Ten years on, Baghdad and Washington are still feeling the ripple effects of the Iraq War, as insurgent attacks continue and sequestration kicks in. But should the period of the Iraq war be considered “a lost decade”? Have we learned anything from the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians and 6,630 U.S. soldiers? Is it still to early to tell? OpenCanada asked our experts to reflect on the lessons learned (and not) from ten years of conflict. We also selected essays and longform pieces that highlight changing perceptions of the war from 2003 to 2013.
The Right Call on the Wrong War
Roland Paris on why Canada's choice to stay out of Iraq didn't have the dire consequences for Canada-U.S. relations many predicted.
An Unachievable Goal
Michael Bell on why the thinking behind the Iraq War guaranteed failure.
The Best Thing I Can Say About the Iraq War
Steve Saideman on why the decision to invade Iraq was a bad one, but the decision to disband the Iraqi Army was even worse.
The Most Important Lesson
Bessma Momani on why the human cost of the Iraq War outweighs all others.
How Iraq Changed How We Think About Human Rights
Jennifer Welsh on the ways the Iraq War has transformed our thinking about human rights law and military intervention.
Iraq Through the Lens of 1882
Paul Sedra considers the occupation of Iraq through the lens of the British occupation of Egypt.
October 3, 2004, just over a year after the initial invasion, Tom Friedman, then-considered a leading expert on Middle East politics, described the war as a failure. He wondered whether there was a salvageable mission to cling to, and expressed hope that the democratization effort would yield a palatable outcome. His recommendation was for a bipartisan effort to reframe and redefine the conflict, and cautioned against the possibility of negative consequences domestically, and ramifications for the U.S. on the international stage.
Scott Ritter, Senior UN weapons inspector, published this piece in The Guardian on November 1, 2004, blasting the U.S. and U.K. effort in Iraq. He attacks both governments for moral cowardice, and points to human rights abuses perpetrated in Iraq. By this point, the civilian death toll was already in the six-figures.
As early as 2005, major supporters of the initial invasion were jumping ship. From the Washington Post on November 13, 2005, then-promising presidential candidate John Edwards declared that his vote to invade Iraq in 2002 was a mistake, citing the critical intelligence failures that had recently come to light. He urged the departure of defense contractors, a strategic redeployment, effective training of civilian Iraqi forces, and a diplomatic reframing of the mission. Both Edwards and his recommendations would be seen later as non-starters.
January 8, 2007, Lionel Beecher with the Council on Foreign Relations discusses the upcoming troop surge after Bush’s cabinet reshuffle. This effort, said to be the key to turning the war around, received both praise and criticism from many channels, which Beecher summarizes effectively. He places a particular emphasis on critical voices who believe in a solution based in political conciliation. Ultimately, he declared that “2007 will be a bloody year” – an accurate prediction.
December 11, 2011, Ayad Allawi, Osama Al-Nujaifi, and Rafe Al-Essawi, the three leaders of the Iraqi Iraqiya coalition that dominated the 2010 elections, penned this op-ed for the New York Times at the functional end of the war. They describe Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s abuses of the democratic process, his seizure of power, and the resulting possibility of civil war in Iraq. These three Iraqi politicians identify the failings of the U.S.-led process of establishing effective democratic tools, and urge the U.S. to help rectify the situation.
James Fallows with the Atlantic argues that it is impossible to truly apply the lessons of history to Iraq because each case is different. He does agree that the Iraq War was mishandled, and deconstructs the three central tenets of the pro-war lobby’s reasoning: the fear of Saddam’s WMDs, the moral dimension, and the effort for Middle East democratization.
David Frum, Canada’s man inside the Bush administration, argues that the war’s outcome wasn’t entirely bad. He counts the wars negative impact on the Iranian export economy, and the ejection of Saddam Hussein from power, as two worthwhile victories in an otherwise bleak theatre.
Nahlah Ayed with the CBC calls the war’s outcome muddled and difficult to agree upon. Having watched the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Ferdous Square with her own eyes, she describes the fluctuations in her own sentiments about the effort as the war went on, but ultimately concludes that the liberation effort was the catalyst for the long-dormant sectarian conflicts that have dominated the region since the mid-2000s.
Stephen M. Walt of Foreign Policy and Harvard’s Kennedy School gives his top ten takeaways from the war. Most notably, he observes the ease with which the U.S. was drawn into conflict, how the intelligence apparatus was unable to provide an effective characterization of Iraqi society, and that COIN leads directly to human rights abuses and war crimes.
Paul Heinbecker reflects on Canada’s experiences with the Iraq war, and offers three lessons in the Globe and Mail. One, Canada has to be proactive and make its own determinations about external affairs. Two, the ‘fiasco’ of the Iraq war is not a sufficient deterrent against necessary future interventions. Three, we must ensure that our leaders make measured decisions, and that our media and people have a responsibility to enforce accountability.
Mother Jones Washington Bureau Chief David Corn examines the failure of media to challenge the war effort right from the lead-up. He accuses reporters of blindly supporting the democratization effort without questioning the administration’s intent. Theatrics trumped analysis, argued Corn, as he takes the major commentators of the decade – Friedman, Brooks, et al – to task.
Historians take note – with the publication of the e-book Endgame, some of the first substantial archival material on the war has been declassified and made public. This Foreign Policy piece, by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, identifies four ‘pivotal episodes’ that, had they been handled differently, may have been able to turn the tide of war.