What Went Wrong in Iraq

So what's the complaint today from those who advocated the war most vigorously? We left too soon.


Paul Morse / White House

When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, Americans were told it would be a quick, simple project. When asked how long the war might last, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said airily, "Six days, six weeks, I doubt six months."

So what's the complaint today from those who advocated the war most vigorously? We left too soon.

Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte put out a statement the other day blaming the recent rout of Iraqi government forces on "President Obama's decision to withdraw all of our troops from Iraq in 2011." That final pullout came in December of 2011, or more than eight years after Rumsfeld expected our war to be over.

The hawks have as much trouble remembering the past as they do predicting the future. They forget that the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, which mandated the removal of all American military personnel by the end of 2011, was signed by President George W. Bush.

It was also signed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "In the end, the Iraqi leadership did not try to get a commitment through their parliament that would have made possible a continued U.S. presence after December 31," wrote Robert Gates, who was secretary of defense at the time. "Maliki was just too fearful of the political consequences. Most Iraqis wanted us gone."

Colin Kahl, who as a top Pentagon official under Obama tried to get an agreement to keep U.S. troops in Iraq, tells me that al-Maliki "was conscious of the extreme unpopularity of a continued U.S. presence with his Shia constituency. He had no interest in a sizable U.S. presence along the Arab-Kurd divide, which is what all our big troop options assumed." He also refused to give our troops the legal protections they get in other countries with U.S. bases, which was a deal-breaker.

Obama failed to secure the agreement, just as Bush had. Maybe the accord was impossible. If not, then Bush merits as much blame as Obama for the fact that it didn't happen.

Of course, the greater blame lies with Bush, since it was he and Dick Cheney who stormed into Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction, with no understanding of its internal politics, the violence they were precipitating, or the immense difficulty of constructing a stable order in an alien land. The insurgency did not begin when Obama was inaugurated. It began in 2003, and it has never ended.

The Bush administration managed to tamp it down by flooding the country with an additional 36,000 U.S. troops in 2007. But the point of the surge was not merely to suppress the insurgency. It was to give al-Maliki the time and space to consolidate control, create reliable security forces and reconcile with Sunnis who felt imperiled. He didn't do any of this, and we couldn't do it for him.

The surprise of recent days has been the utter uselessness of the Iraqi military, in which the U.S. invested so much. Some units collapsed under attack by far smaller forces, with soldiers fleeing and changing into civilian clothes as quickly as they could. At this stage, the best hope for defending Baghdad lies not with government troops but with pro-government Shiite militias allied with Iran. Yes, Iran.

We could always ship the Iraqi army weapons and equipment. But we already tried that, with destructive results. The Washington Post reported that the insurgents "seized large quantities of weaponry from the security forces when they overran their bases, including vehicles, arms and ammunition that will help the group press further offensives. Much of the equipment was probably supplied by the United States, Iraq's biggest provider of weapons."

We could also resort to air strikes, drone attacks or even ground troops. But if eight years of fighting by the American forces didn't save Iraq from chaos, another round is not likely to make much difference.

The only answer the war supporters have ever had, since their absurdly optimistic initial predictions went awry, is to continue the war indefinitely. Col. Pete Mansoor, a top aide to Gen. David Petraeus when he was commander of our forces in Iraq, said the U.S. effort would have to go on for "many, many years to come." Another Petraeus adviser, Stephen Biddle, said "perhaps 20 years" would suffice.

How about forever? Except it might not be long enough.

NEXT: Brickbat: Itchy Trigger Finger

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  1. Thank you Perry de Havilland, you useless warmongering piece of crap:

    A dissenting view on Iraq and intervention

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  2. if eight years of fighting by the American forces didn’t save Iraq from chaos, another round is not likely to make much difference.

    Oh, I don’t know, Steve — There’s “chaos”, and there’s CHAOS.

  3. Remember war opponents, if you opposed the war, any deaths by Saddam were on your heads. However, deaths in the post-Saddam chaos and civil war are not on the heads of supporters of the war.

    1. What is hindsight? I’ll take Monday morning quarterbacking for $800, Alex.

      1. And those people who had the hindsight in advance were just being stupid.

    2. Any deaths by Saddam were none of my business, and I could not give less of a shit about them. There is no shortage of people in the world. Saddam killed people so he could preserve Iraq’s stability, so that hyper-religious, 10th-century-fetishist fucktards would not blow up mosques and marketplaces several times a week.

      The American military is for the defense of Americans. It’s not for rebuilding the world in the image of America, or fixing the rest of the world’s problems. I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure chickenhawks like you stop picking my pocket to do half-assed “nation building” in Third World shitholes.

    3. If you’re admitting that the surge worked in tamping down the violence, then you can’t so easily dismiss the notion leaving too early is a cause for the insurgency.

      It wasn’t just numbers that led to improvements in security. The US switched tactics and better integrated its troops within the community and coordinated effectively with locals.

      I read a lot of Michael Totten during the war, and he wrote that (As recently as the mid 2000’s) the insurgency was pretty much dead and Americans in patrol weren’t under much threat from anyone. The Jihadists often gave up everything once they were apprehended.

      Obama was against the war, but his drones and weapons to some radical groups are killing someone somewhere. The guy knows the way to save Iraq is to send troops, if only temporarily.

      If he just wants out, then why even offer air strikes or other military assistance? If drones kills innocent children, the Iraqis will know it was piloted by Americans.

      1. Please explain why we are responsible for “saving” Iraq, and how long we should remain there before you would consider it fully “saved.”

        1. :::crickets chirping:::

  4. How long should we stay in Iraq?

    That’s easy–until it’s no longer embarrassing for Obama to call it a loss and leave!

    That’s the whole purpose of foreign policy, domestic policy–the whole purpose of government is to make whatever Obama does seem ingenious somehow.

    How long should we stay in Iraq? How long will it take for everyone–including war-hawk Republicans–to publicly admit that Barack Obama is always right about everything? Once we all agree on that, it won’t matter whether we’re in Iraq or not anymore.

    The only thing that matters will be that Obama is right and everyone else is wrong.

    1. Obama was right that we should never have gone to Iraq. Why you feel personally affronted by this is a bit strange.

      1. In an hour and 23 minutes, that clock with the dead battery will be on-time, too.

      2. Which Obama was that — president, candidate, senator, community organizer?

    2. What does this have to do with Obama? He was against the war in Iraq and removed combat troops from the country. He ‘s also against a significant military commitment to Iraq… Unlike some neocons.

      1. Yeah, Libya, right?
        Sorry, commie kid, fail.

        1. A decade long ground war= a two-month long European-led bombing campaign. I get it.

          1. Libya is still cooking. You don’t get to dismiss it.

            1. Like when Obama withheld all aid to our mission in Benghazi for political purposes and essentially murdered our A,bass ardor there plus three other s himself. The. Has subsequently obstructed all investigation into the matter.

        2. A decade long ground war= a two-month long European-led bombing campaign. I get it.

          1. Obama is always right!

            When will they learn?

      2. Yes, he did stick to the timetable agreed by the Bush admin and the Iraqis. He also doubled down on Afghanistan and as Sevo noted helped depose Khaddafi and create another mess in N Africa.

        1. The difference between planning to end a war and actually doing it is lost amongst libertarians I see.

          1. The difference between planning to end a war and actually doing it is lost amongst libertarians I see.

            He followed a treaty he had no part in the creation of and had no leverage to modify and then took personal credit for getting the troops out under his watch. The situation in Iraq is now officially a clusterfuck You can’t have it both ways.

            1. Obama also went out of his way to prevent us from leaving any troops there to stabilize the country.
              When the Middle East escalates to cause WW3, we will have Obama and every treasonous progressive who supported the piece of shit, to thank for Armageddon.

          2. Since the Obama regime seems not to know the difference between talking about stuff and actually doing it, your criticism rings awfully hollow.

      3. american socialist

        Don’t mind Sevo. His hatred of the current administration is almost psychopathic.

        1. I actually thought he might be Jared miller given his full-throated support of cliven bundy a couple of threads back so I’m glad I’ll be getting a 100 million deaths response back by-and-by.

          I don’t take it personally. Haters be haters, you know.

          1. Show me a man incapable of hatred and I’ll show you a man who is also incapable of love.

  5. Why is Iraq always portrayed as a bunch of pussies who run away when attacked? Doesn’t it feel odd to you that out of all the places in the world this place is just filled with pussies? It does to me. It makes me think that that’s probably bullshit the government if attempting to feed us.

    1. Read up on the Six Day War. This is pretty common in that part of the world.

      1. Except apparently with the crazy-ass jihadists.

        1. The Jaish al-Mahdi and IRGC had no trouble running like crazy in 2008, at least where I was.

  6. Rumsfeld was right- a few weeks was all it took to do the (arguably) necessary thing of wrecking the SH government. The longer part was the stuff that wasn’t even arguably necessary.

    1. That’s like giving credit to someone who says “I can burn and destroy your house and possessions quite quickly, but the process of putting it back together may be more difficult and expensive”….

      Not something that any thinking person needs to know…

      1. If the goal is to get you out of that house, then yes, that’s effective. The rest of the analogy is up to your usual standards.

  7. I hate to break it to Chapman but the US may not get to answer that question. We can leave anytime. But if the place turns into a terrorist state and a base for attacks against us, we are going to be right back there. We don’t make that choice. Our enemies will make it. We only get to walk away and be left alone if the people there decide to leave us alone. That is a hard pill for people like Chapman to swallow but it is true.

    1. Therein lies the problem.

      We either needed to GTFO after we toppled Sadam (or not have gone in the first place), or essentially turn the country into a colony for 50 years, like Japan. Anything in the middle is going to turn into South Vietnam, or worse. But even staying that long might not work. Our foreign policy is a clusterfuck. It’s almost like our leaders are paid off by military contractors…

      1. A 50 year colony is the only solution that has worked since before WWI. I don’t know the specifics after WWII and Korea and whether those countries were desiring the US to stay – disarming them probably influenced their decision – but that seems to be the only solution that has worked. Iraq seems a lot more similar to Germany after WWI than Germany after WWII. We may not like how we got here and it’s probably too late to reoccupy – and get out of Japan and Germany. But overall it seems like the next Hitler is brewing in the middle east.

    2. The concept of blow back must fly a mile above your head.

  8. He’s my proposed solution.

    1. Let Iraq disintegrate into Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni regions.
    2. Stop trying to overthrow Assad.
    3. Encourage the rise of a strongman to rule the Sunni parts of Iraq. Maybe let Syria take them over.

    1. Iraq had the perfect strongman thug but the Bush idiot fucked that up.

      1. Which Bush? Bush I kept him in power. Which seems to have been the rght decision.

  9. It’s time for this Senatorial Troika of Fucknuggets to “suit up” and lead a Crusader Force to The Middle East to put these people in their place once and for all. The U.S. Crusaders would occupy the entire Middle East for the rest of the 21st Century. In fact, it could be called Fucknugget Force. The name in itself should “command” some attention. “Don’t fuck with the fiucknuggets” would be a battle cry.

  10. Let me clarify things a bit. Fucknugget Force would be the elite shock troops of our Crusade. However, the new name for our armed forces would be “The War Corps”. That should be appropriate. After all, we have The Job Corps and The Peace Corps. Why not the The War Corps?

    This would not be voluntary of course. All men and women between the ages of 18 and 60 would have to serve in it at some time for a period of 2 to three years. Also Penal Brigades composed of convicts from our prisons would also be deployed to The Middle East.

    Over a period of time, losses in the Crusades would mean that our population would be reduced. However, horrible things like Social Security and Medicare would be phased out faster. So there it is folks – The War Corps.

    1. Teddy Roosevelt would approve.

  11. Well, this is one of the very few topics where Obama can legitimately lay the lion’s share of the blame on Bush.

    But I remain confident in Obama’s ability to make the situation worse.

    1. I think the lion’s share of the blame for the chaos unfolding in Iraq now should be set at the foot of the Iraqi people. They lost their country, especially Maliki who refused to play nice with the Sunnis in Iraq.

      The collapse of Iraq that we are now witnessing has little to do with the invasion under Bush or the failure to reach an agreement on the presence of a rump force post withdrawal under Obama.

      1. Exactly! People see to ignore that Saddam wasn’t going to live forever and at some point the country would be thrown into disarray.

      2. “The lion’s share of the blame for the chaos unfolding in Iraq now should be set at the foot of. . .”

        The Ottomans. Taking Iraq overextended them, and they never could rule it properly. It became a hopelessly corrupt backwater.

  12. I don’t blame either president. America went there and did accomplish it mission. It was the Iraqi’s who failed to take advantage of the situation and produce a thriving country. I say we stay keep out on the basis that the problems they face to day are theres. this is much like a kid who went to school and never learned anything despite all the efforts of the teachers sometimes the student is just to stupid to learn. In this case the student is Iraq. Please don’t give me the typical bullshit that these people are nomadic and can’t live in a social city type setting the fact that Bagdad is a city of seven million shows that they are no longer nomadic peoples. what we have here is a civil war that we don’t need to have any further action with.

  13. Blaming it on the Iraqis is about like beating your wife or kids and then blaming their screwed up states of mind on them!

    It’s al Rah-Rah America right-or-wrong stuff….in other words, excuses.

    People cannot handle the truth and it seems as if “anti-war” (in quotes on purpose) Libertarians are especially so.

    Now that the war drums are beating again I’m looking around at which groups are actually on the ground and trying to do something about it – that is, meeting in person with members of Congress, protests, threats against re-election of their reps, etc.

    Guess what? I find the so-called Libertarians doing absolutely nothing…except a few talking on the internet!

    I guess it would be difficult for the Koch-funded foundations to go to the very legislators they own and tell them to do anything different. Instead, they discuss how “Obama will make it worse”.

    Sorry, you guys need to live a couple more decades and get a clue. This was a mistake from the first day to the last day. Getting out is/was the only choice unless you want to “continue to beat your wife” in the hopes that somehow will make her come around.

    And, yes, sorry ladies for using your suffering as an example. Bottom line, no good can come out of this unless you believe propaganda from warmongers. In that case, you can always find something to latch onto.

    1. “Guess what? I find the so-called Libertarians doing absolutely nothing…except a few talking on the internet!”

      Yep, they did the same thing in 2003.

    2. “Blaming it on the Iraqis is about like beating your wife or kids and then blaming their screwed up states of mind on them!”

      So, the Iraqi state of mind would be just fine in Iraq if it weren’t for the U.S. invasion and occupation? Are you suggesting that their state of mind was great before this?

      I agree with you that these should not have happened. But the failure of the Iraqis to acquire a free and peaceful society has more to do with the state of mind that characterizes the whole region and existed long before we arrived, namely, faith and force.

      What you see now is just the latest expression of these two things. Iraqis (or any one else) won’t achieve a free and peaceful society till they reject irrationalism (religion and mysticism) and enshrine rationality and respect the sovereignty of the individual. What they need is something equivalent to our Enlightenment. Till then, expect more of the same.

      1. Well, without the US Invasion we could be 10 trillion richer and without a vast number of dead and wounded here and there…..

        Would “containment” of Saddam have cost that much in blood and treasure…and still have these things up in the air 12 years later?

        Chances are not… with many things, we screwed it up without a real plan. We paid off people there with billions in cash and they only acted decently when we were watching…which is, of course, impossible over the long run.

        As I have said before, this is perhaps one of the largest mistakes in US History.

        It’s also another example of how Religion is one of the most divisive and deadly constructs of modern times.

        1. We wouldn’t be richer. We would be less in debt. And if you buy into the reason for the invasion was to stop Saddam selling oil in Euros instead of the petrodollar, it would be the end of the US welfare state because it would be the end of the currency used to people it up.

          1. We wouldn’t be less in debt as the trash on the
            left would have spent far more in its absence.

    3. Translation. “I agree with you guys/gals, but now I’m going to insult you. That should bring you over to my way of thinking.” craiginmass Do they even send you guys out into the internet’s with any sort of strategy ?? Your Fired !!!

    4. craiginmass builds straw-men to knock down even while agreeing with libertarians. The Kool Aid must have some strong moonshine in it.

      1. I don’t need to construct straw men. Plenty of so-called Libertarians commenting on these board constantly making the case for me.

        As to those libertarians who agree with me that perhaps no wars of modern times (other than perhaps WWII) were worth the cost, I’ll just say “dittos” – but at the same time ask you to look at who is truly on the ground and financing the anti-war and anti-empire movements in this country. It’s my friends on the left….

        1. I agree you don’t need to, yet you proceed erroneously to do so.

          I find no evidence that your “friends on the left” are leading or financing the anti-war movement.

          I do find evidence saying that they leading in financing wars through military spending however…

        2. Who are these on-the-ground “anti-war/anti-empire” movements specifically… and just how are they spending all that $ from your “friends on the left”?

          1. Sorry, if you have to ask you have absolutely no idea about the anti-war movement and it’s not my job to school you on it. I assumed that “reasoned” and logical people would be informed.

            I can tell you that I personally – along with 250,000 to 600,000+ other lefties, attended marches on Washington DC against the Vietnam War (a couple of them!). Yeah, John Kerry threw his medals away at one of them (I didn’t see it….too big of a crowd)….

            But you get the idea.
            Here is a bit of history:

            I don’t think you need to so much research to find out that the Michael Moores of this world were protesting the Iraq nd Afghanistan wars before 2006.

            An umbrella group called united for peace and justice:

            has also been very active for more than a decade in opposing the wars. Again, lefties….

            I know a lot of these people personally and have been in touch with some leaders since 1972 or so. Believe me, they are not Kochatarians.

            Now, let’s hear how much of the billion plus the Koch’s (who fund this site, etc.) are putting towards such groups…..and Reason, etc. doesn’t count!

            1. John Kerry was for the war before he was against the war. He threw the medals before he didn’t thro the medals.


            2. Ah, the sneering “I’m not here to educate you sonny, but” tact…so effectively snotty.

              Thank you for the links.

              I didn’t ask for your credentials.

              1. “I didn’t ask for your credentials.”

                I think personal experience is a valid point – would seem so especially among so-called Libertarians.

                Opposing War after you’ve lost is much easier than doing it when it’s unpopular (which is most of the time)…

                Anyhow, read on. The Left is 90% plus of the anti-war movement in this country. There are a few right-wing copycats, but the most they seem to do is just talk (like this site) – and very few have stood up with their money and their bodies when event required it.

                The Kochs (owners of this site, Cato, AFP and dozens of other institutions) sometimes mention – offhand – that they are against war. But they never use their money to back those ideas and they get very quiet when it comes time for action.

                Talk is Cheap. The Kochs are spending a billion plus trying to unseat the Dems and put in the warmongering party. I would appreciate valid links to show me where they are spending money on true anti-war efforts (not BS talk).

                1. “I think personal experience is a valid point – would seem so especially among so-called Libertarians.”

                  I didn’t ask you what you thought, either.

                  “True” anti-war efforts, hmm? How effective it’s been in the last oh, 10 years or so! Money WELL spent.

  14. Hi Steve, great article . I’m with you. I hate war and state-supported violence. One thing… It might have been nice to have you guys saying the same thing back in 2003, when a Republican was in office, as you are saying now in 2014 now that a Democrat is in office.

    I’m profoundly conflicted by a Hillary Clinton presidency, but if a Democratic president means that libertarians–of whom I share an ideological affinity– will take a principled, clear, and unequivocal stance against massive defense spending and adventurism I will put that in my “pro” column.

    1. They did say the same thing back in 2003. You havn’t been reading Reason long enough.

    2. Wait, you hate state supported violence, but you call yourself a socialist? Care to explain?

      1. It’s all pacifism when he does it.

        1. Libertarians think corporatetax cheats are heroes, that having a bomb dropped on your head is the same as collecting taxes, and that the sole litmus test for how much you believe in freedom should be how much corrupt billionaires get to avoid in paying taxes. I already get it, Brian… Tell me something I don’t know. I’m bored.

          1. If I don’t pay my taxes the jackboot wearing, .40 cal sidearm and AR-15 assault rifle carrying agents of the State will come to confiscate the property that I paid for with money I earned. I suppose some folks find that ok as long as the proceeds are use for things like Solyndra, social justice and subsidizing student loans. Even though they otherwise profess to detest such activities.

  15. You can count on massive spending of any kind no matter who is elected as the next President in 2016. You can count on it. It’s consistent and predictable no matter who sits in the West Wing of The White House. This also includes the U.S. Congress (House and Senate). You can also count on more “adventurism” (a nice word for Imperialism), in some far flung arm pit, stink hole country of the globe. You can count on it.

  16. How long have we been involved in peacekeeping in Korea? Surely it is way past time to withdraw from there too.

    1. While I agree it may be time for us to leave, there is an important difference: South Koreans actually seem to want us there (or at least aren’t car-bombing our bases and consular offices).

  17. Gates: “Most Iraqis wanted us gone.”

    BY FAR, the most important reason for us to NO LONGER be there.

    I’m getting sick of these fucking warmongering imperialists in the Senate. No, if a country’s citizenry doesn’t want our “help”, we have no right to force our help on them; hell, even if a country does want our help, we should think LONG AND HARD before doing anything…

  18. Generally on point for much of the article, but I respectfully disagree with a couple of points. First, my understanding of the surge is that agreements were made between the factions, and the US enforced the agreement. The number of US troops in Iraq after the surge was in no way sufficient to control the country without the cooperation of the factions.

    The second point is that the best Iraqi troops are around Baghdad. Look at a brief history of the US military. Our troops came from localized regiments until WW II during every major war. We seemed to have lost that point in trying to nation-build, or, forcing the baby to walk before it learns to crawl.

  19. Theres a reals why Poppa Bush let Saddam stay on.
    GW wasn’t considering anything other than making his supporters rich.

  20. We didn’t leave any troops behind to keep stability. Having a regular duty station with around 10k troops would have made a world of difference. This is the result when we didn’t.

  21. The only popular pundit that I know of in the conservative camp that consistently voiced opposition to invading or using the military in Iraq to this very day is Pat Buchanan.

    1. True Dat.
      He went as far as to say WWII wasn’t even needed.

  22. I don’t know the exact percentage but when the Iraq was about to start the support was around 60-70% of the US population. The motive for the war as not about oil, WMD, building democracy or eliminating enemies for Israel, it was about vengeance. That is ultimately what went wrong, the majority of the people were backing something because they saw it as a revenge for 9/11, Bush could do this because he had a majority of angry hot heads backing, liberal politicians also supported this btw.

    1. Many “liberal” pols, including the current POTUS, did not support this….

      As to the percentage of the population, I fear it was closer to 85% plus. I remember talking to a lot of people in the lead-up and I could not find anyone else opposed. It was somewhat lonely except for my old hippie friends…

      The resolution supporting force against Iraq – was opposed by MORE Democrats than those who voted Yay (82 yes, 126 no).

      On the warmongering right side of the aisle, the vote was a bit more telling:

      This is why I scratch my head when all the so-called “libertarians” seem to end up voting and financing exclusively those who voted YAY.

      It doesn’t make “logical or reasonable” sense unless I buy the statements of American Socialist that what libertarians are really about is billionaires getting to pollute more and pay less in taxes.

      Any anti-war stance claimed by the American Right is BS… least at this point. Talk is cheap.

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