Iraq–Agony, Ordeal, and Recovery

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

I. The Case for Invasion


The Bush administration built a broad domestic coalition and an adequate foreign alliance (more inclusive than the UN-sanctioned effort against North Korea in 1950). It made compelling arguments that in a post 9/11 climate, Saddam Hussein, who otherwise had no connection with 9/11, could no longer be adequately contained with no-fly zones or trusted not to repeat his various genocides and attacks on his neighbors.

At least initially, the professed case for invasion was not just predicated on worries about WMD. It also hinged on moral concerns over the horrific toll that Saddam had taken on his own people. These were crimes, for example, that made the present spectacle in Syria or the recent strife in Libya seem minor in comparison.

The administration won overwhelming bipartisan support in obtaining House and Senate resolutions in October 2002 (unlike Clinton for the Balkan war or Obama for the Libyan bombing). It spent a year trying to persuade the UN (unlike Clinton in 1999, who just bombed without even going to the UN).

While oil made Saddam a threat, the war was not aimed to steal Iraq’s oil, as postwar events proved. Oil was important (e.g., we did not intervene in Rwanda), but largely because it ensured Saddam the revenues to pose a continual threat in the region. Instead, the March 2003 invasion was supposed to correct the failure to remove Saddam[1] in 1991 (cf. the 1998 congressional resolution[2] to liberate Iraq), and would offer a moral improvement over just leaving as we had done in Somalia and after the Soviet expulsion in Afghanistan. We forget now the liberal critique of the 1990s[3] that we were culpable for the rise of the Taliban and Saddam’s survival by soulless “realpolitik” and neglecting human rights.

“Nation-building” was not just some neocon wide-eyed dream (although for some it may well have been that). More likely, it was the last choice to ensure that military force led to something better, a sort of repeat of post-Milosevic Serbia rather than post-Gulf War Iraq. The result was that 70% of the American people and almost the entire liberal media were on board. They would not have been had (a) the Bush administration failed the year before in Afghanistan; (b) not gotten congressional approval; (c) not gone to the UN; (d) promised to leave as soon as removing Saddam or vowed to install a pro-Western strongman; (e) not had allies; or (f) talked of acquiring Iraqi oil.


The Bush administration fixated on WMD — as did those in Congress like a Senator John Kerry or Hillary Clinton — when there were 23 diverse and persuasive congressional writs to remove Saddam, ranging from genocide to sponsorship of terrorism to attempts to kill a former US president. When stockpiles of WMD failed to appear, and when the insurgency gained momentum, the casus belli vanished, although the US Congress obviously was on record that the need to preempt in Iraq vastly transcended the issue of WMD.

Apparently WMD arouses Western publics in a way genocide does not: compare Barack Obama’s quiescence after 70,000 murdered in Syria, a million refugees, and horrific human rights violations with his assurances that Bashar Assad’s WMD usage would be a “red line” and “game changer.”[4]

The Bush administration was almost giddy after the brilliant 2001 two-month removal of the Taliban and the later easy installation of the pro-American Hamid Karzai — all in the supposed “graveyard of empires.” We had apparently done in two months what the Soviets had not in ten years. Given that Afghanistan was supposedly more challenging than Iraq (no ports, literacy, oil, flat terrain, or clear weather), and given that we already defeated Saddam once, it was assumed that if two months were necessary to remove the Taliban, only one would be required to oust Saddam (quite true). And if six months had seen a stable government in Afghanistan, then three would see one in Iraq (false). Just as prior success of a sort in Korea suggested that we could likewise save South Vietnam, or as heroic defense had saved France in 1914 and so it would again in 1940, so too the past never quite reappears in all its contortions in the present.

II. Conduct of the War


Kurdistan was quickly liberated, protected, and allowed to form a consensual government, the result of which is one of the most successful and most pro-American regions in the Middle East. In unanticipated fashion, al Qaeda declared Iraq the central theater in its war against America, flocked to Anbar Province, and saw its operatives killed en masse and for three years its organization nearly annihilated and discredited. Given that Afghanistan in 2003-6 was relatively quiet, Iraq soon became the only battlefield between the US and al Qaeda, and offered a theater to decimate the terrorists. We forget now that al Qaeda between 2007 and 2008 was all but wiped out in Iraq.

The surge and/or its accompanying developments (the Anbar Awakening, the cumulative toll on al Qaeda, the message that the US was not leaving, the rise of oil revenues, etc.) saved Iraq, so much so that when Barack Obama assumed office there were essentially no Americans dying in Iraq, and the country was more stable than Arab countries on the Mediterranean.


Abu Ghraib — enough said [5].

The questionable moves of disbanding the Iraqi army (if it did indeed disband, rather than just dissipate on its own) and de-Baathification were proven unquestionably wrong, when there was no alternative offered in their places: few jobless soldiers were immediately put to work in civilian projects or re-recruited into the army; few Baathists were rehired into the bureaucracy.

Arms dumps were left unguarded — allowing scavengers to collect ordinance that would fuel the IEDs that would come to kill and maim thousands of Americans.

When you set out to take Vienna, to paraphrase Napoleon, then take Vienna. The April 2004 sorta, kinda assault on Fallujah, followed by withdrawal (and insurgent boasting of a victory), sent two terrible messages beyond the needless waste of American lives: the US feared that it could not defeat the insurgency in a head-to-head confrontation (it actually could and did, as the subsequent November victory in Fallujah proved), and it made the conduct of the war appear entirely political (pre-election avoidance of controversial fighting, post-election resumption of same fighting).

If the Obama administration saw too many generals in Afghanistan (McKiernan, McChrystal, Petraeus, Allen), Bush did not remove enough of them. That the clueless Gen. Ricardo Sanchez was put in charge of the war on the ground in Iraq is simply inexplicable. Gen. Casey did not understand the insurgency, at least until it was fully developed. And while it is true that Gen. Petraeus benefited from the Arab Awakening, the aggregate four-year attrition of enemy forces, and the spike in Iraqi oil revenues, his appointment, surge, and change in tactics need not have waited until 2007. Why had we sent a comparatively small force to begin with? Because (a) the critics of the 1991 war had argued that we had overdone it with needlessly massive deployments; (b) Saddam was far weaker than in 1991, and opposition to him far greater; and (b) small forces had routed the Taliban in 2001 in a far more difficult Afghanistan.

From 2004-7, the Bush administration did not reply to or defend itself against its critics, as the media bought into “Bush lied, thousands died” and canonized Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, and Code Pink. Few even remember that Barack Obama had been on the record voicing agreement[6] by 2004 with the Bush administration policy in Iraq (e.g., “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.”) and that the major Democratic presidential contenders in 2004 and 2008 (Joe Biden, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Tom Harkin, and Chris Dodd) had not just supported the war, but done so enthusiastically in their warnings about WMD. Somehow “my brilliant three-week removal of Saddam, your disastrous five-year occupation” became the Democratic talking points without much pushback from the Bush administration.

That Barack Obama in 2009 simply embraced the entire Petraeus plan (after advocating as an early presidential candidate in 2007 to get all combat troops out by March 2008) and mostly expanded the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols (from Guantanamo and renditions to drones and the Patriot Act) without a murmur from the Left suggests that their prior opposition was in large part partisan, not principled, and should have been countered in that context. Instead, the Bush administration, in pill-bug fashion, closed up and let its opposition define the entire post-9/11 landscape as one of failure and worse.

III. The Ripples of Iraq

There were positive ripples from Iraq — at first. Dr. Khan’s nuclear franchise[7] shut down in fear of US post-Iraq muscle flexing. Col. Muammar Gaddafi voluntarily gave us his WMD arsenal. Bashar Assad got out of Lebanon and never returned. Kurdistan emerged as a stable, prosperous, and humane pro-American enclave. Iran began to worry. Even later, for all the unrest[8] of the Arab Spring, Iraq remained about the only major Arab country that still held elections and had avoided mass uprisings.

Obviously, the cost of 4,400 lives, thousands wounded, and $1 trillion spent raise the question of not just whether the cost was worth it, but whether we would ever again repeat such a venture. Based on current public opinion, the answer for now is no.

Yet had there been a bloody, two-month fight to oust Saddam, costing as much as we lost between 2003-8, followed by postwar quiet and stability, then the losses could have been tolerated. The greater anguish came from the notion that the original war was so brilliantly conducted that we did not expect to lose so much more “in peace”[9] than “in war.” In some sense, the very idea that the US went into the heart of the ancient caliphate, removed a genocidal monster, stayed on through an insurrection, and shepherded a constitutional government is almost surreal.

The political blowback[10] was the loss of the Congress in 2006 and the rise of a hard-left Democratic Party. This resulted by 2009 in Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid nationalizing the healthcare system, running up serial $1 trillion deficits (trumping in four years Bush’s splurge in eight), and dividing the country alone class, gender, and racial lines.

IV. Lessons

I supported the removal of Saddam Hussein, because we had not finished the job in 1991 and the UN/US sponsored containment of Saddam was about to dissipate. And while I was critical — who was not? — of the conduct of the occupation between 2003-2007, I still supported staying on, both on humanitarian grounds (withdrawal would have doomed the Kurds and those Iraqis invested in the reconstruction) and because the only thing worse for a global power than fighting an unpopular and apparently impossible war was losing one. The troops didn’t vote on their deployment. When they are sent to the front, we have a duty either to ensure they are supported at home or to withdraw them. The worst conduct is to call for their deployment and withdraw support for their mission in mediis rebus[11] — with the concession that they will probably still be at the front despite political opposition at home.

Note the recent Gallup survey of Americans’ views of the world at large. We hear ad nauseam of anti-Americanism, but the Islamic Middle East should consult these polls: Americans, if the survey is correct, despise the entire region. Well over 70% of the American population does not like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, the Palestinians, and Syria. Why other than the serial ingratitude? To generalize, we are tired of the tribalism, religious hypocrisy, and intolerance, misogyny, conspiracy theory, cheap anti-Americanism, and anti-Semitism — as well as the abstract hatred of the US and the concrete conniving to visit and emigrate here. I have traveled the region a lot and won’t go again. Why? I tired of meeting the Westernized” Middle Easterner, in coat and tie, who over lunch starts in with either his conspiracy theory or his Hitlerian hatred of the Jews. Whether in Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Morocco, Libya, Palestine, Libya, or Tunisia, the experience is always the same.

Do not believe in prewar political consensus. As soon as things become difficult, those who most loudly called for war (of both parties) will most loudly call it quits, and soon deny that they really had ever been for the war. Any US intervention that incurs over a hundred casualties has a shelf life of about three months; after that, “you did it, not me” is the cultural norm.

Antiwar opposition is mostly a political force of the left, not a principled and consistent antithesis to the use of US power. That means a Democratic president enjoys far more latitude to conduct war. Bill Clinton could bomb Serbia without either congressional or UN approval in a way George Bush could not. Barack Obama, predator-in-chief, did not ask the Congress to go into Libya — only the Arab League and the UN. Guantanamo was a gulag under Bush and forgotten under Obama. Ditto renditions, tribunals, drones, and preventative detention. For the media, liberals make war only when forced to by bad people and in spite of their greater humanitarianism; conservatives do so willingly and as a reflection of their bloodthirstiness. If Obama preempts in Iran, we will read about the terrible Iranians who forced his hand; had Bush, we would have heard of calls for impeachment.

We are an ahistorical, me-only generation. An Okinawa or Hue does not exist in our memories[12]. War is supposed to proceed like apps on an iPhone. No one knows of the intelligence failures surrounding Pearl Harbor, the near criminally wrong protocols of the B-17 campaign between 1942-3, or the failure to provide our troops with adequate tanks and anti-tank weaponry in World War II.

Going to war is a matter not of avoiding mistakes, but of seeking to correct them as soon as possible. For a postmodern society that knows no history, mistakes must not occur. And when they do, someone else is always to be blamed.

URLs in this post:

[1] the failure to remove Saddam:
[2] the 1998 congressional resolution:
[3] the liberal critique of the 1990s:
[4] a “red line” and “game changer.”:
[5] enough said:
[6] voicing agreement:
[7] Dr. Khan’s nuclear franchise:
[8] for all the unrest:
[9] to lose so much more “in peace”:
[10] political blowback:
[11] in mediis rebus:
[12] does not exist in our memories:

©2013 Victor Davis Hanson

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