Iraq and the consequences of an ill-conceived war

American troops are still in Iraq on the 15th anniversary of an invasion, the pretext for which was the entirely trumped-up claim that America’s iconic foe Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The failure of the 2003 invasion and continuing presence of American troops illustrate the importance of aligning ends with means.

The stated objectives of the invasion were to end the Hussein regime; eliminate the weapons of mass destruction; drive out Islamist militants; secure Iraq’s petroleum infrastructure, which was to cover the cost of the war; and create a liberal, representative government that would spark a new age of freedom in the Middle East.

The invasion did change the region; it made things worse. It began on March 19, 2003 and the military campaign was quick and decisive. Baghdad fell on April 9.

But unlike in Las Vegas, what happened in Iraq did not stay in Iraq. The war opened a Pandora’s Box in the Middle East, releasing many demons.

The abrupt fall of Baghdad was accompanied by a full-scale collapse of public order and helped incubate and reinvigorate radical Islamist militants in the region. The invasion contributed to the civil war in Syria, helped create a vacuum that ISIS filled and caused massive refugee flows to Syria, Jordan, and Europe, other than that it was a complete success.

In retrospect, it is hard to overstate the damage the Iraq War did to America’s global prestige, badly damaging America’s Godzilla-like unipolar credentials, and offering the world a pitiless example of the limits to American power. The magnitude of this disaster can also be measured in lives and money.

From 2003 until the formal withdrawal of troops in 2011, the war took the lives of 4,500 Americans and over 150,000 Iraqi civilians. Its direct cost has been estimated to be almost $1.7 trillion, with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans.

The Ronald Reagan question is appropriate here: Is the Middle East better off today than it was before the Iraq war? Is the United States in a better place than before the invasion? In short, unintended consequences resulted in a shattered Iraq, an emboldened Iran, and a Middle East where many regional and international powers are engaged in a number of deadly conflicts.

Then there is the question of opportunity cost – the extent to which the war distracted America from a slew of other challenges, such as emerging nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, China flexing its muscles in East Asia, completing the Afghanistan operation and other global trouble spots.

Fundamentally, the cleavage between the invasion’s ambitious goals and its actual results boils down to the fact that President Bush and his hawkish advisors failed to establish a proper relationship between end and means in their prosecution of the war. The year before the invasion, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki made the point that American troops were already stretched too thin around the world. In February 2003, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would take “several hundred thousand soldiers” to secure and pacify Iraq.

Two days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the post-war troop commitment would be less than the number of troops required to win the war, and the “idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces is far off the mark.” The Bush administration sent 150,000 American troops into Iraq.

Successful strategy in military affairs and business requires the proper alignment between potentially goals and resources. The Bush team aroused sky-high expectations without sufficient resources to meet them.

President Bush and his advisors failed to understand the words of Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz, who wrote, “Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult.” Even great powers operate in a world in which resources are not always sufficient to exploit all opportunities and neutralize all threats. There is never enough of anything to go around.

Originally Published: May 5, 2018