The Best Thing I Can Say About the Iraq War

Steve Saideman on why the decision to invade Iraq was a bad one, but not the worst.
By: /
March 19, 2013
2013_03_The-Best-Thing-I-Can-Say-About-the-Iraq-War.jpg

The best thing I can say about the Iraq war is that it is not the Single Worst Decision In The History of American Foreign Policy ™ despite the tremendous costs.  No, I reserve that title for the decision to disband the Iraqi Army in May of 2003.  One can still argue about the merits of invading Iraq – that in 2003, there were some positives, many negatives, and much uncertainty (unknowns of all kinds).  But there is no ambiguity about disbanding the Iraqi military – there was no upside and the downside was easily knowable.  So, as we look back ten years, let’s be clear about what was only perhaps awful and what was certainly awful.

To be fair to the Bush administration (which I rarely am), the situation in 2002-03 was difficult. The sanctions regime against Hussein was breaking down.  The French, Russians and others were increasingly willing to let Hussein off the hook, with more resistance on renewing the mandates for the sanctions.  This was the case even though it was pretty clear that Hussein would go back to building weapons of mass destruction.  And properly enforcing the sanctions was increasingly problematic, as the U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia were one of the key justifications for al-Qaida’s war on the U.S. Regime change would both address these problems and stop Hussein’s brutal treatment of the majority of his people. 

That being said, the classic line is that intelligence (what we collect/know/can assess) should always drive policy. In the case of the Iraq war, it was clear that policy drove intelligence.  What the Bush administration knew or thought about Iraq was always based on its desire to depose Hussein.  This was pretty clear at the time, given the changing justification of the war from the possibility of weapons programs to the certainty of weapons.

Even so, the decision itself to invade Iraq, as unwise as it appeared at the time, pales in comparison to the decision to disband the Iraqi military.  I spent 2001-2002 on the U.S. Joint Staff’s Bosnia desk.  A key priority was finding a way to carefully downsize the Bosnian armies without creating that kind of instability that often comes with firing young men who have guns. There, the U.S., with its allies, took the care to find enough money to buy off maybe 2,000 soldiers

Just two years later, Paul Bremer, on his first days as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, issued the order to disband the army.  To this day, the finger pointing over this surprise decision goes back and forth between Donald Rumsfeld, who blames Bremer, and Bremer, who blames Rumsfeld.  This makes sense – who would want to take responsibility for such an incredibly dumb decision?

There was simply no upside to firing hundreds of thousands of young men who knew where the guns, ammunition, and explosives were kept.  The excuse given since was that the Iraqi army was technically disbanded already in that they fled the American forces.1  This ignores several important facts: One, the U.S.’s pre-war propaganda told the Iraqi military to do exactly that (flee). Two, what little pre-war planning there was aimed at keeping the military intact and using them as a National Guard-type organization to protect sites and do public works (akin to what happened to the Kosovo Liberation Army). And three, the U.S. military was not consulted about the decision at all.  At the time, the U.S. army was working with senior Iraqi officers to bring the units back together so as to keep the soldiers off the streets and out of trouble.  The American generals were surprised and horrified when they heard of Bremer’s fait accompli – they knew that it would pour gasoline on the insurgency and they were right.

Yes, the Iraqi army was dominated by Sunnis who had blood on their hands from repressing the Shia and Kurds. The U.S. should have vetted the Iraqi army carefully to eliminate those individuals and units responsible rather than recklessly firing hundreds of thousands of future insurgents.  Again, the juxtaposition of the care we took to find money to buy off a thousand or two Bosnians versus the recklessness of firing the entire Iraqi army (oh, and cutting off payments to widows and orphans) just boggles the mind.

So, when I think back on 2003, I am always more outraged by the decision to fire the Iraqi army than the invasion of Iraq itself.  Yes, both were bad decisions.  But one was not just a bad idea – it was a decision we knew would be catastrophic.  Who can we blame?  Rumsfeld for either ordering it or for giving his agent too much power?  Bremer for either ordering it or for carrying out an appallingly bad plan?  Condoleezza Rice for failing to properly coordinate U.S. foreign policy (that we still do not know who truly made this decision testifies to her inability to do her job)?  George Bush for letting this all happen?  Absolutely.  The wrong people running the wrong war at the wrong time.

1 No End in Sight is a great documentary about the war and especially this decision.