The Last War—and the Next
Learning the Wrong Lessons From Iraq
By Jon Finer
May 28, 2019
arlier this year, the U.S. Army published two volumes that amount to the most comprehensive official history of the Iraq war. They cover the conflict’s most important episodes: the U.S. invasion in 2003, the death spiral into civil war that took shape in the aftermath, the more hopeful period that began with the surge of U.S. forces in 2007, and the withdrawal that saw the last U.S. forces leave Iraq at the end of 2011.
Blandly titled The U.S. Army in the Iraq War and based on 30,000 pages of newly declassified documents, the study recounts a litany of familiar but still infuriating blunders on Washington’s part: failing to prepare for the invasion’s aftermath, misunderstanding Iraqi culture and politics and sidelining or ignoring genuine experts, disbanding the Iraqi army and evicting Baath Party members from the government, ignoring and even denying the rise of sectarian violence, and sapping momentum by rotating troops too frequently.
Years in the making and admirably candid, the study has largely been ignored by the media and the policy community. That may be because of its daunting length and dry, “just the facts” narrative. Or because some understandably prefer independent accounts to authorized after-action reports. Or because, compared with other major conflicts in U.S. history, so few Americans experienced this one firsthand. Or because the study declines to focus on more timely and contested questions, such as whether it was ever in the realm of possibility to invade a large and diverse Middle Eastern country—one that posed no direct threat to the United States—at an acceptable cost. But the study also comes at a time when many of the supposed lessons of Iraq are increasingly contested, with significant implications for a debate that is raging between and within both major political parties over the most consequential foreign policy choice any country faces: when and how to use military force.
In this critical debate, the Iraq study does seem to take a side, intentionally or otherwise. For that reason, and to better understand what the institution charged with fighting the controversial war believes it has learned, two of the study’s claims are worthy of further reflection, particularly for those who believed that the Iraq debacle would lead to an era of American military restraint. The first claim, which runs through the study like a subplot, is that the war’s “only victor” was “an emboldened and expansionist Iran,” which gained vast influence over its main regional adversary when Iraq’s dictator was toppled and replaced by leaders with close ties to Iran. Washington “never formulated an effective strategy” for addressing this challenge, the study concludes, in part because it imposed “artificial geographic boundaries on the conflict” that “limited the war in a way that made it difficult to reach its desired end states.” Put more succinctly: the United States erred not by waging a war far more expansive than its national interests warranted but by failing to take the fight far enough, including into neighboring Iran.
The study’s second notable claim, mentioned only in passing in its penultimate paragraph, is even more controversial: that “the failure of the United States to attain its strategic objectives in Iraq was not inevitable.” Rather, it “came as a by-product of a long series of decisions—acts of commission and omission—made by well-trained and intelligent leaders.” In other words: the failure of the Iraq war—which cost somewhere between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, led to the deaths of nearly 4,500 Americans and perhaps half a million Iraqis, spawned a grave humanitarian crisis, and incubated the most virulent terrorist franchise the world has ever seen, all with no clear strategic benefit—was one of execution, not conception.
Couched as impartial assessments, these claims—about how the United States’ military restraint empowered its main regional adversary and about the supposed feasibility of fighting a better war—contribute to the deliberate and systematic erosion of what was once conventional wisdom: that, in the future, the United States should be far warier of potential conflicts like the one in Iraq. An alternative view of the Iraq war has flourished since the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump, driven by both some of his most ardent critics and some of his closest advisers. And it may help bring about the next U.S. conflict in the Middle East.
MUNICH, SAIGON, BAGHDAD
What policymakers learn from history is of more than mere academic interest. Just as generals reputedly prepare to fight the last war, foreign policy officials lean heavily on historical analogies in addressing current threats. U.S. officials frequently use—and often abuse—history to help bolster their arguments during critical debates. In doing so, as the historian Ernest May put it, they become “captives of an unanalyzed faith that the future [will] be like the recent past.”
The British appeasement of Hitler in 1938 has been particularly compelling in policy debates, with allusions to “another Munich,” referring to the city where European powers acceded to some of Hitler’s earliest territorial claims, providing an easy caricature of supposed weakness. In 1965, as President Lyndon Johnson considered whether to deploy 100,000 U.S. troops to Vietnam, the National Security Council held a fateful meeting. His team in the Cabinet Room was divided on the issue, until the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., effectively ended the debate: “I feel there is a greater threat of World War III if we don’t go in. Can’t we see the similarity to [the British] indolence at Munich
By the 1970s, the Vietnam quagmire that resulted in part from that reading of history began to compete with Munich as the dominant historical analogy. Just as Munich became a shorthand for policy approaches that were overly passive, Vietnam became a warning against those deemed too interventionist. Reluctant to plunge the United States back into conflict, President Jimmy Carter pursued détente with the Soviet Union. In response, critics attacked him for “tapping the cobblestones of Munich” and fostering a “culture of appeasement.” In the decade that followed, President Ronald Reagan sought to overcome what he and others called “the Vietnam syndrome” and shake the United States free from what he believed was an excessive reluctance to confront global threats. But it was not until 1990 that the United States faced an act of aggression so stark that the debate shifted again.
In August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. “International conflicts attract historical analogies the way honey attracts bears,” noted Alexander Haig, a former U.S. secretary of state and former supreme allied commander of NATO, in a New York Times op-ed that December. “Which analogy, Munich or Vietnam, . . . has more to tell us?” His answer was the former, which meant that Saddam had to be confronted. Rather than ignore or contest the Vietnam analogy, Haig twisted it to suit his purposes. And to leave no doubt, Haig also drew a somewhat contrarian lesson from Vietnam, arguing that it suggested the United States should not stop at liberating Kuwait: it must destroy the Iraqi regime entirely. “The Vietnam analogy instructs us not that we should refrain from using force,” he wrote, “but that if our purposes are just and clear, we should use it decisively.”
In the end, President George H. W. Bush followed only half of Haig’s advice, evicting Saddam’s army from Kuwait but stopping short of marching on Baghdad. In his victory speech, Bush boasted, “We’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all
WHICH IRAQ LESSON
That cure cemented the United States’ status as the world’s sole superpower but had some unforeseen side effects. The country has now spent nearly three decades engulfed in Iraq in various ways. Iraq has provided the leading historical analogies for foreign-policy makers in the past four U.S. administrations and has informed their understanding of the extent and limits of American power, even as other crises have flared and faded.
President Bill Clinton quietly continued the conflict with Saddam after the end of the 1990–91 Gulf War by bombing Iraqi targets throughout his tenure, imposing unprecedented sanctions, and shifting the United States’ official policy to regime change. His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, coined the phrase “the indispensable nation” to justify further U.S. intervention in Iraq. A few years later, to bolster the case for an invasion, officials serving President George W. Bush used his father’s supposed strategic error of not proceeding to Baghdad, along with a healthy dash of the Munich analogy. They also massively exaggerated the threats posed by Saddam’s weapons programs and the Iraqi leader’s purported ties to terrorist groups.
Repulsed by that sales job and the fiasco it helped promote, President Barack Obama, whose rise was fueled by his early opposition to the Iraq war, drew new lessons from his predecessor’s failures in Iraq. Obama’s understanding of what had gone wrong encouraged his wariness of wielding U.S. power, especially in the Middle East; his commitment to diplomacy as the tool of first resort and openness to engaging even the most difficult adversaries; and his conviction that U.S. military action should come only as part of the broadest possible coalition and in accordance with international law.
Those lessons guided Obama’s approach to the two most difficult problems he faced during the last several years of his term—the mounting Iranian nuclear threat and the Syrian conflict. On Iran, Obama resisted the drumbeat of another reckless war and instead made a deal that removed an immediate nuclear threat from the world’s most volatile region without the United States having to fire a shot. In Syria, Obama avoided a major military escalation in favor of a varied approach, with elements of diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, and force, which ultimately failed to quell a devastating conflict. In each case, the Iraq war weighed heavily in internal debates
A BIG, FAT MISTAKE
Although it would be hard to imagine a presidential candidate more different from the incumbent he sought to replace, Trump also argued that the United States should avoid Middle Eastern “quagmires” and called the Iraq war “a big, fat mistake.” As president-elect, he told an audience at Fort Bragg of his commitment to “only engage in the use of military force when it’s in the vital national security interest of the United States,” pledged to “stop racing to topple . . . foreign regimes that we know nothing about,” and promised to end what he termed a “destructive cycle of intervention and chaos.” Early in his presidency, he called the 2003 invasion “the single worst decision ever made.”
By the end of 2016, an aversion to military adventurism in the Middle East seemed a rare area of bipartisan consensus. The lessons of Iraq were relatively clear, and the prospects for another U.S. war in the region remote.
Since then, however, the Trump administration’s policies and personnel choices have helped erode that consensus and have raised the specter of another conflict. In January 2018, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a speech explaining why keeping U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, and possibly increasing their numbers, was essential to national security. He put forward a standard set of arguments in favor of a U.S. presence: the need to conclusively defeat the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), help end the Syrian civil war, counter Iranian influence, stabilize Syria so that refugees could return, and rid the country of any remaining chemical weapons.
The lessons of Iraq were relatively clear, but the Trump administration’s policies and personnel choices have helped erode that consensus
He then made a more counterintuitive case for deploying more U.S. forces to Syria, where they would be in harm’s way, operating under dubious legal authority, and tasked with a mission arguably far more ambitious than their number could achieve: to “not repeat the mistakes of the past in Iraq.” One could be forgiven for believing Tillerson had somehow misspoken by invoking the Iraq war as an argument for, rather than against, further U.S. military intervention in a controversial conflict. He had not.
His comments reflected a view commonly expressed by critics of the Obama administration—many of them Iraq war proponents: that by withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, after the Iraqi parliament declined to endorse legal protections for U.S. troops, Obama had committed a politically motivated blunder that robbed the United States of a durable success, if not victory. The withdrawal, such critics allege, allowed al Qaeda in Iraq to metastasize into ISIS and take control of nearly a third of Iraq’s territory, including Mosul, the country’s third-largest city.
The U.S. Army’s official history of the Iraq war makes a version of that same argument:
At one point, in the waning days of the Surge, the change of strategy and the sacrifices of many thousands of Americans and Iraqis had finally tipped the scales enough to put the military campaign on a path towards a measure of success. However, it was not to be, as the compounding effect of earlier mistakes, combined with a series of decisions focused on war termination, ultimately doomed the fragile venture.
This conclusion neglects a few inconvenient facts. The troops were withdrawn pursuant to a George W. Bush–era status-of-forces agreement between Washington and Baghdad. Under its own internal pressure to end the war, the Iraqi government would not even consider allowing anything beyond a relatively small number of U.S. forces in a noncombat role. ISIS’ rise had less to do with the absence of U.S. troops than with the civil war that erupted next door in Syria, just as American forces were withdrawing. And whatever one thinks of the decision to withdraw U.S. troops, that would hardly seem to negate the original sin of invading Iraq in the first place. Still, this revisionist argument has gained adherents over time and has also spawned a new, unlikely lesson of Iraq: that an aversion to military force in 2011, rather than a fetish for it in 2003, was to blame.
This belief sits uneasily with Trump’s professed distaste for military adventurism in the Middle East, and it has led to a fierce tug of war inside the Trump administration over the use of force in the region. Trump’s more hawkish advisers have often carried the day. As a result, despite his noninterventionist instincts, Trump has escalated the U.S. military’s involvement in every theater of conflict he inherited: Afghanistan, Libya, Niger, Syria, Yemen—and even Iraq itself.
Last spring, Trump appointed as his national security adviser John Bolton, a man who remains perhaps the Iraq war’s most fervent and least repentant champion. (As recently as 2015, Bolton said that toppling Saddam was the right thing to do.) Tillerson, a relative moderate, was replaced as secretary of state by the far more hawkish Mike Pompeo. Elliott Abrams, George W. Bush’s top Middle East adviser, is now Trump’s special envoy for Venezuela. And Joel Rayburn, one of the editors of the U.S. Army’s study of the Iraq war, left that role to take two senior positions in the Trump administration, first in the White House and then in the State Department.
Ironically, Trump has resurrected Iraq hawks on both sides of the polarized debate about his presidency. Among his most prominent critics are “Never Trump” Republicans—many of whom were staunch supporters of the 2003 invasion. It was precisely Trump’s discomfort with military intervention—and concern that it could lead to a new period of isolationism—that first turned off many of his hawkish critics, such as Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations and David Frum of The Atlantic. Through their criticism of Trump, many Never Trumpers have regained some of the prominence they lost in the wake of the Iraq disaster, as has the view that the Iraq war was noble in purpose, waged poorly by Bush, salvaged by the surge, and then ultimately lost by Obama.
It is little wonder, then, that Americans’ ideas about what lessons their country should take from the Iraq war may be shifting. According to polls, in 2008, five years after the invasion, 56 percent of the country had decided that the war—which had by then claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions, and badly damaged the United States’ global standing—was a mistake. By 2018, however, that number had fallen to 48 percent. By comparison, a majority of Americans continue to believe that the U.S. war in Vietnam was a mistake. By 1990, 17 years after the Paris Peace Accords formally ended the conflict, that number had reached 74 percent.
The most immediate test of this ongoing debate about Iraq is the emerging crisis between the United States and Iran. Although the Iraq analogy was once a trump card for opponents of U.S. intervention, today it is also invoked by those portraying Iran as unfinished business of the earlier conflict. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once wrote, for policymakers pursuing an agenda, history is “an enormous grab bag with a prize for everybody.”
Just over two years ago, a war with Iran in the near term seemed almost unthinkable. The Obama administration saw Iran’s nuclear program as the greatest threat and sought to take it off the table, which would also make addressing other threats from Iran less risky. The 2015 nuclear agreement locked up Iran’s program for more than a decade. And Iran adhered to the deal.
One of the clearest and most immediate consequences of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, however, was a reversal of U.S. policy toward Iran, including the decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal and resume sanctions against Iran and its business partners. The Trump administration is now pursuing a strategy it calls “maximum pressure.” In April, Trump designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, the first government entity to earn that distinction. In May, the administration announced that any nation importing Iranian oil—the lifeblood of Iran’s economy—would be sanctioned, with the aim of eliminating Iranian exports.
Trump and his officials have indulged in rhetoric that gives the distinct impression that the administration’s goal is regime change, by force if necessary. Last July, after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned the United States not to “play with the lion’s tail” by increasing pressure on Iran, Trump tweeted, “Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
In February, Pompeo, who had advocated regime change in Iran as a member of Congress, told a group of Iranian Americans that the administration is “careful not to use the language of regime change,” but he has also pointed to supposed signs that U.S. pressure “will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.” In May, he admitted on a podcast that better behavior on the part of the regime was unlikely and upped the ante, arguing, “I think what can change is the people can change the government.” And last year, he named 12 issues that Iran would need to agree to discuss in any future negotiation, which included steps unthinkable under Iran’s current leadership, such as abandoning all uranium enrichment and support for militant proxies.
Iran draws on its own historical lessons when it comes to dealing with the United States, starting with the U.S.-backed coup against its elected prime minister in 1953. To the surprise of many, after Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal, Iran first adopted a form of strategic patience. It seized the moral high ground by working with the same Asian and European partners that had once sat on Washington’s side of the table during the negotiations on the nuclear deal and that still strongly support the agreement.
But in May, after Washington took a series of provocative steps, Rouhani announced that Iran would begin reducing its adherence to some of its commitments under the deal, particularly with regard to the stockpile of enriched uranium it is allowed to maintain, and would set a two-month deadline for countries to provide Iran with relief from U.S. sanctions. He also said that Iran was not abandoning the deal and remained open to negotiations.
Although Trump has also said that he is open to talks, the prospects of a conflict between the United States and Iran are now as high as they have been since early 2013, before the nuclear negotiations began to progress, when there were frequent reports that both countries (and Israel) were preparing for a military clash. It is easy to imagine any number of incendiary scenarios. U.S. forces are currently deployed in relatively close proximity to Iranian troops or their proxies in at least three countries: Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. A missile strike from Iranian-backed forces in Yemen that killed a large number of Saudis or a fatal rocket attack against Israel launched by Iranian proxies in Lebanon or Syria would lead to heavy pressure on Washington to retaliate, perhaps against Iranian targets.
There are also profound similarities between the current situation and the period that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq, starting with an impressionable president, inexperienced in world affairs. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush White House pushed the intelligence services to look for evidence of Iraqi involvement—none materialized, and there had been hardly any reason to suspect it would—and to draw the most hawkish conclusions possible from the mixed evidence on Iraq’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Today, the Trump administration is reportedly pressuring the intelligence community, which has long judged that Iran is in strict compliance with the nuclear deal, for assessments that would bolster the case for a firmer approach. “The Intelligence people seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!” Trump tweeted earlier this year. In May, with the administration pointing to intelligence indicating that Iran might be planning attacks against U.S. forces, anonymous U.S. officials warned that the threat was being hyped. “It’s not that the administration is mischaracterizing the intelligence, so much as overreacting to it,” one told the The Daily Beast. In addition, as in 2003, the United States is increasingly isolated from all but a small handful of countries that support its approach.
It is unclear whether this brinkmanship will lead to conflict, stalemate, or renewed dialogue. Regardless, some contemporary realities should drive decision-making. Iran is roughly four times as large as Iraq in terms of territory and has roughly four times the population Iraq had in 2003. Iran’s geography is more complex than that of Iraq, and its governance is at least as challenging. Although Iran menaces its neighbors and funds terrorist proxies, Washington has yet to articulate any threat to the United States severe enough to justify a war and lacks clear legal authority to wage one. For these and other reasons, not even the most bellicose proponents of confronting Iran have suggested a full-scale assault.
The prospects of a war between the United States and Iran are now as high as they have been since early 2013, when both countries (and Israel) were reportedly preparing for a military clash.
But for those who believe that a smarter war plan in Iraq would have produced better results, a limited war with Iran, perhaps designed to restore U.S. deterrence supposedly forfeited during the Iraq war, remains firmly on the table. In mid-May, the Pentagon was reportedly drawing up plans for the deployment of 120,000 troops to the region, about two-thirds of the total number sent to Iraq during the 2003 invasion.
Distorting the lessons of the Iraq war may also be the best way to convince a U.S. president with anti-interventionist instincts of the wisdom of confronting Iran. “During the Iraq War, Iran was most aggressive when the U.S. failed to respond with strength to Iranian malfeasance,” claimed one of the editors of the army’s Iraq study in a recent op-ed he co-authored in The Hill. The authors added: “History makes clear there must be consequences for Iran when Tehran attacks Americans. Otherwise, we should expect more of the same.” It isn’t hard to imagine that argument, which hinges on notions of strength and weakness, appealing to Trump.
But such claims ignore something else that U.S. policymakers should have learned from recent conflicts: once under way, wars evolve and escalate in unforeseen ways. To see how even a war with expressly limited objectives can spiral out of control, look no further than the Obama administration’s experience in Libya. In the case of Iran, perhaps the biggest wildcard is how the Iranians might respond to U.S. force. Unlike Iraq in 2003, Iran has the ability to wage asymmetric war against American forces, diplomats, and allies across the Middle East and beyond. That is especially true in Iraq, where, in response to mounting tensions in mid-May, the United States ordered the departure of all “nonemergency” government personnel and Germany reportedly suspended its military training program.
Some variation in how analysts view Iraq may be inevitable, since they draw on different experiences of the war. As a journalist covering the invasion and the descent into civil war for The Washington Post, I became convinced that the Iraq cause was hopeless one evening in late 2005, when my Iraqi driver asked me to call the U.S. Army officer in charge of his Baghdad neighborhood and request that he stop delivering candy to the driver’s daughter, because if she told her friends about it, his family could be branded as collaborators. It was a stark lesson in the futility of good intentions.
The authors of the U.S. Army’s official history of the Iraq war warn that “above all, the United States must not repeat the errors of previous wars in assuming that the conflict was an anomaly with few useful lessons.” Although history is often abused and all conflicts are different, that still seems to be sound advice. But following it requires, at a minimum, some agreement on what those lessons are. Eroding the tenuous consensus on what went wrong in Iraq makes another damaging conflict more likely