Don't Write Off the Iraq War as a Loss Just Yet

While some claim that the war was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy, I find that argument to be a bit overblown.

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Navy SEALs
SEAL team members conduct Vessel Boarding Search and Seizure (VBSS) training in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq (March 20, 2003-Dec. 31, 2011). 4,488 American service members and Department of Defense civilians made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and another 32,221 were wounded in action. Estimates vary on the number of Iraqi casualties incurred during the war—and it is important to note that those casualties were not just caused by the U.S. and coalition forces but also by al Qaeda in Iraq, indigenous internecine conflict, etc.

As a citizen, an analyst and a veteran of that war, I am still trying to come to grips with it. While some claim that the war was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy, I find that argument to be a bit overblown. The Vietnam War in terms of blood and treasure and the sapping of national will and confidence surely was more damaging. But obviously the conduct of the war could have been handled much, much better.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Did the U.S. Withdraw from Iraq Too Soon?]

Some claim that having found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq makes the conduct of the war entirely unnecessary. Perfect hindsight, however, is no guide to policy as it existed in the run up to the war. Saddam Hussein deceived (subscription required) even his own generals about weapons of mass destruction. The simple fact of the matter is that once the U.S. went in there was no turning back. And it is hard to argue that an Iraq with Saddam still in place and with Uday or Qusay in line for succession would be a better place today.

Still, obviously there were many forks in the decision-making road which would have greatly improved the situation on the ground that could have been taken, but were not. The New York Times's Michael Gordon and retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor point out many of these in their latest e-book that contains the details of many newly declassified documents.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

But contingency always plays a role. Two structural issues, from the very beginning, however, could have greatly improved initial results and probably would have mitigated some of the lessons paid more dearly in blood and treasure as the calendar pages flipped:

  1. The U.S. military needed, and will always need to, be prepared for what happens on the ground after the initial big battles. Our planners and troops were woefully unprepared for what happened after Baghdad fell. Unless the U.S. enters a new phase of national strategy where the nation simply conducts punitive expeditions and then leaves immediately following the initial actions then we must be prepared for what the U.S. military has called "Phase IV" operations.
  2. National policymakers need to be more pragmatic about dealing with the local populace. To be sure there were many bad people that the U.S. should not have dealt with after Saddam's regime fell, but that did not need to expand to all levels of participation in the Baath Party nor did it need to disband the Iraqi Army (many of whose members we eventually allowed to rejoin years later). Policy cannot be dictated in absolutes.
  3. [Read the U.S. News Debate: Was The Iraq War Worth It?]

    While I do not regret having supported going to war in 2003 or having served there I do feel a great deal of sympathy and remorse for the families and loved ones of those who were lost, especially those that were lost because unforced errors occurred. After 10 years it is still soon to tell what the aftermath of the Iraq will be for the Iraqis, the Middle East region and for the United States. One word of caution about writing off Iraq as a loss: At least two generations of Iraqis have been raised under the brutal repression of Saddam Hussein's regime and they are still learning there way.

    If you have gotten this far you might be interested in a panel discussion that the Foreign Policy Research Institute held last week on the 10th anniversary of the war's start. You can find the audio here.

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