March 19 marks twenty years since the U.S.-led “Coalition of the Willing” invaded Iraq, toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and beginning America’s most controversial conflict since Vietnam. The purpose of the invasion, finding Saddam Hussein’s presumed stockpile of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ never found anything conclusive, just a lot of evidence that Saddam had lost most of his capability to produce poison gas and large numbers of ballistic missiles after the U.S. bombing campaign in 1998. Saddam kept up the bluff of his WMDs more because he feared Iran than the U.S. and he apparently did not actually think the U.S. would invade.
He was wrong and ultimately paid for it with the loss of his regime and his life, but the U.S. did not experience the triumph of remaking the Middle East that the Bush Administration intended. It seems stunning now to analyze the myriad of false and quite frankly naïve assumptions made by the U.S. The Iraqis did not, in fact, welcome us as liberators, and they were not interested in establishing a multi-party democracy. Instead, the U.S. was faced with a growing insurgency that the Administration and military leadership did not want to acknowledge until the growing U.S. casualties and daily televised violence brought home the fact that the U.S. was not going to simply go home and turn over the rebuilding of Iraq to the United Nations.
As the Bush Administration, and quite frankly the military leadership floundered, the other war in Afghanistan become an ‘economy of force’ conflict as Iraq consumed vast amounts of U.S. military resources, allowing the Taliban to regroup from their near demise. 2006 became the critical year in the first decade of the so-called ‘Global War on Terror’ as Iraq threatened to sink into full-scale sectarian civil war and the Taliban launched a ferocious offensive in Kandahar and Helmand Provinces that presaged their comeback as a military force.
Yet, in perhaps the decisive and most controversial decision of his Administration, President Bush in 2007 decided to double down in Iraq with the “Surge”- sending thousands of American troops with a new mission and a new strategy to defeat both the Sunni insurgency and the government-sponsored Shite terror squads tearing the country apart. With the surreptitious timing of an uprising by the Sunni tribes fueling the insurgency that allowed the Americans to drive a wedge between the Al Qaeda leadership and the tribal elders, the U.S. managed to end most of the insurgent activity, but only after hard fighting. Likewise, by bringing immense pressure against the Shite-dominated government, the worst of the abuses against Sunni populations were curbed, at least for a while.
But the gains the Surge allowed were quickly diminished when the incoming Obama Administration essentially abandoned Iraq, trying to divert American attention to Afghanistan and the ‘good war.’ Unfortunately, the widespread changes in the Middle East in 2011-2012 brought about the growth of ISIS and Obama reluctantly chose to send U.S. forces back to Iraq to prevent its fall. To their credit, the Iraqis stood and resisted ISIS as the Afghans seemed to fall apart in the face of the Taliban assault a decade later, and ISIS was eventually ground back to a terrorist force.
So where is Iraq today? Was the war a slow but long-lasting victory or the greatest debacle in American foreign policy of the last 20 years? Well, the verdict seems to be still out on that. Millions of Americans served honorably, and continue to serve in Iraq, and the country is a reasonably functioning democracy. But the influence of Iran is still significant and their relationship with America is still uncertain. Thanks to the reluctant decisions of both Presidents Bush and Obama, Iraq was saved from civil war or destruction by ISIS, a stark contrast to the way that President Biden abandoned Afghanistan, but whether the war and its hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American casualties was beneficial to long-term U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East remains to be seen.