War Stories

Five Years Gone

What, exactly, has the Iraq war achieved? A lot? A little something? Nothing at all?

Imagine it’s early 2003, and President George W. Bush presents the following case for invading Iraq:

We’re about to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Victory on the battlefield will be swift and fairly clean. But then 100,000 U.S. troops will have to occupy Iraq for about 10 years. On average, nearly 1,000 of them will be killed and another 10,000 injured in each of the first 5 years. We’ll spend at least $1 trillion on the war and occupation, and possibly trillions more. Toppling Saddam will finish off a ghastly tyranny, but it will also uncork age-old sectarian tensions. More than 100,000 Iraqis will die, a few million will be displaced, and the best we can hope for will be a loosely federated Islamic republic that isn’t completely in Iran’s pocket. Finally, it will turn out that Saddam had neither weapons of mass destruction nor ties to the planners of 9/11. Our intervention and occupation will serve as the rallying cry for a new crop of terrorists.

It is extremely doubtful that Congress would have authorized such a war or that the American people would have shouted, “Bring it on!”

Some will protest that this counter-scenario is unfair. Nobody at the time predicted all of these outcomes (though several predicted some of them); Bush can’t be blamed for the unforeseen consequences of (let us stipulate) a well-intentioned action.

However, toting up the war’s extravagant costs against its meager (and still-speculative) gains is a valid way to gauge the larger question: Was the invasion worth launching? Was it a good idea? And the war must be appraised not as some abstract vision of an ideally waged war but rather as the actual, existing war that the Bush administration planned and executed.

The disastrous consequences that have been unfolding plainly over the past five years are not “side effects” of this war but rather the direct, head-on results. For example, it’s an evasion to lament that, had then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listened to the Joint Chiefs and sent twice as many troops, the war would have gone differently. Maybe so, but Rumsfeld wasn’t interested in waging that kind of war. He saw the war not so much as a fight about Iraq as a demonstration of a new style of warfare—known as “military transformation” or “the revolution in military affairs”—that signaled how America would project power in the post-Cold War era. He saw, not incorrectly, a turbulent world of emerging threats, some in remote areas inaccessible from U.S. bases. The large, lumbering armies of old were not so suitable for such conflicts. Hence his emphasis on small, lightweight units of ground forces—fast to mobilize, easy to sustain—and superaccurate bombs and missiles to hit targets that only heavy artillery could destroy in decades past. With the Iraq war (and the Afghanistan conflict before it), he wanted to send rogue regimes and other foes a message: Look what we can do with one hand tied behind our back. If we can overthrow Saddam (and the Taliban) so easily, we can overthrow you, too.

It is no surprise, then, that Rumsfeld rejected the argument, made by several Army and Marine generals, that whatever happens on the battlefield, we’ll need a few hundred thousand troops to impose order and help form a new Iraq. A large, lengthy occupation would have nullified his whole concept of new-style warfare and its vision of 21st-century geopolitics.

In other words, it is not the case, as many critics charge, that Rumsfeld “miscalculated” how many troops would be needed for the mission of stabilizing post-Saddam Iraq. Rather, he wasn’t interested in that mission. In a National Security Council meeting shortly before the invasion, he insisted that the Pentagon, not the State Department, should take charge of planning for postwar Iraq—because he wanted to ensure that there would be no such planning (and, indeed, there wasn’t).

A stronger case could be made that the occupation would have gone better had L. Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, not issued (on whose orders, we still don’t know) the directives that barred all Baathists from government jobs and disbanded the Iraqi army—thus alienating all Sunnis at a moment when reconciliation was vital and putting tens of thousands of armed young men out on the streets, angry and unemployed.

Still, it is unlikely that, even without the directives, a foreign occupier could have staved off sectarian violence for long. The majority Shiites would have naturally taken over the Baghdad government. The Sunnis, a minority accustomed to running things, would have rebelled. Holding early elections in the provincial districts—forming a federal republic from the bottom up—might have eased the factions into power more gradually, enabled them to make adjustments at each stage. We will never know. But again, this was not the way that Bush chose to go.

There is yet another way to assess the war: What if Saddam Hussein had not been toppled? Would Iraq be better or worse off? Would the Middle East be more or less stable, the United States safer or in greater danger?

The Kurds are no doubt better off without Saddam (though, as a result of U.S. overflight protection, put in place after the 1991 cease-fire, Saddam’s mere presence didn’t imperil their existence, as it had before the earlier Gulf War). The Sunnis are no doubt worse off. The Shiites—it’s a mixed bag. Saddam and his thugs would have continued to kill innocent people—but the victims would have been different, and it is doubtful they would have been as numerous as the victims of the war. Nor would 4 million Iraqis be displaced. Nor would millions more have such severe shortages of health care, electricity, and clean water, or be afraid to walk their own streets. Were postwar Iraq a study in the trade-off between democracy and security, we could discuss it philosophically. But the Iraqis, at the moment, have neither.

Strategically, if Saddam had remained, the U.N. inspectors would have failed to find weapons of mass destruction, and thus pressure would have mounted to call off the sanctions. The Duelfer report, though it found no signs of WMD programs, concluded that, without sanctions, Saddam would have tried to start up those programs once again. It is reasonable to infer that if he’d succeeded, he could have threatened his neighbors and deterred intervention.

But is it the case that his attempts to rebuild WMD would have succeeded? We and other nations (Western and Arab) would have had to mount more active measures to monitor and block imports of contraband goods. (Even with no sanctions, the ‘91 cease-fire resolution’s ban on WMD would have remained in effect.) It would have been hard but not impossible. International politics is a hard game. That’s why it’s important to hire skilled diplomats, a profession that this administration, until recently, has undervalued.

In any case, Saddam would have taken years to develop these weapons (the Duelfer report concluded that the programs were completely run down), and his efforts would have been detected long before they bore fruit. A civilized nation should never decide to go to war simply because a stable peace is hard to maintain. Yet that is what we did in the spring of 2003.

But isn’t the surge working? Well, it depends what you mean by “working.” In recent months, casualties—American and Iraqi—dropped substantially. However, three points need to be made. First, casualties are rising once more, though not to 2006 levels. Second, while the surge was certainly a factor in reducing casualties, it was far from the only factor. There were also the alliances of convenience between U.S. forces and Sunni tribesmen against the common foe of al-Qaida in Iraq (an alliance that preceded the surge); the moratorium on violence called by Muqtada Sadr and his Shiite militia (a policy that may be suspended as the Sunni militias grow stronger); and the fact that many areas of Iraq had already been ethnically cleansed.

More to the point, as Gen. David Petraeus has said many times, there is no military solution to Iraq. The surge has always been a means to an end—a device to create a “breathing space” of security in Baghdad so that Iraq’s political factions can reach an accommodation. Without a political settlement, the surge—for that matter, the entire U.S. military presence, the blood we have shed, the treasure we have spent—will prove to be little more than a pause.

Back to the hypothetical speech at the top of this column, the one that President Bush might have given, had all the consequences of this war been foretold. The striking thing is, this is pretty much the caution that our military leaders are delivering now, in talking about future wars that we are likely to face. Gen. Petraeus made the point in the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency that he supervised before returning last year to Iraq. Such wars, the manual says, are by nature prolonged and costly; they are difficult to win, easy to lose; they require soldiers to be extremely creative and citizens to be ceaselessly patient.

One unstated lesson of the field manual is that our political leaders should think very carefully before plunging into war. If we are going to fight a war essentially by ourselves, as we have done in Iraq, our vital interests must clearly be at stake. If we are going to fight a war that does not involve vital interests, as has also been the case with this war, we must form a genuine coalition—to share the burdens but, more than that, to provide legitimacy to the cause. And if we can’t do that, we shouldn’t go to war at all.