The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The Iraq War at Ten
Published on March 19, 2013

April marks the tenth anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the United States and its partners. At this juncture, it is reasonable for Americans—and Iraqis and others—to ask whether the past decade of U.S. involvement in Iraq was worth it. Did the large human and financial costs produce an outcome that justifies the sacrifice? The frustrating reality is that it is still too early to form a definitive answer to this question. It is possible, however, to provide a partial evaluation at this time, one that identifies the relevant variables that should go into such a calculation and provides an assessment of them where possible.

By contrast, it is not too early to ask what we have learned from the past decade. Teasing out the lessons of Iraq in a way that goes beyond conventional wisdom is a prerequisite to ensuring that the next decade goes better than the last one did. At a time when the United States is resisting pressures for deeper involvement in Syria, and when at least some of our European allies are intervening elsewhere, we should be sure that the lessons we take from Iraq stand up to close and unsentimental inspection. Even though the circumstances around the removal of Saddam and the Arab upheavals of the past two years differ in significant ways, the challenges of rebuilding societies after decades of dictatorship are remarkably similar.

A Preliminary Balance Sheet

The question of whether the outcome in Iraq justifies the American blood and treasure spent on it—not to mention that of Iraqis and others—will remain open for many years. Yet we can begin the evaluation now, breaking the analysis into three components. There are key components we can appraise now; other elements for which the passage of time will bring no further clarity; and, finally, dimensions that are still in flux and about which we must therefore suspend judgment for the moment.

In the first bucket of factors we can assess now, we might identify two. First is the benefit to Iraqis, but also to the region and the United States, that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. Although a minority of Iraqis would embrace his return if it were on offer, most have greater hopes for a more meaningful life with him gone. While violence continues in Iraq and the Iraqi government is no paragon of justice, most Iraqis no longer have to worry about the arbitrary arrests, disappearances and killings that touched huge swathes of society under the Ba‘ath regime. Iraqis in the new Iraqi Security Forces have died in significant numbers, but nothing on the scale of the hundreds of thousands who met their deaths as fodder for Saddam’s ruthless wars or in his intifadas against his own people. Concerns about Iraq’s instability affecting the broader region remain, and for good reason, but the regime that invaded two of its neighbors in little more than a decade no longer rules to plot a third.

Second, Iraq has become a meaningful contributor to global oil markets. It now pumps more oil than any other OPEC member besides Saudi Arabia. Iraq is poised to contribute much more in the years ahead. These Iraqi contributions have in part allowed the United States to pursue a sanctions-based strategy against Iran’s nuclear program and could prove critical to meeting global demand at a reasonable price if the world economy improves in the months ahead.

In the second bucket of factors—about which more time will shed no additional insight—is the counterfactual, which is a bit harder to judge. Some may imagine that, in the absence of the invasion of Iraq, the Middle East today would look much as it did in 2002: mostly stagnant and repressed, but more or less stable. There are, however, reasons to doubt this scenario. More likely than not, the Middle East would still be volatile, perhaps even more so than it is today, if for different reasons. It is plausible that events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria would have unfolded much as they have given the largely homegrown nature of their revolutions. The most critical part of the counterfactual, however, relates to Iran.

Were the Iraqi Ba‘ath still in power, Iran would probably be more quiescent in the region, meaning fewer challenges to Saudi Arabia and less support to Hizballah and perhaps even Syria. But Iran’s nuclear ambitions, far from being tempered, would likely be even more intense than they are today. We can assume that Saddam, who was already skirting sanctions and had concocted a significant coalition for their removal in 2002, would have been freed from them many years ago. Ba‘athi Iraq would have reaped large windfalls from the high oil prices of the mid-2000s and, consistent with the findings of the Kay Report, would have continued the pursuit of the WMD that had eluded Saddam by 2003; it is at least possible that Saddam would now have nuclear weapons. At best, Iran under the Islamic Republic and Iraq under Saddam Hussein would be locked in a race for a nuclear weapon, making the Gulf arguably the most dangerous region of the world and the most likely to rend U.S. counterproliferation interests asunder. Prospects for reaching a diplomatic solution to get Iran or Iraq to relinquish their pursuits would be nil.

Another factor about which the passage of time will give us scant new information is the opportunity costs of focusing a decade of American attention and effort on Iraq and the political capital spent getting others to support U.S. endeavors there. These costs are hard to quantify but certainly are significant. America might have paid more attention to the rise of China and shoring up its Asian allies, something to which it has turned belatedly. Or the United States might have concentrated more on its own hemisphere, helping it better integrate and meet its own energy needs.

One place where the outcome would probably not be different, however, is in Afghanistan. It is common to suggest that the war in Iraq came at the expense of success in Afghanistan. This claim does not stand up well under scrutiny. There is little to suggest that all the resources devoted to Iraq would have been allocated to Afghanistan even in the absence of the Iraq War. This is particularly true when we look at the early years, when the dedication of greater resources might have prevented the emergence of a security and governance vacuum that created fertile ground for the later re-emergence of the Taliban. At the time, as is indicated by the February 2002 decision not to respond positively to the Afghan government’s request to expand the International Security Assistance Force beyond Kabul, the United States was anticipating that the War on Terror would necessitate multiple engagements worldwide, none of which could involve expensive long-term U.S. commitments if America were to meet the global challenge.

Next, we turn to those variables key to the final reckoning, but still in flux and therefore eluding final judgment. Two in particular stand out. First is the domestic outcome in Iraq.

While Americans have shifted their sights away from Iraq, the situation there remains volatile and fluid. It is true that, over the past decade, Iraq has built a set of institutions on paper, and to some extent in practice, that could serve as the foundation of a modern, democratic state. Its constitution, while imperfect, is one of the most progressive in the region and, unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, compromises related to fundamental rights and the relationship between the state and religion have been durable. Moreover, in the past several years, Iraqi leaders have largely managed a number of core disputes through the political process, not through armed opposition or violence. These achievements are no small feats in the Middle East, particularly in the absence of any real international force presence in Iraq since 2011.

That said, three developments that would weigh heavily on the positive side of the ledger have yet to come to fruition. First, Iraq has not become a model to other countries for governing highly divided societies in a productive way. One can imagine what a difference it would make in the deliberations surrounding Syria today if Iraq had unequivocally demonstrated the potential of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian Middle Eastern country to govern itself in a way other societies could admire.

A second, related point is that Iraq has not yet come close to meeting its potential as an economic, political or diplomatic power in the region. It remains hobbled by corruption and internal divisions that create openings for the meddling of external powers and that have hampered its emergence as the powerhouse it could become.

Finally, Iraq has not become a truly useful ally to the United States in the region. It could do so by helping to resolve regional disputes, and Iraq’s emerging role in OPEC could bring significant indirect benefits to the United States and global economy. But neither has yet occurred. In fact, Iraq’s actual positions on current issues like Syria have been more problematic than helpful. Had a security agreement between Iraq and the United States been successfully concluded in 2011, it is likely that Iraq would be a more forthcoming partner in these arenas.

Any grand tally has to acknowledge that the contours of the Iraqi state are far from being fully formed. Things could deteriorate badly, but it is also possible that Iraq will ultimately size up positively across the above dimensions—any one of which would carry much positive weight in the final assessment of whether the Iraq engagement was worth it. The April 2013 provincial council elections and the 2014 national parliamentary election could offer the opportunity to reset the current political landscape. However, the situation in Baghdad today gives scant room for optimism. Prime Minister Maliki continues his efforts to consolidate power at the expense of Iraq’s institutions and other political groups. His recent actions have galvanized widespread protests and have stoked almost-continuous, albeit so far unsuccessful, machinations to unseat him. Many Iraqis worry, with good reason, that Maliki will become Iraq’s Mubarak. This would be a better outcome than Saddam, but it would render Iraq nothing like the representative and accountable democracy for which Iraqis and Americans have labored. The civil war in Syria is creating massive strains on Iraq’s still nascent institutions and, for the first time in the decade since the fall of the Ba‘ath, the prospect of fragmentation is all too real.

The second variable still in flux, and critical to the final assessment, is the outcome for the broader region. Perhaps most significant is the looming question of whether the Arab revolutions of the past two years will ultimately lead to a more stable and prosperous Middle East. Iraq’s role in instigating such revolutions is small compared to the domestic grievances that drove millions of Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians, Syrians, Yemenis and other Arabs to challenge their ossified regimes. But Iraq’s experience is related, even if not in the ways commonly imagined.

It is unlikely that many Arabs were motivated to emulate Iraq by watching events there from 2003 to 2011. However, in subtle ways, the reaction of the region to events in Iraq helped pave the way for the revolutions. For instance, Mubarak allowed large-scale protests for the first time in 2003 to protest the Iraq War. These gatherings provided would-be regime opponents their first lessons in mass mobilizations and helped to build the networks that proved critical in the 2011 revolution. In addition, the destruction of one of the most brutal mukhabarat regimes in the region opened the eyes of some Arabs to other possibilities, as suggested by the comments of Lebanese leader Walid Jumblatt in 2005.1

The other relevant regional outcome still hanging in the balance concerns the confrontation between the international community and Iran. Iraq will be dramatically affected by any plausible resolution to the current standoff. Moreover, although it would prefer otherwise, Iraq will have a role to play in managing every feasible scenario. As a confidante of both Tehran and Washington, it could help mediate a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Alternatively, if military force is required, Iraq will be a key battleground in managing the aftermath; Iraq is also a likely venue for indirect retaliation by Iran. Then again, given the long Iran-Iraq border, Iraq’s cooperation will be essential to any meaningful plan to contain a nuclear Iran, if policy leads us in that direction, for better or worse. Iraq’s posture in any of these circumstances will weigh heavily in the ultimate reckoning about the past decade.

Given the several still-undetermined variables and the wide variety of plausible outcomes, it is too early to bring final judgment on American efforts in Iraq even ten years on. It is still plausible that Iraq, for all the pain and trouble it caused, will come to be seen as a good investment in years to come. It is also equally conceivable (and, at this point, more so) that continued strife and sectarianism in Iraq will add to the turbulence of the region. Iraq may continue to be a headache at best, and a fundamental challenge at worst, to American efforts in the Middle East for years to come.

Learning the Right Lessons

Whatever the final reckoning, the past cannot be undone. Lessons from the past, however, can help make for wiser U.S. engagement in the world going forward.

Given the complexity of U.S. efforts in Iraq over the past decade, the lessons derived will necessarily span volumes and require the examination of scholars, diplomats and military analysts. Yet thus far America has not shown much appetite for this endeavor; it is almost as if there is a tacit agreement not to speak either about the initial phase of the war or its exhausting, protracted aftermath. The United States  thus runs the risk of repeating one of the failures of Vietnam. Wanting to ensure that America never fought such a war again, it refrained from institutionalizing the lessons of the conflict, contributing to the need for the United States to re-learn them from scratch in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our collective failure to learn lessons from Iraq might stem from a sense that helping Iraqis emerge from their trauma under Saddam and rebuild their country was just too hard all around. Whatever the individual strategic, operational or tactical lessons, many have concluded that the mega-lesson is that such endeavors are simply beyond either the abilities or the inclinations of the United States. This may be true, but it still matters whether the difficulties of the past decade were inherent to the task at hand or were mainly the product of suboptimal policy choices and implementation. To the extent that the latter is true, we can imagine doing better in other settings if need be. If the former is true, the scope for learning and improvement is far more limited. We owe it to ourselves to discover which it is.

A small but important starting place in what should be a massive undertaking is more careful scrutiny of the conventional wisdom that informs U.S. and international reactions to the crises unfolding in the Arab world today. Three high-level, common takeaways in particular deserve greater examination: the notion that democracy can be risky or is ill-suited for Arab countries emerging from authoritarian regimes; the sense that dismantling the structures of the state, such as the army, is a road to ruin; and the idea that the provision of security should underpin all other efforts. The first two takeaways are much oversimplified and misleading, while the last is true but vastly underappreciated.

Skepticism about the Democratic Model

The tough road Iraq has traveled over the past decade and the abysmal state of Iraqi politics today have lead many to conclude that the democratic project in Iraq was overly ambitious. For years after the removal of the Ba‘ath, critics contended that Iraqis neither wanted democracy nor were capable of it. The Arab revolutions of the past two years have quieted the notion that Arabs do not want democracy, at least as they understand it. But the difficulties since experienced by transitional states such as Egypt and Libya have further galvanized those who think democracy is a poor fit with the Arab world.

Such a conclusion is not, upon close scrutiny, supported by the experience of Iraq. True, the obstacles to establishing democracy in Iraq were and remain formidable. Neither one of two foundations for a democratic society existed in 2003: the rule of law or the institutions of a modern state. While Iraq had a judiciary and legal codes, no law trumped Saddam’s whims and the Ba‘ath Party’s desiderata. In addition, decades of Ba‘athi rule had eroded all institutions of the state in the modern sense of the word and undermined the trust essential to a functioning democracy. The Iraqi state in 2003 was for all practical purposes synonymous with Saddam; the non-personalized institutions that make up a modern state did not exist. Adding to these challenges was the reality that traditional Iraqi political culture, which emphasizes centralized power in the hands of a few and the use of force to resolve disputes, embodies the antithesis of democratic principles.

Helping Iraqis realize a democracy in these circumstances was always going to be difficult, but that does not mean that some other form of government would necessarily be preferable. Over both the short and the long run, no other model of government could better meet Iraq’s needs after Saddam’s demise. Most immediately, after decades of repression, Iraqis desired accountability more than anything else. In a modern state with a developed rule of law, there may be more subtle and sophisticated ways of instilling accountability into a society than elections. Francis Fukuyama speaks of the “moral accountability” of Confucian societies, for example. But in a country with weak state institutions and no rule of law, elections (related to but still distinct from democracy) became the only plausible mechanism for the accountability Iraqis sought.

Looking at the longer term, given Iraq’s deep divisions, democracy became a means to encourage stability rather than a higher end in itself. Iraq’s significant Sunni and Kurdish minorities would ultimately only accept a system in which each community had a reasonable prospect of shaping state policies and sharing the country’s resources. A majoritarian democracy would not suffice in this instance, given its potential to perpetually alienate huge segments of population. But a democracy not only with protection for minorities, but with levers for them to influence key decisions through super-majority votes and the like, has helped keep most groups in the political process—and away from violent opposition to the state.

The real lesson from Iraq is not about whether democracy or some other form of government is always, sometimes or never preferable. Rather, the lesson lives one level lower, in understanding the particular policy choices made about the sequencing, timing, form and priority accorded to the construction of governance structures.

Early elections and transitional arrangements. One much-touted lesson from Iraq—and other transitional societies—is not to hold elections too early. In Iraq, the January 2005 elections, not quite two years after Saddam’s deposal, are blamed for the Islamization of politics and further polarization of society. This pattern is also widely cited in other transitional Arab states, where “early” elections have ushered in massive wins for Islamist parties (Egypt), or merely wins for hidebound rentier elites (Lebanon).

In an ideal world, yes, the creation of liberal institutions such as civil society and free media would precede elections. But this standard is too abstract to be meaningful in countries that have just experienced revolutionary change. In the wake of the uprooting of a long-standing repressive regime, either by primarily foreign forces as in Iraq or indigenous ones as in Egypt or Libya, no one person or set of people has the legitimacy to navigate the country through the subsequent task of building a new state. In a country like Afghanistan, a cultural construct like the loya jirga may allow new rulers to claim a legitimate mandate, at least temporarily. But in Iraq and elsewhere, elections were the only acceptable and available mechanism to determine who had the backing of the population to preside over the immediate post-Ba‘athi period. In addition, holding Iraqi elections by January 2005 was a precondition for maintaining the support of Iraq’s most influential Shi‘a leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for Iraq’s transitional process.2

The most pressing issue is not actually what comes of early elections. These will often if not always result in outcomes favorable to Islamist parties in the Arab context. It is rather what those elections entitle their winners to do—that is, define the institutions of the new state, particularly the constitution and electoral laws. Even if other segments of society organize in subsequent elections, the rules of the political game and the contours of the state will have already been set by those who did well the first time out in the polls.

Here, Iraq’s experience offers an instructive lesson. The solution to this conundrum is not to avoid early elections (which may be desirable but is nearly impossible in practice) but to lessen the fixed stakes associated with their outcomes. One way of doing this is to make the new constitutions provisional or to incorporate mandatory constitutional review processes into their texts. Creating more time and space before these seminal documents are finalized allows more representative political groups to organize and make their views known between the initial aftermath of the regime overthrow and the consolidation of the new state’s institutions.

While South Africa is perhaps the best example of how to make such a mechanism operational, Iraq also had an interim constitution, written in early 2004, before the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis later that year. This document, known as the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), was a 62-article document, negotiated and agreed to by the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council under the auspices of the Coalition Provisional Authority. A remarkable if unsung achievement, the TAL laid out the different branches of government, their relationship to one another and the distribution of power among them.

The TAL also provided a detailed roadmap of the entire transitional process, including provisions for the drafting and approval of the “permanent constitution” by an elected government some 18 months later. The TAL created power-sharing arrangements that were adopted in Iraq’s permanent constitution—and had obviously been absent in Iraq’s previous constitutions. The interim constitution governed the transitional process even during the most turbulent times of the insurgency in 2004 and 2005 and provided a framework to bring the Sunni community into the political process during the same period. In its absence, Iraq could well have devolved under the weight of its burgeoning insurgency into an unbridled competition for power.3

Yet Iraq’s political transition was complicated by the multiple stages in the overall process. Within the three years between Saddam’s removal and the formation of an elected government under a permanent constitution, Iraq had four governments or administrations. This succession of short-lived governments was the consequence of high-stakes negotiations and compromise between the CPA, the Iraqi Governing Council and the United Nations. While meeting a political need, this parade of transitions reinforced the Iraqi (and human) tendency to reward families, friends and political parties as short-term ministers revamped their domains completely with every new government. These actions de-institutionalized government, encouraged corruption and undermined prospects, however dim, for the development of the professional bureaucracy that needs to be at the core of a modern democratic state.

Efficient versus inclusive governance. The path to efficient government was further tested by the inclusive model of democracy adopted by the Iraqis in the interim constitution (with CPA encouragement), and later re-enshrined in the permanent constitution. Fearful of absolute authority after their experience with Saddam Hussein, Iraqis chose a parliamentary system, with a cabinet of ministers in which the prime minister is merely the first among ministers. Even more significantly, a number of provisions require super-majorities for important decisions such as the selection of the prime minister, so that even a party with a majority of seats in parliament would be unable to govern without the consent of minorities. Under pressure from the U.S. government and Iraq’s own political realities, every Iraqi administration since Saddam’s overthrow has been a “government of national unity” in the sense that nearly every party with a presence in parliament has also had representation in the cabinet. While not required by the constitution, these steps were taken to broaden support for the government, and make less likely violent opposition to it.

The rationale for such an inclusive government was and remains sound. Choosing a more majoritarian form of democracy would probably have been disastrous for Iraq at a time when its politics were (and are) dominated by sectarian and ethnic impulses. It would have been near impossible to convince the Sunnis or the Kurds that the new political system deserved their support and offered them prospects to shape the state and its use of power. The ability to wield influence inside the political tent was the most important argument in convincing mainstream Sunnis to join the political process and reject the violence of the insurgency.

The drawbacks of such an inclusive government in such a fractious society are manifest, however. Iraqi governments have struggled to make decisions, to execute strategies and to resolve festering issues in decisive ways. As the national unity cabinet encompasses the prime minister’s political rivals as well as his allies, these arrangements have encouraged the development of smaller circles of advisers, which operate without set procedures and with little or no transparency. At a more mundane level, the structure of government has also contributed to the difficulties the overly centralized state already has in providing services, executing budgets and responding to citizen needs.

Prioritizing institutions over personalities. Finally, and without a doubt most importantly, Iraq’s democratic transition was hampered—and potentially undone—by U.S. officials prioritizing personalities over institutions. This was not always the case. In the first year or so of post-Saddam Iraq, when U.S. influence was at its zenith, America adopted a strategy that, somewhat idealistically, focused on institutions over personalities. Believing in the power of elections and democratic processes, it provided only modest support to moderates in the Iraqi political system, even while Iraq’s neighbors were aggressively backing more divisive and sectarian elements in Iraqi society. The United States concluded that its active support for moderate figures would backfire and, somewhat naively, believed that if it could do its best to ensure the integrity of the election, political figures who would serve the best interests of Iraq and the United States would emerge. Even outside the election process, when seeking to support the new government of Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in 2004, the United States prioritized the integrity of institutions—such as the media and inspector general functions—over helping him assert his leadership.

This balance soon shifted in favor of supporting or opposing individuals. As the security landscaped worsened, U.S. decision-makers sought to ensure that those in positions of power were sympathetic to America and were good partners in the pursuit of some semblance of a common vision. The U.S. government became more deeply involved in Iraqi government formation and actively sought to broker particular outcomes. Yet even in its interventions for and against individuals, U.S. policy worked within the construct of Iraq’s institutions. For instance, the campaign against Prime Minister Ibrahim Ja’afari’s continuation in office after the December 2005 elections relied upon the objections of the Sunni and Kurdish parties to his candidacy. (Under Iraq’s constitution, their parliamentary votes were essential to finalizing his appointment.) This approach balanced the reality that personalities were stronger than institutions in Iraq, but that institutions needed to be respected if this balance were to change over time.

In the past several years, most markedly since the 2010 election, the United States prioritized individuals to the detriment of institutions. More specifically, being primarily interested in enough stability to allow for its withdrawal, U.S. policy promoted an outcome to the 2010 election stalemate that, in the eyes of many Iraqis, undermined the entire electoral system. Although perhaps arguable under some interpretations of the constitution, the failure to grant Ayad Allawi (the head of the party who won the most seats in parliament) the first right to form a government suggested to Iraqis that power dynamics, not elections, would determine who would govern them.

The message that the United States was more interested in stability—in order to declare victory and withdraw—than in Iraq’s new institutions was clear not only to the Iraqi people but also to Prime Minister Maliki himself. Rather than being bound by the checks and balances and institutional constraints created by Iraq’s constitution, Maliki has increasingly sought to undermine them and to consolidate his own personal power through ad hoc arrangements and bodies. This process accelerated significantly in the wake of the full U.S. military withdrawal at the end of 2011. As the last U.S. soldier crossed into Kuwait, many Iraqis concluded that the longstanding competition between Iraq’s traditional political culture (increasingly embodied by Maliki) and the country’s nascent democratic institutions would end decidedly in favor of the former. That meant putting a finger to the wind, sensing the flow of power and getting on the right side of it, thus reinforcing anticipations that old ways would trump new ones.

Dismantling the State

Perhaps the most widely held conventional wisdom to emerge from Iraq is not to dismantle the structures of the old regime, as the United States did when it disbanded the Iraqi army and instituted a policy of de-Ba‘athification. While these policies did not create the insurgency as many believe, they did give it depth and resiliency, cause massive human hardship, and deprive the new Iraqi state of urgently needed expertise and talent.4 It would also be wrong to surmise that avoiding such policies will inoculate a new state against similar threats. For these reasons, these policies demand closer scrutiny and an assessment about whether they might have been avoided or at least have been better executed.

Forswearing comparable actions to dismantle the state in other arenas—as some U.S. policymakers have done with Syria—is too simplistic a solution to be of value in real world situations. Those who overthrow a repressive authoritarian regime are unlikely to be content to live with the security apparatus of their former rulers. Would we expect the Syrians fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad to keep his army and intelligence forces as the bedrock of a post-regime state? Even if it were possible to keep a security apparatus intact in a post-revolutionary setting, doing so will bring a host of different problems. In Egypt, the maintenance of almost all elements of Mubarak’s state led many Egyptians to lament that their revolution turned into a coup. In Iraq, had the army been reconstituted and had all senior Ba‘athists stayed in their posts, it is plausible that Iraq would have experienced a coup and a possible return to power of the Ba‘ath party by now. This, as Iraqis know, is the pattern of previous decades.

The reality is that dealing with the aftermath of an old regime will always be an important part of setting a solid foundation for the future. Neither maintaining the old structures intact nor completely eliminating them will be desirable, even if one or the other is possible. What does Iraq tell us about how to handle this challenge?

Disbanding the army. Iraq demonstrates how a decapitation strategy can inadvertently flatten a society institutionally. After nearly thirty years in power, Saddam had hollowed out Iraq’s institutions and reconstructed them so that their primary mission was to support his rule. When he was toppled, most of Iraq’s institutions collapsed, including the army, which looted its own barracks and dissolved back into society. The challenge became whether or how to reconstitute an army that was viewed as oversized, top-heavy, Sunni-dominated and feared by Iraqis who were still sizing up the commitment of the United States to a fundamentally different kind of Iraq.

The decision to declare the “disbanding” of the Iraqi army was the result of three calculations. First, the CPA calculated that, with little cost, dramatically disbanding an army that had already largely disbanded itself could gain the much-needed trust of its still skeptical Kurdish and Shi‘a interlocutors, who keenly remembered the U.S. failure to halt Saddam’s massacres after the 1991 ejection of Iraq from Kuwait. Second, the decision was based on a set of false assumptions, including, most importantly, the assumption that the top ranks of the Iraqi army were made up of senior members of the Ba‘ath Party. Finally, the CPA concluded that, with the barracks looted, it would have no place to house a reconstituted army whose numbers, anyway, far exceeded the anticipated needs of the new Iraq.

Even had the CPA decided for logistical reasons that it could not reconstitute the Iraqi army, it could have chosen a path that did not cause such affront to the army’s members. In announcing the “disbanding” of the army, Iraq’s only fully national institution, the CPA struck at the pride and nationalism of many Iraqis who had served in the army, and who were in truth happy to see Saddam removed. More importantly, by deciding to continue to pay the salaries of former army officers only well after the announcement, the CPA stoked the ongoing humanitarian crisis that began when Saddam stopped paying the army months before the U.S. invasion.

While the CPA could have handled the dismissal or downsizing of the army in a way that did not couple offense with economic desperation, the larger issue associated with this decision was that the army was dismissed without adequate provisions for security while a new force was built. As was also true in Afghanistan, expectations about the speed with which a new force could be constituted were grossly optimistic. At the time, there was little appreciation for how long it would take to nurture the intangibles of a new army—its leadership and ethos in particular.

In Iraq, this miscalculation was compounded by unrealistic assumptions about what sort of force the new Iraq would need. Initial plans for a small force of three divisions focused on external threats were later superseded by plans to build an army of at first ten and then twenty divisions, whose primary initial task was to quell an internal, existential threat to the Iraqi government. If the choices were between keeping large vestiges of the old army, with all the drawbacks that option entailed, versus reconstituting a new army and providing security in the time it would take to build an effective force, then the United States chose neither; as the gap between the security environment and Iraqi forces grew wider in the early years, the Coalition was both unable and unwilling to fill it and provide security to Iraqis—until the shift in strategy that came with the surge in 2007.

In sum, Iraq’s experience cautions against the hope that the security structures of the old state can be maintained. The old Iraqi regime, as strong as it was, did need to be dismantled in order to increase Iraqis’ confidence and participation in the building of a new Iraq and to minimize chances that the old order would re-emerge, with or without Saddam.

Radical reform of existing security services—or even the building of what is essentially a new force—is likely to be an essential part of any post-revolutionary agenda. The trials of Iraq also suggest the difficulty of scoping and sizing the follow-on security institutions and the long lead-time required to build functional forces. Yet most importantly, the Iraq experience underscores less that state structures should not be dismantled but rather that they should not be neutered without arrangements to provide effective security in the interim.

Iraq also offers a broad range of important lessons about how to build indigenous forces. After a particularly poor start, the United States today can claim credit for helping Iraq build a formidable army that has held together remarkably well in the face of continued threats, even after the departure of U.S. forces at the end of 2011. Although these lessons are beyond the scope of this paper, one sound decision made early on is worth highlighting given its potential relevance to Syria. Despite enormous pressure from Iraqi political groups, the United States resisted efforts to incorporate intact units of former anti-Saddam militant organizations into the army, with the exception of the Kurdish peshmerga, for which there were different arrangements. Iraqi political leaders contended that doing so would increase the effectiveness of the army and the speed with which it could stand up. While these were perhaps good arguments, doing so would have jeopardized the cohesiveness of the army and increased the political pull on its components. Such an army would have likely splintered wide open under the pressure of the sectarian violence in 2006–08.

Dealing with the old regime. Scrutiny of the de-Ba‘athification policy, though often conflated with the dissolution of the army, renders a quite different set of lessons. Again, the grand takeaway is not that de-Ba‘athification never should have happened; a society emerging from decades of extreme repression like Iraq (or Libya or Syria) will need some way of addressing the fate of former regime members. Rather, the lesson is in how to develop such mechanisms.

The initial motivation behind de-Ba‘athification was, like the disbanding of the army, in part to convince skeptical Iraqis that the United States was committed to helping them create a different, better Iraq. More importantly, the policy was intended to punish those who had committed crimes again the Iraqi people by removing them from positions of political power and influence. By creating an avenue in which Iraqis could have confidence that justice would be done, U.S. officials expected that de-Ba‘athification would pre-empt revenge killings and other forms of vigilante justice.

While in many ways the policy achieved these objectives, its reach and depth far exceeded original plans and produced many serious unanticipated consequences. In addition to the inevitable loss of technical and professional expertise, de-Ba‘athification ultimately became a political tool used arbitrarily to punish people, many of whom were guilty of no crime. Of a potentially long list, three mistakes in execution stand out.

First, the de-Ba‘athification policy used rank in the Ba‘ath Party as a proxy for guilt. Without any way of knowing who had committed crimes, the U.S. government surmised that any Iraqi in the highest four tiers of the party was sufficiently close to the regime to warrant removal from a government job. This highly artificial metric turned out to be a very poor one. Many who fell under its rubric, like the thousands of schoolteachers obligated to join the party to keep their jobs, had no special relationship with Saddam’s regime.

Second, in recognition of its limited ability to make determinations about party affiliation, the CPA transferred the power to execute de-Ba‘athification to a political body: the Iraqi Governing Council. Under the auspices of this council, Iraqi politicians honed the policy into a political weapon, using it without oversight to eliminate political opponents from government posts nationwide.

Third, de-Ba‘athification was devised and executed in an open-ended fashion, without any broader framework for national reconciliation. A decade after Saddam’s removal, individuals deemed too independent or politically threatening are still being “de-Ba‘athified.” The policy has far outlived its initial objectives to redress wrongs under the Ba‘ath and has promoted a climate of fear and retribution rather than one of reconciliation.

While Iraq’s experience does not dictate particular prescriptions for other societies, it does suggest that in dealing with members of the former regime, countries should hold individuals accountable rather than broadly defined groups. They should seek the least political, most impartial institution possible to make judgments about when a person’s past renders him or her incapable of serving in the new government, and they should be required to provide the public with the bases for such verdicts. Finally, such a policy should be capped by time and nested in a larger framework for reconciliation among a country’s communities.

Security First

A third major lesson derived from the Iraq experience is that security is the foundation of all other forms of progress. Unlike the other two highlighted lessons, which need more subtle interpretations to be meaningful, this lesson is worth underscoring given how underappreciated it is. There is without question a complex interaction between security, political and economic gains, with advances in one area making advances in another more likely. Certainly, as the surge in Afghanistan has demonstrated, security improvements cannot ensure political success on their own. But focusing on the political and economic axes in hopes that they will drive security gains is for the most part folly.

This lesson seems obvious, but it is heeded less in practice than one would expect. In Iraq, from 2003 until the end of 2006 the United States pursued a strategy grounded in the assumption that political solutions would drive security benefits. This assumption, vocalized most aggressively by the Pentagon, did conveniently deflect discussions away from troop numbers and military strategy. But the United States had also reasonably assessed that the root of violence in Iraq was a competition over power and resources that could only be resolved through negotiation and political compact. Security gains, many believed, would stem from such resolution and could not be expected in its absence.

This assumption underpinned an overall strategy concentrated primarily on the political process. From 2004 through 2006 the central focus of U.S. strategy was to bring the Sunni community into the political process. Most Sunnis opted not to vote in Iraq’s first election in January 2005 either because they supported the boycott or were too intimidated to go to the polls. From that time on, the United States worked with its Iraqi counterparts to convince Sunnis that the best way to challenge the elements of the new Iraqi system to which they objected was to participate in its new institutions. A change in the electoral law, modest efforts to reflect Sunni interests in the constitutional drafting process, and alarm over Shi‘a domination of the state, particularly the security establishment, both drove and enticed the Sunnis back into the political process. Sunni parties were formed to contest the December 2005 elections and Sunni voter turnout rose dramatically. In the Sunni-dominated province of Anbar, turnout in December was 55 percent, compared with 2 percent in the earlier election. These results and painstaking negotiations produced an Iraqi government in 2006 that included more credible and representative Sunni players.

Despite this clear if incomplete political progress, the security situation worsened considerably during the same period. The violence in Iraq, which heretofore had been largely characterized by an insurgency fueled and sustained by the affront of foreign troops, morphed into a bloody sectarian orgy. Some might argue, even today, that sectarian politics drove the explosion of sectarian violence. Others claimed that sectarianism is innate within Iraqi political culture, making such cycles of violence inevitable. However, the clearest driver of the sectarian war at that time was neither politics nor communal habit, but the yawning lack of security. Over the course of 2005 and 2006, neither the U.S.-led coalition nor the Iraqi government provided adequate security to regular Iraqi citizens. Most Iraqis did not initially identify with the extreme politics of Sunni-based al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had gobbled up the more local insurgent groups, or the Shi‘a extremist Jaysh al-Madhi militia. However, as the violence escalated, regular Iraqis were forced to throw their lot behind one group in hope of gaining some protection from the predations of the other.

No one factor reversed this cycle. Rather, it was a combination of developments working together. The American shift in strategy known as the surge was one of them, and arguably the surge reinforced Iraqi-generated dynamics that worked to calm the violence. The surge, however, only became feasible after American policymakers revised their core assumptions. Foremost among the discarded assumptions was that politics was the driver of security progress. Frustrated by the inability of Iraqi leaders to make concessions and political bargains, U.S. policymakers came to appreciate that Iraqis would be unable to make big decisions about the nature of the state amid spiraling violence. The bloodshed reinforced sectarian, ethnic and party instincts, making the prospects of risk-taking in the interest of the Iraqi state remote.

The acknowledgement that security had to be the foundation of further political progress paved the way for a strategy focused first on improving security conditions and only next on political gains. The new population-centric strategy, in conjunction with the “awakenings” among tribal groups in Anbar and then other parts of Iraq, neutralized the extremist Sunni and Shi‘a groups that drove the violence, leading to a dramatic decline in the numbers of civilians killed and subsequent stabilization of the security environment.

A closer look at the situation in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 also reveals the relationship between insecurity and extremism and sectarianism, yet in the opposite fashion. By 2009, the security situation had improved dramatically, opening the door to a different form of politics. No longer needing to support or acquiesce to extremist groups, Iraqis expressed their preference in two stunning elections: the provincial council elections of 2009 and the national parliamentary elections of 2010. Both were won by parties positioning themselves as having a nationalist agenda and eschewing sectarianism. For the first time, Iraqi Shi‘a had a real choice of parties after two elections in which nearly all Shi‘a candidates ran in one block. Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law Party, which had refused the entreaties of Iran to merge with other Shi‘a parties and ran on a national agenda, swept the provincial council elections and did extremely well in the national ones. Even more striking was the ascendance of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya Party, which secured the most parliamentary seats by a small margin. Although its base was among Sunnis, it campaigned on a broadly national ticket, rejecting a sectarian agenda. In short, with security no longer an existential concern, Iraqis moved away from sectarianism and extremism, not toward them.5

The application of this lesson to current challenges in the Middle East is self-evident. Promising political arrangements can and probably will be upended if sufficient security preparations are lacking. Libya is a case in point. Sixteen months after Qaddafi’s death, Libya is struggling because the central government cannot maintain effective control over the entire country, and the NATO intervention failed to provide for what amounts to a “phase IV” contingency. Syria is likely to provide another example of this shortsightedness. The international community is intensely focused on finding a political solution to the violence, but even if such a long-shot solution were to materialize, any success would be short-lived without adequate arrangements for security. Without the peacekeeping force that no one seems to want to contemplate, post-Assad Syria could well descend into another phase of brutal civil war.

Iraq remains an inherently difficult place. For a multitude of reasons, any effort to remove the Ba‘athi regime and establish legitimate institutions in its wake was bound to be complicated and require years to complete. But the arduous nature of the past decade is also attributable to particular policy choices, implementation strategies and adherence to certain erroneous assumptions. Knowing that the past decade of U.S. involvement in Iraq could have been easier, even if it would still have been difficult, provides no solace to those who lost family members in Iraq or to Iraqis who endured years of anguish. Nor is it likely to make the United States more eager to embark on such endeavors in the future (nor should it). But it does suggest the importance of learning the right lessons from Iraq, of digging deeper to ensure that false wisdom is not enshrined as sacred truth. As much as we would all like this exercise to be merely an academic one, events in the Middle East today suggests that it could be vital—if not to the United States, then perhaps to those it wishes to help.

1Describing the movement for political change that gripped Lebanon in 2005, Jumblatt said, “It’s strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq.” Quoted in David Ignatius, “Beirut’s Berlin Wall”, Washington Post, February 23, 2005.

2Efforts to delay Iraqi elections in order to ensure their integrity had already created the largest political crises of the occupation period by incurring the suspicion of Ayatollah Sistani. Had elections not been held at the agreed time in January 2005, Sistani, the most powerful Shi‘a leader in Iraq, threatened to withdraw his support from the transitional political process, potentially unleashing a Shi‘a insurgency on top of the Sunni one already underway at the time.

3Iraqis also, at the last minute, incorporated a provision allowing for a constitutional review into their permanent constitution in 2005 in an effort to garner Sunni support for a document viewed skeptically by many in that community. However, this innovation did not lead to a meaningful review because the time frame stipulated (six months) was too short, and there were no penalties for non-compliance.

4The main impetus to insurgency in Iraq was the end of centuries of Sunni rule over the Shi‘a majority and Kurdish minority. While not all Sunnis would have met this abrupt change with violence, some would have resisted the shift and the loss of power and privilege that came with it regardless of the policies of the new order.

5Unfortunately, this bright moment was dashed by a combination of bad luck, constitutional ambiguities and a U.S. policy that prioritized stability and expediency over institutions.

Meghan L. O’Sullivan is the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and was Deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan from 2005–07. She spent a total of two years in Iraq during the period of 2003–08.