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Looking back at a terrible error in modern U.S. history

March 21, 2013  01:36 AM By David  Ignatius



Ten years ago this week, I was covering the U.S. military as it began its  assault on Iraq. As I read back over my clips, I see a few sensible warnings  about the difficulties ahead. But I owe readers an apology for being wrong on  the overriding question of whether the war made sense. Invading Iraq  to topple Saddam Hussein a decade ago was one of the biggest strategic errors in modern American history. We’ll never know whether the story might have been different if better planning had been done for “the day after,” or the Iraqi army hadn’t been disbanded, or several other “ifs.” But the abiding truth is that America  shouldn’t have rolled the dice this way  on a war of choice.                                                            

  As I think back to the crucible of 2003, two remarks made by Arab friends stand  out particularly. One was from a prominent Lebanese Shiite publisher who  supported the war, but on the condition that America was resolute enough to  finish what it was starting. “If Rome  is strong, the provinces are ready,” my  friend said.                                                             

      But Rome wasn’t strong enough to prevail. America’s military power, awesome as  it was, turned out not to be sufficient to impose a settlement in Iraq; and in a  grinding war of occupation, all America’s might could not turn on the  electricity in Baghdad  or frighten Sunnis  and Shiites into cooperating with each  other. Rome was also weak at home, politically: The U.S. didn’t have the stomach  for a protracted war that President George W. Bush  couldn’t explain and the  public didn’t understand.                         

   The second comment was from a Syrian friend who opposed the war. In 2002, when  we first discussed the coming battle, he was reading “The March of Folly,” historian Barbara Tuchman’s account of epochal policy blunders through history.  America was about to make another mistake of historic dimensions, my friend  warned.                                       

   This person took me aside after the fighting had been raging for several months.  I am still haunted by what he said: “I am sorry for America. You are stuck. You  have become a country of the Middle East. America will never change Iraq, but  Iraq will change America.”                                    

   What other lessons should America learn from Iraq? An obvious one is the danger  of creating a political vacuum by overthrowing a dictator. The U.S. dreamed that  it would modernize Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein. But when it disbanded the  nonsectarian army and most of the secular government, Iraqis had nowhere to turn  but their most basic ethnic and tribal identities as Sunnis or Shiites, Kurds or  Arabs.                       

  Many in the CIA understood the need to keep the Iraqi army and civil service  together. That’s part of why they clashed so sharply with Donald Rumsfeld’s  Pentagon and his Iraqi champion, Ahmad Chalabi, who wanted to dismantle the  Baath Party, root and branch. I watched a tiny part of that battle play out one  day in April 2003 in a bitter argument on the lawn of Chalabi’s headquarters at  the Mansour Hunting Club  in suburban Baghdad. The  headline on that one was “Bush’s confusion, Baghdad’s mess.”       

   In the political vacuum the U.S. created, Iraq tumbled into the past – pulling a  lot of the Arab world with it. That’s part of why President Barack Obama has  been so careful recently in dealing with Syria: He doesn’t want America to make  the same mistake twice. But history is cruel: You can try so hard to avoid an  outcome that in your very passivity, you make it more likely.                                                                                                  


  Another lesson is the importance of dignity in the Arab world. Most Iraqis  despised Saddam Hussein because, in addition to torturing their sons and  daughters, he had taken their dignity. But many came to loath America as well,  because for all our talk of democracy, Americans damaged their sense of honor  and independence. As the Arab world proves over and over, from Palestine to  Benghazi, people who are penniless in terms of material possessions would rather  die than lose their sense of honor to outsiders      

   A final lesson is the benefit of persistence. Bush made a disastrous mistake  invading Iraq in 2003. But having busted up the country, he tried his best to  clean up the mess. By checking the spiraling sectarian killing, the surge of  U.S. troops led by Bush and Gen. David Petraeus  saved thousands of Iraqi lives.  It’s one thing that Americans did right in this painful story.


1 Reply
gough whitlam
Senior Contributor

Re: Looking back at a terrible error in modern U.S. history

Where is our resident tea leaf reader, Craig and his brain dead brother?  Surely they could have predicted this.