Seven years ago this week the first bombs were falling in Iraq and the war was breaking out, a war that caused untold suffering in Iraq, led to waves of anti-American feeling around the world, polarized politics in the United States, broke the administration of George W. Bush, and contributed to one of the most amazing political developments for many years: the election of a first-term African American senator from Illinois to the presidency of the United States.
There have been, so far, 4,703 military casualties among the coalition forces; 4,385 of those casualties were Americans. 31,616 Americans have been wounded.
Accurate counts of the number of Iraqis killed, including members of the Iraq Security Forces, resistance fighters and the much larger numbers of civilians killed either by accident or by terrorist action, are much harder to get. Estimates range widely, but icasualties.org (my source for all the casualty numbers in this post) estimates that 9,415 members of the Iraq Security Forces have died overall, and lists 47,278 reported civilian deaths since January 2005 –warning that the real total is considerably higher. Millions of Iraqis have fled into exile abroad or have had to flee their former homes in ethnic and sectarian violence.
Today, the war seems to be winding down, though serious risks remain. The Iraqi government has expanded its authority; the resistance has faltered. Despite ongoing violence and the potential for more, Iraq seems to be stabilizing to the point where American forces can continue to withdraw without the country returning to civil war. Meanwhile, if the political situation continues to stabilize, the economic future looks bright. Iraqis now believe that they will be able to increase their oil production from the current rate of 2.5 million barrels a day to levels that could make it the largest oil producer in the world by 2020. We shall see; optimistic predictions have failed before in Iraq, but it does appear that the country’s resources are significantly greater than previously believed.
I supported the US invasion. I supported it originally because I believed Secretary of State Colin Powell’s assertion that Iraq had an active WMD program. (I felt that some of the Bush appointees were capable of stretching the evidence, but Powell over the years had convinced me that he was a sober and serious person on whose judgment it was safe to rely.) I supported it because I believed that the current policy of containing Saddam Hussein was fanning the growth of Al Qaeda and related forces in Saudi Arabia because of the presence of US forces in large numbers on Saudi soil. I supported it because I believed that the UN sanctions program was falling apart as the UN system grew more corrupt and less efficient, and as political support for the sanctions continued to weaken at the Security Council.
I believed that the invasion was legal because the United States was not at peace with Iraq. Our relations were defined by the cease-fire agreement that ended the first Gulf War. Iraq was in flagrant violation of that cease-fire; the United States was under no obligation to respect a cease-fire once the other side had broken it.
Finally, I believed that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the better course on humanitarian grounds. The regime had been so murderous, and the sanctions regime was taking such a toll on the population, that a continuation of the status quo was likely to lead in the long run to more death and suffering than a war.
Looking back, it now seems to me that I was wrong on two points. First, the Iraqi WMD program was moribund. I believe Bush, Blair and Powell were all sincerely convinced that Iraq was actively pursuing WMD. But with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight it is clear that Iraq’s WMD program was in a shambles, and that the decision-makers in the US and the UK did not look hard enough or skeptically enough at the evidence they had.
Second, I significantly overestimated the capacity of the American government to manage the post-war transition in Iraq. Both on the military and the civilian side, it is clear that the administration was not prepared for the immense responsibilities and challenges that a successful war would bring in its train. As a result, the stabilization of Iraq took much longer than I expected, and both the coalition military and the Iraqi people suffered many more deaths than I hoped would be the case.
Even at the time, I had some misgivings about the administration’s approach. Several times I used a story from Abraham Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd to describe what was happening. Meeting her at a dance, Lincoln is supposed to have said to Mary Todd, “Miss, I’d like to dance with you in the worst way.” And Mary Todd would tell her friends later that “That is exactly what he did.”‘
Had I known then that the Iraqi WMD program was moribund, I would have urged the administration to seek delay and shift its Iraq policy toward one of coercive diplomacy based on the demand that Iraq fully and unconditionally implement the original cease fire agreement. Had I known additionally just how unprepared we were for the post-war challenges, and how slipshod the planning actually was, I would have urged even more strongly for delay.
Nevertheless, once we were at war, even as it became ever more clear that the WMD weren’t there, that the post-war situation was extremely challenging, and that the Bush administration did not know what to do in the situation in which it found itself, I continued to support — as I still continue to support — the American involvement in that war. Even as most of my Democratic friends and colleagues who originally supported the war turned against it, I continued to argue that we needed to stay the course. This was originally a very popular line of argument; as the war went on (and as the Bush administration continued to fumble with the war) this stand became less popular, but it seemed and seems to me that it was the right argument to make.
First, I never agreed with those who thought it was impossible to get to a reasonably peaceful and stable situation in Iraq. It always seemed to me that the key to peace in Iraq was the recognition by the Sunni minority that they would do better to cooperate in building new institutions and realities while the Americans were present. We perhaps could have shortened the war by acting on this earlier, but it also took the Sunnis some time to understand that they had no hope of dominating post-Saddam Iraq. Many seem to have sincerely believed that the Sunnis were in fact the majority in Iraq; others were so blinded by their assumptions that the Shi’a lacked the political skills and will to build a state that they only gradually understood the need for compromise. Once the Sunnis realized their true situation and accepted the need for compromise going forward, Americans were able to play a more constructive role at helping Iraq’s factions think through the best way to rebuild the state.
Second, I never bought the argument that the American presence in Iraq was on balance beneficial to Al Qaeda and the terrorists. Certainly the surge in anti-Americanism as a result of the war itself and even more of the struggles and blunders of the occupation (like the Abu Ghraib scandal) did motivate a new wave of sympathy for the terrorists. But several factors offset that advantage. The removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia (once they were no longer needed as part of the containment strategy) helped stabilize the kingdom and frustrated Osama bin Laden’s fondest hope of establishing his brand of Islam in the Islamic Holy Land. The terrorists in Iraq were in a strategic dead end. The only way they could fight was to murder Arab civilians in terrorist attacks; these attacks, broadcast far and wide through the Islamic world, discredited both the terror groups responsible and the ideology that led to them. Bombs going off in marketplaces filled with Arab Muslim women and children does not look like a holy war. Finally, the defeat of the terrorists in Iraq has been a heavy blow. Terrorists need to win to gain recruits. To lose a war because they have lost the support of the Muslim population has been deeply demoralizing (and well deserved) for the terror movement.
If we allowed ourselves to lose that war, we would have thrilled and energized terrorists all over the world. It would have been an unparalleled disaster. This was no Vietnam, a geopolitical backwater where our retreat would have only local consequences (bad as those consequences were). Iraq is in the center of the Middle East, historically as well as culturally. For the United States to be driven out of it by pro-Al Qaeda resistance fighters would have been an immeasurable catastrophe.
Fortunately, this didn’t happen. Enough Americans understood the stakes that even though they were angry at Bush for getting them into this situation, and even though they were discouraged and depressed by the administration’s long string of military and political blunders during the early years of the occupation, they continued to accept the need for American engagement in the country. Both our military and civilian leaders learned from early mistakes. For the last few years in Iraq both our diplomats and our military have benefited from extraordinary leadership. Both the military and the State Department are coming out of this harrowing and testing experience with much greater capabilities and a much deeper understanding of the Middle East than they had going in. I suspect that in the future we will be more cautious getting into situations like this — and significantly better at handling them should the worst come to worst.
And ultimately the common sense of the Iraqis, heirs to almost ten thousand years of civilized life, had a lot to do with what happened. The divisions in Iraqi society run deep, and violence is not going to vanish there overnight. But Mesopotamia was one of the first places where human beings organized themselves into settled cities and states. Hatred of anarchy and chaos runs even deeper in Iraq than the ethnic and religious divisions of that somewhat artificial country with its British-drawn frontiers. We had the courage and skill to hold on and learn; they now have the chance for the first time in their history to build a state that reflects the realities of Iraqi society. Ultimately we cannot control what they do there, but I believe that we have an iron-clad, inescapable moral obligation to do what is in our power to give them the best possible chance to shape a better future for themselves.
As someone who supports the war, I am grieved and weighed down by the thought of the death and the suffering it brought. The cost of the American errors going in and in the first years of the war haunts me. But to leave a war irresponsibly is even worse than getting into a war in the wrong way or at the wrong time. We made our share of mistakes in Iraq, and both the Iraqis and we have paid heavily for them. And that pain is not over. For decades to come, parents will mourn for lost children, children will grow up without parents, and the wounded and maimed will struggle every day with the consequences of the war in Iraq. I try to keep that before me as I think about the world situation today.
Over the next few days I’ll be posting some more thoughts about this vicious and poorly conducted but ultimately (apparently) victorious war. I’ll share my thoughts about the lessons for the United States and the lessons that I’ve taken away for myself. How should we, and I, approach the next crisis of this kind? What did we get right and where did we, and where did I, go wrong?