What We Learned in Iraq

Ten years ago this week, Americans were about to be introduced to a strange new concept: "catastrophic success."

Ten years ago this week, Americans were about to be introduced to a strange new concept, as they awaited the U.S. war to bring regime change in Iraq. Coined by American military officers, it encapsulated a situation in which everything went right until everything went wrong. The term was "catastrophic success."

But before the war began, supporters were bursting with confidence. Vice President Dick Cheney predicted that "we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." The Pentagon expected to withdraw most troops by summer's end. Reconstruction would be a bargain because Iraq would pay for it with oil revenues.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. By the time we finally left Iraq, more than eight years had elapsed, 4,486 Americans had died and $1.7 trillion had gone up the chimney. Despite our success in removing Saddam Hussein from power, the Iraq war stands as the nation's most grievous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.

The U.S. Army / photo on flickrThe U.S. Army / photo on flickrIt was the result of a toxic combination of ignorance, arrogance and impatience. But with the exception of Cheney and a few others, those traits are far less pronounced today. The public and policymakers learned much from the experience, and the lessons have stuck.

Iraq became, as novelist David Foster Wallace would put it, a supposedly fun thing we'll never do again. It dramatized the dangers of plunging into a major war in the absence of a powerful national interest. It exposed the hazards of a long-term occupation in an alien culture. It showed the need to consider the worst-case scenario.

Americans underwent a similar disillusionment from the Vietnam War, which left an aversion to intervention that conservatives lamented as "the Vietnam syndrome." But because our failure occurred during the Cold War, it was taken as a victory for world communism. The country split between those who thought it was doomed from the start and those who believed we could have won if not for the appeasers and draft-dodgers back home.

Regret for the Iraq war is far more widespread. At the beginning, 62 percent of Americans supported the invasion -- with most erroneously believing that Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Just three years later, 63 percent said the war was a mistake.

There is clearly an "Iraq syndrome" today, but it's not really controversial. After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, not many people are itching to relive the experience elsewhere.

President Barack Obama, who opposed the invasion of Iraq, encountered little resistance to winding up the U.S. mission there, and he faces little as U.S. troops stream toward the door in Afghanistan.

Obama took note of the Iraq disaster in addressing Libya, where liberal as well as conservative hawks urged him to use force against dictator Moammar Gadhafi. His defense secretary publicly questioned the option, and Obama drew criticism for his reluctance to intervene.

When he finally did, it was on novel terms: He insisted that our allies take the lead, kept our role to a minimum, avoided U.S. casualties and wrapped it up before the commercial break.

Crucial to that approach was his refusal to deploy ground troops or assume the slightest responsibility for what happened next in Libya. He's been even warier in Syria: To be persuaded to use air power, Obama would need an implement measuring at least 11 feet, since he wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole.

All this reflects a sharp shift in popular sentiment. Summarizing the results of a poll it sponsored last year, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported that "with a strong sense that the wars have overstretched our military and strained our economic resources, (Americans) prefer to avoid the use of military force if at all possible."

There is one notable exception: Iran. Obama has vowed to do whatever it takes to prevent the mullahs from getting nuclear weapons, and most Americans favor military action if Iran doesn't give up that quest.

The key here is that everyone figures we can do the job from the safety of the skies. If it called for large numbers of boots on the ground, we'd resign ourselves to Iranian nukes -- which we may anyway.

That's a symptom of how we've changed since Cheney and Co. were in office. In a new documentary, he affirms, in a reference that includes Iraq, "If I had to do it over again, I'd do it in a minute." The rest of us? Not a chance.

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  • ||

    President Barack Obama, who opposed the invasion of Iraq, encountered little resistance to winding up the U.S. mission there, and he faces little as U.S. troops stream toward the door in Afghanistan.

    Obama took note of the Iraq disaster in addressing Libya, where liberal as well as conservative hawks urged him to use force against dictator Moammar Gadhafi. His defense secretary publicly questioned the option, and Obama drew criticism for his reluctance to intervene.

    When he finally did, it was on novel terms: He insisted that our allies take the lead, kept our role to a minimum, avoided U.S. casualties and wrapped it up before the commercial break.

    Let the Obama fellating begin. Never mind the niggling little detail that the whole Libyan venture was unconstitutional. Never mind that Obama merely stuck to the schedule he inherited when pulling out of Iraq.

  • Counterfly||

    It's Chapman. The fellating began a looong time ago. Around 2006 I'd imagine.

  • UCrawford||

    No kidding. It's interesting how conveniently he ignores that we've been quietly sending troops to Africa and ramping up our missions there. But why include relevant facts if they detract from praising the Dear Leader for a noninterventionist foreign policy he doesn't have?

    Steve Chapman is to libertarianism what Bill Kristol is to conservatism and Paul Krugman is to economics.

  • Bucky||

    yeah, i stopped by Old Reason and what do i see?
    more Chapman Crap:
    -never mind what Iraq would be if we hadn't gone,
    -never mind all the bullshit lawyers trying to 'litigate' a war and weekly change of the 'rules of engagement',
    -never mind a liberal media and the endless harping about 'Bush's War',
    i.e. would never relate the number of soldiers lost in one day in WWII to what was happening in the whole Iraq war.
    -never mind a 'little thing' that happened in Libya right after Saddam was captured,
    -never mind that we exterminated his two vermin sons Usay and Poopay (may there be an eternal roasting of their privates),
    -never mind the poor Kurds, living in fear of another use of, dare i say, weapons of mass destruction on one of their villages,
    history... what a concept

  • ||

    What we learned? You mean what we didnt learn from Vietnam, and likely didnt learn from Iraq. I think we are gearing up to not learn the same lessons in Africa now.

    I recently had an interesting conversation with a naturalized citizen ( Canadian native ) when she declared over martinis that the U.S. has an 'obligation' to help other nations not as fortunate as we are. She is a smart girl, a conservative, a gun nut, and caught on quickly. After ten minutes she conceded that we do not have any such obligation, and that other nations are fully responsible for their own conditions; fortune has nothing to do with it.

    That conversation was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise depressing philosophical landscape.

  • ||

    other nations are fully responsible for their own conditions

    Is Iraq fully responsible for its current situation?

  • Question of Auban||

    “Nations” are groups of individuals. It is no more useful to speak of “nations” being responsible things than it is to speak of “continents”, “planets”, or “Solar systems”. Only individuals are responsible for our own actions. And we may not be fully responsible for our entire situation either. Certainly if a maniac ties you down and severs your leg you are not “responsible for that”. It was not your fault. But you ARE responsible for the results of your OWN actions.

  • Counterfly||

    By 'responsible' he really means 'capable of succeeding or failing without intervention'. Which I agree with wholeheartedly.

  • Question of Auban||

    I would agree with that as well, if that is the meaning.

  • ||

    I had to leave early this morning and missed the replies to my comment. I am sure the thread is dead now but for the record....yes that is what I meant.

    Q of A is technically correct, but sometimes it is useful to speak of cultures or nations as entities, keeping in mind that they really are groups of people each being responsible for thier own actions.

    Still, we have only been here in North America ~500 years and look what we have made. The Iraqies have been in Mesopotamia for....uh...thousands of years, probably tens of thousands and look at their condition. If you took all of the Iraqies and put them in Germany, took all of the Germans and put them in Iraq, fifty years would pass and Iraq would look like Germany today and Germany would look like Iraq today. You cant dismiss that.

    Yes, figuratively speaking, each nation is responsible for their own condition, and we have no obligation to change that. I am not saying we shouldnt if we can and have a good chance of success, but we arent obligated.

  • ||

    "Is Iraq fully responsible for its current situation?"

    Yes.

  • BlueBook||

    With genetic engineering, cybernetic prostheses, and other emerging transhuman body enhancements, it may soon be possible to create a ten-foot Pole. Unless they use SI in Poland, in which case it'd be about three meters.

  • Counterfly||

    If they get 200' of rope and 6 large sacks, they'd be ready to assault the Keep on the Borderlands.

  • Rasilio||

    +1 sword of humor

  • LiberTarHeel||

    " The public and policymakers learned much from the experience, and the lessons have stuck."

    Thank goodness! Otherwise we might have become mired in Afghanistan, Soviet-style; might have drone-bombed our Paki 'allies'; might have mucked up 'Arab Spring'; might have rattled our sabres at Iran, Syria, North Korea; might have invaded continental Africa, just to see what we could see!

    Yes, "The public and policymakers learned much from the experience, and the lessons have stuck." If "much" = nothing, and "stuck" is a typo for "suck"!

  • Question of Auban||

    My Congresscritter sent me a poll question about whether or not people the FedGoV accuses of being terrorists deserve a trial to determine whether or not they actually are terrorists. Feel free to answer the question yourself. The wording in the poll, of course, is very biased. I would love this poll to not go his way.

    http://buchanan.houseenews.net.....9.39&gen=1

  • wareagle||

    without reading the poll and reacting to bias, my initial response is of course, people accused by their govt of wrongdoing should get a trial. It's not about whether or not they "deserve" one; they are constitutionally guaranteed a trial.

    Otherwise, the govt could accuse anyone of being a terrorist and locking them away indefinitely. Um, wait...didn't The Obama already grant himself that power?

  • Bardas Phocas||

    Keep repeating those lessons, re: Syria.
    The Syrian civil war is hitting that special point where everyone who isn't in it, decides they should be in it. From 19 year-old, under-employed Saudis to TOP MEN in the US, British and French foriegn policy shops - they all want to get their war boners on.

  • Question of Auban||

    I keep wondering at what point the Nobel Peace Prize Committee will ask Obama to give his prize back.

  • Longtorso||

    That would be Indian Giving.

  • Bucky||

    don't you mean
    indigenous people giving?

  • Rich||

    IIRC, the Prize was essentially for his role in *potential* peace. There's *always* potential peace.

  • ||

    They were just pinko Eurotrolls who liked that a minority, progressive guy won the election, because, you know, that's awesome and everything.

  • Jon Lester||

    Scandinavian racial attitudes notwithstanding...

  • sarcasmic||

    Meanwhile the military industrial complex is laughing all the way to the bank.

  • SugarFree||

    We have to fight them over there or we'll have to fight them over here. Of course, we would never have to fight them over here because there's no such thing as blowback. And our involvement in the Middle East never creates militants, so once the killbots reach their pre-set kill limit the survivors will love us.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    We have to fight them over there or we'll have to fight them over here. Of course, we would never have to fight them over here because there's no such thing as blowback.

    Trying to light the John and Cyto signal are you?

  • ||

    To be fair, John admits the existence of blowback.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    To be fair, John admits the existence of blowback.

    Oh, I know. It is the first sentence that gets John, the second for Cyto.

  • ||

    I don't think anyone would really dispute the concept. The degree to which it applies to religious nutbars whose beliefs and actions are largely motivated by some militaristic bullshit an Arab rabble rouser wrote down 1,500 years ago is where it gets dicey. The entire concept as it relates to modern America rests upon the premise that the Arab Muslim world started justifiably hating America after we unilaterally and without provocation glassed Mecca. Which would make a lot of sense, if it had actually happened.

  • Bucky||

    just saying...

  • Loki||

    once the killbots reach their pre-set kill limit the survivors will love us.

    Unfortunately the preset kill limit is ~7 billion.

  • Gene||

    And when do they not?

  • Lyle||

    Good for them I say. They're making money and employing a lot of people.

  • Bucky||

    18% of the budget is laughing?

    no, more like race baiters, 99%ers, welfare queens, etc.

    now that's funny...

  • BabbleFish||

    So, Iraq == Vietnam. Thanks for the original thought and incisive analysis.

    I know I'm not riding the popularity bandwagon by saying this, but the Iraq invasion has been a qualified success. Saddam - and his apparatus - is gone, and the country survived being turned back over to its own people, to include the survival of its democratic form of government. It is still kicking, despite being sandwiched between at least three big countries that would like to dismember it and have the means to attempt to do so.

    The qualification, of course, is that you have to add "sofar" to the above. South Vietnam lasted a few years after US combat troops pulled out. If Iraq is invaded by Iran and/or goes Taliban sometime in the next decade, then you can pull out the bad Tom Cruise movies and hippie hairstyles and say you told us so.

  • ||

    Sure, but I don't think it was worth the cost. Thousands of Americans are dead, and for what?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Thousands of Americans are dead, and for what?

    For the right of an ungrateful Iraqi population to froth at the mouth while shouting Qu'ranic verses and raise their swords and AK-47s in the air while screeching for the death of the Western infidel and Jew, of course.

  • ||

    That's kind of one of my main points here. Fuck popular opinion, because it wasn't worth our sweat and our blood.

  • ||

    It wasn't worth a stray hair from our collective nut sack, and knowing then what we know now, I don't think any rational person would say otherwise. Letting a bunch of backward primitives elect the best asshole among them rather than having the asshole imposed upon them is a benefit only at the margins, and not our benefit to enjoy in any case.

  • Bucky||

    what happened to the 'lessons we learned' in Japan and Germany???

  • Finrod||

    So having a country in the Middle East that's an ally doesn't mean much to you?

    Not having a dictator that can't be contained within his borders (Iran, Kuwait) isn't a good thing to you?

  • Finrod||

    The Kurds have a very different view of the Iraq invasion. Last I checked, George Bush still had a 90+% approval rating amongst them.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    I know I'm not riding the popularity bandwagon by saying this, but the Iraq invasion has been a qualified success.

    What was the danger to the US from Iraq? No matter what the outcome, it was wrong to go into another country as we were not defending ourselves. So I don't see any success, unless you owned stock in the weapons manufacturers.

  • JohnTheRevelator||

    Remember the landscape of 2001. OBL had in mind to establish a new Caliphate and take over the world (what we do every night, Pinkie..) He already controlled one country and had ties to others and strong financial backing. The Islamic world appeared to be falling in line behind him because he offered strength, order (so the propaganda line went) and most importantly, relief from the various Saddams and Assads.

    Remember all the people, left and right, who said back then that Arabs wanted and needed dictators? Guess what. They didn't want them, and now Iraq shows they don't need them, either. And OBL's movement has lost support accordingly. That's what 4500 troops died for, and I say they didn't die in vain. Unless we now turn around and throw all that down the memory hole .

  • wwhorton||

    That's a really good point. I'm not in favor of shipping off troops to foreign countries just in case they might become naughty some day, but in 2003 I bought into Iraq hook, line, and sinker. 9/11 was still very fresh, and the argument was compelling.

    In retrospect, it was foolish in the extreme. Iraq might be better off now, or at least on a path to some sort of stable, genuinely representative government that acts as a benign influence in the region, but I don't know that it was worth the cost. Plus, I don't know that any possible good result for Iraq outweighs the damage we've done to our political culture by authorizing the invasion. It's easy to say that nation-building is categorically a bad idea if it always results in failure. What's truly dangerous is when it actually succeeds, because the calculus becomes more complicated. It's easier to justify if you can point to a democratic Iraq.

    I think that sometimes the issue is framed as two mutually exclusive options; either Iraq was successful, OR it wasn't worth the cost in blood and treasure. In retrospect, I think that both are true.

  • UCrawford||

    I'm not sure how much you guys have been following Iraq since the mainstream press started ignoring it, but things are not going swimmingly there since we left. It's just that we're not bombarded with it anymore.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/World.....-civil-war

    The reason dictators are the norm in the Middle East is because many of those countries lack the institutions necessary to support stable governance (banking, courts, educational systems) and because Islamic views of rights are very different from our own. They're a collectivist society, generally speaking, and those will usually be run by dictators or oligarchs. Iraq had a repressive Sunni government, now they're moving towards a repressive Shi'a one. Egypt was under a secular tyrant, soon it will be under a religious one. Same as it ever was.

  • UCrawford||

    And none of the new leadership in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt or Libya are grateful to us for our intervention, nor is it going to pay off for us in the long run. That's not a success of any kind. It was a complete waste of money and lives all based on a stunning combination of arrogance, naivete and flat-out stupidity by our elected leaders.

    That's what you get, of course, when you keep electing armchair warriors from the Ivy League.

  • Bucky||

    i think what you're saying is we to stop all pretense of an ally and cease and desist with all of the foreign aid?

  • UCrawford||

    Bucky...yup, pretty much. Or learn to mind our own business when it comes to other countries' internal problems. I think the Afghanistan was valid (emphasis on "was", now that bin Laden is dead), but what the fuck do we care about what Saddam did in his country? World's full of assholes...it's not our job to sort them all out.

  • UCrawford||

    And we certainly aren't going to turn current day Iraq into a wonderful place by throwing money at it now. It's like we think that the rest of the world is too stupid to figure out how to run their own lives if we don't take control. Let them solve their own problems.

  • Lyle||

    Majorities rule in republics though! And the Shia are a majority (or the largest religious faction at least) in Iraq and the Sunni are a majority in Egypt.

    We're only seeing these countries true faces now with the despots out of power.

  • Lyle||

    Amen brother.

  • Finrod||

    We were already in Iraq post-1991. Well, over it at least; don't you remember the no-fly zones mandated by the UN and enforced by the United States? Seventeen UN resolutions against Iraq?

    Were you not alive to remember all that stuff going down then?

  • Lyle||

    I agree with Babblefish. The world is a much better place without Saddam Hussein and self-rule hasn't totally fallen apart yet.

    Exxon is even doing business in Iraq now.

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Horseshit. First of all, fuck the 4000+ dead Americans. They volunteered. They volunteered to subjugate their moral judgement to a chain of command that everyone knows is bent as fuck at the top. Plus they could figure out by reading the plain text of the constitution that this war was unlawful.

    Second, I would hardly call 1,000,000+ dead Iraqis (re: The Lancet) any kind of success, qualified or no.

    Third, the "dismemberment" of Iraq was the entire point of the invasion. Google the phrase "new map of middle east". Lt Gen Jay Garner, the Iraqi "vice roy" for a few weeks made the claim that if we want Iraq to remain whole, we (the occupiers) must do 3 things: keep the Iraqi army, create back-channel relationships with it at all levels, and lastly, no retaliation or sanctions against the Baathist party. Garner is promptly removed and replaced with Paul Bremer. Bremer immediately (the next day) disbands the Iraqi army and starts purging the govt of all Baathists.

    Side note: When Cheney found out that Bob Woodward had published that Cheney told him that he (Cheney) "talks to Kissinger probably more than anyone else - at least once a month," Cheney went ballistic. Wonder why.

    Side note: Bremer's job prior to Viceroy? Managing director of Kissinger & Associates.

  • ||

    Chapman's quasi-progressive sentimentality is becoming weirder with each article. Why does opposition to interventionism in the media always seem to entail a despicable, unjustifiable glorification of Emperor Hussein's supposed frugality? Are we the only people on the fucking Internet who detest both Obama and interventionism?

  • wareagle||

    Are we the only people on the fucking Internet who detest both Obama and interventionism?

    this belongs right next to the other items on Mr Jefferson's list of self-evident truths. The left supports anything Obama does, even the contradictory stances that he frequently takes. The right, much of it anyway, is quite okay with flexing American muscle in places that don't really want it. Short answer: yes.

  • ||

    The Republicans in my close circle of friends are almost entirely Ron Paul-esque in their foreign policy approach. I wish they were the Republican leadership right now.

  • wareagle||

    you and a whole lot of others. That's what sets Rand apart from the Rubios, Ryans, etc.

  • ||

    On a related note:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKfuS6gfxPY

    I still like that ad. Too bad Paul isn't Mr. President.

  • Not an Economist||

    Saying Libya was successful only because we didn't have troops on the ground and Iraq was a failure because of all the troops that were injured or died over there is sloppy thinking. The only way to tell if there successful is to see how the countries are after a few years. Libya is not doing so well right now. Iraq is doing a little better, although it still has a long way to go.

  • UCrawford||

    Catastrophic success = Pyrrhic victory.

    The latter sounds better.

  • Wholly Holy Cow||

    Clinton started the war in Iraq, Chapman. Stop blaming Bush as if he were the sole agent responsible. Kerry voted for it. Hillary voted for it. Kennedy begged for it. John Edwards was nailing some broad while he voted for it.

    http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/......4655.ENR:

    Today I am signing into law H.R. 4655, the "Iraq Liberation Act of 1998." This Act makes clear that it is the sense of the Congress that the United States should support those elements of the Iraqi opposition that advocate a very different future for Iraq than the bitter reality of internal repression and external aggression that the current regime in Baghdad now offers.

    Let me be clear on what the U.S. objectives are:

    The United States wants Iraq to rejoin the family of nations as a freedom-loving and lawabiding member. This is in our interest and that of our allies within the region.

    http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=55205.

  • Brubaker||

    "The public and policymakers learned much from the experience, and the lessons have stuck."

    Like the lessons of Vietnam, the lessons of Iraq will stick until the next time.

  • livelikearefugee||

    Why isn't history a mandatory pre-requisite for being in government or the military?

    World's shortest essay: "Western powers who have prevailed in land campaigns in Asia."

  • Bucky||

    i'd just shoot for someone that knows what the Constitution and Bill of Rights are and why they are important...

  • livelikearefugee||

    Oops - "mandatory pre-requisite" is redundant. Sorry, I went to a state college.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    Tell a video game that.

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