Ten years ago this week, the United States launched the Iraq War. A decade later, thanks to the mismanagement of the Bush administration, the indifference of the Obama administration, and the inherent difficulties of Iraqi society, it is clear that we expended great blood and treasure for an unsatisfactory outcome.
Saddam Hussein and his regime of torture and mass murder are gone. He started a war by invading a neighbor and sought dominion over the global oil supply. He was an ongoing threat to the region and in flagrant violation of his international commitments. If he no longer had weapons of mass destruction, it wasn’t for lack of trying. He was undermining the strictures that kept him from restarting his weapons programs. Even the harshest critics of the war are loath to admit that their alternative would have left Saddam atop Iraq.
The war was popular at the beginning, supported by the public, by Democrats in Congress, and by many of the liberal and conservative commentators who eventually turned against it.
The notion that Bush “lied” about Saddam’s weapons is itself a dastardly lie. That Saddam had WMD was a matter of bipartisan and international consensus. His presumed possession of these weapons was widely considered intolerable in the context of the September 11 attacks, which taught a bitter lesson in allowing threats to fester. Bush launched the war for good reason, and in its initial phase, it was a rapid and undeniable triumph.
Then things went wrong. We didn’t know enough about the country we had taken over. We underestimated the devastation that had been wrought in Iraqi institutions and civil society by Saddam’s rule. We couldn’t get our act together as bureaucracies crossed signals and pursued rival agendas. We faced a determined Sunni insurgency. With insufficient troops using ill-advised tactics, we couldn’t impose order. The country spun out of control and into a sectarian war that threatened to rip it apart and to give al-Qaeda in Iraq an operating base in the heart of the Arab world.
With the war slipping away, President Bush ordered the surge, an infusion of additional troops to clear and hold territory in keeping with classic counterinsurgency doctrine. Bush acted against the fierce opposition of Democrats and with only the lukewarm support of his own party (with the honorable exception of John McCain, whose advocacy for the surge was his finest moment). Critics predicted the surge’s inevitable failure and the direst consequences. Instead, we dealt al-Qaeda a significant defeat. We won over the Sunni tribes and suppressed the Iranian-backed Shia militias. Violence dropped dramatically. We afforded the Iraqi government enough stability to establish its authority and legitimacy.
This was the situation that Bush handed over to Obama. Shamefully, his successor had no interest in building on it or even maintaining it. The administration failed to secure an agreement with the Iraqis to maintain a U.S. troop presence. As soon as we left, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki let loose his worst instincts. He has ruled as an authoritarian and Shia sectarian and has allied himself with Iran. In our absence, al-Qaeda in Iraq has begun to make a comeback.
At the end of the day, of course, Maliki is no Saddam Hussein. Iraq won’t be developing weapons of mass destruction anytime soon and it is not a direct threat to its neighbors. But any hope that Iraq, still wracked by political violence, would become a shining example to the rest of the Middle East was lost long ago. The Iraqi elections were inspiring exercises. A few years ago they even seemed to herald the advent of a nonsectarian politics. Yet the promise of those elections, and of Iraq’s new democratic structures, hasn’t been fulfilled. Key political players in Iraq have lacked a commitment to the rule of law and pluralism, and have been egged on and supplied by mischievous neighbors who had more staying power than we did.
The story in Iraq isn’t over. It didn’t end with our departure, and what we do still matters. The Obama abdication in Iraq, though, has continued. We should be using every remaining financial and diplomatic lever we have to try to force Maliki to give up his campaign against the Sunnis and to maintain some distance from Iran. Instead, the administration is content to take Maliki as it finds him, even as he allows Tehran to funnel aid to the Assad regime in Syria, which we want to see fall.
Throughout the near-decade of war in Iraq, there was one constant: the heroism and selflessness of our troops, who paid the highest price for the mistakes of their superiors. They gave their lives and their limbs. They were the tip of the spear of the most proficient and humane fighting force that the world has ever known. We wish the results so far in Iraq were more worthy of their sacrifice.