print logo


A Magazine of Ideas

Hindsight Isn’t 20/20

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Many lessons should be drawn from the U.S. experience in Iraq. Unfortunately, we’re not learning what we should.

Peggy Noonan has earned a reputation as one of America’s most influential columnists, and her recent Wall Street Journal article “Can the Republican Party Recover From Iraq?” was provocative as usual. She asks rhetorically, "Did the Iraq war hurt the GOP?" and goes on to answer, "Yes. The war, and the crash of '08 half killed it."

Noonan isn’t the only one lobbing criticism in this vein. In a reference to the war on terror, the New York Times’s David Brooks recently stated, "Bush’s effort to replicate the Reagan war on an evil empire led to humiliation, not triumph." Republican Senator Rand Paul introduced an amendment in 2011 to repeal the authorization of military force in Iraq and has termed the Iraq War "a tragedy." Criticisms such as these should be taken seriously so that Republicans and others concerned about the direction of our foreign policy are prepared for future battles at home and abroad.

However, much of the discussion surrounding the recent 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion provided no alternative strategy for how we should have dealt with the Iraq problem. Revisiting Iraq is important because it can teach us lessons, but the jury is out as to whether we are learning what we should.

The Iraq war did damage the standing of President Bush and the GOP. By relying almost exclusively on the widely shared belief that there were existing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the administration downplayed other critical issues involving Saddam Hussein and Iraq dating back decades. Failure to call attention to those issues was a mistake, not only because they would have made the case for going to war stronger, but they also might have helped to sustain support for war as conditions on the ground deteriorated. An abbreviated history of the prelude to the 2003 war is necessary here.

Background to the Iraq War

In her column, Noonan, as she often does, referred to Reagan's success in dealing with the Cold War. But she either forgets or was unaware that Iraq was already becoming a problem during Reagan’s presidency. Saddam invaded Iran in 1980, starting a war that killed hundreds of thousands. In 1981, Iraq had almost completed its Osirak nuclear reactor when Israel bombed it. Beginning in 1988, Saddam initiated his Anfal campaign, a genocidal attack on Iraq’s Kurds that included the use of chemical weapons.

After the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi aggression in 1991, UN inspectors discovered that Saddam’s reinvigorated nuclear weapons program had gone far beyond where it had been in 1981 and far beyond where Western intelligence agencies, including the CIA, had believed that it was. The United States assisted in producing 16 United Nations resolutions aimed at reducing the threat Saddam posed to the region and to the people of Iraq. Despite those resolutions, Saddam continued to suppress internal dissent (including, it was discovered after his overthrow, with the use of chemical weapons), expelled UN weapons inspectors, fired regularly at U.S. planes enforcing the no-fly zone, gave refuge to one of the men who mixed the chemicals for the first Word Trade Center bombing, and drained Iraq’s southern marshes in an act of genocide against the Marsh Arabs, while filling the ground with mass graves.

By relying almost exclusively on the widely shared belief that there were existing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the administration downplayed other critical issues.

In a rare display of bipartisanship in 1998, the House and the Senate passed the Iraq Liberation Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, which called for the U.S. to “support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” When Saddam continued to refuse to admit the UN inspectors, the president initiated an intensive four-day bombing campaign of Iraq that December, declaring that “if Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future ... he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.”

UN Resolution 1441, adopted in 2002, outlined complaints about the Iraqi government, including its support for terrorist organizations, vast human rights abuses, and violation of the terms of UN inspections. Once the coalition invaded, the world learned of the UN oil for food scandal as well as many activities of Saddam’s sons, who were his presumed successors.

Although the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), which did the exhaustive investigation of Saddam’s WMD programs, did not find the stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons or the active nuclear program that were anticipated in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous speech to the UN, it did find that Saddam intended to “recreate Iraq’s WMD capability” as soon as the external restrictions were removed. He had “directed a large budget increase for the IAEC [Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission] and increased salaries tenfold” in the two years preceding the war. Under Saddam’s sons’ orders, one of Iraq’s leading nuclear physicists, Mahdi Obeidi, planted a drum barrel in his backyard containing centrifuge parts as well as designs, in an effort to preserve a degree of know-how for reconstituting a nuclear weapons program, as Obeidi detailed in his book The Bomb in My Garden.

After Saddam was captured, FBI agent George Piro questioned him for months. Close to the end of the interrogation, Saddam was asked about his future weapons plans if he had remained in power. As Piro subsequently told CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Saddam divulged that he intended to produce weapons of mass destruction again someday. “The folks that he needed to reconstitute his program are still there ... he wanted to reconstitute his entire WMD program,” Piro said, meaning chemical, biological, and even nuclear weapons.

Noonan, as she often does, referred to Reagan's success in dealing with the Cold War. But she either forgets or was unaware that Iraq was already becoming a problem during Reagan’s presidency.

Moreover, the ISG found numerous violations of the Resolution 1441 requirement that Saddam make a full and complete disclosure of all of his WMD activities, including “information that the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) maintained throughout 1991 to 2003 a set of undeclared covert laboratories to research and test various chemicals and poisons.”

In short, with or without stockpiles of WMD, Saddam had failed to comply with what was supposed to be the final attempt to disarm him peacefully. He remained dangerous and deeply hostile toward the United States. Saddam, it should be remembered, was the only leader of any government to openly applaud the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The Bush administration should have emphasized Saddam’s whole dark history instead of focusing so much on stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

A Real Postmortem

If a confrontation with Iraq was inevitable at some point, the question becomes not whether it was wise to resist Iraqi aggression but how the coalition should have managed its strategy. Why didn’t the United States adopt a counterinsurgency strategy more quickly, for example, along the lines of the one that proved so successful under General David Petraeus’s leadership? Should the United States have established an occupation government under the Coalition Provisional Authority headed by Ambassador Paul Bremer, which diminished the role Iraqis could play in their own future? This is the kind of postmortem that would be helpful.

Given the success of the surge, Iraq now has a chance to achieve a representative society. The analogy to Korea may be useful here. The Korean War was highly unpopular during President Truman’s presidency. South Korea’s journey has taken time, yet Korean citizens have participated in the maturation of their democracy. Unfortunately, whereas President Eisenhower maintained the U.S. presence in Korea despite campaigning against that unpopular war, President Obama abandoned Iraq with results that are already beginning to look quite dangerous.

Assisting people who need our help is not imposing our democratic ideas on others.

Noonan and Brooks are correct when they praise President Reagan's handling of adversaries and support of our friends. But managing the Cold War admittedly required a different strategy than dealing with rogue nations and groups after the attacks of 9/11 had demonstrated how dangerous such actors could be. Moreover, Reagan did support others who promoted our interests and ideals. The “Reagan Doctrine" aided resistance movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Assisting people who need our help is not imposing our democratic ideas on others. In contrast, President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton failed to offer even moral support to Iranian protesters during the 2009-10 Green Movement. That failure to support those who needed us has contributed to the failure of the attempted dialogue with Iran’s leadership regarding nuclear weapons.

Ignoring initial warning signs can set the stage for later disaster. This is becoming apparent in recent revelations about the situation in Benghazi. Ignored requests from Ambassador Chris Stevens for additional security from the State Department contributed to four deaths on September 11, 2012. Had Secretary Clinton acted on the warning signs of a dangerous security situation in Libya, that tragedy might have been avoided.

The administration’s failure to respond in a serious way to the initial turmoil in Syria may do even more damage to U.S. interests in the long term. Had action been taken at a much earlier stage (with no need for American “boots on the ground”), it is possible that Iran's chief proxy in the region, Bashar Al-Assad, would not still be president and jihadists would not now be filling the power vacuum. Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary Clinton, and, most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry have each been turned down by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when they have asked him to halt Iranian weapons shipments to Syria through Iraqi air space. This should not come as a surprise, given how President Obama denied his generals’ advice to allow for a larger remaining presence in Iraq than the 5,000 he decided to offer and which failed to gain Iraqi agreement.

The Iraq Survey Group found that Saddam intended to ‘recreate Iraq’s WMD capability’ as soon as the external restrictions were removed.

Now the infamous “red line” President Obama has drawn with regard to Syria’s use of chemical weapons is being washed away by the blood of thousands dead and wounded. However, this has not stopped conservative writers such as George Will from endorsing Obama’s actions. Will’s May 1 column, “Obama is Right on Syria,” states: “Obama is muddled about his own red lines but he is rightly cautious about what it is possible to know about the Assad regime’s behavior.” But there is a difference between prudent caution and timidity. If Israel had been similarly timid about bombing the North Korean nuclear reactor in Syria six years ago, we might be dealing now with a Syria possessing nuclear as well as chemical weapons.

Unfortunately, Obama’s timidity appears to be leading to a Syria divided between an Assad regime propped up by Iran and Hezbollah and jihadist revolutionaries supported by Persian Gulf plutocrats. More moderate elements, which could have been friendly to U.S. interests, have been undermined by their failure to get any serious U.S. support. That is a failure for which Obama, Clinton, and Kerry are responsible.

Yesterday and Tomorrow

As interesting as it may be to debate the past, voters care more about our future prospects for economic strength and national security. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had nothing bold to offer with regard to foreign affairs. He proved unable to engage President Obama on the issue of Benghazi, where the president and his administration — including possible future candidate Hillary Clinton — should have been held to account. The last two presidential elections have been lost to Obama because both of his opponents ran timid campaigns.

The truth is that a strong foreign policy assists America's domestic agenda. At no point in history has the United States been more connected to the world than it is now. Our military alliances, trade policy, and technological openness demand that isolationism be thrown into history's landfill.

Obama’s naivete in handling America’s withdrawal from Iraq, his “leading from behind” in Libya, and his indifference to the developing disaster in Syria, will have serious consequences for U.S. interests. But if the GOP drifts further from serious engagement on national security issues it will continue to cost the party dearly.

Freedom House estimates there were 54 countries in the world classified as “free” in 1981; by 2011 that number had jumped to 87. For the United States, this means more alliances, greater economic opportunities, and more shared interests. The GOP should be emphasizing global participation on many levels.

If the GOP drifts further from serious engagement on national security issues it will continue to cost the party dearly.

Instead, in 2011, referring to humanitarian aid to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa, Ron Paul stated: “I think the aid is all worthless.” This is the kind of myopia Republicans cannot afford. One of George W. Bush’s chief accomplishments was his PEPFAR initiative. The program prevented around a million deaths in Africa. Paul may be indifferent to this, and it is important to make certain U.S. aid is used as intended, but diseases and human migration affect more than the regions where viruses originate, and there is an element of self-interest in fighting these diseases overseas. Not every global initiative in which the United States engages involves combat. Indeed, most don’t. However, a provincial mentality in areas of education, immigration, technology, and national security should not suffice for the Republican Party.

While Republicans may debate these issues, the GOP should at least be more adept at persuading citizens that a lopsided reliance on drones and a policy of downplaying security threats in places such as Benghazi do not serve our best interests.

If isolationists within the Republican Party want to argue history, fine. Let’s not be afraid to have that discussion. Those who believe that Saddam should have been left in power can continue to claim that "we had him in a box" and those of us who disagree have photos of the mass graves to make our case. But either way, the GOP must defend a robust foreign and national security policy.

Thomas Chiapelas lives in St. Louis and is a director for a Chicago-based capital markets firm. He can be emailed at

FURTHER READING: Jay Hallen writes “Time for an Independent Kurdistan,” Paul Wolfowitz contributes “Iraq: It's Too Soon to Tell,” Danielle Pletka notes “A Pivotal Fight in Syria. U.S. AWOL Per Usual,” and Michael Rubin explains “The Iranian Elections Don’t Matter. Here’s What Does.

Image by Diana Ingram / Bergman Group