20 years later, has the U.S. learned the lessons of the Iraq War?
This week marked the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a war of choice that is now often considered to be one of the greatest blunders in American military history.
Then-President George W. Bush and his administration rationalized the need for war by claiming that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that posed an imminent threat to the U.S. and its allies. There were also unfounded suggestions that he had relationships with terrorists, including al-Qaida leaders who had plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. This case proved convincing to the American public. In the early weeks of the invasion, as U.S. forces conquered Baghdad and toppled Hussein’s regime, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they supported the decision to go to war.
But that sentiment began to shift as the realities of the conflict came into focus. Despite Bush’s declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in May of 2003, the war would drag on for another eight years, as U.S. forces struggled to root out insurgent groups throughout the country, and efforts to establish a stable Iraqi government faltered. The war was formally ended in 2011 by President Barack Obama, who made his opposition to the conflict a key element of his presidential campaign, but the U.S. was forced to send in additional forces after Islamic State extremists took control of significant swaths of the country.
Today, roughly 2,500 American troops remain in Iraq, a tiny fraction of the 170,000 that were stationed there at the height of the war. In recent polls, a strong majority of Americans say the U.S. made the wrong decision by invading Iraq.
The U.S. is estimated to have spent upwards of $2 trillion on the war, and more than 4,400 American service members lost their lives in the conflict. The costs imposed on the Iraqi people were far greater. Conservative estimates put the number of civilian deaths at around 300,000, although many experts believe the true number could be much higher. Those figures also don’t account for the social and political costs that continue to plague the country two decades after the initial invasion.
Why there’s debate
Whenever the Iraq War returns to public conversation, it sparks a fresh round of recriminations over the mistakes that led the U.S. into such an ill-fated conflict. But the anniversary has also raised a separate debate over what lessons the U.S. should have taken from the Iraq War — and whether we have actually learned them.
One of the biggest takeaways from Iraq, many argue, is how it provided a stark warning about the limits of American military power, especially when it comes to the extraordinarily difficult task of “nation building.” Some conservatives make the case that this should make U.S. leaders more hesitant to intervene in other nations’ affairs. Liberals, on the other hand, say the war highlights how dangerous the right’s “us-vs.-them” approach to foreign policy can be — an attitude that they argue persists to this day.
The war has also had a significant effect on U.S. politics. It remains the defining legacy of the Bush presidency, and many commentators say it helped fuel the deep distrust of American institutions that has become a dominant characteristic of the GOP in the Trump era. The public is also far less willing to support putting American troops on the ground, which has likely played a significant role in how leaders have approached conflicts in places like Libya, Syria and even Ukraine.
But many commentators — especially those on the left — say the country has largely avoided learning any of the truly difficult lessons of the war, because doing so would require accountability for the politicians and media figures who encouraged the invasion in the first place. The biggest blind spot, some argue, is how little consideration there is for the incredible suffering that the invasion imposed on the people of Iraq, and the lack of any real commitment to atone for U.S. misdeeds in the country.
Congress is currently considering a bill that would finally repeal decades-old legislation that authorized the use of military force for the war in Iraq and the Gulf War that preceded it. The bill is expected to comfortably pass through the Senate, but its fate in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is less certain.
Iraq showed that military power alone isn’t enough to change a country
“Above all, combined with the United States’ earlier experience of losing in Vietnam, the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan proved beyond any remaining doubt that no amount of money and strength by a superpower will change the outcome on the ground without a legitimate government in place. And Washington has found itself unable to implement that in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq.” — Michael Hirsh, Foreign Policy
Too many American leaders still think that military force can solve the world’s problems
“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.” — Brian Doherty, Reason
The war has all but disappeared from the national consciousness
“The war cost us at least $3 trillion, ruined America’s credibility for a generation in much of the world, and—at a conservative estimate—killed 600,000 people. Yet these days you could argue about politics every day for months without ever once bringing it up. It’s politically inert. In many ways, the war is just… gone.” — Freddie DeBoer, Daily Beast
The specter of Iraq has led the U.S. to dramatically change how it approaches global conflicts
“In Iraq, propaganda did much more than dress up battlefield events in polite language. It also invented targets and set operational objectives. Propaganda is now a powerful and direct instrument of warfare, an integral part of combat operations. This transformation has been so profound that the very concept of a battlefield has become outdated.” — Ross Caputi and Richard Hil, Al Jazeera
America’s memory of the war completely ignores the suffering of the Iraqi people
“Every time an anniversary for that catastrophic war passes, American commentators and former government officials who supported it engage in a nauseating ritual of trying to escape accountability. … These revisionist narratives typically get some pushback. But it’s not enough to re-examine what Americans got wrong. A true reckoning requires examining what happened to Iraqis.” — Zeeshan Aleem, MSNBC
There has never been a true reckoning for the people who led the country into war
“The absence of accountability for a government that lied us into war, and a media that jettisoned skepticism for stenography, continues to endanger our fragile democracy to this day.” — Editorial, The Nation
The lies that led to the war irrevocably damaged the public’s trust in their leaders
“The American people were terrified by their government into war, with the bogus menace of nuclear weapons wielded by a man with bogus connections to the 9/11 terrorists. They were promised a war that would be a cakewalk followed by an occupation in which their sons and daughters would be greeted with sweets and flowers. This cloud castle of fictions did incalculable damage to the bonds of trust between Americans and their leaders.” — Gerard Baker, Wall Street Journal
Iraq shows how dangerous it is to stifle opinions that break from the mainstream
“In a democracy, the majority still rules. At the same time, embattled minorities need avenues—and encouragement—to register their dissent, in the hope of convincing enough of their fellow citizens that they are right. Because sometimes they are. And the Iraq War was one of those times.” — Shadi Hamid, Atlantic
The war gave rise to the MAGA movement’s anti-authority worldview
“In no small measure, the horrors falling under the heading of Trumpism and culminating in the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, can be traced directly back to Bush’s cadre of self-deceived deceivers. Put simply, were it not for the Iraq War, Donald Trump probably would never have become president.” — Andrew Bacevich, Boston Globe (Yahoo News 360)