Five Years and Counting: Ten Unpleasant Truths About the War in Iraq

A smarter occupation would not have produced significantly better results. The Bush administration failed to plan the post-war occupation and compounded that error with numerous post-invasion blunders.
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Full Disclosure: I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, because I was convinced that war was unnecessary and would result in a costly, open-ended occupation. Along with several other scholars, I made the case for containment in a number of published articles, speeches, and media appearances. I also helped organize an advertisement opposing the war that appeared in the New York Times in September 2002. I wish we had been wrong; sadly, we turned out to be right. On the 5th anniversary of the invasion, here are ten unpleasant truths about past errors, present circumstances, and future choices.

1. The invasion of Iraq may be the greatest self-inflicted blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The case for war rested on false information, dubious assumptions and mendacious analysis. Neoconservatives inside and outside the Bush administration persuaded the president, vice president, and the American people that Saddam was an imminent threat, that war would be easy and pay for itself, and that ousting him would bring far-reaching benefits to the region. They were wrong on all counts, and their responsibility for this catastrophe should not be forgotten.

2. A smarter occupation would not have produced significantly better results. The Bush administration failed to plan the post-war occupation and compounded that error with numerous post-invasion blunders. But the odds were against us from the start, given Iraq's internal divisions and social conditions. Foreign occupiers rarely understand local conditions and usually end up alienating the population, and no society likes being governed by well-armed foreign invaders. The key mistake was the initial decision to invade, the subsequent errors merely made a bad situation worse.

3. The war has done enormous damage to U.S. interests in the Middle East. The invasion destabilized the region and enhanced Iran's influence and strategic position. It also contributed to the unprecedented rise in oil prices, discredited democracy, and further tarnished America's image in the Arab and Islamic world. We cannot escape these consequences until we reverse course. Civil war may occur after we withdraw, but that danger exists whenever we leave. Fortunately, fears of a regional war are exaggerated: because many of Iraq's neighbors depend on oil revenues and have only modest power-projection capabilities, they have good reasons to keep an internal conflict in bounds and little capacity to spread it around the region.

4. The war has been a major setback in the campaign against anti-American terrorism. The war diverted attention and resources from our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, thereby helping Al Qaeda and the Taliban recover their strength. Iraq has become a new training ground for terrorists, and events like Abu Ghraib have given anti-American elements a potent new weapon in the struggle for hearts and minds.

5. The "surge" has failed as a strategy. Increased U.S. troop strength brought internal violence back down to 2005 levels, but political reconciliation did not occur and the level of violence is now rising. Judged by the administration's own criteria, the strategy has not worked. Current force levels are not sustainable, and prolonging the surge would damage our armed forces further and weaken our global position even more.

6. The United States cannot win the war at an acceptable cost. America's ability to dictate political events in Iraq was never very great and is steadily declining. Iraqis will determine their country's future, not us, and prolonging the U.S. presence will not alter this fact. Although Saddam is gone and Iraq will eventually recover, that result will not have been worth the enormous economic, diplomatic, and human costs we have incurred.

7. The search for scapegoats is already underway. Civilians who now argue that the surge is "working" are trying to pin failure either on Bush's successor, or on those who have opposed the war from the beginning. By claiming that things are improving and that victory is in sight, they are preparing to blame defeat on whoever finally does get us out. But if there is no prospect for a meaningful victory, then staying in Iraq is strategically foolish and a cavalier waste of American lives.

8. The war has done more damage to the armed forces than we know, and rebuilding them will be more difficult, costly, and time-consuming than we realize. U.S. troops have fought bravely and with dedication, and they deserve our gratitude. But the war has undermined overall U.S. readiness, degraded our equipment, and crippled recruitment and retention. The Bush administration has sustained domestic support for the war by concealing the price the armed forces have paid, but the bill will come due soon.

9. The next president faces a stark choice: bring a misguided war to an end, or inherit responsibility for it. For the next President, continuing the occupation means taking ownership of Bush's blunder. If he or she does this, the Iraq quagmire will dominate their presidency and make it harder to focus on other looming challenges, while the costs continue to mount. By getting out quickly, the next President can restore America's freedom of action and begin to rebuild our damaged international position.

10. The Iraq debacle reflects a broader pattern of failure among key American institutions. Although primary responsibility for the war rests with Bush, Cheney, and the neoconservatives who conceived and sold it, other important U.S. institutions performed poorly as well. Congress never debated the war in a serious way and it continued to back Bush's policies long after their failure was apparent. Mainstream media institutions like the New York Times and Washington Post smoothed the path to war by parroting the administration's sales pitch and giving abundant space to pro-war cheerleaders. Even more remarkably, mainstream media organizations continue to rely on the same "talking heads" and inside-the-Beltway pundits whose judgment has proven consistently wrong since 2002. The implication is deeply troubling: if Americans do not learn from this experience and hold those responsible accountable, the Iraq debacle will not be our last.

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