We are rapidly approaching the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. For some politicians, their initial stance on the war is something they might prefer to overlook. It will be interesting to see, for instance, if, during their nomination hearings, either Secretary of State-designate John Kerry or Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel is asked whether they still stand by their yea vote in October 2002 to give President George W. Bush the authorization to pursue military action against Saddam Hussein.
For others, the inevitable retrospectives will fall into one of several predictable categories. Some will attempt to backdate their opposition to the war or insist that they knew all along it would be a failed venture, while others,
like Kerry in 2004
, will argue that the war they supported was not the one conducted by the Bush administration. The unfortunate end result is that an in-depth examination of the foundational strategic assumptions that helped to make the case for war is not likely to occur, particularly in Washington’s current hyperpartisan atmosphere.
This is regrettable, because one can argue that the lessons not learned from Iraq have continued to impact U.S. policy to this day.
In reconsidering the run-up to the Iraq invasion, most people focus on the question of whether Saddam Hussein possessed deployable weapons of mass destruction. While removing what was described as a looming and imminent threat was the main public rationale for the war, the larger issue was to test whether American "hard power" could be deployed to achieve political ends that the diplomatic approach embraced by the Clinton administration had failed to achieve. Thus, the congressional vote in 2002 was, in many ways, driven by the belief in the efficacy of large-scale conventional U.S. military power to advance deproliferation, particularly after the devastating impact of the 9/11 attacks; to drain the proverbial swamp of terrorism; and to break Middle East politics out of the cul-de-sac created by the second Palestinian intifada. It was also clearly implied that this could all be done quickly and cheaply.
Whether Iraq had functional weapons of mass destruction or simply the remnants of a WMD program proved to be immaterial; the end result of the invasion and occupation was that the United States could assure itself and others that Baghdad would no longer have the means even to aspire to possessing WMD and the systems needed to deliver them. But the overall balance sheet beyond Iraq was not as clear. Negotiations with Libya to facilitate its own disarmament had been occurring for years, but it seems that the rapid overthrow of the Hussein regime in Iraq may have tipped the balance for Moammar Gadhafi, convincing him to go ahead with his landmark deal with the West. Iran and North Korea, however, saw the invasion of Iraq as proof that they needed to accelerate and deepen their efforts to build up credible nuclear deterrents against American action. The U.S. focus on Iraq may also have allowed North Korea to cross the nuclear finish line. Moreover, because of the long and drawn-out occupation of Iraq, American popular enthusiasm for other major military actions in the Middle East has decreased. To some extent, Iran has been more willing to defy Washington and to draw out the negotiations process over its nuclear program out of a certain confidence that no U.S. administration will be so quick to embrace the military option anytime soon.
The overall lesson from the Iraq War seems to be that U.S. military force can effectively deproliferate WMD only when a country's program is rudimentary or aspirational. Beyond a certain threshold, however, Washington becomes much more hesitant to threaten military action.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, much was also made about the connections between Saddam Hussein and terrorists. The attempt to link Iraq to al-Qaida rested on very tenuous leaps of logic, but there was no doubt that Hussein was an active supporter of the Palestinian rejectionist movements that were the mainstays of the second intifada. The problem, however, was that while the nature of terrorist movements was changing, official Washington was slow to adapt. The prevailing mindset was still locked into the old notion of state sponsorship -- that terror groups could not exist without government aid and assistance. The logical corollary was that eliminating a terrorist-sponsoring regime would strike a blow against terrorism.
But al-Qaida demonstrated that the old patron-client relationship for terrorism was no longer the only model available. And the assumption that the Palestinian intifada would dry up without Hussein's cash proved mistaken.
Meanwhile, the subsequent insurgency in Iraq has proved to be one of the major testing grounds for the next generation of international Islamist fighters, who, by traveling to Iraq and joining with local Iraqi insurgents, could practice and hone skills and techniques, as shown by the rapid spread of effective improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to other theaters outside Iraq.
Finally, there was the expectation that the U.S. could duplicate the experience of reconstructing Germany and Japan after World War II by replacing the Baathist regime in Iraq with a modern secular democracy, one that would open relations with Israel and, out of gratitude to the United States, massively increase oil output to drive down global prices. A new Iraq would be a strong ally of the U.S. against Iran, but it would also give Washington renewed leverage to hedge ties with Saudi Arabia. The entire geopolitical map of the region could be redrawn.
What the past 10 years have demonstrated is that the overthrow of a dictator is comparatively easy. By contrast, the military has not been an effective tool for constructing new successor regimes. Local partners who may be invaluable in terms of security cooperation may not be the best choices for helping to build a responsible democratic state. Moreover, we have now gathered enough evidence to conclude that the so-called gratitude doctrine is vastly overblown. Iraqis, particularly the majority Shiite population, were very happy to see Hussein go, but they were not inclined to embrace the American agenda for the region. Iraq still does not have dealings with Israel, and it is China's state oil companies that have benefited the most from the fall of Hussein, while the Russians have preserved their position as well.
There were modest gains achieved as a result of the overthrow of Hussein, but no one would now argue it was a bargain. Indeed, the lasting legacy of Iraq may be that, during this time of intense U.S. involvement in the Middle East, China was able to make tremendous gains in East Asia, which the pivot to the Pacific is now trying to correct. An intervention that was supposed to be quick, cheap and transformative did not deliver on any of those grounds and did significant damage to America's global leadership in the process.
But while many have focused on the tactical mistakes made after 2003, it is not clear to what extent Washington has truly examined its core assumptions that led to the Iraq War. Thus it remains an open question whether, in a few years, history will repeat itself.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, the Realist Prism, appears every Friday.
Photo: The last remaining U.S.military forces approach the Iraq-Kuwait border, Dec. 19, 2011 (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo).