What is the most important lesson of the Iraq War? (2023)

What is the most important lesson of the Iraq War? (1)

(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

No era-defining event, least of all a bloody and grinding decade of war, contains only one lesson for public policymakers and the society they represent. But the search for an overarching moral to the story is a valuable exercise, and we have asked some of the sharper minds on matters of war and peace to do just that. Here are their answers.

Eli Lake:
At the 20-year anniversary of the war in Iraq, there may be readers who expect an apology from those of us who supported the ending of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad. After all, by conservative estimates, the war cost more than $2 trillion. Since 2003, Iraq was beset by two fanatic insurgencies that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, not to mention thousands of American soldiers. What has all that blood and treasure purchased?


The short answer is that the war made possible a flawed and corrupt democratic state in the middle of the Arab and Islamic world. Iraq today has much work to do, but the country itself is in far better shape than when it was ruled by a crime family.

And here is where most of the war retrospectives get it wrong: by treating the U.S. invasion under George W. Bush as the country’s “intervention” in Iraq. America had already intervened in Iraq by 2003. The technical justification for the 2003 invasion was Iraq’s failure to comply with the 17th United Nations Security Council resolution. All of those resolutions were an outgrowth of the ceasefire that ended the first Gulf War. That ceasefire required Saddam to demonstrate that his regime had dismantled the stocks of chemical and biological weapons, as well as the nuclear weapons program it had possessed in 1991. Saddam never did.

Saddam’s defiance, the final report of U.S. weapons inspectors would conclude, was driven by his fear that Iran and his own population would topple his regime if the secret got out that he no longer possessed the weapons of mass destruction he pretended he had. It would have been nice had the CIA deciphered this strategy before the war. But its failure to read the Iraqi tyrant’s mind is not evidence of state deception, as so many critics of the war believe to this day.

What is the most important lesson of the Iraq War? (2)

(AFP via Getty Images)

America was also patrolling the skies in both northern and southern Iraq. This was because after coalition forces drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, Saddam turned his forces on the Kurdish and Shiite populations. To stop that atrocity, George H.W. Bush agreed to police no-fly zones.

Also, the United States and its allies were trying to keep a collapsing sanctions regime in place. Saddam was openly defying the weapons inspectors, yet even U.S. allies wanted to soften and ultimately lift the sanctions kept in place despite his defiance.

This was a thorny foreign policy challenge before 9/11. But after the terrorist attacks of that day, the Iraq problem took on more urgency. While there is no evidence that Saddam’s regime played a role in 9/11, he was nonetheless a leading sponsor of international terrorism.


That was the context of Bush’s decision to launch a war that resulted in a new Iraqi constitution and, to this date, six successive elections. Iraqis and Americans have paid a great price for those accomplishments in the last 20 years. It’s fair to say that the gains were not worth the price. It’s also fair to argue that America was not capable of managing the reconstruction of a country as complex as Iraq.

That said, one must account for the alternative of leaving Saddam in power. Before the war, in an interview with Charlie Rose, the late Christopher Hitchens predicted vicious ethnic violence in Iraq following the war. But he said he still supported the intervention because that violence was inevitable after the fall of the dictator. Hitchens argued what many believed: One way or the other, America would be sucked into the abyss created by Saddam’s misrule.

Eli Lake is a contributing editor at Commentary magazine and host of the Re-Education podcast.

W. James Antle III:
The lesson presidents appear to have learned from the Iraq War is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a political one: If you are going to attempt any Iraq-like projects abroad, keep the use of American ground troops to an absolute minimum.

That’s why Barack Obama was able to repeat a central error of Iraq in Libya less than a decade later, regime change with no thought to what would happen once the dictator was gone, while paying a fraction of the political price. The deaths of Americans at the consulate in Benghazi was a major scandal, but the relative lack of U.S. military casualties from that intervention made leaving behind a Libya that was teeming with jihadis less so.

Donald Trump argues he is the only recent president not to start any wars while in office. But he kept a lot of little ones going that seldom aroused the passions of even the anti-war Left because the U.S. military footprint was so small. Under President Joe Biden, the United States is deeply involved in the war in Ukraine against nuclear-armed Russia, but not with troops. It was the deaths of 13 service members, on the other hand, that more than anything else led the public to turn against Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal.

Compassion for our own men and women serving to protect us is both understandable and honorable. But presidents have been slower to embrace another vital Iraq lesson related to why George W. Bush once campaigned against “nation-building” in the first place. Or why Colin Powell warned him about the “Pottery Barn rule”: You break it, you buy it.

The bottom line is that it is much easier to break things than to fix them, whether we are talking about military targets, complex systems, or entire cultures.

If our political leaders learned this, they would be more reluctant to engage in things like the Iraq War in the first place rather than try to keep them “unbelievably small,” as John Kerry once promised of a proposed Obama-era Syria intervention, or wage them by proxy.

Things built up with great care over time can be destroyed quickly and not so easily reconstituted. The most important lesson from Iraq may also be the most conservative one.

W. James Antle III is theWashington Examiner’spolitics editor.

Garrett Exner:
Iraqi freedom from Saddam Hussein came at a significant cost to the United States. Thousands of our heroes lost their lives, many more were injured, and billions of dollars were spent. Those who served in the war find solace in knowing they stood alongside their brothers and sisters when our country called. But the critical lesson of the war remains the fact that our military is a fighting force that shouldn’t be tasked with nation-building.

For most of 2007, four years after the removal of the Baath Party from power, Alpha Company 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines patrolled the streets of Barwanah, a dusty suburb of Haditha in western Iraq. I am honored to have been among them. Temperatures hovered near 120 degrees that summer as the Marine patrols worked to pacify the city and stretched their presence into the surrounding towns. Most days, we weren’t hunting terrorists, certainly none who posed a direct threat to our homeland, and were instead acting as a police force in a foreign country. This is neither what the U.S. Marine Corps is meant to do nor what our nation expects it to do.


The choice between democracy-building and isolationism is a false one. A small contingent of U.S. military, with air and intelligence support, has been working to destabilize a terrorist network in southern Somalia for over a decade. Whether or not Somalia ever becomes a democracy is irrelevant to the U.S.’s interest there, which is preventing terrorists in Somalia from possessing the capability to touch the homeland or our citizens abroad. Though this model of detaching counterterrorism from state-building was successful in East Africa, it was never applied in Iraq or Afghanistan. The mission in western Iraq had drifted away from the direct interests of the U.S. before Alpha Company even arrived.

What is the most important lesson of the Iraq War? (3)

(Felipe Dana/AP Photo)

U.S. foreign policy must be effective and efficient. Nation-building is neither. Americans desired safety in the wake of 9/11, leading the world’s greatest military to topple an evil regime in just 21 days. In doing so, it was acting solely in the interests of its people. Rather than shifting to nation-building, the U.S. should have remained committed to killing terrorists, destabilizing their support networks, and preventing the reconstitution of threats to our homeland. The military has done this effectively in many places around the globe, and Iraq could have and should have been one of them.

Garrett Exner is a member of the Advisory Council at Veterans on Duty and the executive director of the Public Interest Fellowship in Washington, D.C. He previously served as a staffer to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), as a counterterrorism policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and as a special operations officer in the Marine Corps. He deployed twice to Operation Iraqi Freedom and had subsequent deployments to North Africa, East Africa, and the South Pacific.

Abe Greenwald:
The most important lesson of the Iraq War is that American foreign policy is inevitably determined bydomestic politics. Because George W. Bush was a controversial president from the moment he was elected, his ability to sustain popular support for the war would suffer grievously. While most of the country was in favor of the Iraq War at its start, Bush was only ever extended a sliver of goodwill. And when the insurgency arose in the spring of 2003 and the war went bad, that sliver vanished. Although a successful troop surge and innovative counterinsurgency strategy would follow, it was too late to salvage support for the war.

Barack Obama campaigned on ending the war, was elected president, and followed through. His administration failed to negotiate a new status of forces agreement with Baghdad and keep a relatively small but sufficient number of American troops in a then-pacified Iraq. We withdrew in 2011, and the country predictably and tragically unraveled. The dregs of a defeated al Qaeda in Iraq were allowed to regroup and gain strength. Changing its name to the Islamic State, it cut a deadly and destabilizing path across the region.

The United States made many mistakes in Iraq, from our bad intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to our misguided de-Baathification policy, which birthed the insurgency. But the need to pay attention to domestic politics is the biggest lesson because domestic politics dictate whether we overcome wartime challenges with sober judgment or lose our will and succumb to them.

This is especially, critically, important today. Russia’s war of conquest is now more than a year old, public opinion is turning against U.S. support for Ukraine, and a familiar sense of fatigue is seeping into our policy discussions. In certain precincts of both the Left and the Right, the vital campaign to defeat Putin’s forces is being cast as President Joe Biden’s reckless crusade. Biden, therefore, must give Ukraine whatever it needs to take back its country before our politics foreclose on the possibility. ISIS was hell on Earth. A world in which a victorious Vladimir Putin, and, by extension, Xi Jinping, goes unchecked will be worse.

Abe Greenwald is the executive editor of Commentary.

Shadi Hamid:
To most Americans today, the stupidity, immorality, and destructiveness of the Iraq War seem almost too obvious. It goes without saying, so we’ve stopped saying it. Like a lot of things from the pre-Trump era, it feels like a relic of a different time. But how different was it?

I try to think sometimes of how the war would have transpired if Twitter had existed in 2002 or 2003. At the time, the post-9/11 discourse was still suffocating. A far less democratized public square was subjected to the unofficial regulation of gatekeepers. For the most part, if you were angry about the war, you basically had two options: You could protest physically, or you could try to write something for a small-circulation leftist website. In some ways, cancel culture was worse then, even if it wasn’t as common. The last thing anyone wanted was to be perceived as a self-hating American or, worse, an apologist for terror.

What is the most important lesson of the Iraq War? (4)

(Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

Imagine if the New York Times had been woke-ified by then. I would have given thanks to the lord. After all, however ridiculous wokeness may be, it appears to be correlated with skepticism about America — and, by extension, American power. In this alternate woke history, would there have been as many columns and articles that unquestioningly went along with the preferred narrative? Probably not. If Twitter had existed, more people would have been exposed to a counternarrative that held that even if America could be a force for good, it didn’t necessarily play that role, especially in the Middle East.

A clear congressional majority voted to authorize military force, including 29 of 50 Senate Democrats. Much of the public, also cutting across party lines, supported the invasion to one degree or another, reaching a high of over 70% in March 2003. Today, many voters long for “bipartisan consensus,” but the Iraq War, 20 years on, should remind them that consensus is overrated.

As a sophomore in college, I was energized by the anti-war movement. In some ways, it was the first movement that I ever truly felt part of. I’m often criticized for being a contrarian. In that case, though, my contrarian sensibilities served me well. But my evolving position became increasingly difficult for others to understand, and I soon found myself labeled a “neocon.” I thought the war was stupid and deeply destructive. But I also thought that George W. Bush was a good man, and I appreciated his belief that the United States, after propping up Arab authoritarian regimes for decades, could atone for its sins by putting (nonmilitary) pressure on those regimes to open up their political systems. This was the so-called Freedom Agenda. I sometimes joke that my ideal foreign policy would have been the Freedom Agenda minus the Iraq War. But politics, like life, is about trade-offs. Good things don’t necessarily go together.

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea. Read more of his work on the subject at shadihamid.substack.com.

Timothy P. Carney:
An unwise federal program with overly ambitious goals proved a political disaster, failed expectations, and overran all cost estimates in terms of lives, time, and money. This outcome surprises nobody who knows how government works.

Nor was it shocking that advocates of this massive central planning undertaking would vilify their opposition.

Here’s what should baffle us: The leading figures in the pro-war movement called themselves “conservatives.”

The main lesson of the Iraq War is one that every conservative should have already known: Dramatic changes to complex systems will yield unexpected results, most of which are bad.

The corollary lesson is this: Intolerance of dissent and debate on crucial decisions increases the odds of bad decision-making.

Champions of the Iraq War believed they could depose a tyrant and be greeted as liberators. They believed that by deploying the best and the brightest into the war-torn vacuum, they could build a liberal democracy where a Muslim dictatorship once stood.

The Iraq War dragged on for years and years, like almost every other major government undertaking — just orders of magnitude costlier and deadlier. Nation-building in Iraq failed, like every prior utopian undertaking to reshape society in the image of those who think they know best.

Conservatives are supposed to be averse to central planning, not because we like disorder or find something charming in the hodgepodge but because we believe central planning yields bad results. We believe that central planning yields bad results because knowledge is distributed and because power corrupts.

Conservatives also know that culture matters and that governments and other institutions need to grow organically in certain cultural settings. Yet a Republican administration tried to staple a Madisonian democracy onto a culture that lacked grounding in Judeo-Christian values, anglophone liberalism, Roman republicanism, and Greek democracy. That’s something you would do only if you saw humans as interchangeable bundles of rights and needs — which is not how conservatives view people.

The war’s champions also rejected conservative lessons in how they conducted their case for the war and instead leaned on fearmongering. “Facing clear evidence of peril,” President George W. Bush said in 2002, “we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

Screaming We need massive government action now or everyone will die is a tactic befitting radicals — see climate alarmists and COVID lockdowners — who want to shut down debate. Conservatism proper is based in intellectual humility. Intellectual humility requires open debate and acknowledging the possibility you are wrong.


Calling your debate counterparts “unpatriotic” and telling dissenters they will have blood on their hands is not the behavior of the intellectually humble.

The lessons of the war — the need for humility, the centrality of culture, and the perils of dramatic changes to complex systems — were lessons no conservative should have had to learn.

Timothy P. Carney is the senior political columnist at theWashington Examinerand a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author ofAlienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.

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