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The Wrong Lessons from Iraq

By Taylor Marvin

The tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq continues to draw revealing reflections on the lessons of the war. Ezra Klein attributes his (admittedly, college-age) support for the invasion to the influence of Ken Pollack’s The Gathering Storm and warns against trusting what “everyone knows”, while failing to mention that numerous IR academics presciently warned against the invasion.

Elsewhere, Daniel Larison fears that many Americans have failed to learn from the war, and still view preemptive invasions as a “legitimate form of self-defense.” Stephen Walt voices similar concerns over policymakers’ continuing failure to consider tangible American interests when proposing foreign military interventions, a clear rejection of both neoconservative and liberal interventionist policy. Both Larison and Walt make valid points — while the abject failure of the Iraq War seems to have conditioned many Americans to reject boots-on-the-ground military adventurism, it doesn’t appear to have sparked a popular rethink of the purpose and limitations of US foreign policy as a whole.

Like Larison, my fear is that future observers will attribute Iraq War’s failures to factors specific to the conflict itself, rather than general limitations on the United States’ ability to successfully use force to remove and replace foreign regimes. These implicated determinants can be specific to Iraq — the country’s sectarian and tribal divides, for instance — or the incompetence of the Bush administration. It’s this incompetence that has the potential to be truly blinding. While the decision to pursue war with Iraq itself was misguided, the Bush administration’s initial missteps were so mistaken that they draw the analytical spotlight:

  • Invading with a post-Revolution in Military Affairs force that was ultimately too small to provide security after the overthrow of the Hussein government and secure the weapons depots that would later provided insurgents and IED makers with armaments.
  • The decision to base the astoundingly lightly-sketched visions of post-Hussein governance around Ahmed Chalabi, an exile who enjoyed no legitimacy within Iraq. Chalabi had every incentive to mislead Bush administration officials, and it should have been extremely obvious that he would not be a viable leader of post-Hussein Iraq.
  • Paul Bremer’s disastrous order to the disband the Iraqi Army, which — to the horror of US military officials — dumped thousands of unemployed and angry armed men into already unstable Iraqi society. “There was simply no upside to firing hundreds of thousands of young men who knew where the guns, ammunition, and explosives were kept,” Steve Saideman recently wrote, terming it, not the decision to invade overall, the single worst US foreign policy decision ever.
  • Bremer’s similarly-misguided policy of de-Ba’athification, which removed Hussein-era Iraqi elites from civil society and demolished state governing capacity.
  • The Bush administration’s tragically comic policy of turning the Coalition Provisional Authority administration over to young American graduates, nearly all of which had zero relevant administrative or cultural experience.

All of these decisions were indefensible at the time, and reveal both arrogance and astounding general incompetence on the part of the officials responsible.  But the scope of these errors has the potential to obscure the Iraq War’s real lessons. David Ignatius explicitly qualifies his condemnation of the invasion with this logic, remarking that “we’ll never know whether the story might have been different if better planning had been done for ‘the day after,’ or the Iraqi army hadn’t been disbanded, or several other ‘ifs.'” But this qualification misses the general point. The invasion wasn’t “risky”, because it had little hope of meeting its stated goals in and of itself — even if none of these decisions had been made it’s still difficult to imagine the invasion’s aftermath proceeding according to plan.

The reality is that there never was a plausible case that invading Iraq would lead to the at least-nominal goal of installing a stable democratic government. The 2003 US military was entirely unprepared to fight a counterinsurgency, and no matter how much administration and military leaders pretended otherwise there was never justification for the assumption that Iraqis would go along with the administration’s post-war plans.

Instead, the clear lesson of the Iraq War is that US strategy should not be benchmarked around predicting the behavior of an indigenous population. Every initial, binding mistake of the war comes back to this assumption. Sufficient troops to secure and guard weapons depots would not be necessary, because post-invasion resistance would be limited to regime dead-enders. Troop numbers necessary for the high counterinsurgency threshold were excessive, because ethnic conflict was not expected. The CPA’s counterproductive policy of de-Ba’athification would not be problematic, because the Ba’ath party was a hated, tiny minority.

But the problems inherent to human behavior-assumptions don’t appear to have been incorporated into today’s interventionist theory. Most advocates of US or Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities base their proposals on the ludicrous assumption that an unprovoked attack on Iran will not permanently damage perceptions of the US among Iranians and empower Iranian hardliners at the expense of moderates, or, most fantastically, strikes will cause Iranians to rise up against the regime. This dumbfoundingly optimistic assumption grimly echoes Jeffrey Goldberg’s pre-war assertion that “people with limited experience in the Middle East” wrongly believe “the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.” Americans may, as Dan Drezner recently argued, have internalize a more realist post-Iraq outlook. But this really only extends to boots on the ground interventions. Given US policymakers’ perpetual temptation to leverage airpower and unconventional forces into low-commitment military interventions, this argument is almost peripheral to the general debate.

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