The Invasion of Iraq: The Bush Administration’s Incompetence Reduces the Benefits

In my last post, I wrote a bit about my changing views on foreign policy prior to the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003. Here I want to explain why I supported that invasion, ultimately with an idea to explaining why I now believe I was mistaken to do so.

September 11 made clear that substantial portions of the Middle East presented a danger to the United States and its people. What actions could we take to address that danger?

If the United States could help to establish a relatively free nation in Iraq – one that provided basic freedoms and some kind of democracy – that would not only be good for Iraq, but would help to establish a model for other nations in the region – one that might lead towards greater freedom in the area and greater safety for the United States.

While the concern about WMDs struck me as being plausible, that was never my main reason for supporting the invasion. Instead, it was establishing a more free nation in Iraq. Yes, this was a form of nation-building.  But if done right, it would create enormous benefits. I don’t believe this invasion violated the rights of  the Iraq people, who after all were being tyrannized by the dictator Saddam.

I continue to believe that had the invasion and follow-up been handled competently, it could have been an extremely valuable action. People forget how significant the benefits were from the initial invasion, before the US became bogged down in responding to the insurgency. As I wrote in 2009:

Early on it was possible that the liberation of Iraq would help to transform the region. The United States had just toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan with minimal effort and then quickly ousted Saddam. Tyrants in the region were scared and started to alter their behavior. Most importantly, Libya was concerned enough to disclose and abandon its nuclear weapons program. The Libyan revelations informed the United States about a much more advanced nuclear weapons program than they had ever suspected. But the benefits from invading Iraq extended far beyond Libya. Syria was pressured to withdraw many of its forces from Lebanon, and it seemed like the resulting Cedar Revolution might lead to greater freedom.

Even Iran was pressured to allow additional nuclear inspections that helped reveal the extent of its nuclear program. Moreover, Iran seemed concerned enough to announce that they were cutting back on their nuclear enrichment efforts. While the announcement was probably more cosmetic than real, it still showed concern on Iran’s part. These discoveries about Iran and Libya also helped to reveal the A.Q. Khan nuclear distribution network. In addition, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were led to expand elections, albeit in modest ways. Although it is contested as to how much these events were influenced by America’s invasions, there seems little doubt that American military actions played a significant role.

These developments, however, were soon stalled and to a certain extent reversed once it became clear that the United States was bogged down in Iraq. With the insurgency leading to increased American casualties and costs, the war soon became unpopular domestically, and it became clear that the United States was no longer a threat to invade any other countries in the region. Its influence waned, and its enemies, especially Iran, have grown bolder.

But this setback need not have occurred. If the United States had not wasted the four years prior to the surge, committing one blunder after another, the insurgency need not have grown so strong.

The main blunders at the time were not having enough troops and not having plans to govern the nation once the prior government had been toppled. My conclusion of that essay stated:

We can all be happy with the success of the surge and the possible benefits in the years to come. At this point, Iraq stands as a success for the Bush administration. But let’s not deceive ourselves into believing that the surge made up for the prior missteps. Had the Bush administration competently pursued the Iraqi reconstruction from the beginning, we might now be seeing the beneficial results of a genuinely transformative policy.

Thus, when the Bush administration left office, the Iraqi invasion, which could have been transformative, nonetheless represented in my view a mild positive – one where a relatively free nation had been established. In my next post, I will discuss how the Obama administration turned that into a major negative.