As we arrive at the tenth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, several things are apparent today that were not so clear a decade ago—and a few things are actually less clear today than they were back then.
Among the things that have come into focus:
Iraq was broken long before March 19, 2003.
Those who say the U.S. “broke Iraq” and pushed it into failed-state status by intervening in 2003 fail to recognize that Iraq was a failed state long before Operation Iraqi Freedom. As the Hoover Institution’s Fouad Ajami has observed, when the coalition entered Iraq, they found “a country wrecked and poisoned.” Gen. Ray Odierno adds, “What I underestimated when I got there was the societal devastation that was occurring in Iraq—the fact that education really had stopped for about 20 years, the fact that investment had stopped, the fact that people were being brutalized.” In short, Iraq was not broken because outside powers intervened. Rather, outside powers intervened because Iraq was broken.
Iraq really was part of a wider war on terror.
With tentacles stretching out to the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, Abu Nidal and Palestinian suicide bombers, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was part of a constellation of nation-states, transnational groups and individuals that view terrorism as a normalized, legitimate tool for achieving political ends. Moreover, although Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not connected to al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was connected to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda lieutenant who ignited Iraq’s postwar civil war. As Tony Blair revealed in his memoir, Zarqawi traveled to Iraq in May 2002, met “senior Iraqis” and established a presence in Iraq six months before the U.S.-led invasion.
What Saddam Hussein failed to grasp in such risky dealings was that 9/11 had changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis concludes, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security.” Was deterrence possible? Was containment viable? Was giving Baghdad the benefit of the doubt responsible? The Bush administration’s answer to each question was “no,” which led to war.
Finally, as historian Paul Johnson observed, by overthrowing the terror regime of Saddam Hussein, “America obliged the leaders of international terrorism to concentrate all their efforts on preventing democracy from emerging in Iraq.” Fighters from al Qaeda’s ranks were drawn to Iraq like moths to light. Indeed, Iraq would prove to be a key battlefield in the wider war. By all accounts—including al Qaeda’s—the U.S. surge dealt bin Laden’s terror enterprise a significant strategic defeat in Iraq.
Operation Iraqi Freedom lived up to its name.
The war liberated 24 million Iraqis. Iraq is anything but perfect today, but its people are free—free from tyranny, free from being required to pledge their “souls and blood…for Saddam,” free from the vast torture chamber Saddam turned Iraq into, free from his omnipresent terrors. As Odierno recently reflected, “It’s hard to describe to somebody what an awful dictator Saddam Hussein was unless you were there in Iraq.” Iraqis held their first post-Saddam election in 2005, when 75 percent of eligible voters walked, marched, limped and ran to the polls to prove they belong in the democratic family.
The world is better—and America more secure—without Saddam Hussein.
“If nothing else, Iraq is not a destabilizing factor,” Odierno observes. It pays to recall that during Saddam’s reign, which began in 1979, Iraq made war against virtually all of its neighbors: Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people and against Iran. Long before Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he was racing to join the nuclear club. After Desert Storm, the U.S. tried to contain Saddam by enforcing no-fly zones—at an annual cost $13 billion—and by garrisoning troops in Saudi Arabia. The presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land incensed Osama bin Laden, who set about the task of expelling the Americans from the “land of the two holy places.” Thus was born a fringe terror group known as al Qaeda, which launched a global guerilla war against America, which triggered America’s global war on terror, which led, inevitably, back to Iraq.
It was inevitable because Saddam Hussein’s associations, behavior and record with weapons of mass destruction fueled a presumption of guilt that, when mixed with America’s profound sense of vulnerability after 9/11, created a deadly combination. This is perhaps the most fundamental way 9/11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not perpetrate the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same way, the appeasement of Hitler at once had nothing and yet everything to do with how America waged the Cold War against Moscow.
President Bush did make mistakes.
All wartime presidents make mistakes. The major mistake President Bush made was not in going to war, but in how he went to war. By not going heavy into Iraq and by disbanding the Iraqi military, a postwar insurgency became inevitable. The Bush administration’s rationale that a lighter footprint would be better suited to a limited war focused on regime change may have made sense on paper. But a force built to move fast across the desert proved insufficient for occupation and rehabilitation of Iraq’s poisoned politics. The result: a costly postwar war.
That brings us to the things that remain hazy, even a decade after the beginning of the Iraq War:
Was it worth it?
Like a Rorschach inkblot, to some Americans, the Iraq War looks like a necessary but costly effort to protect U.S. interests—and to others, like a fiasco. The war’s critics cannot overlook the costs: 4,500 Americans killed and $880 billion spent. The defenders of the war counter that the success or failure of America’s wars is not determined by casualty counts.
Interestingly, a decade after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, America’s opinion of the controversial war is starting to coalesce around a surprising consensus: Today, 55 percent say the war was “very successful” or “somewhat successful,” up from 43 percent in 2008, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
What about those WMDs?
President Bush’s decision to launch a preventive war in Iraq was primarily based on worries that Baghdad would use or lose its WMDs. But the invasion revealed only the skeleton of a WMD program.
Some observers—including President Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper—contend that Saddam spirited his WMDs off to Syria for safe keeping. Clapper was head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency during the Iraq War and concluded that Saddam had “unquestionably” moved his WMDs into Syria, using converted civilian airliners and truck convoys to haul the contraband out of Iraq in late 2002 and early 2003. Those assessments are being revisited today in the mainstream press and in military circles, as Syria implodes and the world wonders if Bashar Assad will turn his WMD arsenal on his own people. If /when Assad falls or flees, lots of people will be scouring Syria’s WMD stocks for Iraqi markings.
The irony is that President Obama, intent on avoiding another Iraq, has stayed out of Syria, which has increased the likelihood that Damascus might use or lose its WMDs.
What lies ahead?
As Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained in late 2011, President Obama’s own military officials wanted to keep more than 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. But President Obama undercut the delicate negotiations with Baghdad and proposed a force so small that it would be unable even to protect itself. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reported, the White House “decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq…despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.” The result: Washington has no leverage with Baghdad; Iraq is scarred by renewed sectarian war; Iran is moving arms and fighters into Syria via Iraq; and al Qaeda is making a comeback in Iraq.
Just as President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq opened the door to uncounted unknowns, so did President Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq.
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