Iraq War

20 Years After Iraq, U.S. Leaders Still Don't Fully Consider International Risks

Are we stumbling into disaster? Again?


Twenty years after American troops invaded Iraq and embarked on a costly war this country came to regret, the U.S. is again flirting with international conflict—this time with Russia and China. Of course, not every military mistake of the past is comparable to conflicts of the present, but we should be clear that a lot of bad thinking was behind the Iraq War and ensure that political leaders engage in better quality due diligence as they engage in today's higher-stakes face-offs with nuclear-armed nations.

After 9/11, the Bush administration persuaded willing lawmakers and an angry public that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was complicit in the terrorist attacks and posed a continuing threat to the United States. In authorizing military action, Congress's joint resolution cited "Iraq's ongoing support for international terrorist groups combined with its development of weapons of mass destruction."

Bad War, False Claims

That was nonsense. Hussein's regime was brutal and predatory but had nothing to do with 9/11. And, despite much effort, investigators were never able to find the promised stashes of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. But the war was launched before those facts were clarified for public consumption, and the population was largely convinced.

"In the months leading up to the war, sizable majorities of Americans believed that Iraq either possessed WMD or was close to obtaining them, that Iraq was closely tied to terrorism – and even that Hussein himself had a role in the 9/11 attacks," Pew noted last week in a review of the data. "Two decades after the war began, a review of Pew Research Center surveys on the war in Iraq shows that support for U.S. military action was built, at least in part, on a foundation of falsehoods."

Those false justifications, and the resulting fighting, were extremely expensive. The war in Iraq, where the U.S. still has a military presence, cost an estimated 4,500 U.S. military lives, 200,000 Iraqi civilian lives, and caused perhaps 300,000 deaths in total. In monetary terms, the Costs of War project estimates the tally for the Iraq War at close to $2 trillion. That's a stiff bill in lives and wealth for a war that Americans now regret.

"Among veterans, 64% say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting considering the costs versus the benefits to the United States, while 33% say it was," Pew Research reported in 2019. "The general public's views are nearly identical: 62% of Americans overall say the Iraq War wasn't worth it and 32% say it was." (Polling found similar results for the disastrous war in Afghanistan.)

New Conflicts With Higher Stakes

Those second thoughts come as international tensions escalate once again, this time with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, and China over its similar desire to forcibly incorporate Taiwan. Worse, the tensions have driven those two countries into deepening ties with one another, in opposition to the U.S. and its allies.

Of course, it's easy to make too much of past examples. Just as not every peace treaty should evoke the ghost of Neville Chamberlain and the dangers of appeasement, so not every modern conflict is an Iraq-style quagmire threatening to siphon blood and money for little gain. Russia invaded a neighbor in a naked play for territorial gain, and China clearly is considering similar action (though that may be more difficult than it appears). That's in contrast to the former Iraqi regime which, like many authoritarian governments, largely confined itself to tormenting its own people.

But another difference is that China and Russia are both much more potent than Iraq of 20 years ago. Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were a mirage, but Russia's nuclear stockpile is the biggest in the world. China is also nuclear-armed (though with a much smaller number of warheads) and has the second-largest economy on the planet. That means any confrontation with those countries, if not properly handled, could pose much greater risk.

Technically, western opposition to Russia has, so far, taken the form of money and weapons to support Ukraine's defense efforts. But international sanctions and an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin have nudged the blocs closer to direct confrontation.

We're At War With Who?

"What does it mean precisely when German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock says that the Euro-Atlantic community finds itself at 'war' with Russia in Ukraine?" Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Nikolas K. Gvosdev asked in January. He could have referenced other western officials who have similarly framed the conflict as one of Russia against NATO and the West.

If nothing else, it means that the world is edging closer to turning a regional war into global peril, with little public discussion.

Northeastern University's Max Abrahms, who teaches international relations, is one scholar who urges "greater caution in America's approach to countering Russia." He worries that, in trying to counter Russia's imperial ambitions, the West risks further "mutual escalation" and expanded conflict without fully considering the dangers involved.

It's difficult to argue that the U.S. approach to China is any better thought out. After decades of nudge-and-wink "strategic ambiguity" over American commitments to defending Taiwan, building close ties without a clear military commitment, the Biden administration has reconsidered.

"US President Joe Biden has warned China is 'flirting with danger' over Taiwan, and vowed to intervene militarily to protect the island if it is attacked," the BBC reported last year.

Or maybe it hasn't reconsidered. The White House promptly walked back that promise, and not for the first time. That's an extra helping of ambiguity, with little strategy attached. We're left with the impression that nobody is really thinking things through or assessing risks.

"Repeated gaffes risk being interpreted as changes in policy," warned Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They increase the chance of damaging peace and stability between the world's two leading powers."

Loose language, policy shifts that maybe aren't, and undeclared wars hinted at with no prior debate. No wonder recent polling by Trafalgar Group/Convention of States found 43.4 percent of respondents fearful that we're "on the brink of another world war."

With so much at stake, more deliberation needs to go into the fights picked by U.S. politicians and their allies. What we have now looks less like intentional policy than like…stumbling into disaster. Again.

"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," Reason's Brian Doherty noted of the Iraq disaster. With so much more at stake in potential conflicts with Russia and China, we need to make sure that nobody ever needs to write a similar assessment of U.S. government dealings with more potent military powers—assuming anybody is still in a position to pen the words, that is.