The Lessons Not Learned From Iraq


“War is a stern teacher,” Thucydides wrote nearly 2,500 years ago. Since then, great nations have often sought to learn lessons from the wars they waged, especially bad or stupid wars. But the same can’t really be said of the United States, which invaded Iraq 20 years ago as of Sunday. (March 19, 2003, marked the start of the “shock and awe” air war.)

Considering its long-term effects, the Iraq invasion amounted to one the most consequential strategic misdirections in U.S. history. Yet there has been very little discussion about why that is—and why what happened two decades ago is not a history lesson at all but rather part of an ongoing class in current events.

The hubris and excess of the Iraq invasion—a later iteration of the “reckless audacity” that Thucydides, the Greek historian, ascribed to the warmongering Greeks in the Peloponnesian War—are still with us today, shaping our times. The aftereffects of Iraq dramatically reduced the position of the United States in the Middle East, most recently opening the way to China’s brokering of Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement. The unnecessary diversion into Iraq—and the drain on U.S. resources and attention that resulted from it—set the stage for Washington’s 20-year failure in Afghanistan, which left U.S. President Joe Biden humiliated when he precipitously withdrew all U.S. troops, declaring in August 2021 that he was putting an end to U.S. efforts “to remake other countries.”

The Afghanistan catastrophe in turn projected an image of panicky weakness from which Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have drawn false encouragement by invading Ukraine. (In speeches, Putin has also invoked the Iraq invasion to justify his own.) The self-created disaster of Iraq exposed U.S. military weakness, teaching the rest of the world how to outmaneuver and fight what was once considered an unassailable superpower. It arguably transformed American politics by helping to discredit the political establishment in Washington and open the way for former U.S. President Donald Trump and his “America First” neo-isolationism. Another little-noted domestic effect of the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was that they dramatically worsened America’s opioid crisis, as a poorly prepared Department of Veteran Affairs chronically overprescribed fentanyl and other drugs to wounded and traumatized service members.

So, did any good come out of the Iraq War—a worthwhile lesson or two? Yes, but they’re not terribly encouraging. Indeed, a U.S. Army study found that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” in the war.

Certainly, at least, Iraq is no longer ruled by anti-American tyrant Saddam Hussein. Instead, it is loosely governed by a squabbling collection of corrupt politicians who would likely be anti-American except that if they were, they’d be overthrown (either by Iran or the Islamic State) were it not for the roughly 2,500 U.S. troops who remain there.

Some military experts also believe that the U.S. military learned valuable lessons about the serious limitations of counterinsurgency operations. Even if the original invasion was a mistake, the United States managed to defeat both the Iraqi insurgency and the Islamic State occupation that followed. Still, those were hardly models of success or future strategy, notes C. Anthony Pfaff, a retired Army colonel who teaches at the Army War College. “What I don’t see is turning those operational successes into strategic ones,” he said.

Ironically, the most important lesson to be learned from the initial success of both the Iraqi insurgency and the triumph of the Taliban is how effective insurgencies can be against invading powers, like the French and Norwegians during World War II. “But we don’t like to talk about that too much because then we would be the Nazis,” said David Kilcullen, author of the 2020 book The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West.

Above all, combined with the United States’ earlier experience of losing in Vietnam, the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan proved beyond any remaining doubt that no amount of money and strength by a superpower will change the outcome on the ground without a legitimate government in place. And Washington has found itself unable to implement that in Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

Even that lesson took a long time to learn, said Andrew Wiest, co-director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. Wiest argues that for too long, the United States repeated the same mistakes in Afghanistan—open-ended support to an unsustainable government—that it did in Vietnam. Moreover, “the diversion to Iraq greatly impacted and perhaps even doomed the war in Afghanistan,” he told me in an email. This, Wiest wrote, “has not been debated enough.”

The question is whether any of these lessons will stick since the war is rarely discussed. Even now, there is no serious public debate about what went wrong. This is hardly surprising considering that, starting with Biden, many of the same officials and pundits who supported the invasion are still running things in government and the media. (This includes not only leading Republicans and conservatives but also leading Democrats, such as John Kerry, who is now Biden’s climate envoy.)

Amazingly, even the administration of George W. Bush, which launched the Iraq War, never gave “systemic thought to the fundamental challenge” of terrorism after 9/11, University of Virginia historian Melvyn Leffler writes in a new history, Confronting Saddam Hussein: George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq. As then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote in a memo that was leaked in October 2003, “we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.”

No reliable “metrics” were ever found in the subsequent two decades. “We had all sorts of metrics and were constantly looking for more,” said Pfaff, who served in Army intelligence during the war, but “we could never figure out how to connect those metrics to strategic results.” Neither was any reason ever given for the Iraq invasion other than the administration felt an urgent need to reassert American power after the trauma of 9/11. After it turned out that fears of Saddam’s links to al Qaeda and his supposed cache of weapons of mass destruction were unfounded, the Bush administration pursued a vague, ill-thought-out plan of asserting American power and values in the region. That backfired too; by becoming an occupying power in the heart of the Arab world—often a brutal one, as the torture at Abu Ghraib and other prisons showed—Washington only touched off new waves of terrorism.

“Bush and his advisers never quite grasped that the anti-Americanism coursing through the Islamic world was not a result of Arabs hating American values but a consequence of their resentment of American deeds—Washington’s support of repressive regimes, its embrace of Israel, its sanctions policy in Iraq, its military presences in Muslims’ Holy Land (Saudi Arabia), its quest for oil, and its hegemonic role in their neighborhood,” Leffler writes.

The Iraq invasion “certainly takes the prize for lack of preparation. Yet what preparation there was sucked the air out of the Afghan mission from its beginning,” said James Dobbins, Bush’s former Afghanistan envoy. Harold Koh, a former senior official in the Obama administration, calls this the “original sin” of the war on terrorism after 9/11. “If we hadn’t invaded Iraq—and had we used the resources elsewhere and correctly assessed the situation initially—a lot of this would not have happened,” he told me on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

Kilcullen said another problem is that because so many senior government and military officials signed onto the invasion, there was very little or no accountability afterward. He contrasts this with how other great powers, going back to ancient Rome and the Battle of Cannae, learned from their mistakes. “But that only works if you recognize you’ve been defeated,” Kilcullen said. “One thing we don’t do is punish generals for losing wars.”

Bit by bit, some of the more fervent supporters of the war are coming forward to concede how wrong they were. Among them is Washington Post columnist Max Boot, who once fiercely criticized any dissenters from the plan to invade. “I am a neocon no more,” Boot writes this month in Foreign Affairs, saying, “I now cringe when I read some of the articles I wrote at the time. … In hindsight, that was dangerous naiveté born out of a combination of post-Cold War hubris and post-9/11 alarm.”

Boot—who, as op-ed editor for the Wall Street Journal, published a prescient article by Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, that warned of the coming disaster in Iraq—writes that he “discounted such warnings because I was dazzled by the power of the U.S. military after its victories in the Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan—and dazzled also by the arguments of neoconservative scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami that Iraq offered fertile soil for democracy. In hindsight, I am amazed and appalled that I fell prey to these mass delusions.” Boot also laments the fact that “many of my erstwhile ideological allies have not reached the same conclusions about the folly of regime change.”

Even so, Boot and others tend to ignore or play down the impact that Iraq had on the United States’ failed campaign in Afghanistan. Will Iraq turn out to be America’s Cannae—a folly from which it can still recover, as Rome eventually did when it destroyed Carthage? Or will the disaster of Iraq—and the so-called forever war that came out of it—turn out to be more like a modern-day equivalent of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, where the northern expansion of the Roman Empire was stopped for good at the Rhine by Germanic tribes in 9 A.D.? In other words, the Iraq adventure could prove to mark a decisive endpoint in the expansion of American influence in the Middle East.

Perhaps the best analogy from history, if there is one, is what happened when Roman Emperor Trajan mounted a full-scale invasion in 116 A.D. against the Parthian Empire in what is now Iraq, said Edward Watts, a historian at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny. Four Roman armies managed to capture Ctesiphon (the Parthian and Persian capital on the outskirts of modern Baghdad), but faced with an insurgency, the Romans couldn’t hold the region and Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, pulled out.

“The lesson Rome learned was that it lacked the capacity to absorb the lands in Mesopotamia. That frontier remained a source of tension, with wars erupting with some regularity between Rome and the Parthians and, later, the Persian Empire for the next 500 years,” Watts said. “In a sense, Roman leaders recognized what George H.W. Bush did in 1990. It was—and is—much easier to invade Mesopotamia successfully than it is to hold it or establish a government there on your terms.”

This too has uncomfortable parallels to America’s late experiences in Vietnam and Iraq—especially in the arrogance and fecklessness of Rumsfeld, who was almost Romanesque in his hauteur. Determined to invade Iraq with a minimum number of troops because he believed the Afghan campaign against the Taliban was so easy that it hardly qualified as a war, Rumsfeld embarked on a series of reckless misuses of America’s military. Not only did he fail to follow up on the pursuit of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, which could have ended the entire war against the terrorist group quickly, but he also decided that year to minimize stability operations and confine peacekeeping to Kabul, opening the way for the return of the Taliban. At the same time—while in denial about the Taliban’s growing strength—Rumsfeld turned his attention to making war on Iraq without an occupation plan. Having gone into Iraq, he then remained in denial of the growing insurgency there, which his policies did much to incite when he disbanded the Iraqi army and then treated its castoffs and many other ordinary Iraqi insurgents as terrorists or al Qaeda sympathizers. And as the consequences of Rumsfeld’s inattention to Afghanistan began to emerge in the mid-2000s, he continued to pretend that the country was stable, giving speeches saying how well Afghanistan was doing under America’s “modest footprint.”

If there is any enduring lesson from the Iraq debacle, it may be that—as Biden indicated after pulling out of Afghanistan in 2021—the U.S. military will no longer be at the cutting edge of American influence abroad.

“As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes,” Biden said. U.S. influence will no longer come “through endless military deployments but through diplomacy, economic tools, and rallying the rest of the world for support.”

Perhaps. But the question going forward is whether America’s national security intelligentsia will ever fully grapple with the end of the United States’ total military dominance, the so-called smart bomb era that began with swift victory in the first Gulf War—especially since the return of industrialized warfare in Ukraine means a whole new rethinking is necessary. Without fully learning the lessons of the last few decades, it is doubtful that Washington will ever understand the lessons that lie ahead.