Imagine that in the rush toward war with Iraq, the sales pitch had gone like this:
“We must put our troops in harm’s way to depose a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, and give Iraqis a chance at democracy. This will not be easy. It will take eight years, cost the lives of 4,488 U.S. troopsand leave tens of thousands more grievously injured. Al-Qaeda will gain a new foothold, and the civil war we unleash will kill more than 100,000 Iraqis. We will spend $3 trillion, our war in Afghanistan will be orphaned and the big winner will be Iran. But Iraq will be a better place.”
RICHARD PERLE: Removing Saddam was the right call
That, of course, is an assessment of the war Tuesday on the 10th anniversary of the invasion. The outcome could not have been known with such precision in advance. But if history has made anything obvious, it is that the Bush administration used false premises to peddle the war.
The administration’s primary justification — that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction — was at best a massive miscalculation. None was ever found. The secondary reason — that Saddam had connections to Osama bin Laden — was simply a lie, supported by neither evidence nor logic but believed by half the public.
Amplify these assertions with the White House sound blaster, and the message received by Americans still edgy after the 9/11 attacks was that the United States faced an imminent threat that only war could avert.
A docile Congress overwhelmingly authorized an invasion. And so the Bush administration’s campaign of “shock and awe” began, only to disintegrate swiftly into civil war, followed eventually by an unsteady peace and, ultimately, U.S. withdrawal.
The lessons are many.
One is that war is never as easy or controllable as it appears at the outset. Even George W. Bush has conceded that his administration did a poor job of planning for the unexpected. Intent on war and assuming quick victory, it did almost nothing to prepare for the aftermath, setting up the disastrous decision to remove leaders of the Iraqi bureaucracy, outlaw the Baathist party and disband the Iraqi army. The insurrection followed within days and quickly spun out of control.
On a broader scale, the long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced bipartisan wariness about large-scale ground wars. Special forces, drones or air power can attain lesser objectives at lower risk.
But the most useful lesson of the Iraq War is simpler and sadly familiar: Beware of leaders seeking to rush the nation into war.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, if not Bush, were looking for an excuse to invade almost from the moment of the 9/11 attacks, if not earlier. Notes by aides during a meeting on the afternoon of 9/11, and leaked in 2009 to CBS News, quote Rumsfeld asking for the “best info fast. Judge whether good enough to hit S.H. (Saddam Hussein) at the same time. Not only UBL (bin Laden).”
Cheney and Rumsfeld pushed tirelessly for war, arrogantly dismissing any inconvenient argument against it and viewing it as a shortcut to establishing a beachhead of democracy in the Middle East.
Iraq today is a democracy, if a struggling one, and at least has a chance to do better. But it is still beset by sectarian violence, led by a president who has been acting more like a strongman, and heavily under the influence of Iran, the likeliest target of the next American war.
As that potential conflict nears, it would be wise to keep the lessons of Iraq in mind.
War should be entered into only as a last resort, and only then with total commitment after thorough vetting of the need. That’s not just the message of Iraq. It’s the message of American wars for the past 50 years.