The Uses and Abuses of the Iraq War

How the unedifying 'lessons of Iraq' reappraisals obscure the war’s real lessons

The Uses and Abuses of the Iraq War
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

During the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, Democratic Party candidate Bill Clinton distinguished himself from the Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush with regard to Bosnia by supporting a “lift and strike” policy. Armed with weapons from the old Yugoslav Army, Bosnian Serbs were on a rampage, and a United Nations embargo was preventing Muslim Bosniaks from being able to defend themselves, even as the Bush administration looked on. Clinton’s proposal would lift the arms blockade and strike the Bosnian Serb supply lines.

Soon after taking office, however, Clinton changed his mind. He was no longer keen to act in Bosnia. The catalyst was a recently published book by Robert D. Kaplan. In “Balkan Ghosts,” the travel writer had advanced the thesis that the Yugoslav conflict was rooted in “ancient hatreds,” and the recent conflagration was an atavistic return to bloodshed. The Clintons — both Bill and Hillary — were persuaded. A year later, during the siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, when a Bosnian Serb mortar killed and maimed over 200 civilians in a marketplace, Clinton pronounced: “Until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen.”

Things changed eventually. After the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and facing an internal revolt, Clinton finally yielded and launched airstrikes to halt Bosnian Serb atrocities. Later, in 1999, Clinton also led a NATO intervention in Kosovo to prevent mass slaughter. The decade ended with many speaking about a new approach to foreign policy that centered on human rights. Clinton’s allies in Britain launched their own “ethical foreign policy.” When George W. Bush came to office in 2001, even he had abandoned his father’s realism and signed on to the emerging consensus. “Not on my watch,” he wrote in the margins of an excerpt from Samantha Power’s book “‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide” condemning the Clinton administration’s inaction on Rwanda.

And yet, when a new Democratic president was confronted with a similar situation two decades after the atrocities in Bosnia, he reverted to old tropes. Bolstered by direct Russian military intervention, forces loyal to Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad were on the march again in the mid-2010s: rebel defenses were crumbling; sieges in Aleppo, Madaya and Eastern Ghouta had been tightened; the Russian air force was systematically targeting hospitals. In response, then-President Barack Obama struck a fatalistic note. The man who had begun his presidency with an idealistic speech in Cairo declared in 2016 that the Middle East’s problems were irresolvable because they are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” Robert D. Kaplan’s ghost was still haunting the White House.

Most of the Middle East’s problems have immediate causes, in fact; they are not rooted in “conflicts that date back millennia.” Yet this trope had made a triumphant return because of a war that the same Kaplan enthusiastically supported. On March 20, 2003 — 20 years ago today — in defiance of international law, the U.S. launched an unprovoked war to topple the indisputably horrible regime of Saddam Hussein.

By now, few disagree that the Iraq War was a moral, material and strategic disaster.

The 20th anniversary of the war has predictably unleashed a torrent of commentary. The conversation has moved on from causes and consequences to the genre du jour: “the lessons of Iraq.” And the people most eager to share this wisdom are the ones who got it wrong in the first place.

This alone is no reason to reject such reappraisals. We all learn from our mistakes. What makes them unedifying is that they externalize the problem and admit only to being naive about their intended beneficiaries’ aptitude for freedom and democracy.

They claim to have discovered unforeseen consequences that even a cursory survey of history would have warned them against. And they’ve reached conclusions that elevate fear of unintended consequences over the foreseeable consequences of inaction in humanitarian crises. It’s the acknowledgment of past errors to license new follies.

All of this involves a rewriting of history, beginning with a category error. Iraq was an unprovoked war, not an overzealous humanitarian action. It had many causes, but they were not equally salient. For its chief executors — Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — the war was an opportunity to demonstrate American power and deter potential rivals. Cheney — who had declared in the aftermath of 9/11 that the U.S. should treat a 1% chance of terrorists’ acquiring nuclear weapons as a 100% certainty — had been receiving personal briefings from the neoconservative doyen Bernard Lewis, who persuaded him that Arabs only understand the language of force. Cheney was going to shock and awe an Arab country to send a message to anyone who might be foolish enough to wish harm upon the U.S.

The war also found favor among some interventionists, however. The moral argument for removing Saddam Hussein was compelling: This was a tyrant who had drawn Iraq into two ruinous wars, gassed his own citizens and was overseeing what one dissident described as a sadistic “republic of fear.”

Even more persuasive, however, were the arguments against using war as a means for achieving this: Iraq was not at war, and wars invariably harm civilians, bringing insecurity, uncertainty and anarchy. And then there are its unforeseen consequences. This is why, regardless of the consensus on the regime’s monstrousness, only a very small number of humanitarian interventionists supported the war.

Yet it is now considered proper by both supporters and critics of the war (specifically, the realists and isolationists) to cast it as a disaster resulting from a surfeit of humanitarian zeal. Consequently, both have concluded that the lesson of Iraq is that humanitarianism is a threat to order and that stability is the highest virtue. In the case of Robert Kaplan, he enlists no less an authority than Shakespeare for his argument.

One reason Shakespeare can be marshaled to support just about any position is that his genius consists of putting eloquent words into even the mouths of cads. Sure, some of his characters speak persuasively of the virtues of order (after all, he was writing in paranoid Elizabethan times), yet his most memorable plays — “Titus Andronicus,” “Macbeth,” “Richard II,” “Richard III,” “Coriolanus,” “Julius Caesar” and “King Lear” — were all written as warnings against tyranny. The Bard’s only three references to arch-realist Machiavelli are disparaging ones.

Kaplan also marshals the medieval Persian philosopher al-Ghazali in support of his argument. He paraphrases al-Ghazali as saying, “One year of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny.” However, in his “Letter to a Disciple,” al-Ghazali wrote that God “detests” tyranny and admonished his disciple against serving, praising or even meeting tyrants. The one scriptural story common to all Abrahamic traditions is Moses’ defiance of the tyrant Pharoah. Most relevant, perhaps, are the observations of the 14th-century sociologist Ibn Khaldun, who found tyranny to be an inherently unstable form of government. More pertinently, he wrote, “The tyrants bring the invaders.”

There are certainly lessons to be learned from the Iraq War, but they are not the ones being peddled by its disabused early advocates. Many of the latter claim the problem lay not in the conception but the execution. But this is precisely why war has been historically treated as a scourge that always confounds the expectations of the planners. From the Code of Hammurabi, the Mahabharata, the Islamic tradition and the Catholic tradition to the 1949 Geneva Convention, there has always been a recognition that wars must be avoided unless absolutely necessary. The only necessary kind of war is a defensive war. But even when one meets the “jus ad bellum” criterion — the condition under which war is permissible — one must still be alert to “jus in bello” — the way in which war is conducted.

Because the war was launched without provocation, it failed the first test; and because U.S. forces acquitted themselves less than honorably, from Abu Ghraib to Fallujah, they also failed the second. Moral justifications for the war were never able to resolve their contradiction with the principles of just-war theory. Most of the war’s catastrophic consequences were foreseeable. And, inevitably, there were also unintended consequences.

For some of the war’s neoconservative architects, the war was the application of a new “dual rollback” policy, a departure from the earlier “dual containment.” It was supposed to defang Iraq and roll back Iranian power simultaneously. But the war had the predictable consequence of eliminating Iran’s main rival and handing over power in Iraq to the Shiites, many of whom were allied to Iran (the U.S. had already toppled the hostile Taliban on Iran’s eastern flank). The war was supposed to have a demonstrative effect on any state or non-state actor intending to harm Americans. But the war had the paradoxical effect of turning Iraq into a magnet for jihadists from across the Middle East and North Africa. By naming Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in his case for war, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had already boosted the militant’s prestige. Zarqawi would use the power vacuum in Iraq to establish his own power and initiate a sectarian war. The U.S. occupying authorities in turn exacerbated it by relying on Shiite forces to suppress restive Sunni regions. And even though they later recruited Sunni tribes to fight and defeat al Qaeda, they backed sectarian currents, which paved the way for the return of the jihadists (by that point rebranded as the Islamic State in Iraq) to exploit Sunni grievances.

There were also secondary consequences. The opportunistic invocation of humanitarian concerns to justify the war had the effect of casting a pall over the entire concept of “responsibility to protect.” The war allowed tyrants and their apologists to cast any dissent against their rule as part of a foreign “regime change” plot. It also polluted public discourse by discrediting major journalism institutions that had uncritically reported the dubious claims of the warmongers. (The Russian propaganda channel RT would later exploit this distrust in its own attempt to establish a foothold in the U.S. with the “question more” campaign.)

This attempt at political engineering, the abuse of trust, and the corruption of public discourse would have catastrophic consequences. As the Iraq War wound down, beginning with the 2009-2010 Green Movement in Iran and the 2011 Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa, the region erupted in revolt. Many wondered if the U.S. intervention had merely preempted an organic revolt that had long been gestating across the region. In Libya, at least, the West took early action to prevent the slaughter threatened by Moammar Gadhafi. But, thanks to the Iraq War, even Libya’s new rulers were wary of foreign boots on the ground. It is possible that a U.N. stabilization force might have prevented the subsequent chaos into which Libya descended. Meanwhile, in Syria, the Assad regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons was met with skepticism for a long time, since for many people such reports evoked the claims about Iraq’s nonexistent chemical labs, which were used to justify the war.

Such reflections might be useful. But what we are getting instead is a sterile form of fatalism dressed (in the case of Kaplan — the president whisperer) as a “tragic mind” — a point of view that is alert to competing goods (freedom, he contends, is less important than order). It is a rousing call for inaction, supported by Shakespeare, Sophocles and Homer. But these views had already taken sufficiently strong root by 2010 that, during the Iraqi election that year, when General Ray Odierno complained about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s attempts to rig it, a U.S. diplomat reportedly said, “Iraq is not ready for democracy. … [It] needs a Shia strongman.” He might well have been reading Kaplan.

From ancient Greek playwrights to Shakespeare, tragedians have often used characters as foils whose humble station contributes to their unimpaired judgment. For Sophocles’ Oedipus, it’s Tiresias; for Shakespeare’s Lear, it’s the Fool. It is often a comic figure who punctures the delusions of power. It is fortuitous, then, that when Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked war in Ukraine and the bearers of the “tragic mind” were searching for “ancient hatreds” to walk away from, a comedian stood up to shake the world’s apathy and explain the consequences of inaction. Luckily for Ukraine, the world now sees its tragedy through the unclouded vision of a former comedian. The West is finally learning what a just war looks like — and it doesn’t look like Iraq. It also appears mindful of the consequences of inaction in a way it wasn’t in Syria. The lesson of Iraq, then, is not to retreat into fatalism and make a virtue of apathy. It is to start from a place of empathy and weigh the human cost of both action and inaction. It is not to develop a “tragic mind” that is impervious to circumstance, but to cultivate an inquiring spirit that is both earnest and irreverent. It is to never initiate a war where there is none, but to ensure that, if someone else starts one, it ends in the aggressor’s defeat.

This essay is one of a series marking the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Read Rasha Al Aqeedi on her vivid memories of the invasion 20 years later as an Iraqi, Ambassador Robert Ford reflecting on his experiences as a former U.S. official in Iraq during the occupation, and Henrietta Wilson on the disarming of Iraq’s WMDs.

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