Asked at a recent press conference whether he still considered Iraq to be “a dumb war”, President Barack Obama carefully replied: “I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.”
Now that the last US combat soldier has departed Iraq, thereby bringing to an end almost nine years of American fighting, it is not too soon to take the president up on his challenge and to start writing history.
The most salient point is that this was not a war that had to be fought. It was a classic war of choice. American interests were arguably less than vital, and even if one disagrees with this assessment, there were alternative policies available for safeguarding those interests. Shored-up sanctions and limited applications of military force would have been enough to contain Saddam Hussein – someone who was not involved in the September 11 2001 attacks or terrorism and who, we now know, no longer had weapons of mass destruction.
The fact that the 2003 Iraq war was a classic war of choice does not automatically make it a mistake; it does, however, raise the bar. Unlike wars of necessity, which by definition must be fought no matter what the costs given the stakes and the absence of alternatives, wars of choice are only justified when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.
The main accomplishment of the war was the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and, after a violent and expensive interlude, the achievement of progress toward an Iraq that was at peace with both itself and its neighbours. Such an Iraq could become a major oil producer; an open as well as stable Iraq could also set a valuable political example for the peoples and countries of the region experiencing their own version of an Arab awakening.
Some have suggested that an additional benefit of the war was that it helped bring about the so-called Arab spring. This assessment does not bear scrutiny. It is way too early to assume that what is unfolding in the Arab world will with time prove to be spring-like, ie, positive. Even if it does, there is no evidence that those who rose up in Tunisia or Tahrir Square in Cairo were inspired by Iraqis. More likely is that Sunni Arab leaders were even more resolute in their determination to resist calls for reform lest it lead to scenes of chaos that characterised post-Saddam Iraq.
One has to be careful too not to be overly optimistic about Iraq’s future. If past is prologue, Iraq could witness a return to sectarian violence, an authoritarian political system or both. Iranian influence could well become extensive, while that of the central government in Baghdad quite limited. Indeed, the most likely future for the next few years is one that reflects all of these features and results in an Iraq that resembles today’s Iraq, a country that functions poorly and at times violently.
The costs of nine years of American military presence in Iraq are not in doubt. More than 4,500 Americans lost their lives; another 30,000 were injured. The financial cost of the war was at least $1tn and will go up over time given mounting medical costs. There was also the difficult to measure but no less real cost to America’s reputation stemming from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib and the breakdown of order in post-Saddam Iraq. Also important to weigh was the time and attention of policymakers. Iraq proved to be an expensive distraction. It would have been wiser to attend to the US economy and to build the foundations of a more robust presence in the Asia-Pacific region, the part of the world where much 21st century history will be written.
So much of the criticism of the Iraq war has missed the mark. Many, for example, have focused on how the war was fought. The critics are correct to be hard on those who chose to fight with inadequate forces. But this overlooks the first-order question of whether the war was right or necessary to wage in the first place.
Others are now criticising the Obama administration for its decision to withdraw all military forces from the country. It is not clear there was an alternative, although it is also true that the administration could have pressed harder to stay. But again, the bigger decision to question was the decision to go to war in the first place. And again, it is far from clear that the war was warranted.
Like all wars, the Iraq war holds any number of lessons, but I would highlight one above all others. It is that local realities matter far more than global or geopolitical abstractions. This was true in Vietnam; it is no less true now in Afghanistan. What is called for is awareness of what we do not know and humility in what we try to bring about.
What about the war’s legacy? It is hard to avoid the irony. The ultimate result of the Iraq war will be to make such large, discretionary undertakings less likely in the future. The challenge will be to think twice before committing to future wars where interests are limited and alternative policies exist – but not to over learn the lesson and shy away from acting when interests are truly vital and there is no alternative.
The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of ‘War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars’