March 20 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). In a few places, like Kurdistan and Kuwait, it is still seen positively: better the present difficulties, than Saddam Hussein and his brutalities.
Almost everywhere else, it is seen as a big mistake—what President Donald Trump recently called, “the single worst decision ever made.”
Fifteen years on, people would be astonished to learn (or, perhaps, recall) the extraordinary confidence with which George W. Bush went to war in Iraq.
It was supposed to be easy: “cakewalk.” People tend to see, what they expect to see. Just two months later, in May 2003, the Bush administration believed it had won in Iraq.
But it had not. As criticism of OIF grew, the White House made the astonishing decision not to respond to its critics.
Seven years later, Karl Rove, Bush’s top political advisor, stated in his memoirs that was a mistake. Rove even took the rare step of acknowledging his own responsibility.
Rove thought the “news cycle” would take care of the criticism: ignore it and something else will grab public attention.
But as the great theoretician of war, Carl Von Clausewitz, wrote, war is unlike any other human activity—because of the cost in blood and treasure it can entail and its potential consequences.
Indeed, when the late Joe Shattan, a speechwriter for the Bush White House, possessed of keen wit; brave heart; and sharp eye for the ironic, reviewed Rove’s memoirs, Shattan titled his review, “The Man who Elected Barack Obama.”
Obama became the Democratic candidate and then won the 2008 elections in substantial part on the basis of his opposition to OIF.
To be fair, the problem went back over a decade, to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, as embodied in Frank Fukuyama’s The End of History.
The notion took hold that we were the best of men, in the best of times—no rational actor would dare challenge us. Those who might think to do so were a few outliers, rogue regimes, or crazy people, like Islamic terrorists. What did a superpower have to fear from them?
This affected the US view toward Iraq. During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton was tougher on Saddam than George H.W. Bush, saying Bush should have ousted Saddam during the 1991 war.
However, once Clinton became president, he did not want to hear about Saddam. As information emerged suggesting Saddam might be a serious problem, it was swept under the rug.
Most notably, in 1995, Saddam’s son-in-law, who had been in charge of Iraq’s unconventional weapons, defected to Jordan. Baghdad then acknowledged to the UN weapons inspectors (UNSCOM) that its proscribed weapons programs, including chemical and biological weapons, were bigger and more advanced than it had acknowledged. But the Iraqis claimed to have destroyed whatever they did not declare.
UNSCOM did not believe them—and neither did any major power. Sanctions would stay on Iraq. So, starting In 1998, Saddam engineered a series of crises that drove UNSCOM out of the country. Clinton warned of the danger: “a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction ready to use them or provide them to terrorists.”
But Clinton was not willing to do what was necessary to address the threat.
In 1998, this reporter pressed a senior figure at a prominent Washington think tank why he and his institute accommodated Clinton’s desire not to hear Saddam was a serious problem.
“The times are very cynical, and everyone must do what he must do for his career,” he responded.
When I mentioned that to two experienced colleagues, each replied that it was typical Washington: careers above all else.
In 2001, when George W. Bush became president, national security still had a low priority—until 9/11. The war in Afghanistan soon followed, and by December, Bush believed he had won there.
The idea took hold that overthrowing nasty governments and replacing them with democracies was easy!
Bush had already told Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to review plans for war in Iraq (Bush suggests in his memoirs that Saddam was behind the highly lethal anthrax that appeared after 9/11.) Since victory in Afghanistan seemed so easy, the idea grew that OIF would also be easy. Various parties began pushing their own bete noire as a target for the next war.
The memoirs of Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger (US Army, Ret.), Why we Lost, explain that already in the summer of 2003, the US military leadership believed it had won in Iraq. In a section entitled, “Hubris and Nemesis,” Bolger reveals that senior commanders were pulled out to prepare to fight elsewhere. The “B team” was left in Iraq.
No more wars followed, of course. Overthrowing a regime, even a nasty one, and replacing it with a stable political system is difficult.
One consequence, however, was Bush’s failure to explain and defend OIF, as criticism and casualties mounted.
The Bush administration had based its case for OIF on Saddam’s retention of unconventional weapons and expected to find such weapons in Iraq. But whatever was found was limited. Critics increasingly charged that Saddam did not have such weapons.
The Israelis disagreed. According to their intelligence, the material was moved to Syria in advance of the war.
Lt Gen. James Clapper, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, headed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in 2003. In October, he told reporters the same thing.
“Satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria” just before the start of OIF, “led [Clapper] to believe that illicit weapons material ‘unquestionably’ had been moved out of Iraq,” the New York Times reported.
Rather than embrace and support Clapper’s statement, the White House was silent.
John McLaughlin retired as Acting CIA Director in 2004. He was asked about that scenario in 2008 and replied that the CIA didn’t have the time to explore it!
Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial book, The March of Folly, explains that throughout history, governments regularly make mistakes—and when they do, the reaction is often to double-down. “Persistence in error is the problem,” she wrote.
What was the error? Even now, we cannot discuss that question dispassionately. Both sides have merely doubled down—as oblivious to the potential consequences, as they were 15 years ago.
Laurie Mylroie is a Washington DC correspondent for Kurdistan 24.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by John J. Catherine