The Iraq War, RIP

Shock and awe, March 20, 2003

President Obama’s announcement that all US forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, thereby ending the longest and one of the most divisive foreign policy actions in US history.

I still remember the spring of 2003.   I was finishing up my book on German foreign policy.   Gerhard Schroeder had won re-election as German Chancellor by actively opposing the US decision to go to war in Iraq.   I was adding the final pieces to my last edit when the war started on March 20 (19th if you count the attempt to take out Saddam the night before), and on April 3rd I finished for good, sending back the last changes.

I know it was April 3, 2003 because as I was making my final edits my wife came to let me know that it was time to go to the hospital.   “Five more minutes,” I said, finishing up.    We left at about 5:00 PM, and at 11:47 PM that same day our first son Ryan was born.   In that sense, I’ve always had a measure of how long the war dragged on by the growth of my son.   He’s now in third grade; the US has been in Iraq his whole life.

I was also teaching American Foreign Policy with a delightfully talkative class which debated and argued with each other in a way that never got mean or nasty.   Lance Harvell, now a GOP representative for my state district and neighbor was there, a non-traditional student who’d been in the military.   There was Sam Marzenell, Joonseob Park, Christine Rice, Sev Slaymaker and others, debating current events as they unfolded.

I opposed the war, arguing that Iraq’s political culture was not conducive to democracy and rather than be a quick, easy victory enhancing the US role in the region it could turn into a disaster dragging out over years and helping al qaeda recruit.  At least one student from that class who disagreed with me has since contacted me to tell me that they had to admit I was right.    I think most people who study comparative politics were skeptical of the idea of making Iraq into a model democracy, you don’t just remake societies.   This wasn’t like Japan and Germany after WWII, this was a divided pre-modern society with an Ottoman heritage.

Yet what I really remember from that class is how I felt like a good professor in that students were willing and able to debate me using real foreign policy arguments about policy, not fearing that I would somehow punish them for disagreeing (as one told me, some students suspected I gave higher grades to those who disagreed), and making really excellent points.    Why can’t all political disagreements be so heated in substance but friendly in form?    The day Saddam’s government fell I remember coming to class, tired because of our newborn son, and asked by delighted conservatives what I thought now that Iraq fell so quickly.   “Now comes the hard part,” I said, admitting that the war itself had been faster and more effectively than I had expected.

At that point support for the war was high.  It was just two years after 9-11, and Afghanistan was seen as a done war, with troops staying just to help the new government get off and running.   The next year, in 2004 when Dr. Mellisa Clawson from Early Childhood Education and I taught the course “Children and War” for the first time (we’re teaching it again, for the fourth time next semester) many students were nationalistic and reacted negatively sometimes to our clear skepticism about US policy.

In 2005 for me the tone changed after Vice President Cheney’s “last throes” quote describing the Iraqi insurgency on June 20, 2005.    On June 24, 2005 I wrote:

Cheney claimed (still believing his propaganda, perhaps) that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes’ (he defended that by talking about the dictionary meaning of ‘throes’) and — most absurdly — tried to compare this to the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa.  That is the point where the propaganda becomes so absurd that it really had morphed into comedy.  This is not a battle against another military superpower where there can be a turning point or where they throw all they have at one battle hoping to turn things around.  This is a battle against an insurgency that is building, and which can choose targets, play the time game, and score political victories despite successes in the American/Iraqi military offensives.  If they are comparing this to Germany and Japan, they are grasping at whatever they can to try to convince themselves that things will get better.  They are out of touch with reality. 

By 2006 Iraq slipped into civil war, public opinion shifted against the war, the Democrats took the House, and President Bush’s approval ratings began an inexorable slide to some of the lowest in history.   Yet, in 2007 he made the right call. He dumped the original goal of defeating the insurgency and setting up a pro-American government with whom we would be allies and have permanent bases, and embraced a realist notion of making deals with the insurgents, focusing instead only on al qaeda and trying to create enough stability so we could declare victory and leave.  It was a retreat from the grandiose vision of the neo-cons, but for me it increased my respect for President Bush.  He did something that LBJ couldn’t do in Vietnam:  he changed course.

President Obama has taken that policy to it’s logical conclusion.   By the end of the year the US will be out completely, and efforts to leave Afghanistan are growing as well.    There will be time to reflect on the lessons learned from this war, and how it changed both the US and the Mideast.   The challenge of counter-terrorism remains.   The Arab world is at the start of a long transition which will no doubt have peaks and valleys, Pakistan and Afghanistan still represent uncertainty, but at least we’re not caught in a quagmire.

For now, it’s a time for a sigh of relief that this traumatic and costly conflict is now truly entering its last phase.   President Obama disappointed the anti-war crowd by a cautious winding down of the war rather than a quick exit, but combined with Gaddafi’s death in Libya yesterday, he’s piling up foreign policy success after foreign policy success.   And as bad as the economy is, I’d rather the economy be the main issue on the minds of voters than a foreign war.

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  1. #1 by modestypress on October 22, 2011 - 17:56

    Is Afghanistan “son of Iraq?” Is Libya “son of Afghanistan?” Will word peace ever occur? If it does occur, will it make us too soft to repel an alien invasion, similar to the one portrayed in Starship Troopers? If aliens came in peace would we destroy them? If aliens pretended to come in peace, but were really malevolent, would we fall for the ploy like suckers?

  2. #2 by classicliberal2 on October 24, 2011 - 12:41

    Insofar as U.S. history is concerned, the big story of the Iraq war is going to be how a gang of malevolent criminals in officialdom dragged the nation into a ruinous war, one of the longest in its history. Scott, I very nearly choked to death on the line “increased my respect for President Bush.” This is a creature worthy of the scorn, contempt, and outright hatred of every American worthy of the title. No degree of respect is acceptable.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on October 24, 2011 - 16:29

      I actually think that Bush believed that he was spreading democracy and that this would transform the Mideast. I think that Cheney and the neo-conservatives played to his idealist side in the post 9-11 atmosphere and Bush just wasn’t smart or experienced enough about world affairs to truly understand what he was getting the country into. So I tend not to see him in as negative a light as I see Cheney, Wolfowitz and others. Those folk are criticizing Obama for not leaving more people in Iraq, claiming that this means all that work was for nothing. They can’t even admit they got it wrong — Bush by his actions at least indicated he understood that the 2003 choice for war was a mistake.

      • #4 by classicliberal2 on October 25, 2011 - 00:25

        That’s the Fool King argument, the notion that Bush was too stupid to realize what was happening. That is, in fact, demonstrably the case–only weeks before launching the war, Bush didn’t even know there were two factions of Islam in Iraq–but those who lean so heavily on this notion as a way of exonerating Bush overlook two very important facts:

        1) Idiocy doesn’t exonerate him from very, very malevolent intent, which is also just as clearly present. The volume of lies Bush himself told in order to drag the U.S. into this war would, if stacked like the shit it was, stretch to the moon and halfway back, and behind the scenes, his administration was working overtime, right from the beginning, to get the intel community to fabricate some case–any case–to act as a rationale for war.

        2) Idiocy is arguably even worse, as a defense, than outright evil. A clown on whom such monumental responsibility rests has no real understanding of the situation, yet levies war on his own country anyway? Definitely NOT an argument in Bush’s favor, or one that makes him worthy of ANY respect.

  3. #5 by Eric on March 28, 2016 - 13:55

    On the facts, the decision for Operation Iraqi Freedom – explained here – was correct on the law and justified on the policy. The Saddam regime was evidentially in material breach across the board of the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) for the Gulf War ceasefire, including and especially Iraq’s disarmament (WMD), terrorism, and humanitarian obligations.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on March 28, 2016 - 14:56

      One can make that argument. However, the WMD argument is very weak – while a scattering of pre-1991 weapons were still in the country, there was no major program to build WMD. Human rights and terrorism is also weak (especially as Iraq under Saddam had even a better record than US ally Saudi Arabia). But the US doesn’t get to make that call based on the ability to make an argument – weak or strong. The UN has to make that call. It was clear that the UN Security Council did not think Iraq was in violation, or if it was, not to the extent that merited an invasion. The US circumvented the Security Council and set up a foreign policy fiasco that cost the country deeply, divided the country, and gave us new groups like ISIS. So at least in terms of national interest, it was a very bad decision.

      • #7 by Eric on March 28, 2016 - 21:09

        Actually, the WMD argument is dispositive.

        The ceasefire enforcement was authorized before the UN inspectors set foot in Iraq. The Security Council ‘made the call’ to switch on the ceasefire enforcement when it decided “Iraq has been and remains in material breach of its obligations under relevant resolutions, including resolution 687” (UNSCR 1441). (A procedural step, given that substantively, Iraq was never out of material breach for the duration of the Gulf War ceasefire.)

        In order to switch off the ceasefire enforcement in Saddam’s “final opportunity to comply” (UNSCR 1441), Iraq was required to cure its material breach by proving “full and immediate compliance by Iraq without conditions or restrictions with its obligations … with the aim of bringing to full and verified completion the disarmament process established by resolution 687 (1991) and subsequent resolutions of the Council” (UNSCR 1441).

        In other words, as stated in the 06MAR03 UNMOVIC report that triggered Operation Iraqi Freedom: “UNMOVIC must verify the absence of any new activities or proscribed items, new or retained. The onus is clearly on Iraq to provide the requisite information or devise other ways in which UNMOVIC can gain confidence that Iraq’s declarations are correct and comprehensive.”

        The mandated “full and immediate compliance by Iraq without conditions or restrictions with its obligations” meant what it sounds like it means: any violation of UNSCR 687, as “enhanced” by UNSCR 1441, meant Saddam had not disarmed as mandated.

        A “scattering of pre-1991 weapons” or any degree of “program to build WMD” was a corroboration that Iraq failed to switch off the ceasefire enforcement.

        Saddam should have proven the mandated compliance in 1991-1992, let alone 2002-2003. However, in his “final opportunity to comply” (UNSCR 1441), rather than switch off the ceasefire enforcement, Saddam chose to trigger OIF when UNMOVIC reported “about 100 unresolved disarmament issues” to the Security Council on 07MAR03, which confirmed “Iraq has been and remains in material breach of its obligations under relevant resolutions, including resolution 687”.

        It’s an open-and-shut case. In his “final opportunity to comply”, either Saddam switched off the ceasefire enforcement by proving the mandated compliance, or Saddam triggered the ceasefire enforcement by not proving the mandated compliance.

        UNMOVIC’s findings are dispositive that Saddam did not prove the mandated compliance in his “final opportunity to comply”. Casus belli was the Saddam regime’s evidential material breach across the board of the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) for the Gulf War ceasefire, including and especially Iraq’s disarmament (WMD), terrorism, and humanitarian obligations.

        The Iraq Survey Group and Operation Avarice are post hoc and therefore were not factors in the decision for OIF. However, they do corroborate the UNMOVIC confirmation at the decision point for OIF that “Iraq has been and remains in material breach of its obligations under relevant resolutions, including resolution 687”.

      • #8 by Scott Erb on March 28, 2016 - 21:23

        You can make that argument, but I think it rests on very week footing, and it certainly was not accepted by other security council members. I disagree with your legal reasoning, and note that most (but not all) scholars of international law disagree – especially when it was clear that the Security Council would not approve invasion. In any event, it turned out to be a complete and utter fiasco for the US, harming US interests and weakening the country in the short term. The point: even if you can rationalize something with legal grounds, that’s a poor basis for making foreign policy. You make foreign policy based on national interest and a correct calculation of the costs and benefits of the policy. In this case the Bush administration drastically under estimated the costs and over-estimated the benefits, leading to policy failure. Luckily, President Bush was leader enough to alter the policy in 2006, fundamentally change the goals (to more of a Nixonian ‘peace with honor’ approach) and extricate the US from the situation – Obama would simply continue Bush’s second term Iraq policy. Still, the damage had been done.

      • #9 by Eric on March 28, 2016 - 22:59

        See the answers to “What were President Bush’s alternatives with Iraq?” and “Why did Bush leave the ‘containment’ (status quo)?”.

        The controlling law, policy, and precedent that defined the operative enforcement procedure for the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) for the Gulf War ceasefire were plain and well established by the point of Saddam’s “final opportunity to comply”.

        Unfortunately, the reasons for the rift on the UN Security Council in the face of Saddam’s evidential noncompliance in his “final opportunity to comply” were also plain and well established and carried forward from the same UNSC rift that President Clinton and PM Blair faced over enforcing the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” .

        The “Regime Finance and Procurement” section of the Iraq Survey Group report explains much of the reason for the UNSC rift: “The MFA [Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs] formulated and implemented a strategy aimed at ending the UN sanctions and breaching its subsequent UN OFF [Oil for Food] program by diplomatic and economic means. Iraq pursued its related goals of ending UN sanctions and the UN OFF program by enlisting the help of three permanent UNSC members: Russia, France and China.”

        In that regard, one of the most compelling indicators in the pre-war intelligence was the growing flow of proscribed items from Russian, French, and Chinese sources, among others, to the noncompliant Saddam regime.

      • #10 by Scott Erb on March 29, 2016 - 10:30

        The French and others did not believe the Iraqis were non-compliant. But while you certainly can make a “lawyer’s argument” that it was justified – and I could make a lawyer’s counter-argument that it was not – that’s all meaningless word salad. The fact is that the US undertook a policy that was based on an over-estimation of the ability of military power to shape political outcomes, and a vast under-estimation of the costs and unintended consequences of that action. Foreign policy is not made because one can patch together a legal argument justifying it, it is made based on national self-interest. In this case a policy that ultimately harmed US interests were chosen because of mistaken assumptions in the decision making process. The legal argument you give was never important, it was just cover – a rationale – for what the US wanted to do out of perceived self-interest. What we learn from this are lessons about what went wrong and why, which we need to consider so we don’t engage in such a folly again.

      • #11 by Eric on March 29, 2016 - 14:10

        Legally, there’s no domestic controversy and no substantive controversy: Iraq’s material breach was confirmed. (Again, Saddam was never out of material breach for the duration of the Gulf War ceasefire.)

        However, you are correct that there is a procedural controversy. On balance, it favors the American and British position. Suffice to say, the Iraq intervention was better legal than the Kosovo intervention, which also suffered from a procedural dispute with the substantive justification.

        See the answer to “Was Operation Iraqi Freedom legal?”.

        Actually, it’s evident France knew Iraq was noncompliant because French officials were complicit. According to the Iraq Survey Group, “This was demonstrated by the presence of French CAs [diplomatic commercial attaches] in Baghdad, working to promote the interests of French companies while assisting them in avoiding UN sanctions.”

        The “interests of French companies while assisting them in avoiding UN sanctions” included, according to ISG, “2002—French Company Carbone Lorraine Supplied the MIC with Chemical Warfare Raw Materials
        As of August 2002 the former Iraqi Regime and the French company Carbone Lorraine had been cooperating for many years in the procurement of high-tech industrial equipment, some of which had WMD applications.”

        In contrast to France’s overt complicity, China was more circumspect. Consistent with PRC’s MO in international relations, the Chinese government, although consistently siding with Russia and France to weaken the sanctions, appeared to honor the Gulf War ceasefire at the same time that Chinese firms were prolific in the Saddam regime’s illicit procurement.

        In terms of national interest, President Bush didn’t set “bring Iraq into compliance with its international obligations” (P.L. 105-235) as “America’s vital interest” (Clinton). Bush inherited the position from his 2 immediate predecessors. The standing evaluation of the “vital” national interest in Iraq’s compliance with the UNSCR 660-series resolutions was set with “the crisis between the United States and Iraq that led to the declaration on August 2, 1990, of a national emergency” (Clinton).

        With the standing evaluation of the “vital” national interest in Iraq’s compliance, Bush also inherited the standing law and policy – implicit under HW Bush then codified under Clinton – for peace operations to “bring Iraq into compliance with its international obligations”, including and especially the humanitarian mandates of UNSCR 688, in case Saddam chose not to fulfill the mandated compliance volitionally.

        See the answers to “Was Operation Iraqi Freedom about WMD or democracy?” and “Was the invasion of Iraq perceived to be a nation-building effort?”.

      • #12 by Scott Erb on March 29, 2016 - 15:20

        Your words are repetitive and meaningless, and you’re not countering anything I say. I disagree with your conclusions and find them almost laughably ignorant of international law. But it’s so meaningless what you say – it doesn’t address the failure in Iraq and how to avoid it, and it seems to defend what almost everyone thinks was a fiasco. Well, you can make that argument, but it’s impotent and ridiculous.

      • #13 by Eric on March 29, 2016 - 17:38

        See the answer to “Was Operation Iraqi Freedom a strategic blunder or a strategic victory?”.

      • #14 by Scott Erb on March 29, 2016 - 17:45

        Iraq was clearly a strategic blunder. The US came out weaker, the region in more disarray, and the US was forced to alter its strategy. Revisionists often try to rewrite history, but in this case Iraq was even more a fiasco than Vietnam – but a lesson. Great powers tend to over-estimate their ability to project power and achieve political ends. Next time leaders want to use US power like that, the people have to remember Iraq and do everything possible to oppose it.

      • #15 by Eric on March 29, 2016 - 20:06

        Indeed, correcting the prevailing yet demonstrably false revisionist narrative of the why of Operation Iraqi Freedom is the purpose of the OIF FAQ explanation, which sets the record straight with the primary sources of the mission: the situation, the controlling law, policy, and precedent that defined the operative enforcement procedure for the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) for the Gulf War ceasefire, and the determinative fact findings of Iraq’s material breach that triggered enforcement.

        Once understood that on the law and the facts, President Bush’s decision for OIF was correct, we will have a reliable reference point from which to properly identify and diagnose what went wrong.

        On 17FEB98, President Clinton identified the crux of the matter:
        “In the next century, the community of nations may see more and more the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers, or organized criminals, who travel the world among us unnoticed. If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that they can act with impunity — even in the face of a clear message from the United Nations Security Council and clear evidence of a weapons of mass destruction program.”

        In the decision for OIF, President Bush was mindful of his predecessor’s warning and did not “fail to respond” to the Saddam regime’s noncompliance in Saddam’s “final opportunity to comply” (UNSCR 1441). Bush thereby upheld American leadership.

        Looking forward from the decision for OIF, correctly understood, Bush’s successor subsequently degraded American leadership by choosing to “fail to respond” when his presidential “red line” was flouted. As you point out, the consequence of President Obama’s failure to heed President Clinton’s warning, combined with other fundamental leadership errors by Obama, has been “The US came out weaker, the region in more disarray, and the US was forced to alter its strategy.”

        Looking backward from the decision for OIF, correctly understood, we can also see that Russia, France, and China’s complicity with Saddam’s noncompliance caused, as Clinton warned, “Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that they can act with impunity”, with the consequence that Saddam – emboldened by his accomplices on the Security Council – triggered OIF when Saddam chose not to comply in his “final opportunity to comply” (UNSCR 1441) instead of honoring the ceasefire obligations that Iraq agreed to, and should have fulfilled, in 1991.

      • #16 by Scott Erb on March 29, 2016 - 22:07

        Now you’re just spouting BS. Saddam was in no position to give WMD to anyone, he didn’t have a WMD program and the most embarrassing fact for the Bush administration is that they didn’t find any. Old almost defunct pre-1991 leftovers were found – most had been destroyed by the UN arms inspectors who successfully accomplished the largest disarmament program in history in Iraq – but that was hardly a threat and certainly NOT evidence of any violation by Iraq!

        And to say “standing law” somehow compelled Bush is to show total ignorance of how foreign policy is made. The law was irrelevant, they made their choices based on political calculations, that is clear from all the memoirs written. You are engaged in a hopeless effort to try to recast the war as something it was not. And, of course, you ignore the fact that when Bush left office the US was an international laughing stock. The US had been humiliated, shown to be weak, with a President that was neither respected nor feared, with 25% approval at home. President Obama has repaired that damage, and improved not only the US image abroad, but also respect for the US. Moreover, he did not do what would have been extremely foolish and stupid – he did not make the mistake of massively going into Syria or Iraq and put the US in the same horrid position it was in from 2005-07. It would have helped terrorist recruiting and sucked the US into an expensive quagmire like the one we had just extricated ourselves from. Instead Obama realized that the battle was best fought by Muslims against other Muslims (as it’s for the future of the region), and that the US can be a very effective supporting member. And guess what – it’s working. ISIS is weakening, the US has not gotten sucked into a quagmire, and the US position on the world stage is far better than it was in 2008. The Bush policy was a fiasco and a failure – though he to his credit realized that and completely altered policy goals in 2007. President Obama has not veered to much from the late term Bush policy. In that I give Bush a lot of credit for recognizing his error and changing direction completely – even though most people don’t realize how he had recanted from his original position.

      • #17 by Eric on March 30, 2016 - 10:54

        David Kay (then head of the Iraq Survey Group), report to the Senate Armed Services Committee, 28JAN04:
        “In my judgment, based on the work that has been done to this point of the Iraq Survey Group, and in fact, that I reported to you in October, Iraq was in clear violation of the terms of [U.N.] Resolution 1441. Resolution 1441 required that Iraq report all of its activities — one last chance to come clean about what it had. We have discovered hundreds of cases, based on both documents, physical evidence and the testimony of Iraqis, of activities that were prohibited under the initial U.N. Resolution 687 and that should have been reported under 1441, with Iraqi testimony that not only did they not tell the U.N. about this, they were instructed not to do it and they hid material.”

    • #18 by Scott Erb on March 28, 2016 - 15:02

      BTW, I make a different argument to Europeans. In 2006 the Schadenfreude I’d encounter especially in Germany was immense. When I’d argue that NATO and European states should help the US stabilize the situation they laughed – no way. Bush ignored the UN and now the US had to be embarrassed – it serves you right, they said. I pointed out that instability there only endangered Europe, but they didn’t take that seriously. Now with attacks in Belgium and France, and Syrian refugee crisis, I think a lot of Europeans might realize that they should have helped the US when the Iraq war was going bad. I think the lesson is that if NATO is significantly divided, it’s best not to start a conflict!

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