Small Wars Journal

Americans Can Agree that the Iraq War Was a Mistake

Wed, 12/14/2011 - 3:23pm

Americans Can Agree that the Iraq War Was a Mistake

by John Nagl

The Telegraph

This was a preventive war designed to prevent Iraq from using or proliferating its presumed weapons of mass destruction to terrorists or terrorist states, but those weapons did not exist. Ironically, if they had, we did not even send enough troops into Iraq in the first place to properly secure the supposed weapons sites.

We fought a far longer war and far costlier war than we ever could have imagined.

This has been enormously expensive both in terms of lives and treasure. If we had known in 2003 what it was going to cost and what we were going to get for that cost we certainly wouldn't have gone into Iraq. It's reminder of the extraordinary risks one takes when one chooses to roll the iron dice and that it is impossible to predict the long-term results of war.



The policy of containment was being dismantled by use of economic weapons and our allies were going for the bucks.
Our military were tied up in an attempt to strangle a regime with great animosity to us and significant disposable income. (and that would have been enough for me)
We had just suffered a serious blow and there was PLENTY of reason to believe that, regardless of ALQ connections or not Saddam would get a nuke as quickly as he could.
Our force levels were such that the relatively small force we went in with were in a constant revolving door (so all you monday morning QBs can explain where we were going to get the troops for this overwhelming force without leaving the country unable to defend itself short of nukes when enemy number two decides it is time to dance)
The FACT of the matter is that someone who made a career of being a thorn in the side of the US and his own citizens is no longer with us.
It would be amazing to hear all the kibitzing of Normandy, Remagen etc. Everyone is always better, smarter and faster than the guys who went there and did whatever you are critiquing, eh?

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 12/18/2011 - 4:50am

When you don't know what to do, you do what you know.

At a time of great demand for action, this was the situation in the White House and certainly in the Pentagon. Saddam was a patsy who just didn't appreciate the powerful emotions of frustration, anger, grief, etc driving American actions at that time.

Things like WMD in places like Iraq, and populaces needing protecting in places like Libya are important factors; but they are not the true reasons we went into either place, but rather are the public rationale put forward by our leaders.

Staying in Afghanistan beyond 2001 and going into Iraq in 2003 were BOTH mistakes. Now is not the time to rationalize past mistakes; now is the time to understand why they were made and how to make better decisions in the future. Because the future is now, and we will just make those same mistakes all over again in other places where WMD seems problematic, or other places where VEOs might currently be renting office space.

Good acts committed in the conduct of bad operations never rationalize the overall bad operation. That is a little mental game we should not play. We're flailing because the certainty of the Cold War and state actors is replaced by the uncertainty of rapidly evolving technologies, rapidly evolving populaces; and governments finding new threats emerging from both that are not well addressed by the tradtional tools of state power. We need to embrace that reality and move on.

Iraq was an elective procedure. There will be good and bad that comes of it. But it was elective all the same, and yes, it can be fairly characterized as a "mistake." That takes nothing away from the amazing efforts of so many who gave so much to the advancement of that mistake; but we serve the memories of those efforts best when we dedicate ourselves to a rational assessment of why this happened and how to avoid similar mistakes from happening to the next generation in the next place where fear and anger collide.

Bill M.

Sat, 12/17/2011 - 10:28pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

Maybe the fear was genuine, or perhaps it was manufactured to justify the invasion. Personally I agree that preventing AQ from acquiring WMD is a national imperative, but since Saddam was someone who desired to stay in power (he wasn't a Jihadist) it doesn't seem likely that he would share WMD with AQ, and Iraq wasn't in danger of collapse prior to our invasion. On the other hand, Pakistan has always been a fragile state (much more so now), and more importantly it is "confirmed" they have WMD, and the ISI has close ties with numerous terrorist groups. Iran is pursuing WMD, and provides support to terrorists globally. Syria now is also unstable and they have chemical weapons that could fall into the hands of non-state actors. All of these States are a greater threat to U.S. interests than Iraq appeared to be.

The point is we need to be concerned with all these risks due to potential WMD spillage into the wrong hands, but does that mean our response should be an invasion with the follow on goal of rebuilding/reordering each of these nation, or are other options more feasible?

Bill M.

Sun, 12/18/2011 - 11:15am

In reply to by davidbfpo

double post


Sat, 12/17/2011 - 4:39pm

As a reader of The Daily Telegraph I too find the article odd and the description of 'why Iraq' is being economical with the truth.

I don't have the source to hand, but it was a British Whitehall "insider" at a recent conference.

The argument presented was that following 9/11 the UK, USA and other allies feared AQ had a WMD capability and the will to use it. The Iraqi had convinced itself (bizarrely) that it had WMD and the allies were convinced Iraq had WMD. Accordingly on the 'worst case' scenario AQ might gain Iraqi WMD, so we must remove them both as potential threats; no-one could take the risk of not taking action.

Only much later did the allies realise their assessment of AQ and Iraq was wrong.


Fri, 12/16/2011 - 12:45am

Americans? No. I'm an American. And a soldier. I made no mistake going over there and defeating an insurgency. Liberating an oppressed Shia and Kurd population. Providing medical supplies to villages who haven't seen a doctor in decades. Mistake? Only to you bi-sexual, tree-humping, dope-smoking hippies. No war goes as planned. No planned operation survives first contact. Every soldier knows this. I don't expect reporters and civilians to understand that. The only mistake made was this administration pulling out all US troops after almost of decade of hard work. I guess he'll undermine our sacrifice and commitment for peace loving hippy votes.

Bill M.

Fri, 12/16/2011 - 6:42am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Have you seen any reference that the original objective was to drain the swamp, and by that I mean statements made prior to the invasion that this was the intent? I always thought this was some after thought to justify not finding WMD. If WMD were the real issue, then we should saddle up and invade Syria, Iran, and other nations.

Medic above thinks we liberated the Sunnis and Shias, and to some extent that was true. Especially in the area behind the green line (which some call Kurdistan), but beyond that we enabled an ugly ethnic conflict that killed thousands, displaced tens of thousands, and it is a conflict that continues to this day. Saddam and his sons (especially his sons) were sick, saddistic leaders that the world is better for because they're dead; however, what came after that (insurgency, civil war, and the rise of AQI) was predictable by those in the know, but it was ignored. As the backlash started against our invasion and subsequent occupation the administration attempted to deny the obvious instead of responding to it. The VP and SECDEF repeatedly called the growing resistance a minor problem without support. We didn't start fighting it seriously until GEN Petreaus came on board, and having been there prior to the surge and post surge, there was a huge difference in our activities (which Gian doesn't agree with).

President Bush Senior and his National Security Advisor Scowcroft(sp?) wrote a book after he left the office (can't recall the name), and he explained why he decided against invading Iraq when our force liberated Kuwait. All the reasons he listed were realized when we invaded Iraq around 10 years later, so I don't buy the argument that it was all unknown and unpredictable. It sure as hell shouldn't have been a surprise that Iraq (and unfortunately Saddam) was a counter balance to Iran, nor should it have a surprise the majority of the population in Iraq was Shia, leaving the possibility for Iran to assume to significant influence over Iraq.

We'll see where Iraq is five years from now, there is no evidence that it is going to fall apart as some predict, but there will be a fair amount of instability. It is up to the Iraqi people on how they deal with it (compromise or the use of force), and I don't see how staying longer (since we already quit combat operations a few months back) would do anything but delay the process that the Iraqis need to go through.

We liberated Iraq from Saddam and his sons, we can't liberate Iraq from the Iraqis, so defeating an insurgency is not an act of liberation. At most it was a stability operation that "may" enable democracy to take hold.


Thu, 12/15/2011 - 11:49pm

I actually think the administration expected to find a crude chemical weapons capability that could be spun into support for the WMD rationale.

I don't think WMD were ever the real issue behind the invasion, just a pretext that could be blown up to fit the self defense and imminent threat criteria. The delusion that installing a democracy in Iraq was going to work, and was going to "drain the swamp in the Middle East", had been at the center of the neocon dream of invading Iraq ever since that dream evolved. It was never a very good idea, and without 9/11 I doubt that anyone would have dreamed of trying it.

Bill M.

Thu, 12/15/2011 - 10:38pm

"There are glimmers of light in this story. Battlefield medicine has improved dramatically. We have learned lessons about integrating economic development and good governance with military force. We have become the most capable counter-insurgency force in history."

While many of us may agree the Iraq War was a mistake, I don't think many outside of those who drink the FM3-24 Koolaid will agree that we're the most capable counter-insurgency force in history. Capable COIN forces tend to have a winning record (a real win on the ground, not a win portrayed on PowerPoint), and there is little evidence that integrating economic development (especially large scale efforts) with military force accomplished little in countering the insurgency, and may in fact have distracted the military from more quickly defeating the insurgents.

I suspect the administration knew Saddam didn't have WMD before we entered, so the objective was to remove Saddam from power for multiple reasons, most I suspect will prove to be unsound, but as Ken said we'll only know over time. In the short run Iran appears to be the indirect winner. However, getting back to the war, we had enough force to throw Saddam out and our force did that fairly well. We didn't have the force, the resources, or a viable strategy to do what followed, and "if" that was the plan all along then it is inexcusable.

D Foster

Thu, 12/15/2011 - 5:07pm

This would be part of an attempt to get on top of the narrative. Reminds me of the scene in Scarface where Tony takes out Frank and then Mel tries to calmly worm out of his culpability:

Mel: can't shoot a cop
Tony: Whoever said you was one?

Bill C.

Thu, 12/15/2011 - 10:43am

Continuing my comment below: Quote from the Jan 2003 interview:

"What they have in mind as a long-term strategy is actually a domino theory of the Middle East... This is a strategy that is ultimately targeted at the Saudis, and at the Egyptians, and at the Pakistanis; those authoritarian regimes that, in fact, have been the biggest breaders of terrorists in recent years."

Thus, it would seem we did not go into Iraq to "prevent Iraq from using or proliferating its presumed weapons of mass destruction to terrorists or terrorist states..."

Rather, it would seem we went into this war to address (1) the conditions (to wit: authoritarian regimes) that we felt (2) "bred terrorists" in (3) other countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan).

And, accordingly we only brought the military forces that we thought we would need to address this problem (get rid of authoritarian regime -- install democracy). This, based on what we then thought to be the "Lessons of Afghanistan," to wit: that the people would welcome such a change and, accordingly, there would be no significant and associated difficulties.

It can be argued that the United States did not go into Iraq due to weapons of mass destruction. If it had, as Dr. Nagl notes above, it would have gone in with at least sufficient forces to secure the supposed weapons sites.

This suggests that the United States intervened in Iraq for other reasons, which, in the view of the administration, would require many fewer forces.

This Jan 16, 2003 interview with John Lewis Gaddis suggests that the United States went into Iraq -- with the limited forces that it did decide to use -- to achieve other purposes; this, based on what was, at this early date, considered to be the "Lessons of Afghanistan."…

Ken White

Wed, 12/14/2011 - 4:08pm

Curious article. I read it and then wondered why it was written.<blockquote>"This was a preventive war designed to prevent Iraq from using or proliferating its presumed weapons of mass destruction to terrorists or terrorist states, but those weapons did not exist. Ironically, if they had, we did not even send enough troops into Iraq in the first place to properly secure the supposed weapons sites."</blockquote>I can understand a newspaper columnist or Op-Ed writer who makes that initial glaringly incorrect statement. It is scary that a then serving Army Officer and a current Think Tank Head might actually believe that to be true -- after even Paul Wolofowitz later admitted the announced reason was a poor choice on the part of the Administration. I suggest that his second statement proves the fallacy of his first -- there was a good reason for that paucity of troops...

There were many reasons for the attack on Iraq, to include the WMD aspect but that really, even considering that most did believe they existed, was such a minor contributor as to be insignificant. It was used as a public rationale simply because the real reason, to get a broader foothold in the ME and to respond to provocations against US interests worldwide (over the preceding 22 years which emanated from the Middle East and which had been ignored or had received inadequate responses) was an unlikely sell. The first reason I cited was and is actually not necessary IMO (and even though the US Government and the Foreign Policy establishment apparently still have not recognized that lack of need), however, the second was imperative. Neither Congress or the American public was likely to be responsive to those real reasons, thus the tale of eliminating WMD rather stupidly arose -- and as is often the case, developed legs of its own...<blockquote>"This is not going to go down in history as one of the best decisions of either Her Majesty's government or the American government."</blockquote>Perhaps, perhaps not -- as Dr. Nagl later writes, "<i>the impact of what has happened there won't be clear for at least a decade."</i> We'll see. I suspect history will be more approving than are today's punditocracy and great thinkers. I also believe and have long said that any judgment prior to about 2033 will likely be incorrect.<blockquote>"...and I was among those who opposed the invasion."</blockquote>Ah...