On the unhappy 15th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, the Charles Koch Institute’s William Ruger and Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich offer important and timely op eds.
Writing in the New York Times, Ruger sees Iraq as “just the worst in a string of failures” of U.S. foreign policy in the past quarter century, a range of missions that have cost nearly 7,000 American troops killed, tens of thousands wounded, and trillions of dollars spent, with precious little to show for it. “Underlying all of these failures,” Ruger writes, “is the view, endorsed by both parties, that we need an active military presence around the globe to shape what happens almost everywhere.” He calls for an “alternate approach to the United States’ role in the world,” a “constructive but realistic mind-set [that] would put our safety first while expanding America’s opportunities to engage productively with the world.”
Bacevich takes the occasion of this sad anniversary to comment on the disconnect between the American people and the elites who sold the war. He attributes Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election to the “blood sacrifice vote” – the “communities that paid a high price for the Iraq War in terms of casualties.” Hillary Clinton prevailed among those who preferred to let “someone else’s sons and daughters do the fighting.” It is the sort of scathing critique that Bacevich has come to be known for, but it is no less accurate or insightful for having been written before.
Trump voters, Bacevich posits, supported him, despite the fact that they suspected his “America First” campaign to be “all but devoid of substantive content”:
because Trump said aloud what they themselves knew: that the Iraq War had been [a] monumental error for which they, and pointedly not members of the political elite, had paid dearly. In short, a vote for Trump offered them a way to express their disdain for establishment politicians whose dishonesty they considered far more odious than Trump’s own pronounced tendency to shave the truth.
I’ve written before of how the yawning gap between the foreign policy elite and the people who fight the wars and pay the bills paved the way for a person like Donald Trump to win the presidency (see especially here and here). But I do think it worthwhile to dwell, for a moment, on Iraq as a particularly important step along the process that turned that gap into a chasm.
We should also recall the arguments of those who actually made the case against war in 2002 and 2003. Donald Trump wasn’t one of them. But there was the advertisement in the New York Times paid for and signed by 33 respected academics. They concluded that the Bush administration had not presented conclusive evidence, and that a war against Iraq lacked sufficient justification. They disputed claims that the war would end quickly. “Even if we win easily,” they said, “we have no plausible exit strategy.” The statement envisioned a long-term U.S. presence because Iraq was “a deeply divided society” and would take “many years to create a viable state.” Lastly, the signatories of the New York Times advertisement saw the war in Iraq as a dangerous distraction from the more urgent concern: al Qaeda and transnational terrorism.
Within the Beltway, most foreign policy experts either endorsed Bush’s war, or kept their silence. Scholars at the Cato Institute, however, were particularly active in their opposition. Cato’s Chairman, William Niskanen, came forward with one of the earliest arguments against war with Iraq, in December 2001, in a debate at the institute with former CIA Director James Woolsey, and in a follow-up article in the Chicago Sun-Times under the headline “U.S. Should Refrain from Attacking Iraq.”
Other Cato scholars joined in. Ted Galen Carpenter challenged the war boosters’ optimistic predictions of a short and cheap engagement. “The inevitable U.S. military victory,” Carpenter predicted, would “mark the start of a new round of headaches.” “Iraq [is] a fissiparous amalgam of Sunnis, separatist Shiites and Kurds,” noted Gene Healy in the magazine Liberty. “Keeping the country together will require a strong hand and threatens to make U.S. servicemen walking targets for discontented radicals.”
In December 2002, Cato published a full-length study making the case against war. Authors Ivan Eland and Bernard Gourley concluded:
The United States deterred and contained a rival superpower, which had thousands of nuclear warheads, for 40 years; America can certainly continue to successfully deter and contain a relatively small, relatively poor nation until its leader dies or is deposed. An unprovoked attack on another sovereign state does not square with—and actually undermines—the principles of a constitutional republic.
This isn’t entirely self-serving. I joined Cato in early February 2003; by then, the die was pretty much cast. But I did manage to fire off one warning before the war started. And it still isn’t too late to learn the proper lessons from the Iraq War, and the problems with primacy, the underlying the foreign policy philosophy that gives rise to Iraq-type wars.