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20 Years Later: Remembering The Disastrous And Failed Iraq War

White House photo by Paul Morse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By , the Mises Institute on May 3, 2023

This spring marks the twentieth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. After an initial frenzy of war fever in the early years of the war, support for the war has since largely evaporated. Nearly two thirds of veterans now say the war was "not worth fighting." Two thirds of American adults say the same thing. Even among Republican veterans, only a minority say the war was worth it.

These numbers are not surprising. The US obviously failed to achieve its stated objectives in Iraq, and the reasons given to justify the initial invasion were either exaggerations or outright lies. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq was never any threat to Americans. Years after the initial invasion, the US regime still couldn't keep the lights in in Iraq, suicide bombings became an epidemic, and the war paved the way for the spread of the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

In fact, the war has been such an obvious failure that its supporters are now routinely on the defensive. We've come a long way from the days when war supporters were denouncing all dissenters as traitors or Saddam-lovers, or as being "with the terrorists." Today, many of the war's supporters studiously avoid mentioning the war at all. But many others have been forced to express "regrets" or even offer half-hearted apologies.

This is all certainly insufficient. A "sufficient" response would be a Church-committee-like Congressional investigation of the war and its supporters. This would be followed by legal authorization of lawsuits against the personal property and estates of government officials who prosecuted the war. This would be followed by a tidal wave of lawsuits by maimed soldiers and the families of Americans killed in the war. Foreigners would be able to sue in federal court, as well. George W. Bush and Paul Bremer should be facing financial ruin as should the heirs of Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.

The odds of all that happening are about zero, unfortunately.  The more attainable goal at hand, however, is to fight to ensure that the Iraq War and its supporters are never rehabilitated by historians, and the war does not go down in history as some sort of "noble but misguided" conflict. Nor should it be forgotten.

The War's Record of Failure

In the wake of 9/11, millions of Americans were primed for war with somebody—anybody—on whom could be pinned the blame for what happened that day. Although Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, a majority of Americans believed it did. Any remotely well-informed person knew this was not the case, but the dominant corporate media did nothing to disabuse the nearly two-thirds of Americans who believed this. Thus, an implied—but never explicitly stated—reason for the war was to combat the terrorists alleged to be within the Hussein regime. To explicitly make the case for the war, however, the US regime falsely claimed the Hussein regime possessed "weapons of mass destruction" (WMDs) it planned to use on Americans. Colin Powell lied to the United Nations about WMDs in an effort to secure international support for the US's planned invasion. Much of the world didn't fall for it, but many Americans certainly did.

The fictional WMDs were the primary justification for the war, but for foreign policy wonks, other justifications were provided as well. The "humanitarian war" myth was used in Iraq as it has been used for most wars in recent decades. The regime insisted Iraqis would be made immensely better off by the war. Further, anti-Iran ideologues pushed the war since they imagined the war could be used to turn the Iraqi regime into a client state that would allow the US to better contain Iran.

Some of the more dedicated prowar ideologues pushed the war as a first step in the forced "democratization" of the world. Iraq, we were told, would be a staging ground for the eventual conversion of the entire Middle East into a region of America-loving liberal democracies. As Sean Yom of the Foreign Policy Research Institute has noted, the Iraq war was part of grand revolutionary global vision in which terrorism and autocracy could be wiped out while also securing access to oil and safety for the State of Israel:

The push for war masked a deeper bipartisan consensus that despotism in the Middle East represented an existential threat to US national interests. Dictatorships bred dissatisfied citizens that could be seduced by the propaganda of terrorist organizations; and friendly democracies, not rapacious autocracies, could be better entrusted with protecting Israel and safeguarding regional oil. Thus, a simplistic logic reigned. If the United States could engender a wave of Middle East democratization, then grateful peoples and the new governments they elected would gladly help satisfy its long-term goals. Such democracy promotion required new diplomatic and economic commitments, such as pressuring governments to curtail repression, ramping up assistance to civil society, and conditioning aid on democratic reforms.
But the keystone was always war. The invasion of Iraq enshrined not just America’s coercive firepower but also the credibility of its liberal commitment. If a post-Saddam Iraq became a shining exemplar of US-built democracy, then every future call for freedom would carry an interminable clause: Democratize, or else we will do it for you.

By these standards, the Iraq War failed in every respect. Obviously, it had nothing to do with 9/11, and thus did not punish any of the perpetrators of terrorism on American soil. Most 9/11 terrorists, after all, had origins within the US regime's ally Saudi Arabia. The WMD's did not exist, and thus the war did not protect any Americans from them. Moreover, the post-war Iraq regime is more supportive of the Iran regime than was the Hussein regime. Iran benefited from the fall of Saddam Hussein. On the humanitarian front, the Iraq war was a mixed bag, at best. The US's callous and incompetent approach to the occupation involved completely disbanding the army which was responsible for keeping domestic civil order and which also offered employment to millions of Iraqis. The subsequent mass unemployment and domestic disorder paved the way for civil war and insurgencies against the United States which also "sucked thousands, if not tens of thousands, of jihadi terrorists into the country." This laid the groundwork for the rise of the so-called Islamic State which swept across northern Iraq in 2014. Those Iraqis who actually survived the American war there now live in an Iraq that is significantly poorer than before the war.

As far as the plan to democratize the world goes, that's a complete failure too. No reasonable person still believes that the United States can swoop in and turn countries into liberal democracies with a "quick and easy" war. That was never anything more than a fantasy among neoconservatives and their allies in the US regime.

Throughout it all, the cost to taxpayers has been at least 1.5 trillion, and if we count future costs of medical care for veterans, it comes to more than 2.5 trillion. Americans are also still paying interest on the enormous debts incurred to finance the war.

It's all been such a failure that even its most dedicated supporters don't even pretend it was a success anymore. Tucker Carlson has fully recanted his earlier warmongering. Perhaps no pundit was more rabid in his support of the war than Max Boot, and even Boot now admits he was wrong, although he couches his "apology" mostly in a book attacking his current enemies in the GOP. Sentiment against the war has even forced George W. Bush to say he "regrets" the war was based on lies—i.e., "flawed" US intelligence on WMDs—although he still can't bring himself to actually apologize for ordering the war. Before his death, Colin Powell admitted he lied about WMDs and said he regrets helping start the war.

The War's Criminality

Note that most of this debate ignores the criminality of the war, and the widespread human rights abuses that were both directly and indirectly due to the war. The US regime has even tacitly admitted its agents would be found guilty of war crimes were it subject to international tribunals. This is why the US has always refused to participate in the International Criminal Court treaty. This was recently brought to the fore again when the US government was asked to help the ICC prosecute Vladimir Putin over war crimes allegedly committed in the Ukraine War. The US has refused because "the [US] defence department is firmly opposed on the grounds that the precedent could eventually be turned against US soldiers."

Indeed, the US has long opposed the ICC. As reported by The Hill:

[T]he US maintains that no US official is subject to the ICC. Why is this? Because the US knows that if its were held to the same standards as Putin, the US officials would likely be charged as war criminals by the ICC.

The US, of course, claims to be the arbiter of a "rules-based international order," yet it is apparent the US invasion of Iraq violated the very standards of national sovereignty that the US now invokes as the foundation of its case against the Russian invasion.

To illustrate the true brutality of the US war, we could point to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the leveling of Fallujah, the use of depleted uranium on civilians, and the admitted war crimes committed by US soldiers and US-paid mercenaries.

This aspect of the war is rarely mentioned even by those who now disavow their former support. It's easy to see why. Now that the war's failures are obvious, the human rights abuses that occurred under the US's watch appear all the more pointless and gratuitous.

The Revisionist Imperative

It is important to reiterate the moral and practical failures of the war because the debate over the war is far from over.

Although opinion has overwhelmingly turned against the war for now, it still has its defenders. Victor Davis Hansen, for example, continues to make excuses for the war and has switched to a morally questionable consequentialist claim that some "positive outcomes" from the war justify the lies and carnage. A survey of US senators shows that certain GOP partisans still defend the war: Senators Marco Rubio, Chuck Grassley, and Thom Tillis all apparently believe the war was worth it.

Just because scholarship on the war has turned against the war today, however, doesn't mean this can't change. Historical narratives on wars often swing back and forth over time. As historian Hunt Tooley has pointed out, historical debates about long-over wars continue for decades. Moreover, since the general public rarely reads serious history books, the popular interpretation of the known historical facts can always be twisted or rewritten to reflect current political goals and narratives.

Thus, it remains important to not let up on condemnations of the war and those who supported it. It was a failure in every way. It sowed the seeds of further terrorism and violence. It plunged the US even deeper into debt and inflationary spending. Above all, the war's failures must be remembered the next time the regime tells us it needs yet another war to punish evil and "keep us safe."

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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