The Invasion of Iraq: The Unreliability of US Reconstruction Policy

Let me now conclude my series of essays about why I have now come to believe that the US Invasion of Iraq was a mistake.  The short answer is that the invasion could have produced enormous benefits, but the US government and its political system was simply not competent enough to do the job successfully.

As I have discussed previously, the Bush Administration squandered a significant portion of the net benefits by not having enough troops or having a plan in place for the new government.  And the Obama Administration did little to constrain Maliki while the US was in Iraq.

Now let me conclude with the second enormous mistake by the Obama Administration: its withdrawal from Iraq.  As Charles Krauthammer recently wrote, the result of the Obama Administration’s withdrawal from Iraq

was predictable. And predicted. Overnight, Iran and its promotion of Shiite supremacy became the dominant influence in Iraq. The day after the U.S. departure, Maliki ordered the arrest of the Sunni vice president. He cut off funding for the Sons of Iraq, the Sunnis who had fought with us against al-Qaeda. And subsequently so persecuted and alienated Sunnis that they were ready to welcome back al-Qaeda in Iraq — rebranded in its Syrian refuge as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — as the lesser of two evils. Hence the stunningly swift ISIS capture of Mosul, Tikrit and so much of Sunni Iraq.

There is a longer story here.  For example, as Peter Beinart writes:

On December 12, 2011, just days before the final U.S. troops departed Iraq, Maliki visited the White House. According to Nasr [who worked in the State Department at the time], [Maliki] told Obama that Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, an Iraqiya leader and the highest-ranking Sunni in his government, supported terrorism. Maliki, argues Nasr, was testing Obama, probing to see how the U.S. would react if he began cleansing his government of Sunnis. Obama replied that it was a domestic Iraqi affair. After the meeting, Nasr claims, Maliki told aides, “See! The Americans don’t care.”

Iraq has now become a serious problem and the future does not look promising.

It is interesting to ask why this limited victory at the end of Bush’s second term was squandered.  There are two points here.  First, the Obama Administration – for whatever reason – chose to withdraw from Iraq rather than to stay engaged in order to promote a freer nation.  It is not entirely clear whether this was done for political reasons or out of cluelessness, or both.  In the wider scheme of things, it does not matter.  The Obama Administration could not be counted on to act competently.

Second, the American people, or at least a sizeable portion of them, were not willing to sustain the actions necessary in order to maintain the gains from the intervention.  The American people did not punish Obama for his behavior at the time.  Instead, they believed his nonsense.

The bottom line here is that the political system – both the politicians and the American people – was simply not competent enough to pursue the nation building strategy in Iraq.  Nor is this a one time phenomenon.  While there are differences, the similarities between Iraq and Viet Nam are significant.

Some Republicans might place the blame on Democrats, arguing that the latter cannot be trusted with national security.  Even if one accepted the premise of this argument, that would change nothing.  That one of the two parties cannot be trusted to participate in long term policies for which they will inevitably have some responsibility suggests that those policies should not be undertaken.

In the end, I was mistaken to support the invasion.  It is not that the strategy could not have worked if the government had been competent.  The point is that the government is not competent.  Overestimating the competence of the government is a cardinal sin for a libertarian, even of the moderate type that I am.  I had been wiser in the past, and I should not have made the mistake.  I will try not to let it happen again.

Reader Discussion

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on August 04, 2014 at 13:22:23 pm


Nice series of posts. To pull a Bill Clinton on you, "I feel your pain" having gone through a similar change of heart / thinking.

My change may be due in large part to a realization that the effort was doomed because there was no contextual / historical tradition or understanding of democratic processes present in the region. This "state" was a creation of European diplomatic arrogance that failed to take into account the millennium long religious and tribal discord prevalent amongst the parties and the long history of rule by "strongman" - with the populace always hoping that "their" strongman was in power. Saddam provided order; in so doing he further undermined the possibility of a democratic ethos in the populace. We were quite foolhardy to believe that we could effectively change this.
Anyway, it has been an interesting journey, has it not?

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Image of gabe
on August 04, 2014 at 13:55:20 pm

[T]he result of the Obama Administration’s withdrawal from Iraq

was predictable. And predicted.

Indeed. It was even predicted before there was an Obama Administration. That is, even before we invaded we knew that at some point we'd need to withdraw. Under Colin Powell, the Bush Administration's State Dept. prepared elaborate documents to anticipate the eventual problems that would inevitably arise when you uncork the tensions between the Sunni and the Shi'a. It talked about how the Sunni minority had dominated the Shiite majority. It talked about how the Shiite had religious and economic ties to the government of Iran, and how Iraq's Shiite leaders that had escaped Saddam's persecution were sheltering under Iran's protection. It talked about the long Iran/Iraq standoff, and how overthrowing Saddam would, at least in the short term, strengthen the hand of Iran.

Then the Bush Administration then transferred the job of occupation planning away from the State Department and gave it to the Pentagon. And the Pentagon excluded from participation anyone who had even read the State Department documents.

Now, is it possible that if the US had been willing to stay another day, or month, or year, or decade, things might have stabilized? Yup. Is it possible that they would not have stabilized, and the US troops would merely have become the lightning rod for every group's grievances? Yup.

So we put the question to the American people. And the American people said, "Get out."

Finally, Rappaport is correct: Populism is a kind of "incompetence." In opposing the West, terrorism may be among the best weapons around. The West is hard to oppose militarily. But Western nations are responsible to public opinion; that's the West's soft underbelly. So if you want to oppose the West, get the public to weary of opposing you. Heck, if Washington wearied of defending black citizens following Reconstruction, we can count on Washington wearying of defending Shi'a in Iraq. Everyone knew the day would come. Everyone knew that Sunni nationalist could simply wait us out, no matter how long it would take. (Honestly, what choice did they have?)

But it's hard to be too stern with the American people, given how badly they had been treated by the Bush Administration. They were sold a war that would last "a couple weeks, a couple months -- not a couple years." Given this egregious example of bait and switch, I'm hardly surprised that the public was unwilling to keep an open mind to all the wonders we might achieve through prolonging our engagement.

Historians will someday tally the debts amassed by the Bush Administration. Not merely the damage done to the national purse, even during the period that the economy was expanding. There's the depletion of military assets (including the willingness of senior people in the National Guard to re-enlist). There's the future obligations incurred via Medicare Part D, and for a generation of soldiers returning from war. There's the damage to the national (private) wealth. There's the damage to the national credibility. There's the damage done to the public's faith in government. There's the damage done in all the dictators and militias that realized that, while the US was bogged down in a quagmire and the American taste for foreign adventures had been sated, they could do whatever they pleased. There's the damage done to international norms of justice. Etc., etc.

The first casualty of war is the truth -- and by the time Obama entered the White House there was precious little credibility left to the war effort. It's silly to blame Obama for failing to drive the truck when Bush returned it with no gas in the tank.

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on August 04, 2014 at 15:57:33 pm

2 things:

1) Let's not be so quick to blame the military for the failure of post combat reconstruction. Far too much of the damage was already done by the State Department AND Mr. Powell via the person of L. Paul Bremer. It was he who excluded far too many Iraqi interests under the delusion that he (and the State Department) knew better. His treatment of the Kurds, and yes, Ahmed Chalabi who quite possibly could have been a moderating influence on Maliki and his factions was inexcusable. The results were predicatable.

2) There was plenty of gas in the tank - to manage a rational and staged withdrawal while keeping a sufficient force and threat available to prevent just this sort of nonsense (again predictable) currently going on. On the contrary, the "Big O-blunder" chose to alienate his playing partners (either intentionally or via incompetence) resulting in no Status of Forces Agreement. One could almost PREDICT that that was going to happen. Oops, I forgot, many did predict this.

Whether we could have changed anything regarding sectarian factionalism is highly questionable. That, however, is not the same as saying that the Big O did not blunder his way through this and make the situation worse. In fact, he did and it did.

You are right about the soft underbelly. this may in part be due to the rotten underbelly of western democracy - the supposed free press which has been reduced to an appendage of the Democrat Party. Is it any wonder people were weary of the war when all they were presented with were tales of torture and misadventure. The truth on the ground was somewhat different. One wonders when the "free" press will once again take up investigative journalism - Here's a prediction - Right after the Big O is out of office.

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on August 04, 2014 at 16:41:57 pm

Oops, again! I forgot something.

What many people forget - or choose to "mis-remember" is that the success of the surge came not just from the force of arms but rather because the military had the good sense, unlike the State Department to ACTUALLY talk with the people, determine both their needs and their concerns, and to the best of the military's ability both provide for those needs / concerns and act (and be viewed) as a trustworthy partner.

In the long run, it is unimportant whether these actions would have been instrumental in ridding the place of a millennium long sectarian sickness. What is important is that in our haste to excuse the Big O that we not falsely attribute blame to the one element of the US Government that acted with common sense.

Some may call them "patsies" for this - I prefer to recognize their good sense and dedication.

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Image of gabe
on August 05, 2014 at 00:24:22 am

I was ambivalent when the U.S. initially attacked the Sadaam Hussein regime, but supported the eventual troop surge because it was likely to pacify that country, which it did. Obama's rush for the exits has left us in a much worse position than ever, and that is one reason why I wish that Hillary Clinton had defeated Obama in 2008 (another reason is that we would be spared the difficult task of defeating Clinton in 2016).

That said, it is impossible to know what Sadaam Hussein would be up to now if he were still in charge of Iraq. One thing seems certain: we need to get control of our southern border if for no other reason than to keep out ISIS.

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Andrew Hyman
on August 05, 2014 at 01:43:52 am

Had we done a better job at structuring how the new Iraq constitution would be formed so that Sunni interests would be respected (or the country split), there wouldn't have been a need for the U.S. involvement. Why was the Shia interests given all the power? Change that and you wouldn't have had the problems. Instead we created a system that was unbalanced, and like any unbalanced system when you remove the supports it falls apart.

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Devin Watkins
on August 05, 2014 at 07:31:51 am

MIke, I have had similar thoughts about our Iraq venture - that the coalition Bush scraped together in support of the invasion was too unstable to survive serious difficulties and see the war through to a successful conclusion with a stable, nonthreatening Iraqi government in place. It could be added that, in theory, the problem of Saddam Hussein could have been solved by replacing him with a more pliable (to us) and less dangerous (to us) Sunni dictator (having a dictator from a minority community creates a balance of power, of sorts, between the majority and minority). If a successful quasi-democratic "constitutional" system in Iraq would have required close "management" by the US, as suggested by one of the writers you quote, the goal was never realistic - especially given the likelihood that the Shia faction would eventually gravitate toward Iran. Of course, deposing Saddam only to replace him with another dictator - even a dictator substantially less brutal and less aggressive - would have been a public relations disaster for the US and would in itself have given the Democrats grounds for turning against the war.

One factor you don't mention is the Obama administration's apparent desire to accommodate Iran's ambition to dominate Iraq. They think that some sort of "grand bargain" can be attained with Iran and are happy to cede Iraq to Iranian domination in pursuit of that goal.

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Image of djf
on August 06, 2014 at 10:47:58 am

Indeed, it would have been better if we had never invaded. And Saddam Hussien? Shortly put, islam has a record of 1400 years of both war and stagnation, it is hardly another nations fault if yet again they lower themselves into the pits and do what they do . And it would have been far more dangerous to let Saddam continue his barbaric ways, paying bonuses to the families of suicide bombers attacking Israel, running training camps for them, etc. It was a mistake?, note ISIS and it's march through Iraq, note Hamas, again the centuries of war and depredation. And what lesson do we draw from them? This doesn't stop, certainly not with the person currently in the WH.

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john trainor
on August 10, 2014 at 17:21:59 pm

How is it that you guys have a change of heart and all the answers and whose to blame after the fact. Obama must have been a real treasure for all you "after the fact jack's" , cause he is blamed for everything. Have you guys ever wondered what could have been accomplished with just a little help from the right(republican). A powerful step in history has been blown in America, with the first non white in the a White House.

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laurence broadus
on August 10, 2014 at 18:31:05 pm

The Status of Forces agreement negotiated between the United States and the Republic of Iraq was signed in 2008. It stipulated that US withdrawal would begin almost immediately and be complete by the end of 2011. I'm not sure why the Obama administration is being so harshly criticized for honoring an agreement signed by the previous administration, particularly since the Iraqi government made it clear that a new, amended SOFA would not be forthcoming. If the author of this article thinks that democracy in the US is a weakness which prevented us from "doing the smart thing" in Iraq, then of course he thinks that democracy in Iraq, where an elected majority-Shia government has shown us the door, must be a terrible thing.
Democracy is fickle and inefficient. How much more stable and efficient autocratic regimes are! They can impose "sensible solutions" even if they require abrogating an agreement signed with another nation. Is that the author's point?

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on August 10, 2014 at 18:37:28 pm

"...But talks ran aground over Iraqi opposition to giving American troops legal immunity that would shield them from Iraqi prosecution. Legal protection for U.S. troops has always angered everyday Iraqis who saw it as simply a way for the Americans to run roughshod over the country. Many Iraqi lawmakers were hesitant to grant immunity for fear of a backlash from constituents.

"When the Americans asked for immunity, the Iraqi side answered that it was not possible," al-Maliki told a news conference Saturday. "The discussions over the number of trainers and the place of training stopped. Now that the issue of immunity was decided and that no immunity to be given, the withdrawal has started." [The Huffington Post, 10/22/2011]"


"This month, American officials pressed the Iraqi leadership to meet again at President Talabani's compound to discuss the issue. This time the Americans asked them to take a stand on the question of immunity for troops, hoping to remove what had always been the most difficult hurdle. But they misread Iraqi politics and the Iraqi public. Still burdened by the traumas of this and previous wars, and having watched the revolutions sweeping their region, the Iraqis were unwilling to accept anything that infringed on their sovereignty. [The New York Times, 10/21/11]"

The American people made it clear that staying in Iraq was unacceptable. The Iraqi people made it clear that it wasn't going to happen. People are stupid--is that the author's point?

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on August 10, 2014 at 22:27:41 pm

This is smart stuff and pretty persuasive. My only hesitation is whether one could have reasonably concluded prior to the invasion that the government would be incompetent at a level that resulted in failure. For all the Bush administration incompetency, they handed off Iraq in a condition for success. Could one have predicted in 2003 that someone as incompetent as Barack Obama would be elected president in 2008? To me, that is a hard sell, but perhaps one could argue that the risk of that level of incompetence should have been seen and that risk was too great to undertake the war.

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Kansas City

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