Iraq at Five Years

Reason staffers look back in shock, awe, and sorrow at the way things have gone in the Middle East.


Editor's Note: With the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq upon us, reason staffers look at where they were when the shooting began in 2003—and where they are now. In 2006, reason published an "Iraq Progress Report," in which "advocates for liberty weigh in after three years" and the June 2006 cover story featured three views on "'Mission Accomplished,' Three Years Later." For an archive of reason's Iraq coverage, go here.

Radley Balko, Senior Editor:

In the lead-up to the war, I was suspicious of the Bush administration's assessment of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, dubious that the federal government is capable of building a liberal society in Iraq from scratch, and in general opposed to the idea of attacking a country that had no discernible ties to the September 11 attacks. Like most people, my positions were based on the assumption that there were actually weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That we now know there weren't only makes the decision to go to war more regrettable. My position hasn't changed at all.

As for what we should do now, I really can't see any option other than a plan to withdraw troops as soon as possible. Yes, it will be disastrous. But it seems to me this is a pill we're either going to have to swallow now or later, the difference being that swallowing it later will only mean more U.S. casualties in the meantime. We can't pay the Sunnis not to attack us forever (or maybe we can, but we shouldn't). The New York Times mentioned a striking figure in an editorial the other day. For all the talk about pork barrel spending, the total amount of federal spending in all congressional earmarks combined would fund the war in Iraq for about two months. This has been a colossal waste of blood, treasure, and global goodwill.

It's worth noting that it was the crazy, wild-eyed libertarian foreign policy experts who predicted what would happen in Iraq almost to the letter. Yet for reasons that escape me, the neoconservatives who got everything so massively wrong are still taken seriously, and get huge platforms from which to denigrate opponents of the war as "unserious."

Nick Gillespie, Editor, reason.tv and reason online:

After almost 4,000 U.S. deaths, and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, and trillions of dollars poured into the desert sands, Americans have gone from "shock and awe" to something approaching "Aw, shucks." According to data from the American Enterprise Institute, the think tank often credited with providing intellectual grounding for the Iraq War, 59 percent of Americans say the war was a mistake and 60 percent want a timetable for pulling troops out. Given a similar percentage favored invading Iraq in the spring of 2003, that just might be too little, too late.

I was never in favor of invading Iraq, which I thought was a bait and switch from the 9/11 attacks engineered by a Bush administration whose "War on Terror" had run out of steam given its inability to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice. When U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein (a man who makes me want to believe in hell, just so he can get what he deserves for all eternity), the Americans hubristically pulled a page from the playbook of Shelley's overreaching Ozymandias, and replaced one "colossal wreck" of a regime with another. It's incredibly dispiriting how arrogant and stupid the U.S. forces were when it came to losing the peace, but really, more of us should have seen it coming.

The question I worry about is what American foreign policy will look like five years hence. I'm not a pacifist, and I don't think that military intervention is always a bad thing (ideally, it should be used like Astroglide: sparingly and after a lot of foreplay). But I don't think we've learned very much as a country from the Iraq mess, other than not to rely too much on retreads from the Ford administration to call the shots. I certainly don't think John McCain, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, much less their advisors, have learned much from recent mistakes. Some of them are more ready to bow down to popular opinion but really, that's no way to conduct foreign policy. As a country, we're still a long way away from even starting a conversation that will yield a post-Cold War consensus on how the U.S. should act as a military power. That's not just a bad thing, it really dishonors those who have sacrificed life and limb over the past five years.

Kerry Howley, Senior Editor:

I don't remember where I was when the war started, or when the war turned one, or two, or three, or four. I was in college for the flashy beginning, in Burma for much of the following two years, where the war presented itself as a daily collage of gruesome black and white pictures in the junta's state press. The quality of the print was so bad that many of the pictures just looked smudged. You had to look for the black spaces, and imagine blood.

When I came back, the war was as it is now-hard to imagine and easy to ignore. Every liberty lost here is an abstraction. I have only the vaguest idea of what Nisour Square looks like; my image of Fallujah consists of charred bodies hanging from a single bridge. I can't fathom what it means for a collective to have lost 100,000 people prematurely, or for a state to waste $2 trillion it does not have. Few people I know have ventured out of the Green Zone, and no one I know has been hurt. What do I think about the Iraq War as it enters its sixth year? I think it seems tragic and brutal and criminal, and very far away.

Katherine Mangu-Ward, Associate Editor:

In March 2003, I was just a few months out of college and I had already helped start a war.

My first journalism gig was as the pet libertarian at The Weekly Standard, the neocon home base generally credited with nudging the Bush administration into Iraq.

It's quite exciting to inaugurate a war, and we at the Standard were far from alone in feeling the thrill. Like much of the pro-war commentariat, I thought, "Whatever happens, it can't get worse." After all, what's worse than a genocidal dictator filling mass graves and stockpiling nukes in the volatile Middle East? (Belief in WMDs was robustly bipartisan at the time.) There even seemed to be a decent chance things would get a whole lot better-an oasis of freedom in a desert of tyranny and all that. My colleagues at the Standard and I supported the war with the best intentions, something that opponents of the war often lose sight of. We dreamed of a free, friendly Iraq. Better for us, better for Iraqis.

As a libertarian, I could have and should have known better than to think government actors would get things right, since my political philosophy is grounded in the idea that government is uniquely bad at getting anything done cheaply or efficiently. War is too often a classic example of government action creating waste and confusion on a spectacular scale, good intentions or not.

As it turns out, things could get worse—and they did.

Michael C. Moynihan, Associate Editor:

Anniversaries of catastrophic wars are typically moments of ritual self-flagellation. So what, then, was I wrong about, what have I changed my mind about, five years later? Where does one begin. In those years proceeding the 9/11 attacks, one was forced, often by the social obligation of dinner discussions, to wade into the swamp of Middle Eastern politics; to be pro-war or anti-war, regardless of your level of political engagement or knowledge.

Groping at the unfamiliar—which ones are the Sunnis? what is a Kurd, exactly?—the post-9/11 cult of the amateur (myself included) rebelled against the supposedly lazy and corrupt "MSM," and instead offered endless lunkheaded comparisons between 2003 Iraq and 1945 Japan. The insurgency that flowered, many bloggers blithely suggested, had its historical antecedents in the Werewolf Organization, a band of former Nazis that harassed Allied occupiers and quickly melted away. The Iraqis, brutalized by war and dictatorship, were ready to have a go at democracy. Of course, none of this would happen.

The best mirror of my bewilderment and disappointment is George Packer's brilliant book The Assassins Gate, a clear-eyed account of the stupidity and venality of those sent by the Bush administration to mismanage the occupation. As one CPA advisor told me in 2006, Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR) was known inside the green zone as "Kick Back and Relax." And as Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran's noted with wonderment, James K. Haveman Jr., the official put in charge of Iraq's health care system, landed in Baghdad and launched an anti-smoking campaign. I suppose this is something I always knew, just something that I hoped wouldn't be true in this one case, but boy was I wrong in thinking that the U.S. government could ever achieve a level of honesty and competence needed to even try to promote democracy in an undemocratic region.

Jacob Sullum, Senior Editor:

I was against the war before I was even more against it. I never had any doubts that Saddam Hussein was a murderous thug, but I believed he was a deterrable murderous thug. So even when I assumed he had at least some "weapons of mass destruction," I did not think the threat was big and imminent enough to justify the invasion. Now that we know he had none, I'm embarrassed that I gave as much weight as I did to Colin Powell's presentation at the United Nations. I'm only slightly less embarrassed about my warning that Iraq surely would use its dreaded (but nonexistent) chemical weapons once the U.S. invaded. Here is the truth starting to dawn on me, right after the fall of Baghdad: "Could it be that Iraq never had a significant WMD capability?" I added that it might not matter, since "even before jubilant Iraqis started pouring into the streets, waving improvised flags and tearing down Saddam's statues, 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' had metamorphosed from a pre-emptive act of self-defense into a humanitarian mission to rescue people from a brutal dictator."

People who supported the war assure me the Bush administration made the argument about fighting terrorism by turning Iraq into a liberal democracy and thereby transforming the Middle East even before the WMDs went missing. My impression during the lead-up to the invasion was that it was all about neutralizing the WMD threat, since Saddam could decide any day to use those weapons against us, either directly or by passing them on to terrorists. If I had believed the aim was to make the world safe through democracy, which I now hear was the idea all along, I would have been even more skeptical, and I think most Americans would have been as well. I doubt that many who supported the war imagined the U.S. would still have such a large presence in Iraq five years later, let alone that it would have to stay indefinitely simply to prevent the chaos unleashed by the invasion from getting even worse.

Jesse Walker, Managing Editor:

In 2003 I thought there was no compelling reason to invade Iraq, even if the country held weapons of mass destruction; that the U.S. would easily topple Saddam Hussein's regime but would run into serious troubles when the occupation began; and that the war would do much more harm than good.

Five years later, I am less likely to concede the possibility that Saddam was concealing weapons of mass destruction.

David Weigel, Associate Editor:

Do you remember the pro-war protestors? I was one of them. Five years ago a pack of conservatives at my college planned a "crash" of the final anti-war rally before the start of the war. When the forces of non-intervention set up on the library steps and started speaking, we walked right in front of them, blasting the Saddam Hussein love ballad from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut on a ROTC student's boom box.

I have excuses for all of this. I was 21. My expertise in American interventionism came from watching Gulf War, Bosnia, and Kosovo reports on CNN. I had friends in the Army. I wanted to "free the Iraqi people." The takeaway is that, like millions of people, I was naive and uninformed about the doings in Mesopotamia and I did my little part to enable a catastrophe.

Matt Welch, Editor in Chief, reason magazine:

I was neither for nor against the war when it was launched, though most of the stuff I was worried about ended up coming true (especially "we will create a damned-if-we-do scenario unless we start looking for creative ways to devolve power and responsibility to the rest of the world").

But the mere fact of that ambivalence points to what's changed most about my thinking since then. Until five years ago, the prior three major U.S. interventions—the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo—each went quite a bit better than the skeptics predicted. In the same way that almost all past U.S. presidents end up looking good in retrospect (to somebody, anyway), while history marches toward a better future, my hunch was that the pattern would hold true to our post-Vietnam wars as well. No more.

Because of the magnetic logic of perpetual interventionism (on both sides of the political aisle); the strategic problem of anti-Americanism, the temptation of inapt historical analogies and the way that power wants to be corrupt, I have gone from a guy who begged for U.S. leadership in a feckless world to stop the slaughter in Sarajevo, to someone whose primary voting motivation is to provide a check on America's expansion of responsibility for the world's affairs.

Michael Young, Contributing Editor, reason; Opinion Page Editor, Lebanon Daily Star:

The assumption that our thoughts should have changed on Iraq is presumptuous. Certainly, the Bush administration's abysmal postwar strategy until the surge last year invites a critical reassessment of what could have been done for the better. But what does not, and should not, is the bottom line of the war: the fact that the United States managed to remove one of the world's worst mass murderers from power, so that today 55 percent of Iraqis believe that their lives are good, according to a recent poll—including 62 percent of Shiites and 73 percent of Kurds.

The thing with conflicts is that they can be like that old joke about the man who swims halfway across the ocean, only to swim back to where he left from because he's tired. Is the U.S. halfway across the ocean of the Iraq war? Would swimming back to the departure point be a pointless waste of expended energy, so that persisting in Iraq would bring more dividends? It's difficult to say. The gross blunder of the administration was to leave such questions without answers. But it is difficult to justify retreat from Iraq a year into tangible signs of progress thanks to the surge.

Those who back an American withdrawal on the grounds that Iraq is already in a state of chaos don't know what they're talking about. The Moloch of uninhibited chaos and carnage would be infinitely worse, as I remember from my own experiences growing up during Lebanon's civil war. For numerous reasons—the fate of the Iraqis after a pullout, Iran's continuing rise as regional superpower, the future of the Kurds, the threat to regional stability—the U.S. has no choice but to stick it out in Iraq. And as the doubts creep in, Americans might want to think back to what Iraq was under Saddam Hussein, who in two decades was directly or indirectly responsible for the death of nearly 1 million people.

So, sorry, but invading Iraq was the right thing to do, even if it could have been done a million times better by a more competent group of people. When I think of Iraq, somehow I have no profound problem slamming George W. Bush's faults while welcoming what he did to the Baath regime—the barbaric, genocidal, thankfully bygone Baath regime.