The war in Iraq was a terrible mistake, and those who led us there are directly responsible for the rise of ISIS and our current quandary of how to respond. . . . [I]t is not the time to just repeat our old mistakes. Rather we should begin with repentance for those mistakes by listening better and humbly seeking better solutions. And that is where all the presidential candidates should begin. – Rev. Jim Wallis, Sojourners
There are many aspects of modern American politics with which I am unhappy – the emphasis on fundraising and the seeming need for unlimited cash, sound bites and clichéd talking points, the ensuing media circus. But if during the upcoming presidential primary season the country engages in a serious re-evaluation of America’s role in the world and the uses and limits of military force, I will remain hopeful. No issue is more important in judging one’s fitness and character to be president than a candidate’s judgment on matters of war and peace, his or her gut-level instincts on how and when American force should be exercised.
This is not to suggest that a candidate’s views on economic and social issues, spending and taxing priorities, the environment, and the Supreme Court are unimportant. These issues are indeed vital to the fabric of our society and will determine how effectively we are governed in the years to come. But economic and social policy is a collaborative effort between the President and Congress, interest groups and citizen pressure; it is impossible for one person to radically alter the social and economic landscape. Only as commander-in-chief does the President have the power and authority to single-handedly affect the lives and futures of millions of Americans and the quality of our relationships to the nations of the world.
I was six years old when Lyndon Johnson made the ill-fated decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Within a few years, as I watched the evening news with my family and saw images of body bags on military transport planes departing the jungles of Asia, I had enough sense to understand that the Vietnam War was morally wrong and based on faulty premises. Even at the age of nine, I knew it was time to bring our troops home. But then America elected Nixon, we commenced secret bombing missions into Cambodia, and the war dragged on for six more years. By the time U.S. forces withdrew and we brought home the last American soldier, another 25,000 American lives had been lost.
Though I believe wars should be fought only as a last resort and after all reasonable alternatives have been explored, I am not a pacifist. I know we live in a dangerous world and must defend ourselves, our interests, and our friends and allies when unjustly attacked. I supported the decision of President George H.W. Bush to invade Iraq in defense of Kuwait in 1991, when an American ally had been attacked and its sovereignty invaded by a neighboring aggressor. The senior President Bush applied well established principles in coming to the aid of an American friend and limiting U.S. involvement to accomplishing its objective – defending our ally and securing a military retreat of Saddam Hussein’s forces. I disagreed with many Democratic Senators, including Joe Biden and John Kerry, for their knee-jerk opposition to that conflict, and I said so at the time.
When America was attacked on September 11, 2001, I like most Americans wanted a rapid and decisive U.S. military response against those responsible. We knew almost immediately that Osama bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda were to blame and, when it was discovered they were being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan, I affirmatively supported a quick and resolute attack on Taliban forces there. The defense of a nation by necessity includes the right of retaliation when unjustly attacked. While I did not expect us to be in Afghanistan for 14 years, fundamentally I agreed with the U.S. military mission in that country.
But when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 – and well before then made clear its intentions of doing so – I was opposed from the beginning, as were many of our most trusted allies and many American religious leaders. Once again, some of my Democratic role models, people with whom I generally agree on most issues – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry among them – disappointed me. When on October 16, 2002, Clinton and Kerry voted to authorize U.S. military force against Iraq, I believed then that they were wrong, and that their votes were nothing but acts of political cowardice. Wanting someday to become president, both were scared of looking “soft” on national security and defense.
The vote in favor of the Iraq War Resolution of 2002 was far from unanimous, and there were many other Democrats in the House and Senate who possessed the same information as everyone else and rendered a different verdict. Senators Carl Levin, Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer, the late Senators Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy, all voted no with the same information that led Clinton and Kerry to vote yes. And although he was not in the Senate at the time, another prominent Democrat named Barack Obama also publicly opposed the war in Iraq.
On the single most important question confronted by our political leaders in the past half century – a question of war and peace, of life and death – Hillary Clinton got it wrong and Barack Obama got it right. It was a question of courage and judgment, of understanding the implications of American military actions and learning the correct lessons from history. Obama made the right call based on what he knew then, and he did not look to the polls for guidance. Hillary Clinton and 28 Democratic Senators, 82 Democratic House members, and almost all Republicans were dead wrong.
|U.S. troops in Iraq|
I do not base any of this on 20/20 hindsight, but on what was known at the time. It is why I believe that the question asked recently of the 2016 presidential candidates – “Knowing what we know now, would you have invaded Iraq?” – is precisely the wrong question. As James Fallows noted recently in The Atlantic, this question is too easy and tells us nothing about a candidate’s foreign policy instincts, underlying values, or thought process. It is sort of like asking, “Knowing what we know now, would you have bought a ticket on Malaysia Air flight 370?”
I am more interested in understanding how the candidates assessed the evidence then. How did they view the possible benefits and risks of invading Iraq based on what we knew prior to March 19, 2003, when the first bombs fell on Baghdad? Decisions are always made in real time, not in hindsight. Understanding your thought process when it counted is the only way voters can truly assess if your instincts and judgments are to be trusted in the future.
Of course, mistakes are made and no one gets everything right all the time. So, the next important question is one Fallows articulates well: “Regardless of whether you feel you were right or wrong, prescient or misled, how exactly will the experience of Iraq – yours in weighing the evidence, the country’s in going to war – shape your decisions on the future, unforeseeable choices about committing American force?” (James Fallows, “The Right and Wrong Questions about the Iraq War,” The Atlantic, May 19, 2015). In other words, what are the lessons of our recent history? How will the lessons learned help the United States more effectively engage with the international community, properly assess American interests abroad, avoid costly and unnecessary conflicts, and lessen the risks to future generations?
I would like to see the candidates struggle honestly with these questions, with what they have learned from the recent past. I want to know how they perceive the limits of force and America’s proper role in the world; and the benefits, risks, and long-term consequences of military engagement. I cannot trust any candidate who insists that the Iraq War is regrettable based only on what we know now. It is not acceptable to state, as did Marco Rubio recently, that invading Iraq “was not a mistake because the president was presented with intelligence that said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.” The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was not based on faulty intelligence. There were plenty of people, including U.S. intelligence analysts and military strategists, who thought better of invading Iraq, and who predicted precisely the consequences of the resulting post-invasion occupation. There was no shortage of foreign leaders, protestors, reporters, and intelligence experts who questioned the wisdom of the American invasion, and who believed United Nations weapons inspectors should be allowed more time to determine and certify that Iraq’s WMD program was effectively non-existent.
On February 14, 2003, less than one month before U.S. forces invaded Iraq, chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix publicly declared that Iraq was cooperating with the inspections teams. And while there remained questions concerning what had happened to a small portion of Iraq’s aged chemical weapons stockpile, it was well known that nearly 95% of that inventory had been verifiably destroyed in the 1990s. Whatever existing weapons program Iraq had in 2003 – and as it turned out, it was non-existent – was certainly not a threat to the United States to justify a military invasion lasting eight years and costing over $2 trillion. Containment may be less dramatic, but it generally comes with far less death and destruction.
|London anti-war protest, February 15, 2003|
President Bush did not make an objective judgment about the use of military force based on the facts presented to him at the time. He was not misled by his advisers and intelligence officials. The invasion of Iraq was a foregone conclusion well before it happened. The WMD excuse was the public justification for the war used to obtain a UN Security Council resolution and congressional authorization. But it was not why we went to war. That decision was pre-ordained even before 9/11, when as widely reported a close circle of Bush advisers, including Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, pressed for a war with Iraq from the moment Bush became President. These men and others wished not only to depose Saddam Hussein, a known menace and despot, but to install a government more friendly to U.S. interests and to impose a democratic model which they hoped would spread across the Middle East.
On the day of the 9/11 attacks and its immediate aftermath, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, among others, made the case to the President that Iraq should be part of any military response, even though there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement for 9/11. Only when it was clear that a reason for the invasion had to be based on something the American people could accept, something that at least implied that Iraq posed an imminent threat and justified the unprecedented action of pre-emptive war, did the WMD rationale take priority. And the intelligence, as we now know, was selectively scoured and used to justify the desired result.
While members of the administration claimed that the war would be short and swift and U.S. armed forces treated as liberators, the difficulties and costs of the post-invasion occupation were ignored. In the run-up to the Iraq War, experts inside and outside of the Bush Administration made clear that occupying Iraq would be extremely difficult and costly. A November 2002 report by the National Defense University contended that occupying Iraq “will be the most daunting and complex task the U.S. and international community will have undertaken since the end of World War II.” Experts at the Army War College warned that the “possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace is real and serious.” And when Lawrence Lindsey, the White House economic advisor, dared suggest that rebuilding postwar Iraq would cost upwards of $200 billion – a laughably low estimate as it turned out – he was publicly reprimanded and subsequently dismissed.
As Fallows noted in the January 2004 issue of The Atlantic, the problems confronted by American forces in Iraq immediately after the invasion, the breakdown of public order, increased sectarian violence, the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, were raised and willfully ignored in the planning stages leading up to the war:
Almost everything, good and bad, that has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime was the subject of extensive pre-war discussion and analysis. This is particularly true of what have proved to be the harshest realities for the United States since the fall of Baghdad: that occupying the country is much more difficult than conquering it; that a breakdown in public order can jeopardize every other goal; that the ambition of patiently nurturing a new democracy is at odds with the desire to turn control over to the Iraqis quickly and get U.S. troops out; that the Sunni center of the country is the main security problem; that with each passing day Americans risk being seen less as liberators and more as occupiers, and targets.
Fallows also discussed the ill-fated decision to dismantle the Iraqi army, a determination that directly contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and indirectly facilitated the rise and success of ISIS, which includes many of those dismissed Baathist security forces:
The case against wholesale dissolution of the army, rather than a selective purge at the top, was that it created an instant enemy class: hundreds of thousands of men who still had their weapons but no longer had a paycheck or a place to go each day. Manpower that could have helped on security patrols became part of the security threat. Studies from the Army War College, the Future of Iraq project, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to name a few, had all considered exactly this problem and suggested ways of removing the noxious leadership while retaining the ordinary troops. They had all warned strongly against disbanding the Iraqi army. The Army War College, for example, said in its report, “To tear apart the Army in the war’s aftermath could lead to the destruction of one of the only forces for unity within the society.”
Moreover, even assuming the intelligence had been accurately assessed concerning the WMD program, the notion of a pre-emptive attack against a sovereign nation that posed no imminent threat to the United States or its allies, and for which a policy of containment was in place and working, was wrong, un-American, and morally unjustified. Hillary Clinton got this point wrong. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker – every Republican with the exception of Rand Paul – continue to miss this point. It does not bode well for the future. But at least Hillary has admitted that her past judgment was wrong.
That the Iraq War was a mistake in hindsight, however, is now widely recognized even by many of its early proponents, Jeb Bush’s recent obfuscation on the issue notwithstanding. It is a welcome, if somewhat surprising development that many on the right, including most of the Republican presidential candidates, have acknowledged that the decision to invade Iraq “based on what we know now” was a mistake. According to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, the Iraq War has cost the United States over $2.4 trillion in untaxed revenue, resulted in the deaths of 4,500 Americans with another 40,000 seriously wounded. The war has led to heart-wrenching tales of post-traumatic stress disorder, veteran suicides, and loss of morale. Iraq has turned into a failed state as an estimated half-million of its people have died. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which everyone agrees is a good thing, has nevertheless allowed Iran, which is four times as large and powerful, to extend its influence in the region. Though President Obama’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq deserves some of the blame for Iraq’s current mess, none of it happens if the United States refrains from committing its worst foreign policy blunder in 50 years.
Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. What was most egregious about the push for war in 2002-2003 was the Bush Administration’s disdain for disagreement, its unabashed confidence in its own judgment, its willingness to dismiss the opinions of many of our allies and friends in Europe and the Middle East, a willingness to act unilaterally if necessary, and the failure to critically examine and assess the evidence, risks and benefits of war.
I would welcome in the upcoming presidential primary and election season a lively debate and discussion about the lessons of the Iraq War, the proper use of military force, where and when, if ever, America should be engaged in nation building. I would like to see the candidates discuss whether it was a good thing, and responsible leadership, for the United States to have spent trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without paying for those wars – without raising taxes to pay for them, or asking for any sacrifices from the American people (other than those who volunteered to serve in our armed forces). We need a true debate over America’s priorities, the resources diverted for every bomber, every fighter jet, and how that affects directly the lack of investment in our public infrastructure, our schools, and our environment.
For several months before we invaded Iraq, many people raised perceptive questions about the impending war, questions that remained unanswered in the rush to war. While nobody lost any sleep over the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign, the proper question was never, “Is Saddam good or bad?” The more appropriate question, asked by many of us opposed to the invasion at the time, but ignored by the majority of our leaders and much of the media was, “What happens after we overthrow Saddam?” We cannot simply invade a country, depose its leader, destroy its infrastructure, and leave its people in squalor. If we do not wish to engage in nation building, we need to stop engaging in nation demolition. How we respond to new threats is open for debate. But if we fail to learn the proper lessons of history, we are destined to repeat our past mistakes.