Few people bear more responsibility for the Iraq war than Paul Wolfowitz. The former deputy secretary of defense under George W. Bush provided intellectual backing for the invasion. It took him only four days after 9/11 to suggest at a Camp David meeting that Iraq should be bombed, despite no evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the horrors of that day.
He’d have to wait another year and a half, but the United States would ultimately depose Saddam, crush the Iraqi military, and occupy the country. The Middle East would then melt down, a sectarian war would begin, Iran would be empowered, and the Islamic State would come to fruition. Wolfowitz would later admit that logistical mistakes were made during the invasion, but he never disowned it entirely. Now, if a recent “Meet the Press” interview is any indication, he’s back in full-throated defense mode.
Host Chuck Todd began the segment, which aired this past September 11, by asking Wolfowitz whether he minded being called the “architect of the Iraq war,” as he often is. Wolfowitz said he did mind because he was “not the commander-in-chief or even the secretary of state or secretary of defense or the national security advisor.” True, but he was an extraordinarily powerful deputy secretary of defense, someone who had the president’s ear and could have altered policy. The Iraq war was largely a production of high-powered presidential advisors, who incessantly prodded George W. Bush—a governor and not a foreign policy savant—about Saddam. Wolfowitz was among them.
But Wolfowitz claims he tried to sound the alarm. “I thought at the time there were a lot of things that could have been done differently,” he said. “If you think about it, if we’d had a counterinsurgency strategy like we did during the surge…from the beginning, I think Iraq would look like a very different place today.” Yes, but part of the surge strategy was a significantly larger American troop presence in Iraq, something Wolfowitz opposed at the start of the war. And the crux of the so-called surge was General David Petraeus buying off Sunni warlords in Anbar Province, a purchased peace and one that would prove fleeting, as today’s terrorist-blistered Iraq demonstrates.
The surge was intended both to tamp down violence and bring about political reconciliation: it never accomplished the second and accomplished the first only in the short term. Yet Wolfowitz cited the surge as a model and hung his argument on a contention that it ultimately “defeated” al Qaeda in Iraq. This isn’t just incorrect—they weren’t defeated: they returned years later as the Islamic State—it demonstrates a misunderstanding about what happened. The insurgency wasn’t a homegrown terrorist outfit; it was a region-wide cattle call for furious Sunnis who wanted to stem the newfound power of Shia-majority Iraq. Abu al-Zarqawi, who led the insurgency before his death in 2006, was Jordanian, as were many of his jihadist imports. Saudi Arabians played their usual role. Fighters streamed across the Iraqi borders.
This was the Middle East unspooling, the old sectarian rivalries bubbling back up, and Iraq was only its focal point.
The idea that we could have managed something so vast with a “counterinsurgency strategy” is foolish.
Wolfowitz then went for the old fallback of asking us to imagine what would have happened if we’d left Saddam in power. “You would have Syria on steroids,” he proclaimed. “Saddam would be even more brutal than Assad has been.” That’s possible, though we’ll never know for sure, but what we can say with cast-iron certainty is that not leaving Saddam in power was a gruesome calamity. What does Wolfowitz have to say about the hundred thousand people who did die because of the invasion? Or the more than $2 trillion that was spent on the war? Reality proves much more compelling than his counterfactual.
Finally, Wolfowitz parroted his new hero Hillary Clinton and claimed that, “Bashar Assad, with the support of Iran and Russia, created ISIS” by “driving these Sunnis into desperation where ISIS is the only choice for them.” This is gob smacking drivel. If dictators unleash terrorists, then why hasn’t the Middle East been awash in jihadism for decades if not centuries? Why was the Islamic State essentially birthed only in 2003?
It’s the removal of those dictators without the ability to stabilize the aftermath that leaves behind vacuums, which are then filled by terrorist elements.
Judging by his comments, Wolfowitz doesn’t seem to have grasped any of this. He most certainly is an “architect” of Iraq’s current chaos, which, thanks to his exertions, still rages today.