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Did the Iraq War hawks get what they wanted?
Neoconservatives got to live in the kind of world they were hoping to build — even if it involved a lot more death and destruction than planned.
Imagine telling a neoconservative in 2003 what the Middle East would look like in two decades. They might consider you a wild optimist.
Iraq is still a base for U.S. military and economic power. Gulf states are liberalizing and normalizing ties with Israel, without demanding major concessions on the Palestinian issue. Israel doesn’t have to give back the Golan Heights, either, because the Syrian state is too weak to lift a finger against anyone except its own people. Iran is on the verge of a revolution of its own.
Sure, this scenario includes some drawbacks. Washington has to share the spoils of Iraq with Tehran, which is now much more comfortable intervening outside its borders. Turkey has gone from a solid U.S. ally to an frenemy. Russia is firmly entrenched in Syrian affairs. These are challenges the neocons can live with, and turn into opportunities for further action.
Then there’s the small matter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people killed. But violence was already a price the neocons were willing to accept.
The twentieth anniversary of the Iraq War passed a week ago, and there’s been a fair bit of reflection in the press. Here’s a few important ones:
Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad published an excellent memoir about his experience as a fixer for foreign media during the war.
British reporter Lizzie Porter brought together stories of the trauma and corruption Iraq continues to suffer today.
The Century Foundation had a roundtable of Iraqi and non-Iraqi experts write about the big-picture implications of the war.
American journalist Specner Ackerman talked about the toxic effects of the war on U.S. society while — as always — keeping it in perspective with the much greater Iraqi suffering.
Many of these writers assumed that the Iraq War was some kind of horrible mistake. And it was, from the perspective of those who bought into the justification for war. The invasion did not make Iraq a flourishing democracy. It did not make the Middle East or the world at large safer. As Iraqi member of parliament Ayad Jamal Al-Din famously said, the dictator Saddam Hussein was replaced with “10,000 Saddams.”
But I’m not sure the core supporters of the war experienced it as such a failure. Some will outright argue that the war was a success. Others more quietly enjoy the career benefits that they have reaped since the war. While many U.S. troops died or were wounded, few leaders faced any consequences, even for the worst excesses of the war. In fact, the aftermath of the war was one big career bonanza for hawks.
It’s important to understand what the war did and did not accomplish for policymakers, because embarrassment alone is not going to stop them from doing it again.
The Iraq War was clearly bad for “American interests,” as in the interests of the people who live in America. But that does not mean it was bad for “U.S. interests,” as in the interests of the U.S. national security apparatus. Iraq War architects keep getting rewarded because they delivered results that were useful to the system.
After twenty years of setting the Middle East on fire, Americans get to lord over the ashes. Rendered helpless and dependent, the region is now a playground for defense contractors, think tankers, aid workers, oil dealers, and general adventurer types. The U.S. military can operate with a free hand in countries that used to be completely off limits, and there is no Arab state left that can challenge U.S. power.
Again, although it’s not the world the hawks promised, it’s one they can live with and take advantage of. On one hand, the war was supposed to trigger a democratic wave across the region, which clearly did not succeed. On the other hand, the U.S. presence in Iraq lets Washington play a role in the conflicts that followed.
Failure is not the same as defeat. The United States was defeated in Afghanistan. The Taliban overthrew the U.S.-backed republic. American troops were forced to leave the country under circumstances dictated by the enemy. At least that was relatively bloodless compared to the loss of Southeast Asia.
In April I975, the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government. A few days later, Americans and their supporters fled a massive Communist assault on Saigon, which led to the end of South Vietnam as a state. (The new governments of Cambodia and unified Vietnam quickly ended up at war with each other.) By May 1975, the last CIA officer evacuated Laos, whose U.S.-backed monarchy held out by a string until December. Two decades of U.S. presence in Indochina ended in a violent, traumatic flash.
There was no similar U.S. defeat in Iraq. For all the broken promises, failed projects, and unwanted political effects, Americans can still come and go as they please. The pro-Iranian militias kill Iraqis with impunity, but their actions against U.S. troops have a controlled, almost theatrical feel. The republic set up by U.S. planners is still in power, and its savings are still in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Unlike the Vietnam War, which involved heavy conscription, the Iraq War as an all-volunteer affair. Most Americans “experienced the violence in the Middle East as nothing more than a media phenomenon,” as I recently wrote for The Critic. Although the public rightfully recoiled from the horrors being done in its name, the government was able to avoid a serious reckoning simply by turning the cameras away.
Still, a majority of Americans consider the Iraq War a mistake. Despite aggressive war marketing from Hollywood and video games, young Americans tend to express the idea that this kind of thing is “BAD. NOT GOOD!” Politicians have to at least pretend that they understand what an awful thing they did. It remains to be seen whether their takeaway is “don’t try it again” or “do it quietly next time.”
No victory, no defeat. The sustainability of the war is what made it so toxic for American society, as Ackerman’s book Reign of Terror illustrates. Americans were told that they had to fight against an ever-shifting array of enemies, and were constantly gaslit about the reasons for the war. The more the war dragged on for incomprehensible reasons and with ugly results, the more poison seeped into the U.S. body politic.
To be fair, some figures involved in promoting and carrying out the war actually did care about democracy, and ended up regretting the fate of the Iraqi people. Just a few days ago, neoconservative Max Boot publicly renounced that ideology.
Last year, former president George W. Bush condemned the “decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq. I mean, of Ukraine. Iraq, too.” He blamed the gaffe on his old age, to laughter from the audience. Commentators debated whether it was a pang of guilty conscience or a callous joke.
Those kinds of questions are impossible to answer, because only George W. Bush knows what is inside of his own heart. But to prevent another “wholly unjustified and brutal invasion” from happening, there needs to be more than just guilt and awkward jokes. There has to be a lasting political price for trying something like that — and steps towards real accountability.
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Image: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld responds to a reporter's question during a press conference on Sept. 6, 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq. Ambassador Paul Bremer and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez were also present at the conference. U.S. military photo.