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.
Back in August 2002, I wrote about what I called a “Baghdad Bait and Switch”: Invading and occupying Iraq was a non sequitur in the “global war on terror.” There was no pressing military or foreign policy goal involved. The move on Iraq was a political response to the failure to capture Osama bin Laden. When you can’t lash out at an actual problem, why not take a swing at a country—especially one ruled by an absolutely unredeemable figure such as Saddam Hussein—that you’ve already effectively contained?
That’s why the Bush administration sold the war not simply as a necessary step in stemming the supposedly existential threat of radical Islam but as an affordable exercise in nation- and region-building. Remember when Bush adviser Larry Lindsey got canned for suggesting that the war might be as much as $200 billion? We’re now looking at a $6 trillion price tag, a total that pales in comparison to the human toll, which is somewhere north of 176,000 people. It’s worth constantly recounting the cost and stupidity of the Iraq war because we’ve already started to forget it.
Indeed, we started to forget just how ill conceived and poorly executed the whole thing was even before we kinda sorta left Iraq. Recall how former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tried to keep U.S. troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan for as long as possible—and beyond nominally appointed withdrawal dates. Panetta failed, but not for lack of trying.
Barack Obama was elected not because he was critical of the generally interventionist foreign policy that has prevailed in post-Cold War America (Bill Clinton ordered 25 major troop deployments in eight years, double the number than Ronnie Ray-Gun did). Obama bravely came out against dumb wars but has had nothing to say about forging a foreign policy for the 21st century that might lead to a safer and more peaceful world.
A decade after the Iraq war started, the one positive sign on the foreign policy front comes not from the Nobel Peace Prize winner in the White House but from a senator who has been attacked by members of his party as a “wacko bird” flying high on “isolationism.” Rand Paul’s February 6 speech at the hawkish Heritage Foundation (of all places) is the most promising step forward on a national conversation that should have been started even before George H.W. Bush put together the first Gulf War in 1991. Whether you agree with Paul’s ideas of containing U.S. enemies through a mix of economic, cultural, and military engagement, he is at least starting the sort of discussion that might avoid another decade of dumb war and tens of thousands of dead people in an elective war. We should have been ready to have that conversation without ever having invaded Iraq and it’s a point of national shame that only now do most of us seem ready to start talking.
Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason TV.
The Iraq war qualifies as the worst U.S. government project in my lifetime. It has devastated millions, killed tens of thousands directly and hundreds of thousands indirectly, spawned mass displacement, and abused thousands of captives, many guilty at most of defending their country.
The propaganda and promises of a fast, cheap liberation were transparently absurd. Neocons warned against balsa-wood drones, mushroom clouds in New York, anthrax and radiation attacks against which we could shield ourselves with duct tape. The absurdity made Cold War duck-and-cover drills appear comparatively rational. Iraqis had no plausible responsibility for anti-American terrorism. Saddam’s genuine brutality never justified killing people who happened to live in Iraq. Yet the establishment and most Americans ignored millions of protesters’ pleas. They cheered as Bush inflicted the moral equivalent of 9/11 on a defenseless country. The hysteria of 2003 gave hints of how fascists rise to power.
Operation Iraqi Freedom unleashed terrorism, draconian Shariah law, and the systematic persecution of women and religious minorities. Bush’s gang established martial law, deadly checkpoints, and torture chambers; used white phosphorous, flooded the country with sewage and disease, destroyed infrastructure that twelve previous years of U.S. war and sanctions had yet left standing, confiscated Iraqis’ guns, and implemented central taxation and economic planning.
Wilson’s WWI bungling helped lead to communism, Nazism, and WWII; Bush’s bungling has exacerbated jihadism and will reverberate for decades. Scholars will never forget this attack on civilization’s cradle, including the ravaging of ancient Sumerian relics and the earliest known writing, which Chalmers Johnson compared to the Mongol destruction of Baghdad’s libraries in 1258.
Year after year, many of us demanded withdrawal, and “realists” told us that “we” must fix what “we” broke. The full-scale civil war, predictably sparked by U.S. intervention, only subsided when the Sunnis essentially lost and the U.S. military bribed many of its adversaries.
One good resulted: Global disrespect for American empire. Indeed, the war on terror should delegitimize the U.S. government for everyone.
Thousands of Americans were killed, maimed, and psychologically wounded. Many thousands more, deprived of the basic right to quit their jobs, endured numerous deployments, only to return home to an aggrandized government and weaker economy. The connection is inextricable. For any chance at liberty, Americans must reject war. Libertarians should lead the opposition to militarism as the core statist evil, responsible for expanding corporate socialism and abusive police power.
Those who were wrong should fess up and commit themselves to peace. Those who excuse or downplay this atrocity will always suffer in credibility.
A year into the bloodbath, Bill Buckley said, “With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn't the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration.... If I knew then what I know now... I would have opposed the war."
Too little, too late, but he did concede error. The least we can do is learn: Never, ever—ever—trust the war party again.
Anthony Gregory is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the forthcoming The Power of Habeas Corpus in America: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on Terror (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Ten years after the U.S. government launched its second war against Iraq, we may draw many conclusions about its having done so and about the actions and events that followed. The chief conclusion I draw is nothing new; indeed, it is the oldest axiom of statecraft: crime pays.
In 1945, the jurists that the U.S. government and its wartime allies sent to compose the Nuremburg Tribunal spelled out the nature of crimes against peace in considerable detail, including “(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances; (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).” The chief American prosecutor at Nuremburg, Justice Robert H. Jackson, said: “To initiate a war of aggression... is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Although certain lawyers might concoct a variety of avowedly “legal” justifications for the war launched in 2003, any fair-minded person must see that if this war does not qualify as a war of aggression, it is difficult to identify one that does. The United Nations Charter obliges all member states to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Every disinterested observer must see that this war was not waged in self-defense: Iraq did not and had not threatened the U.S.; it had neither the means nor the intention of attacking this country or otherwise harming U.S. national security. The war was plainly one of choice and aggression, thinly disguised as preemption.
Among the war’s countless consequences are more than a hundred thousand deaths, innumerable physical and psychic injuries, vast destruction of property, and displacement of millions of people from their homes. By comparison, any conceivable good that came of the war was relatively insignificant. The war has (or eventually will have) squandered more than a trillion dollars of U.S. wealth.
If waging aggressive war was the crime, the criminals who perpetrated it are obvious because they made no attempt to conceal their culpability; indeed, they took public credit for the crime. Heading the list are George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice, followed by a large number of subordinates and co-conspirators, including Douglas Feith, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, and virtually every other prominent neoconservative in the country.
Notwithstanding their crimes, they have prospered. Bush and Cheney were reelected. All of the others have gone on to live as seemingly respectable members of society. They occupy prestigious positions and move about freely; they receive public honors; many people treat them as praiseworthy figures. None of them were ever indicted by a U.S. court. In short, they have got off scot-free. Crime pays.
Robert Higgs is senior fellow in political economy for The Independent Institute.
Prominent (neo)conservatives who promoted the war, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, have blamed the U.S. military drawdown from Iraq for a rise in Iranian influence. That popular contention willfully ignores that Iran became a beneficiary of the war as a result of Saddam Hussein’s removal, not that of American troops.
Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq war proponents were so focused on removing Saddam from power that they largely overlooked how it would enable Tehran to back its political allies in Baghdad with far greater impunity. Take Iraq’s current Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki, head of the Shiite (Dawa) political party. From 1982 until the U.S.-led invasion, Maliki found refuge in Iran while other Dawa members found refuge in Syria. Why Iran and Syria? According to Dawa, “These two countries were most sympathetic to the cause against Saddam’s regime at the time.”
That was also when top officials in Washington were assisting Baghdad’s secular Ba’athist regime in its ongoing conflict against Iran and refused to punish Saddam for gassing Iraqi Kurds. The Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) ultimately devolved into a protracted stalemate, allowing the rivals to weaken each other. Because the region remained divided, neither side could achieve hegemony and shut out American influence. As Henry Kissinger reportedly quipped, “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.”
In August 1988, after the bloody Iran-Iraq War finally ended with a U.N.-mandated ceasefire, Saddam did not intend to preserve the status quo: His forces invaded
Kuwait in August 1990. The immediate objective of the resulting U.S.-led international coalition was to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and to avoid what President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker warned, “something that would result in the fragmentation of Iraq because we didn’t think that would be in our national interests.”
Washington’s larger aim was to prevent Iraq from dominating the Persian Gulf. For the next 12 years, no-fly zones and a sanctions regime contained Saddam’s expansionist tendencies. Iran’s strength grew, Iraq’s strength receded, and the balance of power in the Gulf remained reasonably intact. That all changed dramatically after March 2003.
Bush administration officials, and their Democratic and Republican supporters on Capitol Hill, underappreciated the wider geopolitical ramifications of dethroning Iran’s principal regional counterweight. Realist scholars pointed out at the time that no amount of prewar planning or “boots on the ground” could have prevented the Islamic Republic’s push into a neighboring country with a 60 percent Shiite majority. By 2010, leaders in Tehran helped create Prime Minister Maliki’s Shiite-led government, and according to reports, began “calling in favors among its allied factions in Iraq.”
It is useful to keep in mind that many prominent politicians and pundits who originally promoted the war have now seized on expanded Iranian power to press for action against its regime. These proponents of perpetual aggression convincingly illustrate what Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises described as the deception of government intervention: When the government perceives a problem, it intervenes to solve it, but instead of solving the initial problem, the intervention creates two or three further problems.
Those who blame America’s troop withdrawal for increased Iranian influence have their causation wrong. The preventive war of choice they were so confident would yield a positive outcome helped strengthen Iran’s geopolitical assertiveness and limit U.S. policy options across the region.
Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.
The war in Iraq started 10 years ago, on March 20, 2003, pursuant, according to the Bush Administration, to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, as well as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq, which actually cited enforcement of Resolution 1441 and prior Iraq-related Security Council resolutions as a reason for the president to deploy the armed forces. Most international opinion viewed the invasion of Iraq as illegal, but the UN Security Council (of which the U.S. is a veto-wielding member) never repudiated the war and no decision in any federal or international court has ruled on the matter one way or the other. But the Iraq war, a.k.a. the Second Gulf War, is the U.N.’s baby even absent Resolution 1441. After all, nearly 800 resolutions earlier, in 1990, the U.N. Security Council authorized military action by the U.S. and its coalition of allies to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The 1991 (First) Gulf War was followed by a decade of UN weapons inspectors, tasked with ensuring Saddam Hussein did not continue to develop nuclear, chemical, and even biological weapons of mass destruction. Before democracy-building became the policy du jour in the Bush White House, WMDs were the modus operandi for war. Those WMDs were never found. It was later revealed Saddam Hussein was bluffing; he didn’t want Iraq’s regional enemies (and namely Iran, whom he considered a greater threat to Iraq than the U.S.) to know he didn’t have WMDs.
Iraq was put on the fast track to war in 2002, when George Bush identified it, along with Iran (that archnemesis of Iraq) and North Korea (4000 miles away), as an axis of evil. The intelligence community’s speculated on Iran going nuclear since the 1990s. By 2002, North Korea had been dabbling with nuclear weapons for years. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in 2009 it announced it had nuclear weapons. It has performed at least three tests in the last 16 months. North Korea, too, is the U.N.’s baby. The participation of U.S. forces in the Korean War in 1950 came as a result of U.N. Security Council Resolution 83. The war ended (?) in an armistice and stalemate along a boundary close to the one that existed at the beginning of the conflict. That armistice called for a “peaceful settlement of the Korean question,” which hasn’t happened yet.
U.N. Security Council resolutions were also used to support the U.S. pursuing Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan (Resolution 1368, passed on September 11, 2001) and, most recently, to authorize NATO-led intervention in Libya (Resolution 1973, passed March 17, 2011, just two days before NATO entered the civil war). That intervention, and the expansion of the drone war to as far as Yemen and Somalia, and the deployment of U.S. troops in Africa, from Uganda to Niger (in support of the French-led intervention in Mali), and the increased agitation for intervention in Syria suggest few real lessons were learned in Iraq.
Ed Krayewski is associate editor of Reason 24/7.
Peter Beinart was wrong about the Iraq war in 2003, when he was a leading liberal hawk. But today he’s right about the idea behind it: “The real Bush doctrine was neither about democracy nor terrorism; it was about containment and deterrence. Throughout the Cold War, hawks had repeatedly questioned both strategies.” Neoconservatives and other hardliners hated the realpolitik of Nixon, Ford, and even Reagan. They demanded direct confrontation with America’s enemies: regime-change by covert action or pre-emptive war. At last, after 9/11, they got to put the theory into practice.
Afghanistan wasn’t enough—that war was a reaction. Iraq would be a revolution, the first domino in a chain that would remake the Middle East. Saddam Hussein’s (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction supplied grounds for war. But its planners and promoters, from Dick Cheney to Christopher Hitchens, always imagined neutralizing a fictitious nuclear program as only the beginning of great things. The war would liberalize Islam, destroy Al Qaeda, bracket Iran, and create a hospitable environment for Israel. Advocates dismissed any question about the costs. They turned it around: What would be the cost of not intervening?
“We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” Condoleezza Rice unrealistically warned. But there was also an opportunity cost—losing the chance to unleash creative destruction on the Islamic world. The time may have come, mused First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus, for “thinking about military action in terms not of the last resort but of the best resort.”
The “best resort” meant more than 4,400 Americans dead, a toll that grows with every postwar veteran suicide. Cashiering Saddam proved well within U.S. capabilities. Creating a liberal democracy was not. Iraq plunged into civil war: Shiite fought Sunni as foreign jihadists flocked to the country to promote their own model of regional transformation. Over 110,000 civilians died—probably many more, but who was counting? Two million Iraqis fled the country; a similar number who remained were displaced. Eventually Sunni tribal leader rose to eject the outside Islamists. That, and not the vaunted “Surge,” defeated Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia—which didn’t exist before the war.
Regime change came home. The war did to the Republican Party and conservatism what Vietnam had done to Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic Party and Cold War liberalism. Disgust with the war contributed to two GOP presidential defeats and gave Barack Obama an edge against Hillary Clinton among Democrats in the 2008. Republicans lost both houses of Congress in 2006: the seat that decided the Senate was that of Virginia’s George Allen, whose opponent, former Reagan administration Navy secretary Jim Webb, ran as a Democrat (and won) because of the war.
Civil war has come home as well. The GOP is now a battleground between neoconservatives and other adherents of the cult of rollback, on the one hand, and, on the other, Ron Paul-inspired libertarians and newly emboldened realists. It’s a bloodless, metaphorical war—but its outcome may determine whether there are more Iraqs.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.
When the United States launched its first strikes on Iraq, I was the city editor at a small community daily newspaper in Barstow, California. The town is the closest to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, an Army post in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
We immediately contacted the post to try to determine how this strike on Iraq would affect what the Army was doing in the desert. The spokesman for Fort Irwin was insistent that the military actions in Iraq would have absolutely no impact on the Army post. They were going to continue their training as usual. And because they were a training post, there shouldn’t be any concerns about soldiers deploying from Fort Irwin. The soldiers were there to help teach other soldiers, not to go to war.
He ended up being terribly wrong on all counts. When the Iraq war began, Fort Irwin was training soldiers in tank battles and other tactics that weren’t entirely applicable to the current conflict. The training center underwent major changes over the course of the decade, after the war had started. The tank wars were replaced with mock Iraqi villages (and later Afghan villages). The Army built a facility there to study improvised explosive devices to help train troops fight this new threat.
The soldiers there were deployed as well. Soldiers from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which typically serves as the mock enemy forces for training rotations that come to the post, were sent to Iraq, as were some additional specialists. The post suffered its first casualty of war almost exactly two years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
After the post’s transformation, Fort Irwin played a great media game, inviting outlets across the country and the world to visit, witness, and report on the way the training center now prepared soldiers for rotations in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But those who were in the area in 2003 know that when the war began, the Army really had little idea what they were getting into and the length of time they would be in action in military theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scott Shackford is associate editor of Reason 24/7.
Ten years after the start of the Iraq war, we are still far from reaching consensus on its lessons. Both the critics and the defenders of the war make some valid points. It is undeniable that the Bush Administration erred in believing that Saddam Hussein had a large stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The administration similarly overstated his support for terrorism and possible ties to Al Qaeda. Much less excusably, they also badly mishandled the occupation of Iraq, thereby greatly increasing the human and financial cost of the war. The war also did severe damage to America’s public image in much of the world, and harmed relations with key allies.
On the other hand, The Kay and Duelfer investigations of Iraq’s weapons programs found that Saddam Hussein did have a WMD research program, and that he was increasingly finding ways to circumvent UN sanctions. Small amounts of WMDs were actually found, including artillery shells filled with deadly sarin gas. The 9/11 Commission found that Saddam Hussein had offered assistance to Al Qaeda in the late 1990s. Saddam’s record showed that he was a dangerous risk-taker. Such incidents as his invasions of Iran and Kuwait, and his ordering of an assassination attempt on former President George H.W. Bush in 1993 attest to that. Given this propensity for risk-taking, it would have been difficult to contain him indefinitely. Since he was likely to “break out” of the sanctions regime sooner or later, allowing his regime to continue its efforts to stockpile WMDs and develop relationships with terrorists was hardly a safe proposition. Finally, today’s Iraqi government, for all its flaws, is far more liberal and democratic than Saddam’s dictatorship. Most importantly, it does not engage in periodic bouts of mass murder and genocide, as Saddam did.
On balance, I think that both America and Iraq are, overall, better off for having removed Saddam than either would be if the U.S. had left his regime in power. But this judgment rests on difficult-to-assess counterfactuals about what the world would be like had the U.S. and its allies acted differently in 2003. The same is true of the opposite position, which implicitly rests on the assumption that a world in which the US did not invade Iraq would have turned out better. Neither side in the debate has an airtight case.
Given that reality, we should be careful about drawing sweeping conclusions about the proper future policy for the United States. Libertarians, in particular, should resist concluding that the failures of the Iraq war prove that we should never go to war except in response to an actual or imminent attack. As I have explained more fully elsewhere, there is a serious libertarian case for a more active military policy. The Iraq war actually strengthens that case in one sense. The 2006 and 2008 elections showed that the voters notice military failure and punish it at the ballot box. This contrasts with many less-visible forms of government failure that are often ignored because of widespread political ignorance. Although far from ideal, democratic leaders’ incentives to avoid failure in war are much stronger than in most other areas of public policy.
We may ultimately conclude that the Iraq war was a failure. But any general prescriptions for American foreign policy must be based on a much broader assessment of relevant history and political economy.
Ilya Somin is a professor at George Mason University School of Law.
The good news about the Iraq war’s legacy is that it has made ordinary Americans far more skeptical about intervening abroad. Like World War I and Vietnam, Iraq showed Americans just how destructive an ill-conceived military adventure can be. This lesson may need to be re-learned every few decades, as the generation that saw the effects of a war dies off and a new crisis (or apparent crisis) prompts a new set of leaders to overreach in their reaction. But for now the skepticism is in place.
Unfortunately, this skepticism is much scarcer in the governing class. A president carried into office in part because of his antiwar reputation has already fought a small war in Libya and may soon try to enter another conflict in Syria or, worse yet, Iran. And for all the recent influence of Sen. Rand Paul’s small band of Republican doves and quasi-doves, the leadership of the GOP is still filled with unreconstructed hawks. In Washington, interventionism is still the default position, even in a time of public reluctance and even in the face of fiscal crisis.
Jesse Walker is books editor at Reason magazine and
The occupational curse of generals actual and armchair alike is fighting the last war. World War I hero Maurice Gamelin prepared France to defend against Hitler's panzers with cavalry and a glorified trench. Critics of U.S. interventions spent a generation comparing each and every one, inaccurately if cautionarily, to Vietnam.
The Iraq war deserves its place in the Hall of Interventionist Shame right alongside that JFK/LBJ folly, even though the death toll and political failure, mercifully, do not come close. Not only did Gulf War II lead to a decade-long quagmire of misery, massive expenditure, and a series of unplanned contingencies (characteristics it shares with our dual nation-building sinkhole in Afghanistan), Iraq was a war not of retaliation but of "choice."
We could have chosen to avoid it. So we're compelled to explore why we did not.
One key factor in America's disastrous discretion was that the overriding lesson we thought we learned from the Gulf War, Bosnia, and Kosovo—hooray, we don't have to worry about the lessons of Vietnam anymore!—turned out to be false.
In February 1991, flush with the stunningly rapid liberation of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush declared, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." As Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, recalled in his memoir, "Emotionally, the success of the war was powerful tonic for the American psyche. In six short weeks, the bitter legacy of Vietnam had been swept away by Desert Storm. Euphoria permeated the country to a degree not seen since World War II."
It was a euphoria that had no time for limning important analogical differences between the two wars. Vietnam was about the United States choosing sides in a civil war as a buttress against regional communism; the Gulf War was about a genuine international coalition reversing naked state-on-state aggression. Wars are easier to conclude in 100 hours (as opposed to 100+ months) when the objective is limited and clear.
The Vietnam Syndrome had taken a body blow, but was not quite dead. Draft-dodger Bill Clinton spent most of his first term drifting in and out of minor conflicts while the bodies piled up in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, while congressional Republicans sounded reliable warnings against American interventions just about anywhere. "The aspect of the future of this nation that bothers me more than anything else," said one GOP senator in January 1993, "is the prospect of sending American troops on the ground into Bosnia." That senator's name was John McCain.
The success in finally bombing Serbian authoritarian Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table in 1995, after four years of frustrating diplomatic impotence in the face of Milosevic's gruesome ethnic slaughter, converted many peacenik lefty types into Munich-invoking liberal hawks. By the time American warplanes started bombing Serb forces in Kosovo in March 1999, many Republicans had lost their gun-shyness as well. "For a while we made our way in the world less sure of ourselves than we had been before Vietnam," McCain wrote at the conclusion of his September 1999 Vietnam memoir, Faith of My Fathers. "That was a pity, and I am relieved today that America's period of self-doubt has ended."
As we gear up to learn what one hopes are the right lessons from the Iraq war, let us volunteer as an underrated if unsatisfying virtue a little of that ol' self-doubt. And let us recognize that any American president, of any party, who acts without restraint from either Congress, international opinion, or the long-degraded principle of sovereignty, will inevitably lower the bar for our next great self-inflicted calamity.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason