Much has been written marking the 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s decision to wage war to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The history of the Iraq war, however, cannot be reduced to Bush’s decision alone. To understand the war fully and honestly, and to learn the right lessons, requires examining five major decisions beyond Bush’s—remembering that neither the decisions nor the events took place in a vacuum.
Most retrospectives focus on Bush’s decision that, absent Saddam Hussein’s full compliance with multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions and complete transparency about his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, he had to go. But, as we all know now, by the start of war, Saddam had no hidden stockpiles of weapons, and the intelligence consensus that he did turns out to have rested on the thinnest of evidence.
But we also know that his decision to invade was not driven by a priori determination either to finish the job of Desert Storm or to avenge an assassination attempt on his father should he ever become president. As is so often the case with major foreign policy choices, the story begins long before “W” perhaps even thought about running for office. It began with Desert Storm and the first Gulf War.
Decision I: Saddam Has to Go
In the wake of Desert Storm, inspectors discovered that Saddam had an ongoing advanced nuclear program—one U.S. intelligence had grossly underestimated. Further discoveries made clear that Saddam intended to keep his WMD programs alive and hidden from UN inspectors. This was a bipartisan concern: throughout much of the 1990s, the Clinton administration remained committed to supporting the UN inspection program, which, backed by a series of UN resolutions, was supported unanimously by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. With the signing of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, Clinton and a bipartisan majority in Congress committed themselves not only to ridding Iraq of its WMD programs, but also of Saddam Hussein.
By 2000, however, the international consensus on Iraq sanctions was falling apart. It was not that anyone disagreed that Saddam was not in compliance with UN demands. Rather, it was concerns about Iran, the impact on the Iraqi population of existing sanctions, and frustration with efforts to oust the Iraqi leader that predominated. Even as late as the winter of 2003, Chief UN Inspector Hans Blix privately told the Bush administration that he believed that Saddam had retained weapons of mass destruction.
In the absence of the intervening disaster of 9/11 and the history of Saddam’s actual use of WMD, could President Bush have pulled the plug on the invasion? Absolutely; but to what end? As former National Security Adviser Steven Hadley has explained, Saddam deliberately fostered uncertainty around his WMD programs in the hopes of keeping the Iranians at bay and deterring the Americans. Once Bush had, in the name of coercive diplomacy, set the ultimatum that either Saddam reveal his programs completely or face an invasion, Saddam’s game of subterfuge left the administration with what it believed was little choice but to remove Saddam from power.
Decision II: What Comes Next?
The “decision” to do little administration-wide substantive post-war planning was as consequential as the decision to go to war. In his presidential campaign, Bush and his advisors had argued that his administration would embrace a more modest, more humble foreign policy—that sustained interventions in places like Somalia, the Balkans, or Haiti were to be avoided. Secretary of State Colin Powell is said to have told President Bush before the war that he would “own” Iraq with all of its problems after a military victory, but neither he nor his deputy, Richard Armitage, made the issue a priority. Despite various memos and interagency working groups addressing the challenge of what the military calls Phase IV (stability operations), no one at the most senior level—including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, or National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice—was willing to force the issue to the front of administration deliberations.
Rumsfeld actively sought to prevent the military from remaining in Iraq any longer than was necessary—with “necessary” defined as weeks to a few months at most. To that end, from the earliest days of war planning, the defense secretary had pressed military planners to cut the size of the invasion force. This was in line with Rumsfeld’s grand plans as secretary to revolutionize how the military went to war, which had always included cutting the Army’s size in favor of more resources for high-end sensors, air, and naval forces. Taking down Saddam with minimal force would both vindicate his vision for the Army and foreclose using it as a post-war stabilization force. Rumsfeld later wrote, “missions for our men and women in uniforms” should not include “policing streets.”
The one public figure who dared to challenge Rumsfeld’s approach to the size of the invasion force—Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki—was rebuked by his Pentagon bosses. When testifying (prior to the war) before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shinseki said, “Something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably…required. We’re talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that’s fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems.” He added, “And so it takes a significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment….” Instead of several hundred thousand soldiers, Rumsfeld decided to deploy 145,000 ground troops—the rest, is indeed history.
With the Ba’athist regime decapitated and the Iraqi army disbanded, chaos reigned. Arms were readily available; the Iraqi police were hiding in their homes. Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’a exploded, inflamed by al Qaeda affiliates hoping to ignite an ethnic civil war through bombings and assassinations. In the north of Iraq, Kurds attacked Iraqi Arabs to gain control over key areas and cities. Most significantly, under the cover of anarchy—and with Rumsfeld continuing to reduce the U.S. military’s footprint—Saddam’s Ba’athists were regrouping. By mid-summer 2003, American forces faced a growing insurgency. The American-led provisional authority’s decision to engage in a program of deep de-Ba’athification worsened matters: While the program made sense at one level, in practice, with too few troops to monitor its implementation, it created a cadre of some 30,000 disaffected party members ripe for insurgency recruitment.
For the ensuing three years, Iraq was a bloody, dysfunctional mess. The Pentagon-led strategy of “train and transfer” (train the Iraqi forces first, then hand over security to them) was not working. There was no way a fledgling Iraqi military and police force could have the capability to pacify the sectarian-riven country. Rumsfeld nevertheless told the president: “You know, we’re teaching the Iraqis to ride a bicycle, and at some point you have to take your hands off the bicycle seat.” To which Bush responded: “Yeah, but Don, we can’t afford to have the bicycle turn over.”
Decision III: The Surge
Bush’s determination to have the bike not hit the ground led to the third major decision of the Iraq war: the Surge. Prioritizing securing the population—a classic counterinsurgency strategy—would hopefully reduce violence to a degree where normal economic and political life might begin to take hold in Iraq.
Bush’s decision to execute the plan for the surge faced deep skepticism from the State Department and from the Pentagon, including from the U.S. commander of forces in Iraq. The services argued that adding additional brigades to the fight might well break the Army and the Marines Corps from overuse, and that leaving the military potentially so short of reserve forces might invite aggression from adversaries elsewhere. Additionally, both elite and public opinion had soured on the war, reflected in the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group report and the GOP’s 2006 mid-term election drubbing. The former was read as a roadmap for withdrawing from Iraq altogether, while the latter saw Democrats take control of both houses of Congress, fueled in part by rising criticism of the war and calls for bringing troops home. Perhaps because Bush was already in his second term, he felt free to roll the dice in order hopefully to avoid a defeat in Iraq that would seriously damage both American credibility in the Middle East and the All-Volunteer Force’s confidence.
Over the first six months of 2007, five American brigades were added to the forces already in Iraq. By 2008, the Surge’s counterinsurgency strategy had reduced sectarian violence by 90 percent. Al-Qaeda was largely disabled and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias had left the streets. As a result, Iraq’s security forces regained their footing; its economy was growing. And the all-important Sunni tribal forces that had been battling al-Qaeda were now being integrated into the Iraqi military.
The turnaround in Iraq was remarkable. But the gains remained tenuous and dependent on sustained engagement from the United States and its allies. Sustained engagement in Iraq was not, however, what newly elected President Barack Obama had in mind. Obama regarded Iraq as a war of choice. As such, Iraq would not be a priority. Two major decisions by the Obama administration reflected that view.
Decision IV: Obama Backs Maliki
Obama’s first major decision was to back Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s stay in office. In the 2010 national elections, Maliki’s political coalition ranked second to the Iraqi National Movement, a multi-sectarian party. Absent a clear majority winner, however, a protracted effort to create a new Iraqi government took place. A frustrated Obama team (with then-Vice President Biden as message bearer) gave its backing to Maliki—abandoning the possibility of a less sectarian and more nationalist Iraqi leadership in favor of a Shi’a sectarian. Recognizing the Obama administration’s declining interest in Iraq, Maliki was quick to undo the progress that had been made in integrating Sunnis into Iraq’s security apparatus and political life.
Was Obama’s decision a crime of neglect or a shrewd play to begin his much-desired rapprochement with Iran? Maliki had always been susceptible to Iranian influence, and was likely to share his decision-making with the Tehran regime. Nonetheless, for Iraqis troubled by the U.S. decision to bless a Shi’a sectarian and an Iranian favorite, the tea leaves were clear: The United States was unconcerned with growing Iranian influence inside Iraq. Not surprisingly, Iraq’s Sunnis read the same tea leaves, and planned accordingly.
Decision V: Obama’s Withdrawal
President Obama’s second critical decision was to pull all U.S. forces out of Iraq at the end of 2011, after failing to reach a new security agreement with the Iraqi government. Insiders later confessed that the Obama administration’s hard line in the negotiations—including inelastic status of forces agreement demands—was tailored to elicit a rejection from Baghdad. Senior officials insisted that they were only meeting the deadline negotiated by the prior Bush administration, echoed later in the Biden administration’s decision to rest its chaotic exit from Afghanistan on the Trump administration. The result was predictable: America’s exit had a devastating impact on Iraq’s security situation in the years immediately subsequent.
Within three years, the Obama administration was sending American troops back into Iraq to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), at the Iraqi government’s request. Maliki’s suppression of Sunni participation in security forces and political life had opened the door for Sunni jihadists and rejectionists to make a comeback. At its height, ISIS controlled nearly a third of Iraq. It would not be until the end of 2017, after a brutal and costly fight, that ISIS was effectively defeated in Iraq.
Stepping back from a one-note account of the Iraq War is necessary if we are to understand what American statecraft got right and what it got wrong since March 2003. For many, the Iraq War has become a cliché: President Bush’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power resulted in a disastrous mess. The truer story is that multiple key decisions defined the conflict in Iraq. Those decisions were each made within a context—Iraq’s illicit weapons program; the post 9/11 threat environment; an idée fixe about the nature of warfare; a wavering commitment to the long-term future of Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran; a desire to exit the Middle East; to propitiate the Islamic Republic of Iran; to end an “endless war.” Each decision had consequences foreseeable to some, but ignored by the nation’s leaders. None was made in a vacuum, and none can be reduced to the caricature that constitutes the current Iraq war narrative.
Meanwhile, we should not forget the cost in lives and livelihoods of those decisions for the Iraqi people. While Iraq remains plagued by corruption, weak governing institutions, and Iranian-sponsored militias, it does hold regular elections in which the various Iraqi religious, ethnic, and partisan communities now participate. The nation’s leaders no longer threaten entire sects or tribes with destruction, and efforts are being made to reverse the environmental devastation of the Saddam years. And, lest we ignore the obvious, Iraq is no longer a threat either to its neighbors or to the United States and its allies.
May 1st marks the 20th anniversary of President Bush’s televised address onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, made infamous by the prominently hung banner that read: “Mission Accomplished.” Given the chaos that followed, this has become a signature Bush team gaffe. In fairness to the president, when he said, “major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” they had at that point. He also acknowledged that there was still “difficult work to do in Iraq.” Nevertheless, as we have argued, the administration was both ill-prepared for the actual difficult work that followed, and it also lacked the commitment to do what it would require.
In substance, this is not all that different from the Obama administration’s mistakes in 2010 and 2011. President Obama glibly asserted that “the tide of war is receding,” adding that “the long war in Iraq will come to an end.” Not quite. The Obama administration withdrawal reflected the same urge that animated the Bush administration—to be done with Iraq whether or not the mission was indeed accomplished. As a result, Obama’s White House would soon find itself embroiled in an avoidable conflict in Iraq if only it had decided to stay with a modest military footprint.
The Biden administration has been handed an Iraq that is relatively stable and free of violence. Nevertheless, today as in 2010, that progress is still tenuous. With even a marginal increase in diplomatic, military, and economic effort, the United States can help solidify the gains made so far. Given Biden’s own history with Iraq, his decision to pull out of Afghanistan rather than to leave a minimal force in place as requested by the Pentagon, and the continued focus on coming to some arrangement with Tehran, one suspects that a sustained engagement with Baghdad is not a White House priority. As the history of U.S. decisions about Iraq strongly imply, that could well be one more unnecessary and costly mistake.
Danielle Pletka is a distinguished senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Gary Schmitt is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image: A U.S. soldier meets with an Iraqi Army unit at the Saddam Mosque prior to conducting a joint operation patrol in Al Zarai, Iraq, Oct. 30, 2008. (DVIDS)
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