As the United States observes the 10th anniversary of its invasion of Iraq on March 19, policymakers, veterans and journalists continue to discuss the plethora of mistakes and lessons learned from a controversial war that, according to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “could last six days, six weeks, I doubt six months.”
“There was an initial euphoria, a window of possibility. Within a year, that sense of possibility had sort of evaporated. The checkpoint shootings, the civilian casualties… it was just very terrifying,” said Hannah Allam, an Egyptian-American journalist who lived in Iraq for over two years, covering the war shortly after it began.
“We had an obligation to try to get it right, and we squandered it,” said Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief during the first two years of the war. “So much of what would underlie disappointments of Iraqi people, and chaos that would envelop their society, can be traced back to mistakes made by both civilian and military leadership in that first year.”
Dissent among decision-makers
In the early stages, unsubstantiated rhetoric fuelled strong bipartisan support for these “mistakes,” even when many in the U.S. military and intelligence were raising red flags.
John Gannon, former deputy director for intelligence at the CIA, said he and some of his colleagues made an effort to disseminate correct information, but with little success. “Intelligence was ultimately turned into policy advocacy,” Gannon said.
Bush administration officials manipulated intelligence to suit their policies, and then promoted it in order to create a set of assumptions about the invasion. The widely accepted idea became that “stabilization and pacification would be relatively swift,” Gannon said.
U.S. media, which had little access to information inside Iraq, perpetuated these inaccuracies, and “couldn’t really question the general consensus” at the time, said Katherine Brown, former assistant to the national security advisor.
U.S. agencies acted independently, but with the Department of Defense at the helm of a conflict that the United States did not fully understand. “It was quite clear that the Defense Department had control of the war,” Brown said. “They hadn’t adequately prepared for rear security, the war on securing the population.”
The biggest issues, and the lack of planning, stemmed from the most basic misunderstanding of how Iraqis would perceive the U.S. presence, said Gannon. The Bush administration pushed its rhetoric that “Iraqis would treat us as liberators,” Gannon said, even when advisors disagreed. “The intelligence community argued we’d look like invaders. None of this analysis was ever submitted to due diligence exercise within the intelligence committee.”
Lessons and legacies
After 10 years, at least $1 trillion, and immense loss of life and property, the war in Iraq is being analyzed from all angles, with disappointments expressed across the board.
“War doesn’t stop when you come home,” said Dr Manan Trivedi, a medical team commander for the first troops to enter Iraq in 2003. He cited the many veterans returning with the physical and “hidden wounds of war,” such as post-traumatic stress disorder. “The full price of the Iraq war has yet to be paid.”
Some policy-makers want to focus attention away from the failures, to the lessons of the war. Scott Bates, president of the Center for National Policy, and a long-time Washington defense and policy advisor, named three key lessons the United States must learn from Iraq. First, “the law of unintended consequences. American credibility went down, while Iran’s went up.”
Second, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” He added: “Our uni-polar moment ended when we went into Baghdad. We just didn’t know it yet.” The third lesson is humility, which is “sorely lacking in Washington. Going forward, we’re all going to need that.”
Though many key actors in instigating the war have taken responsibility for some mistakes in recently published memoirs, the humility of full apologies is not on the horizon, Gannon said. Iraq is an unstable, fragile entity, not the glowing example of an exportable democracy that the Bush administration had hoped for.
“We don’t have lasting peace,” said Chandrasekaran. “We don’t have that in Iraq today.”
For this reason, and so many others, “history won’t be kind to those who advocated the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” Gannon said.