Volumes have already been posted online about today’s twentieth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq. This post aims specifically to consider how we, as a society of rights and self-government, fell into perhaps the largest foreign policy mistake in our history.
Maybe Vietnam was a “bigger” mistake – we certainly suffered more deaths. On the other hand, that war was waged as a strategic defense, as part of a zero-sum global struggle with the Soviet Union. In 2003, we escalated a hostile standoff into full scale invasion of another country, as a matter of choice. The moral magnitude of error may have been greater.
Our founding tenets do not fit with starting a war of aggression. We need to understand, explain, and digest how we came to expose ourselves to the charge that we did. To be clear, the charge addressed in this post is separate from any harm we did to hostile actors. It was no injustice in itself to depose Saddam Hussein, nor to destroy his military. But war is only justified in self-defense – or, debatably, consensus-based prevention of egregious evils.
The 1991 war against Iraq had a broad international consensus behind it, to rectify and punish Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait, effected for no purpose other than economic and territorial self-interest. That war against him was necessary and just. No other regime since 1945 had used war so nakedly just to take what it wanted from another country. While every conflict involves self-interest and aggression, others were conducted over border disputes, internal conflicts, or other complicating factors. The old world norm, that one prince could demand concessions from another, with war as the test of right, was meant to be dead. That intent underwrote the 1991 war, and, in part, animates today’s alliance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Diplomat Richard Haass and journalist Robert Kaplan say that because Saddam Hussein’s regime was so tyrannical, belligerent, and devious, they believed without doubt that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. Many others, including this blogger, felt the same. But the fact is that the policy makers simply assumed what they believed, and skewed their view of the evidence to confirm this feeling. Such an unarticulated rigging of policy discussion was applied to every question, whether to aim for regime change, how to digest inspection findings, how to set any post-invasion policy. Michael Mazarr, in his book Leap of Faith, documents this subordination of policy deliberation to pre-formed assumptions. Mazarr terms the subordination of process to presumption, that rigging, as policy negligence.
We started that decision process not by examining our objectives but by assuming what Mazarr cites as “evolved collective beliefs … taken-for-granted certainties (that give decisions) more of the character of a reflex than a choice.” One result of this presumption in place of examination is that no one can clearly identify “America’s” motive. The various policy makers and critics interpreted the taken-for-granted certainties in their own ways. Any one party can be cited for their aims, but the sum of these stances will not, and did not, add up to a coherent purpose.
When motives are disputed by interested parties bandying around their own taken-for-granted interpretations of taken-for-granted certainties, anyone can refute the charge of ill intent. Diverse motives and responsibilities, and various effects, all meld easily into one blended, obfuscating argument. Some like Kaplan point out that many Iraqis still appreciate Hussein’s overthrow; adversaries see America fighting to preserve its dominance; Mazarr sees an implicit “missionary approach to foreign policy” embedded in our policy community.
Without explicit deliberation that defined a single goal, politics turns any question of our motives into a rhetorical battlefield for partisan advantage, rather than an exercise in analysis or understanding. Blame, defined by opposing political narratives of our intentions, will be volleyed back and forth like a tennis ball. And any future policy decisions will devolve ever further into politicized contests of polarizing narratives, with no examination by either side of its own assumptions.
We can already see elements of this dynamic arising in policy discourse – it is not a deliberation – over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One meme cited to support Ukraine is “democracy,” though Ukraine is not yet, by independent measures, a full democracy. An opposing received truth is that American and NATO are conspiring to retain western primacy, though Putin pulled the trigger.
America has good and fair reason to oppose Putin’s naked aggression, as does the world. Again, the old norm, that military victory can justify any claim of interest, must not gain new life. The one clear benefit of the Iraq invasion was the destruction of the only other regime that followed that practice. Putin’s action must not go unopposed and must incur a meaningful loss. The costs are already horrific; the biggest sin would be to leave any question that the barbaric old norm will gain any acceptance. Whatever our gains and losses, and even despite the horrors of war, the naked aggression of 1991 was eventually punished. The same penalty is likely impossible to inflict on Putin, but everyone loses if he gets his way. America still happens to hold great international influence; however that has been maintained, this is a worthy use of that power. But we should be clear: the goal is to deter future unilateral aggression. It is not for “democracy.” Though the democracy that many of “our NATO allies” practice must be defended, our effort today is not directly for any set of countries or alliances either.
The measures and moves to carry out this mission, to defeat this aggression and deter others, will be painfully complex and difficult. But so will any selection of measures and policies. To ensure that our choices today hold together and do not lead to tragedies of negligence, we must start with clarity in our basic purpose. This should be our first lesson for today from 2003.
As to other nations’ view of the US invasion of Iraq, our own understanding of what we did must shape our explanations. Any given regime may try, and even succeed for a while, in using any admission of malfeasance to weaken us, but we do best to speak with full candor. It is essential to show that we show that we see our own mistakes, even misconduct: we hold our creed above any interests that any constituency may have meant to pursue. In candid explanation, we show a free people critiquing and correcting its own self-governance. We show that principle, ultimately, truly matters to us. We show our founding idea, of a society of personal rights and government by consent of the governed, as a viable reality, resilient even against human fallibility and worldly complexities.