Analysis: The never-ending debate on Iraq invasion

10 years out, was the invasion of Iraq worth it?

Iraq bomb 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Saad shalash )
Iraq bomb 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Saad shalash )
Did it make sense for the US to go to war in Iraq? Although one might think that 10 years after the invasion, a consensus might be emerging on the issue, nothing of the kind has developed.
At most, one can say that those defending the war’s worthiness are more on the defensive with their explanations than those condemning it as an error.
Those condemning the war as a failure after 10 years have a simpler case on the numbers.
More 100,000 Iraqis were killed, including 4,500 Americans, far more than in the US on September 11, 2001, and estimates are that around $1.7 trillion was spent on the war.
Few also debate whether today’s Iraq is what the US wanted.
The current Iraq, despite 10 years of attempts at mediation, is as firmly divided as it ever was. The Iraqi president, Nuri al-Maliki, is viewed by most in the West as irredeemably sectarian, trying to use every lever at his disposal to empower Shi’ites at the expense of the large Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Maliki’s latest stage has been to increasingly persecute many of the Sunnis in the government as terrorists on charges that most of the West finds unconvincing and politically motivated.
In response, even many Sunnis who were leaders in the Awakening Movement to aid the central government with reining in al-Qaida and putting down the insurrection that shook the country only a few years ago, have turned against the government as being too anti-Sunni.
Many Sunnis view Maliki as president of the Shi’ites and not president of Iraq.
He has also increasingly been at odds with Kurdish Iraqis, who talk more and more openly about seceding from the rest of the country.
In terms of foreign policy coordination, Iraq remains much closer to Iran than the US would like.
More specifically, reports indicate that Iraq has been instrumental in allowing Iran to use its territory and airspace to supply weapons and aid to help Syria’s President Bashar Assad stay in power against a mostly Sunni rebellion.
The US has clearly taken the side of the Syrian rebels and has repeatedly pressed Iraq to shut off Iran’s route to aiding Assad, but to no avail.
So lots of people died on all sides, tons of money was wasted on projects which mostly never came to fruition (like a special, new Western-modeled police force that was recently disbanded) and Iraq often does not act cooperatively with the US, even on major foreign policy priorities like Syria.
What was the point? The answers from the defenders are as wide-ranging as the differing reasons Iraq invasion planners and administrators decided to go to war.
The deputy Pentagon chief during the invasion, Paul Wolfowitz, says that 10 years is too early to judge whether Iraq will become a functioning and consolidated democracy.
In a recent interview with Britain’s Sunday Times, he said, “We still don’t know how all this is all going to end.
With the Korean War, it is amazing how different Korea looks after 60 years than it looked after 10 or even 30.”
His comments reflect the school of thought that says the purpose of the invasion was to create a new democracy in the center of the Middle East for other nations to copy and aspire to.
While Wolfowitz would not argue Iraq is there yet, he is saying it is still too soon to judge in terms of history.
George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, focuses on the weapons of mass destruction issue.
In a recent presentation on the intelligence failures leading up to the invasion, he did not directly defend the invasion as much as try to explain how difficult it would have been to conclude that there were no weapons of mass destruction.
As Hadley, and Bush himself noted in 2008 in one of his last interviews as president, intelligence agencies worldwide all believed Iraq had an advanced nuclear weapons program and then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was feeding suspicions by hiding all sorts of details from nuclear weapons inspectors.
Hadley essentially said that the US would have needed to have guessed that Hussein was bluffing everyone in order to deter aggression from Iran, by making the Iranians think he was close to nuclear weapons.
Hadley appears to suggest this was not realistic, and others have noted that the immediate near-term failures in US intelligence were failures to be suspicious and aggressive enough to prevent the September 11, 2001, attacks, and prevent Pakistan from getting nuclear weapons and also from trading them all over the world.
The argument is that asking the question in retrospect about invading is not a fair one, because all that matters is that the decision was correct based on the available knowledge at the time it was made.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair and former Bush administration deputy national security adviser Meghan O’Sullivan round out the defenders, opining that if not for the invasion, Iraq would be much worse.
They say that the Arab Spring which has led to civil wars across the region would have swept through Iraq anyway and that far more would have died, or that Hussein would have developed nuclear weapons, as the invasion just happened to catch him at a point where he had temporarily paused that pursuit.
Eventually, in 30 or 60 years, the debate may be fully resolved, with Iraq becoming a failed state or changing direction and becoming a maturing democracy, but by that time the issue will have been off the radar screen of most people for a long time, and many in the next generations may barely know about the debate.
Such controversy is often the fate of debates on events with both immense historical significance and significance for the next foreign policy issue.
Still, 10 years out, the debate itself is important and some stronger conclusions can be drawn to inform decisions about interventions in Libya, Syria and wherever the next crisis opens up.