10 year anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom: thoughts
In November 2002, I weighed in on the looming Iraq confrontation in my opinion column for my school paper. My 1st post on this blog was dedicated to Army LT Ben Colgan. I said in my 3rd post that "the central battle of the War on Terror, in the present and for the future, is unequivocally being fought right now in Iraq." In fact, collecting my thoughts on the Iraq mission was the initial catalyst for starting this blog. 171 of my posts carry an "iraq" label ... 172 posts including this one. I've debated the Iraq mission with family, friends, classmates, and professors, on blogs, in on-line forums, and a television special with Iraqi and American college students.
The Democrats' current political advantage over the Republicans, including the presidency of Barack Obama, is built upon the demonization of President Bush over the Iraq mission, despite ample evidence that Bush and the Democrats were on the same page about Saddam. In fact, President Bush inherited the Iraq problem, together with the laws, policies, and precedents to resolve it, from President Clinton. As president, Obama upheld the justifications for military intervention in Iraq, though without endorsing OIF by name.
Given that many influential people are invested in an inimical, knowingly distorted narrative of the Iraq mission, explaining the Iraq mission seems like a quixotic exercise. Nonetheless, I do what I can.
The question that is being asked the most about the Iraq mission is the leading question, Was it worth it? Due to the popular misconceptions about the Iraq mission, however, I believe the most important question on this anniversary still is the contextual, Why Iraq?
Over the next few days, I'll look at my 171 posts with the "iraq" label and accrete my thoughts below. Make sure to check out the links. Enjoy:
From President Clinton's statement on the Iraq Liberation Act:
Let me be clear on what the U.S. objectives are: The United States wants Iraq to rejoin the family of nations as a freedom-loving and lawabiding member. This is in our interest and that of our allies within the region. The United States favors an Iraq that offers its people freedom at home. I categorically reject arguments that this is unattainable due to Iraq's history or its ethnic or sectarian makeup. Iraqis deserve and desire freedom like everyone else. The United States looks forward to a democratically supported regime that would permit us to enter into a dialogue leading to the reintegration of Iraq into normal international life.From President Clinton's announcement of Operation Desert Fox:
The hard fact is that so long as Saddam remains in power, he threatens the well-being of his people, the peace of his region, the security of the world. The best way to end that threat once and for all is with the new Iraqi government, a government ready to live in peace with its neighbors, a government that respects the rights of its people.The objectives set by President Clinton to resolve America's Saddam-Iraq problem were achieved with Operation Iraqi Freedom: Iraq in compliance, Iraq at peace with its neighbors and the international community, and Iraq internally reformed with regime change.
. . .
Heavy as they are, the costs of action must be weighed against the price of inaction. If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future. Saddam will strike again at his neighbors; he will make war on his own people. And mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.
. . .
In the century we're leaving, America has often made the difference between chaos and community; fear and hope. Now, in a new century, we'll have a remarkable opportunity to shape a future more peaceful than the past -- but only if we stand strong against the enemies of peace.
Compared to the achievement of the first two goals, however, the future progress of the last goal has been left uncertain by the premature departure of US forces from Iraq.
General David Petraeus: “If we are going to fight future wars, they’re going to be very similar to Iraq,” he says, adding that this was why “we have to get it right in Iraq”.
To learn about the Counterinsurgency "Surge" in Iraq, I suggest this documentary video, the 2007 year-end letter from GEN Petraeus to his soldiers in Multi-National Forces-Iraq, these e-mails from Baghdad by Army Lieutenant Josh Arthur (a Columbia Class of 2004 graduate who served as an infantry platoon leader in the "Surge"), and the tactical innovations of Army Captain Travis Patriquin (R.I.P.).
President Kennedy explained the Iraq mission to West Point cadets ... in 1962.
Modern political Islamists are totalitarian, a Marxist revolutionary hybrid. Compare their efforts to Mao's Cultural Revolution. Many people seem not to comprehend that the terrorists are engaged in a clash of civilizations with us. In the clash of civilizations, terrorists welcome war. War is the terrorists' vehicle for unraveling the existing order. Terrorists, instead, cannot tolerate our peace. A trend-setting pluralistic liberal Iraq at peace is offensive and an existential threat to the terrorists.
In that light, I offer these essential questions about our commitment, clarity, and Why We Fight:
If American, and Western, progressivism has been conclusively discredited for its forceful displacement of native cultures like the American Indian tribes, then what is the ethical difference, after removing the Lebensraum aspect of autarkic Western expansion, between that and championing a liberal world order today in a 'clash of civilizations' against autocratic Middle Eastern regimes like Syria, Iran, Saddam's Iraq, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, and their fellow travelers like al Qaeda? Are we allowed to be progressive if we cannot, by self-imposed rule, classify our competitors as regressive? What's the practical effect if we restrict our engagement at the same time our competitors are totally committed to establishing an order that is incompatible with, and actively opposed to, our preferred liberal order?
I believe we need to restore our chauvinistic commitment to the American progressivism that shaped much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
I compared the merits of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom at Columbia political science professor Brigitte Nacos's blog in comments here and here. Excerpt:
Said more plainly, from the beginning, we could not win the War on Terror within the borders of Afghanistan, despite its obvious relevance to al Qaeda's campaign against the West. This is why Operation Iraqi Freedom was the right choice and the counter-insurgency "Surge" in Iraq so critical: from the beginning, an Iraq intervention, unlike an Afghanistan intervention, could provide the potential cornerstone for long-term victory in the War on Terror. Moreover, the basis for our Iraq intervention was already in place, developed under President Clinton.I also said this to Professor Nacos:
What's called neo-conservatism is just the progressive (interventionalist) liberalism of Wilson, FDR, and Truman, renamed. The bashing of neo-conservatism by self-described Western liberals, therefore, has led to the frustrating, self-defeating spectacle of influential people speaking liberal platitudes but quixotically opposing our definitively liberal strategy in the War on Terror. The effect of these liberals' tragic hypocrisy has been the degradation of the Western liberalizing influence on the illiberal regions of the world.
By the same token, an equally damaging effect of the attacks by self-described liberals on our liberal strategy has been the degradation within Western societies of the domestic understanding and support we need to adequately sustain the war/peace-building strategy endorsed by Presidents Bush and Obama. Therefore, a critical task of President Obama is to fix the deep damage done to his and Bush's foreign policy goals by Senator/Candidate Obama and other Bush critics.
In response to 9/11, the US could have pulled back from the Middle East, supported greater repression in the Middle East, or promoted greater freedom in the Middle East.
President Bush also could have reacted to 9/11 with a narrow focus on hunting down and killing terrorists, like President Obama's drone-centered campaign. (Bush used hunter-killer drone killings, too, but as one tool in the toolbox, not the centerpiece of his counter-terror strategy.) However, President Bush understood punishment and revenge did not amount to a big-picture, long-term solution.
Instead, the centerpiece of President Bush's big-picture, long-term response to 9/11 was revitalizing the American grand promise that animated the "free world" after World War 2. When he officially declared America's entry into the War on Terror on September 20, 2001, President Bush announced a liberal vision on a global scope and warned of a generational endeavor:
Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. . . . But the only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows. . . . This is not, however, just America's fight. And what is at stake is not just America's freedom. This is the world's fight. This is civilization's fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom. . . . As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world.President Bush's liberal view of the American response to the 9/11 attacks aligned with President Clinton's liberal view of the American response to Saddam's noncompliance:
In the century we're leaving, America has often made the difference between chaos and community; fear and hope. Now, in a new century, we'll have a remarkable opportunity to shape a future more peaceful than the past -- but only if we stand strong against the enemies of peace. Tonight, the United States is doing just that.President Bush understood the obstacles and the ambitious scale of the aspiration. He recognized that a patiently assisted, controlled transition would be necessary for liberal reform to succeed in the Middle East:
For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability, and much oppression. So I have changed this policy. In the short-term, we will work with every government in the Middle East dedicated to destroying the terrorist networks. In the longer-term, we will expect a higher standard of reform and democracy from our friends in the region. Democracy and reform will make those nations stronger and more stable, and make the world more secure by undermining terrorism at it source. Democratic institutions in the Middle East will not grow overnight; in America, they grew over generations. Yet the nations of the Middle East will find, as we have found, the only path to true progress is the path of freedom and justice and democracy.I observed in a January 2005 post:
Whether or not George W. Bush is doing a good job of the Presidency, I have to respect his decision in the War on Terror to make a try for it - [Francis Fukuyama's] the End of History. It is revolutionary and will either result in America's finest hour or the beginning of the end.President Bush positioned America to provide assistance for liberal reform, but he couldn't achieve his idealistic liberal vision alone. American liberals needed to become magnificent again and rally around Bush as he advanced the Freedom Agenda along with peace operations in Iraq to spark and empower a pluralistic liberal movement in the Middle East. Liberals over here needed to buy in to Bush's goals in order to convince liberals over there to buy in. They could not fairly be expected to trust the liberal intentions of the American president when American liberals refused to trust him, and worse, discredited and actively worked to undermine his agenda. Much of the anti-American propaganda in the Middle East was drawn from anti-Bush and anti-OIF misinformation legitimized by liberals in the West. Outside of Iraq, a few Middle East liberals recognized the lost opportunity of rejecting America's help, but most of them didn't trust Bush. Instead, when the liberals in the region attempted the "Arab Spring" revolution on their own, the result was predictable.
President Bush gave us the opportunity to reaffirm that we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, & our sacred Honor in order to battle the regressive challenge to our hegemony and make the world a better place. Instead, Bush's detractors used the opportunity to attack Bush with a false narrative in order to advance their own parochial partisan self-interests at the expense of the Iraq mission, our national interest, and a progressive world order.
Our peace operators - military, non-military, and contracted civilian - have been magnificent. But the rest of us shrank from President Bush's idealistic liberal vision. We the people let down our President, we let down our American heritage, and we let down the world. Rather than rise to the challenge of 9/11 with America's finest hour, we chose the beginning of the end.
Senator Joe Lieberman was an exception. He honored his liberal principles by his resolute support for the definitively liberal Iraq mission and the War on Terror.
The antithesis of Senator Lieberman is President Clinton, the only American who appreciated the Iraq problem equally as well as President Bush. President Clinton initially supported President Bush and endorsed OIF based on Clinton's still-fresh presidential experience struggling with Saddam. However, where Lieberman stayed steadfast despite tremendous political pressure, even at the cost of his party, Clinton eventually caved to party pressure and turned on Bush and OIF.
One of President Bush's objectives for giving Saddam a final chance to comply in 2002-2003 was to bolster the UN as a credible enforcer on WMD proliferation. Bush faithfully followed the enforcement procedure on Iraq he inherited from President Clinton, although Bush deviated from Clinton's public case. However, although the UN sanctioned the post-war peace operations in Iraq, UN officials disclaimed the invasion of Iraq. By doing so, UN officials discredited the enforcement procedure that defined OIF, thus weakening the UN as a credible enforcer on WMD proliferation.
"Rogue" nations, such as Iran and north Korea, thus have been encouraged to advance their WMD pursuits.
The link between 9/11 and Iraq is not a major part of my take on the issue because the Iraq problem, including Saddam's guilt on terrorism, and procedures to resolve the problem were mature by the close of the Clinton administration, before 9/11. President Bush's implementation of the preemptive doctrine in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was an extension of President Clinton's preemptive doctrine in response to the escalating Islamic terrorist campaign that culminated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Bush administration did not claim Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks. However, the 9/11 attacks did significantly boost the urgency and political will to resolve the Iraq problem expeditiously. President Clinton explained the link between 9/11 and Iraq:
Noting that Bush had to be "reeling" in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Clinton said Bush's first priority was to keep al Qaeda and other terrorist networks from obtaining "chemical and biological weapons or small amounts of fissile material."
"That's why I supported the Iraq thing. There was a lot of stuff unaccounted for," Clinton said in reference to Iraq and the fact that U.N. weapons inspectors left the country in 1998.
"So I thought the president had an absolute responsibility to go to the U.N. and say, 'Look, guys, after 9/11, you have got to demand that Saddam Hussein lets us finish the inspection process.' You couldn't responsibly ignore [the possibility that] a tyrant had these stocks," Clinton said.
The accusation that OIF was based on manufactured intelligence or the 'confirmation bias' of Bush officials relies on revisionist premises.
First, Iraq's guilt on WMD was established and presumed as the basis of the Gulf War ceasefire and UNSC resolutions. The US and UN carried no burden of proof to demonstrate Iraqi WMD. The intelligence did not and could not trigger OIF because the burden of proof was entirely on Iraq. OIF was triggered by Saddam's failure to meet Iraq's burden of proof on a mandated standard of compliance. Among other requirements, Iraq needed to account for its proscribed weapons and did not.
Second, based on Iraq's history, track record of deception, defiance, and belligerence, established and presumed guilt, and the stakes involved, Clinton and later Bush officials with the added threat considerations in the wake of 9/11 were obligated to view any intelligence on Iraqi WMD in an unfavorable light for Iraq. As Clinton explained in 2004, "I thought the president had an absolute responsibility to go to the U.N. and say, 'Look, guys, after 9/11, you have got to demand that Saddam Hussein lets us finish the inspection process.' You couldn't responsibly ignore [the possibility that] a tyrant had these stocks".
In fact, because of Iraq's established and presumed guilt and burden of proof, our ignorance of the state of Iraq's WMD - as Clinton framed his cause for war with Iraq - was legally sufficient to trigger military enforcement, though perhaps not politically sufficient. If all of the intelligence on Iraqi WMD was mistaken, then that only returned our enforcement on Iraq to the lower bar of unaccounted for Iraqi weapons that triggered Operation Desert Fox. Solving our ignorance about Iraq's weapons was Saddam's duty. In other words, the intelligence was irrelevant as a cause of war. The failure of Saddam to comply and cure his presumption of guilt was the cause of war both in 1998 and 2003.
President Bush was faithful to President Clinton's Iraq and counter-terrorism policies, and it's unfortunate that Bush deviated from Clinton's public case against Iraq by citing intelligence rather than using the lower bar of Clinton's Iraq-induced ignorance. Nonetheless, Bush's public presentation did not change the US's Iraq problem, the established procedure to resolve the Iraq problem, Iraq's established and presumed guilt on WMD, our 3 choices on the Iraq problem, and the urgency added by 9/11 to resolve the Iraq problem.
The 2004 CIA DCI Special Advisor Report on Iraq's WMD, commonly called the Duelfer Report, confirmed that Iraq was in violation of the UNSC resolutions related to weapons, though not entirely as suggested by the pre-war intelligence. There is, of course, no disagreement that Saddam was in violation of the UNSC resolutions related to humanitarian and terrorism standards.
When the Abu Ghraib scandal exploded, I was ashamed and angry as a former soldier. I knew first-hand the ethical expectations of American soldiers. I felt that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib had betrayed the faith of their fellow soldiers and caused significant harm to the Iraq mission.
However, my anger was mitigated by my appreciation that an extremely violent insurgency had seized the initiative in Iraq and the US-led coalition forces defending Iraq had fallen behind. Their 'how' was offensive and wrong, but their 'why' was understandable. The Abu Ghraib prison guards were not abusive simply for the sake of committing abuse. They were trying to help stop aggressive mass murderers who were committing daily atrocities in Iraq.
As a Senator and presidential candidate, President Obama had over-simplified the "choice between our safety and our ideals" in order to slander President Bush. Like the personnel stationed at Abu Ghraib, Obama quickly learned as Commander in Chief that the responsibility to make life-or-death decisions about a zealous, inveterately murderous, unethical enemy is more difficult.
I posted my first impression of the Abu Ghraib scandal in an on-line forum discussion in June 2004. Excerpt:
We are still learning about the Abu Ghraib scandal, which has been layered with media sensationalism. Was it just bad soldiers gone wild and poor leadership? We don't know how much intel factors were involved. A troubling aspect of the popular reaction is that we obviously still don't respect the terrorists. We need to realize that with the nature of this enemy, ground-level LTIOV-type intelligence - timely and actionable - must be the center of gravity in the fight. How do we acquire that intel, if we can't rely on 'clean' high-tech means? There are old-fashioned ways, ones we've had the hubris to deny ourselves. This enemy, however, has stripped us of our hubris. Ask yourself, to what extent are you willing to extract intel, if that info means the difference in protecting yourself and your loved ones, me and mine, Spanish commuter trains, Bali night clubs, the Twin Towers, religious celebratory crowds, humanitarian aid workers, and the many other would-be victims? Not to mention the lives of government officials, soldiers and police struggling to establish the security and stability necessary for the birth of a strong democracy. It's a hard choice, a real-world choice and not one for the classroom.
. . .
Closing thought. I picked this up on a recent visit to the City of New York Museum, quote from one of my (sadly deceased) political heroes. Senator D. Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), notable as a liberal reformer: 'If you don't have 30 years to devote to social policy, don't get involved.' Moynihan was discussing his many social reform initiatives within the US, the massive commitment necessary to implement specific reforms within an established infrastructure. Think about that. If that's what change demands in the best-equipped infrastructure in the world, what kind of willpower, flexible thinking, hardship, setbacks, difficulty and scale of time - sacrifices - should we be ready to accept if we TRULY believe in our collective responsibility to stand up a reformed, strong, independent Iraq?
. . . Americans don't have the luxury of turning our backs on world affairs, even when we make mistakes. Our position, our power, our ties and history, give us a great burden of responsibility - and it's true, we have not always been diligent enough with our leadership role. Our actions and inactions, our successes and failures, all bear global consequences. With that burden, IF our will and commitment amounts to no better than assigning a scapegoat in an unpopular American president, and with that meager satisfaction, turning our backs on our global effect and the peoples who need us, then we deserve to fail.
From the 16JAN09 Washington Post article, A Farewell Warning On Iraq, by David Ignatius:
The key to success in Iraq, insists Crocker, was the psychological impact of Bush's decision to add troops. "In the teeth of ferociously negative popular opinion, in the face of a lot of well-reasoned advice to the contrary, he said he was going forward, not backward."At the end of his presidency, Bush handed OIF to President Obama as a hard-won turnaround success to build upon. At that point, our relationship with strategically critical Iraq could have developed as a long-term regional partnership, like Germany, Japan, or South Korea, where American soldiers still serve. But Obama officials apparently felt conflicted about OIF, and the result was an irresponsible exit from Iraq. Imagine President Eisenhower fumbling away our hard-won position in Asia or Europe after taking over from President Truman.
Bush's decision rocked America's adversaries, says Crocker: "The lesson they had learned from Lebanon was, 'Stick it to the Americans, make them feel the pain, and they won't have the stomach to stick it out.' That assumption was challenged by the surge."
The 20MAR13 New York Times article, Seeking Lessons from Iraq. But Which Ones?, by David Sanger shows that their bias against the Iraq mission has handicapped policymakers in the Obama administration. Here's the (truncated) e-mail I sent to David Sanger via the NY Times website:
Your article reveals that misconceptions about Operation Iraqi Freedom have confused policymakers in the Obama administration. Their chief operating premise seems to be the dogma that OIF was wrong, while their chief animating principle seems to be to avoid an OIF-type situation at all costs. This bias has thrown Obama's foreign policy into disarray. In August 2004, Tom Junod wrote a compelling piece on President Bush and Iraq for Esquire magazine titled, The Case for George W. Bush i.e., what if he's right?. With the confusion of Obama's foreign policy evident, I believe it's time to revisit Junod's question: What if President Bush was right?
Certainly, OIF was not executed perfectly, but we have never executed a war perfectly. The histories of each of our "good" wars are consistent in containing episodes of downright catastrophe. Yet in all our "good" wars we learned and evolved. A similar developmental curve played out for the US in Iraq. Moreover, the Obama officials' bias against our post-Saddam peace operations runs against our historical mode of war. As we learned in elementary school, American post-war care of our defeated enemies distinguished our leadership after World War 2 from our allies' mistakes after World War 1. American post-war occupation has historically included a long-term presence and comprehensive investment in reconstruction. In fact, the uniformed successors of American military occupiers continue to serve today in Asia and Europe.
The ahistorical treatment of OIF has confused American foreign policy at a critical time. In order to set right American foreign policy, I believe we need to go back and correct the origin story of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The question I should have asked David Sanger was, does President Obama's deliberately anti-OIF foreign policy signal that liberalism is dead as the defining and galvanizing principle of American (and American-led Western) foreign policy?
Bush officials have been accused of ignorance about the sectarian fault lines in Iraq. While they can be accused of being optimistic about Iraqis uniting after Saddam - an optimism they inherited from the Clinton administration - it's not true that Bush officials were ignorant about Iraqi differences. Rather, the hope of Presidents Clinton and Bush was that a pluralistic liberal Iraq growing from the ashes of Saddam's regime would serve as a model for the region.
President Obama, too:
Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security. Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.On February 12, 2003 at Columbia University, Paul Bremer spoke to students as a member of a VIP panel on Iraq. Of course, when we invited him, we didn't know Bremer would be the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in 3 months. That night at Columbia, Bremer predicted the challenges of Iraq after Saddam.
Knowing the challenges, however, is not the same as solving them. Bremer had a blueprint for the transition after Saddam. CPA officials understood what was needed in a macro academic sense and their decisions were reasoned, but the CPA was unable to execute Bremer's blueprint in the micro real-world sense. The CPA simply was overtaken by events on the ground and fell behind the insurgents and terrorists, such as the Saddam loyalists, al Qaeda, and Iran-sponsored Sadrists, who used extreme violence against the state, economy, peace operators, and the Iraqi people in order to blow up the nascent peace process.
I believe, based on what I've heard, there was a 'golden hour' in the immediate post-war period. Most Iraqis wanted the better future after Saddam that President Bush pledged to build in Iraq. It's barely remembered now that the international community was prepared to invest and pour assets into Iraq in the post-war, but only if security and stability were guaranteed. As GEN Petraeus warned, "Act quickly, because every Army of liberation has a half-life."
Analogous to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, our higher social, political, and economic aspirations for Iraq after Saddam wholly depended on first establishing the base of security and stability, followed by orderly governance, services, and economy. When the insurgents beat us to 1st base on security and stability, we lost the 'golden hour' and our first, best chance to take control of post-war Iraq. Our higher order aspirations for Iraq couldn't work absent the base of security and stability.
Read my comment on a Washington Post snapshot of early challenges and our hope for Iraq. I also recommend Dale Franks's defense of the CPA decision to demobilize the Iraqi Army.
On the military side, GEN Eric Shinseki famously warned that 500,000 soldiers would be needed to garrison Iraq.
I agree we should have had more troops available at the outset of the post-war, but I don't believe we needed as many troops as GEN Shinseki said we did. In fact, our post-war troop level in Iraq peaked at 157,800 in FY2008. Our main problem in the post-war wasn't the numbers. The main problem was insufficient method (strategy, plans, tactics, techniques, procedures, etc.) for an effective occupation. Despite our history of successful post-war occupations, the regular Army of 2003 simply was not prepared to do a nation-building occupation of the kind needed for Iraq. The Army's post-war shortcomings were mainly due to an institutional mindset rooted in the fall-out of the Vietnam War and exemplified by the Powell Doctrine. The only way the Army would develop a sufficient peace-operations capability for occupying post-war Iraq was to occupy post-war Iraq and learn by necessity.
The standard of perfect preemptive anticipation, preparation, accounting, and execution that critics apply to OIF is ahistorical. Consistent with military history, the learning curve for victory in Iraq was driven by necessity on the ground. Our military has always undergone steep learning curves in war. OIF just demanded a steeper learning curve in the post-war.
That said, it's been reported that a military-led proto-COIN strategy was proposed early on, but was turned down in favor of giving the civilian-led CPA more time. I wonder what difference it would have made if a proto-COIN 'surge' had been attempted in the 'golden hour' of the immediate post-war in Iraq.
On January 30, 2005, a critic of Bush and OIF reconsidered his views after witnessing the Iraqi people risk their lives to vote and passionately participate in Iraq's first free election. The American soldiers who served in Iraq during that time often cite their roles protecting and facilitating the Iraqi election as a highlight of their military careers.
Today, after the partisan vitriol poured onto OIF followed by disappointment with the Arab Spring, it's fashionable to say that the social-political culture of the Middle East is incompatible with liberal reform and President Bush was a fool to try.
I'm not ready to admit that liberal reform in Iraq is a pipedream. I don't equate the violent insurgency by a minority of Iraqis and foreign terrorists to a majority opposition to a pluralistic liberal society by the Iraqi people. As a soldier, I served in South Korea 50 years after the GIs who fought the Korean War. They were disillusioned by the Korean War and had the same doubts that liberal reform would ever take hold with the non-Western Koreans. But it did. From the beginning, experts and government officials cautioned that we must be patient with Iraq because nation-building with liberal reform is a process of fundamental change that requires a long time nurturing - perhaps a lifetime - to bear fruit.
South Korea's first free presidential election was held in 1987. The difference is the US military stayed to protect South Korea after the Korean War. We've left Iraq.
The contest for Iraq pitted the American ideal of consensual liberal civics versus the killing will of the anti-liberal Islamic extremists. As former Barnard history professor Thad Russell repeated the mantra to us in class, in politics, violence works. We can only hope we did enough for the Iraqi people so that they will come together and resist the anti-liberal forces without our help.
Liberal reformers versus Islamic extremists was not the only contest in Iraq during OIF. There was also the contest of ordinary Muslims versus Islamic extremists. After 9/11, I recognized the terrorists had to be alienated from the Muslim mainstream. In the second, perhaps more consequential, contest in Iraq, ordinary Iraqi Muslims chose to join the Americans against the Islamic extremists.
I explained our role in the intra-Islamic contest at Professor Nacos's blog. Excerpt:
In relation to your post, my point is that while the US role in the war has understandably been deeply unpopular among Muslims, US popularity is not a decisive factor in the War on Terror. Genuine leadership is not a popularity contest and fortunately, President Bush understood at the start (or at least made the correct decisions to the effect) that the War on Terror could not be won by America unilaterally or the West multilaterally. Our victory depends on Muslims opposing the terrorists; therefore, the American role was to intervene in ways, however unpopular, that would abet the Muslim mainstream turning against the terrorists as the intolerable apostates.
With the lessons we learned at such high cost in post-war Iraq, surely we've laid the groundwork for a permanent peace operations capability - right?
Apparently not. Strategy thinker Thomas Barnett laments that we have yet to fill "the missing link for all the complex security situations out there where the traditional "big war" US force isn't appropriate." Barnett calls it a Department of Everything Else or, alternatively, a System Administrator or SysAdmin force.
I asked Barnett:
Mr. Barnett,It's a rhetorical question because we both know the answer. In a historically difficult "3 am" call, President Bush approved the COIN "Surge" in Iraq over the objections of top military and administration officials. As David Sanger describes in the New York Times article, the military officials who opposed COIN under Bush have a sympathetic audience with Obama officials who are committed to the dogma that OIF was wrong. As a result, the permanent peace operations capability that could have grown out of COIN like the present-day CIA grew out of the OSS has been cut off.
I don't understand, how come the Petraeus-led Counterinsurgency did not mature into the SysAdmin force like the OSS matured into the CIA?
Opponents of Counterinsurgency and a permanent SysAdmin capability argue against the extraordinarily high price of the post-war in Iraq. They cite the reports finding that the "adhocracy" of the reconstruction led to billions of dollars lost to "waste, fraud and abuse".
I contend those reports are actually encouraging. Typically, technological and systems innovations incur inefficiencies, high costs, and extra waste in early development. The inefficiencies, costs, and waste are reduced as the technology or system is refined. The reports show areas where the cost of peace operations can immediately be reduced.
The inefficient "adhocracy" in the management of the Iraq reconstruction was in large part due to hostile politics within the US, unreasonable expectations of immediate returns on investment, and adverse conditions on the ground that sabotaged reconstruction efforts. If the domestic political frame can be fixed, a reasonable long-term planning approach applied, and initial security and stability mastered, then combined with general improvements, the cost of peace operations should be further driven down.
Of those 'ifs', the most important is establishing and maintaining security and stability from the outset of the post-war. As I said earlier, other nations were initially willing to invest in post-war Iraq but only on the condition security and stability were guaranteed. Obviously, sharing the cost would have helped. The downstream compounding costs and inefficiencies that were suffered in post-war Iraq all followed from our initial failure to maintain control of Iraq against the aggressive insurgency.
The cornerstone of my perspective on Operation Iraqi Freedom is that President Bush had, like President Clinton before him, only 3 choices on Iraq: maintain the toxic status quo indefinitely (default kicking the can), free a noncompliant Saddam (out of the question), or give Saddam a final chance to comply under credible threat of regime change (resolution).
* The Blix alternative, used by Clinton to retreat from his support for Bush and endorsement of OIF, was not realistic.
Whenever I debate OIF with anyone, I challenge that person to step into President Bush's shoes in the wake of 9/11 and defend their preferred alternative for resolving the Iraq problem. Most will refuse and, instead, double-down on criticizing Bush and OIF in hindsight. For those who have the integrity to try defending an alternative in context, it becomes apparent that Bush's decisions regarding Iraq were at least justified.
Some of the loudest opposition to OIF is from the IR realist school that believes Saddam should have been kept in power in order to check Iran. I think they're stuck in 1980, with the Shah only just replaced by the Ayatollah, and Baathist Iraq was thought to be the lesser of 2 evils.
Liberals understand that by the time of the Bush administration (either one works), the Iran-Iraq conflict was a cause of the region's problems, not a stabilizer. More importantly, given our thoroughly toxic relationship with Iraq by the end of the Clinton administration, our total distrust of Saddam, and his track record, I'd like to hear the IR realists explain in detail just how they would have negotiated a settlement with a noncompliant Saddam. They're effectively proposing Hitler should have been propped up in order to serve as a regional counter to the Soviet Union. Hitler + USSR = the worst of World War 2, not peace in our time. The IR realist belief that after 9/11 we should have trusted and empowered a noncompliant Saddam to deal with Iran on our behalf is madness.
The least thoughtful critics of the Iraq mission are the buffet-style critics. They accept the justifications for OIF and agree the world is better off without Saddam, yet say the US was wrong to stay for peace operations in post-Saddam Iraq. The critics who support the war while opposing the post-war in Iraq seem merely to be reacting to a palatable war versus a distasteful post-war. As I said to David Sanger, the US historically has followed victory in war with a long-term presence and comprehensive investment in the post-war. As the World War 2 victors, we learned the importance of securing the peace after the war and not repeating the post-war mistakes made by the World War 1 victors.
We gain little from war itself because war is destruction. The prize of war is the power to build the peace on our terms. The long-term gains we historically associate with wars have actually been realized from our peace-building following those wars. To defeat Saddam and then leave Iraq without first responsibly securing the peace would have been a contradiction of all our acquired wisdom as "leader of the free world", an inhumane abandonment of the Iraqi people, and an enormously risky gamble that invited new problems. As Paul Wolfowitz responded to critics of President Bush's post-war commitment to a liberal peace in Iraq, "We went to war in both places because we saw those regimes as a threat to the United States. Once they were overthrown, what else were we going to do? No one argues that we should have imposed a dictatorship in Afghanistan having liberated the country. Similarly, we weren't about to impose a dictatorship in Iraq having liberated the country."
Misinformation and mischaracterization have distorted the popular perception of the context, stakes, and achievements of Operation Iraqi Freedom with compounding harmful effects. They have obscured the strict enforcement mission with Saddam's Iraq that President Bush carried forward from President Clinton and the ground-breaking peace operations by the US military in post-Saddam Iraq, thus undermining the enforcement of international norms and obstructing the further development and application of peace operations.
The distorted public perception of the Iraq mission has led to poor policy decisions by the Obama administration in the Arab Spring, most notably regarding Libya and Syria. Where President Bush positioned America after 9/11 to lead vigorously from the front as the liberal internationalist "leader of the free world", President Obama has reduced America to 'leading from behind' with predictable consequences. Bush gave Obama a hard-earned winning hand in Iraq, yet the Obama administration bungled the SOFA negotiation at a critical turning point. The premature exit from Iraq has cast doubt on the future of Iraq's development and caused the loss of a difference-making regional strategic partnership.
The West Point cadet prayer expresses the aspiration to "Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong".
The outcome we desired was Iraq meeting its burden of proof and complying completely and unconditionally with the Gulf War ceasefire and UNSC resolutions. Saddam was given a last chance to comply - by two American presidents - and Saddam failed to seize the chance. Freeing a noncompliant Saddam from constraint was out of the question. Indefinitely maintaining and headlining the corrupted, provocative, harmful, and failing sanctions and 'containment' mission in Iraq was the easier wrong.
On March 19, 2003, President Bush ordered America into Iraq to do the harder right.
10 year anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom: Columbia students rally to support US troops Spring 2003;
10 year anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom: final thoughts.