This week marks the 10th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. To mark the anniversary, Reason asked a group of leading policy analysts, scholars, and journalists to consider the lessons and legacies of the war, a decade after the launch of hostilities. What follows is a critical look at both the war abroad and its impact at home.—Matthew Feeney
On the 10th anniversary of the U.S. liberation of Iraq (how ironic “liberation” now sounds), I admit that I was wrong to support that war. In a March 17, 2003 article, “Liberators or Invaders?,” I speculated on how the Iraqi people would respond to American troops landing in their country to topple the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. I noted in that column that the Azores summit meeting in of the “coalition of the willing” had issued a declaration:
"The Iraqi people deserve to be lifted from insecurity and tyranny, and freed to determine for themselves the future of their country. We envisage a unified Iraq with its territorial integrity respected. All the Iraqi people—its rich mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and all others—should enjoy freedom, prosperity, and equality in a united country. We will support the Iraqi people's aspirations for a representative government that upholds human rights and the rule of law as cornerstones of democracy."
Thousand of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars later, how naïve those good intentions and goals now seem. Yes, the Iraqi people “should enjoy freedom, prosperity, and equality” and a “government that upholds human rights and the rule of law,” but too late I realize that it is not possible to force freedom on others.
My hope/assumption that people, given the chance, would choose to loosen the fetters of tribal loyalty and embrace the ideal of individual liberty has been proven decisively wrong. The institutions that underpin a liberal capitalist society cannot be built in just a few months or years. Meanwhile, at home, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were used to justify the construction of an ever more intrusive national security state. Henceforth, I will do what I can to dismantle it.
Ronald Bailey is science correspondent for Reason magazine and Reason.com.
The decision to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom was one of the most disastrous American foreign policy decisions in recent history. Thousands of people were killed during the war, and many continue to be killed, thanks to the American-led invasion of Iraq that failed to uncover Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, which were cited as one of the main reasons for the invasion. As well as resulting in unnecessary deaths, the war also damaged America’s reputation abroad and destabilized an important geopolitical region. However, while the war was an unnecessary tragedy it has impacted American foreign policy in a way that now makes the sort of direct intervention seen during the war in Iraq anathema to contemporary American foreign policy.
This is not to say that the American military has not intervened abroad during the Obama administration. However, the interventions are more hands-off than the interventions that began under the Bush administration. No-fly zones and drone strikes, while still unnecessary and unjustified interventions, are different to the invasion and occupation of a country.
Some have argued correctly that the legacy of the war in Iraq has been one of the considerations made by the Obama administration that has kept America out of direct involvement in Syria. While the U.K. and France have both recently said that they are open to the possibility of arming Syrian rebels, the U.S. remains comparatively removed from the conflict.
While the Obama administration seems to be wary of repeating some of the Bush administration’s disastrous foreign policy mistakes, it is important to remember that despite the deaths, the lack of weapons of mass destruction, the worsened reputation abroad, and the cost of the war in Iraq, there are still some who argue that America’s foreign policy should employ more direct intervention. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have both argued that the U.S. should be more involved in the Syrian conflict.
That the war in Iraq has made the Obama administration wary of direct military intervention is the only silver lining of a vast and very dark cloud. But the war has also allowed Obama’s foreign policy to seem more accurate, considered, humane, and modern than Bush’s adventure in Iraq. In isolation, the killing of hundreds of people in countries we have never declared war on with drones would be met with far more justified outrage than it currently is. However, with Iraq still fresh in our memories many of us are too quick to overlook the serious moral, political, and diplomatic concerns raised by Obama’s own interventionist and unconstitutional foreign policy.
Matthew Feeney is assistant editor of Reason 24/7.