be a demonstration strike against the Arab states. Arab anti-Western pathologies lead to 9/11, so the Iraq invasion was a warning to Arabs, and Muslims generally, to never to attack the U.S. like that again. Second, it was to be a hammer strike to break the frozen, horribly dysfunctional Arab political status quo which generated those pathologies; this would force the region toward democracy it would never attain on its own. This neoconservative thinking was summarized in the widely used contemporaneous expression, “drain the swamp.”

In retrospect of course, the war was a titanic error. But the public did support the war initially. Support only dropped as the occupation imploded and U.S. casualties spiked.

That is, the war lost support because of its catastrophically incompetent mismanagement, not the original argument. The U.S. army particularly was simply not trained and structured to wage a counter-insurgency and nation-build. During the war, Donald Rumsfeld repeated the old saw that soldiers are trained to “kill people and break things,” i.e., conduct traditional wars, not long-term stability operations.

But post-war Iraq did not really need those skills. It needed counter-insurgents - a skill-set the army had deliberately “un-remembered” after the Vietnam War in order to forestall U.S. policy makers ever using the army that way again. The army also needed social scientists, administrators, engineers, aid workers and all the other NGO/UN-style nation-building expertise it did not have. This is not to blame the army; it was not reconfigured before the war to include these capabilities. As Rumsfeld also said during the war, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want” - which is another way of saying that he and the Bush administration did not properly prepare the tools for the ambitious strategy the neoconservative analysis of the Middle East suggested.

As a result, the army stumbled through the occupation, including the use of torture and extensive detention, until David Petraeus began applying counterinsurgency meaningfully in 2008. But by then, just about everyone had had enough of the war - Congress, the military and the public all wanted out. Today, Americans have all but forgotten about Iraq.

All this suggests a mixed picture of the war ten years out. Critics, rightfully, take credit. But too many war supporters will admit nothing. Too much of the journalistic debate is driven not by the state of Iraq or U.S. foreign policy today, but by the high personal reputation costs faced by so many pundits supportive of the war. No one in the pundit class seems capable of apologizing, nor can former Bush officials. Too many will say, for reputational reasons, that they would do it all the same way again if they had too, as Bush himself has said. But a fairer judgment on the neoconservative case for war would be:

In the wake of 9/11, bin Ladenist pathologies looked dangerously widespread in the Arab world. Bush officials at the time were speaking of a “long war” and a “twilight struggle” with Islamic fundamentalism that could take decades. It turned out that 9/11 was a one-off sucker punch, and that Muslims were not in fact very sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

It is correct that Afghanistan was not an Arab state and far from the Arab stage, but most of the world did accept that this permitted a U.S. attack on an Arab state unrelated to 9/11. This cost the U.S. enormous global support.

In 2002, the Arab states did indeed seem frozen in time, but that too looks like a rash claim in the wake of Arab Spring.

The U.S. military had neither the force structure, aptitude nor interest to perform counter-insurgency and long-term nation-building, while the U.S. public did not have the decades-long endurance for it.

The initial blitzkrieg invasion was successful, as promised. But voters had been led to believe America would then dump Iraq on the Iraqi exiles, or the international community as in the Balkan wars. When this fell through, the astonishing lack of post-conflict planning by the Bush team became apparent.

It all went downhill from there. The moral case for the war fell apart under the weight of incompetence and the consequent suffering of the Iraqis. Abu Ghraib particularly was the last straw. After that, it was all but impossible to say the war was worth it.

Even if the neoconservative analysis was right, to follow through on it would have required, 1) a wholesale remaking of the U.S. military toward nation-building, in the face of painful lessons to the contrary from the Vietnam War and disinterest in that remaking almost everywhere in the Defense Department, and 2) enduring US public support for long-term nation-building, which the U.S. electorate has never before supported. In fact, the U.S. public is known for the opposite - casualty-shyness that regularly puts a political limit on the U.S. use of force. Yet even were both of those in place, trying to remake a foreign society is still extraordinarily difficult. Nonetheless, with mixed tools and tepid public support, the U.S. tried something extraordinarily difficult. It is not surprising, then, that it ended so poorly.

There is a second, moral lesson too: Wars of choice have a different moral calculus. Because America preemptively attacked Iraq, the moral requirements of America’s post-war behavior in the country and reconstruction of it were much higher than in other conflicts. Unfortunately 125,000 Iraqis have died violently for reasons related to the war, and a fair share of that is on us. We should be ashamed of our culpability in that.

*The author is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com.

by Robert E. Kelly



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