John Bolton Is Still Wrong About Iraq
Bolton says the Bush administration's biggest error in Iraq was failing to invade Iran too. That's madness.
Twenty years after the disastrous American invasion of Iraq, one of the war's chief architects says the Bush administration's biggest error was not making the conflict an even bloodier, costlier catastrophe.
Writing in National Review, former Bush and Trump adviser John Bolton defends the decision to topple Saddam Hussein's regime and expresses regret for only one aspect of the decadeslong debacle: that America didn't use the opportunity to destabilize Iran too. Having already invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, Bolton writes, the Bush administration should have tried to go three-for-three and "seek regime change in between, in Iran, before Tehran's own WMD programs neared success."
"Unfortunately," he concludes, "as was the case after expelling Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, the United States stopped too soon."
It takes a special kind of hubris and a serious shortage of respect for the lives of other human beings to sit here, in the year 2023, and argue that the real problem with America's post-9/11 wars is that they didn't go far enough. The war in Iraq was a humanitarian and strategic disaster for the United States. It was "one of the most grievous errors in superpower history," as Brian Doherty wrote in the March issue of Reason. "Mendacious in its beginnings, incompetent in its aftermath, and downright criminal in the death and civilizational wreckage it caused, the Iraq War was a catastrophe America has not yet properly reckoned with."
If Bolton has his way, we never will.
Still, the idea that Iraq could have been used to launch a regime-change effort in Iran is possibly only the second most unhinged argument in Bolton's National Review column. He also hand-waves away any responsibility that America ought to bear for the violence and disorder in post-invasion Iraq.
The failure of the United States to prop up a functional and democratic government in Baghdad, Bolton argues, "is separable, conceptually and functionally, from the invasion decision. The subsequent history, for good or ill, cannot detract from the logic, fundamental necessity, and success of overthrowing Saddam, a threat to American national security since he invaded Kuwait in 1990."
This is a telling argument—one that reveals how Bolton has failed to learn even the most basic of lessons from the past 20 years, and one that ought to disqualify him from advising future administrations. Of course, it matters what comes after the decision to invade. Of course, any policy can be made to look like a success if you only focus on the positives—as Bolton does, praising the rapid victory of the U.S. military—while ignoring everything else.
Even if the promise of a successful, prosperous, democratic post-Saddam Iraq hadn't been comprehensively tied up in the arguments for launching the war in the first place, no one should want to live in a world where great powers can violate national sovereignty with impunity, then decline to take responsibility for the mess they've made. This is a toddler's view of reality.
One might suspect that Bolton imagines a world where actions should not have consequences because he's been living in exactly that type of world for the past two decades. Somehow, he's retained his Washington status as a foreign policy expert, media commentator, and presidential advisor despite having been so horrifically wrong about Iraq.
But the rest of America—particularly younger generations—is unlikely to be fooled again. "After watching the failures of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, young Americans appear to be less supportive of military solutions for international challenges, especially compared to older generations," notes a 2021 report by the Eurasia Group Foundation, a geopolitics-focused think tank.
Writing at Responsible Statecraft—a publication of the Quincy Institute for Public Policy, a noninterventionist think tank—Blaise Malley points to a 2019 poll from the Center for American Progress that found members of Gen Z to be more likely than any other generation to agree with the statement that "The wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were a waste of time, lives, and taxpayer money, and they did nothing to make us safer at home."
Good. But Bolton's ongoing influence in Republican politics means he (or someone like him) could easily end up inside the next GOP presidential administration, where he could once again push the country toward armed conflict with Iran—as he reportedly did during a brief stint in the Trump administration—or toward more regime-change efforts like the coups he's admitted he helped plot.
And that's the real reason why Bolton's National Review essay matters: because it reveals that he's refused to learn anything from the past 20 years and failed to gain an ounce of humility regarding America's ability to affect regime change with impunity—and to deal with what comes after the bombs stop falling.
Bolton's selective historical analysis and wish casting for even more war put him wildly out of touch with most Americans who lived through the past 20 years. Unfortunately, he's still dangerous—and still very, very wrong.