Iraq 20 years later: Humbled and Conflicted

I thought, at the time, that invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam was the right thing to do and a good idea. The extent to which I was wrong, absolutely wrong, leaves me, two decades later, humbled and also conflicted. With that, I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

I knew some of the people who were prominent in advocating for and prosecuting the war. I was very good friends with a few of them. I went to the think tank events where their ideas were discussed. I even met Ahmed Chalabi, who had been feted as the American-backed leader of a new Iraq.

I did not serve in Iraq and – emphasizing my extremely peripheral status in this coterie – was unable to secure a position in the administration. This was probably for the best.

Nor did I occupy a position of any public influence. I wrote a few op-eds for reliable conservative outlets and I argued with friends and family about it. I doubt I changed any minds.


Objectively, I can’t have much guilt for the American decision to go to war in Iraq (which doesn’t stop me from feeling some.) More I am humbled. I fancied myself an international affairs expert and I got so much wrong. So much that in retrospect is obvious.

I was a true believer, that Iraq was the key to – the bellybutton – to an impossible region. If we straightened it out, the rest of the region would follow (in a twitter thread Prof. Paul Poast notes Iran’s burgeoning freedom movement shaped Bush’s thinking). I believed in spreading democracy and that we were on the verge of a brave new world. Further, I believed this was necessary. The lesson I took from 9/11 was that terrorism represented an existential challenge to liberal democracy – the form of society that best ensures people can live full and free lives. I will stick up for liberal democracy (while granting its flaws), but I vastly overestimated the threat terrorism posed.

(I, like many assumed Saddam had WMD, but really saw the need to remove him as going far beyond this specific casus bello. I really did want to see freedom ring throughout the region, although I recognize that I may also have been moved by a deep emotional sense that the U.S. needed to do – something – after 911.)

I also overestimated our competence and capacity. I thought of how the U.S. accomplished something great and good after World War II when we rebuilt defeated enemies as prosperous democracies. I believed we could do the same in Iraq. There were fallacies in this, both in the  premise and the commission. On the latter, our execution (after the initial military campaign) was poorly planned. We committed nothing like the resources that were committed to rebuilding Germany and Japan.

But also, Iraq was not Germany and Japan. The late Peter Rodman, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs in the Bush 43 administration wrote in Presidential Command:

  • The most important mistaken assumption related to the extent of the political vacuum that would be left by the removal of Saddam’s regime. The U.S. government expected to find Iraqi institutions – civilian and military – to which it could give direction and then assist the Iraqis in finding new leadership for. But these disintegrated; no department or agency predicted the depth of the institutional implosion that occurred.

If the administration had properly planned for and adapted to conditions in Iraq after Saddam’s removal, could the U.S. have midwifed a reasonably prosperous and democratic Iraq (perhaps comparable to what Iraq’s Kurds currently enjoy) without the vast bloodshed of a civil war?

As Hemingway wrote at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so.”

Success in Iraq would have required too many things to go right, and things never go right. On balance, the least bad choice would have been to leave Saddam Hussein in power.

Most importantly, I forgot that most ancient truth, that war is a monstrous, uncontrollable thing that once set into motion takes on a terrible all-consuming life of its own.

This truth about war is rooted in a basic conservative premise (serious conservative, not what passes for conservative in the U.S. today): that the world is as it is for reasons and changing this will have unintended consequences. At its worst this may become an excuse to reject needed change. But at its best it encourages prudence, the watchword of Bush Sr. – who did not march to Baghdad.

A much younger me was wiser. As a college student I observed the first Gulf War. There were dire predictions that this war would become a slog, a new Vietnam. Instead, the U.S. sprinted to a seemingly easy victory. My thought then (before my rightward turn in the late 1990s) was that the ease of this war would make us more likely to go and get ourselves involved in another that would not go as well.

I thought I knew and understood things about the world. My analytical powers are not what I thought and I am humbled.


Besides shattering my confidence in my powers reason, it also challenged my deeply held values.

I hate a world where the least bad choice is to leave a monster like Saddam Hussein in power. Besides brutalizing his own people (and he did!), he started a war with Iran that cost over a million lives. He then tried to swallow a neighboring state. He used chemical weapons both against his own people and against Iran.

No one should have to live under Saddam Hussein.

Did the United States possess other tools. Could successful pressure have brought down Saddam’s regime without an invasion?

Maybe, although as the Arab Spring showed, internal change in the Middle East is not a sure path to progress. If neighboring Syria (or Libya) is a guide, Iraq was unlikely to be spared a brutal civil war. Perhaps the U.S. and allies could then have intervened and – without the stigma of invasion – been more successful at rebuilding. The other model might be Egypt, where, after an interregnum of Muslim Brotherhood rule, a new military autocrat emerged. For some that was the likely outcome and perhaps the U.S. could have cajoled a mild autocrat to moving Iraq towards a more tolerant and representative regime. A more realistic outcome than invading and democratizing Iraq, this scenario still required a lot of things to go right, which is not a realistic assumption.

Our failures in Iraq raise deeper questions. America, as Samuel Huntington noted in his excellent American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (as opposed to his much less excellent Clash of Civilizations) that the U.S. is built on a creed, a shared set of ideals and beliefs that is open to anyone who embraces it. Americans believe that everyone is an American – they just don’t know it yet.

Iraq challenges this belief.

I reviewed John Agresto’s Mugged by Reality, in which he described his time in Iraq advising the Ministry of Higher Education. Agresto was another true believer who wanted to see a democratic Iraq. But decades of dictatorship under Saddam had destroyed any space for the debate and dissent needed. Further, at the core of democratic governance is a broad commitment that political issues are settled by means other than force. Sadly, this has not characterized Middle Eastern politics in recent decades.

(We intended to export our politics to the Middle East, but as political violence and conspiracy theories have become an increasing part of American politics, it appears that rather we have imported the politics of the Middle East.)

Agresto dedicates his book to his translator Ali al-Hilfi who, so impressed with the generosity of the Americans vowed to become one by, “Every day I will try to do something good for someone I don’t know…”

Ali was assassinated for working with the Americans.

America, as Canadian novelist Robertson Davies wrote, is the most extroverted country. The positive side of this is our generosity that inspired Ali, but the dark side of extroversion is a need to dominate and seeing all evil as external. Another novelist, my neighbor F. Scott Fitzgerald, captured America at its worst in the wealthy Buchanans of The Great Gatsby:

  • They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

That our intentions were good in Iraq and that the failures were due to carelessness not malice makes little difference to the people, things, and societies smashed up. That the country that I love, that has been so good to my family and my people, whose Creed I believe in, can be so terrible is a hard truth to face.

But it must be faced.

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