The Iraq War's Legacy, 15 Years On

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A little after 10 p.m. on March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush addressed the nation live from the Oval Office. Reading from prepared notes, he told his fellow Americans and the world that “coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.”

This announcement officially commenced the Iraq War, which the United States dubbed Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Thunderous shock and awe would preface a “Mission Accomplished.”

Yet as the invasion became an occupation that descended into counterinsurgency, the immediate success of early months—defined by the relative ease with which coalition forces had marched on Baghdad and the confident assurances of the invasion’s architects—withered and died.

Cheered on by neoconservatives and hawkish liberals alike, President Bush’s invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. They should have held their applause. The upshot was that the United States became the proud owner of a fractured, ethno-sectarian basket case of a country. Occupying Iraq meant inserting the U.S. military in an ongoing regional proxy war between Iran, an adversary of sorts, and Saudi Arabia, a frenemy at best. A war, which was never a vital national security interest, placed America’s cherished servicemen squarely in the middle. It’s taken 15 years, and some 4,500 dead American soldiers, but the outcome was never really in doubt. Nation building and democracy-promotion in Iraq meant, demographically, Shia hegemony and political ascendance. With Saddam removed as a counterbalance, the country’s Shia majority soon tilted towards Iran.

What then, should the American people make of the Iraq War on its 15th anniversary? Our advice: Ignore the Beltway pundits on both sides. The neoconservatives who controlled GOP foreign policy at the time claim that President Obama lost a war that could’ve/would’ve/should’ve been won with a few more troops and a few more years’ commitment. That’s fantasy. The Democratic Party establishment, on the other hand, seeks to blame every problem in the Middle East on “Bush’s war”—downplaying their complicity as early cheerleaders.

The reality is simpler, less grandiose. The war in Iraq was an ill-conceived crusade, with little thought about what came afterward. America entered into a regional trap of its own making. When we zoom out and view the war in its entirety, through a broad lens, it becomes clear that neither Bush, nor Obama, nor much-praised Gen. David Petraeus could save the United States from its greatest foreign policy blunder in a generation. Tactics couldn’t remedy poor strategy. American naiveté, and hubris, placed U.S. soldiers in an unwinnable and bloody cauldron of civil and proxy war involving Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, and various extractions of iterant jihadis.

Perhaps that’s why the results of a recent poll fielded by the Charles Koch Institute and RealClearPolitics reveal that, by and large, Americans don’t believe the Iraq War made them safer or the region more secure. A sweeping majority of Americans — 67 percent — now feel that the war either failed to improve or, worse yet, undermined American interests. Meanwhile, 47 percent of those polled about the war’s impact on regional stability responded that the 2003 invasion has degraded security in the Middle East.

These results speak to broader American views on intervention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, original support for the Iraq War is correlated with an appetite for further military interventions. Yet, a clear plurality of those surveyed, 33 percent, now believe that the Iraq War has changed their mind about preventive war — they now feel the United States should use its military more cautiously. A simple majority want the number of troops still stationed in Iraq decreased or removed entirely.

Yet there America’s soldiers remain, ensconced in Syria and Iraq, mopping up an enemy the United States birthed — ISIS — and wedged between adversaries and disloyal “partners” on all sides. To the west: Russia and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia; to the south: Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias and Saudi Arabia; to the east: Iran; and, to the north: Turkey, now attacking American-backed Kurds, our only true friends in the region. That, and little else, is the legacy of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM—an operation sure to consume more American bodies before it’s through.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Reid Smith manages foreign policy initiatives at the Charles Koch Institute. He covered the drawdown of American military forces in Iraq for the Foreign Policy Association.

Major Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a regular contributor at The Hill, The Nation, Salon, and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

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