The Invasion of Iraq: The Bush Administration’s Incompetence Reduces the Benefits

In my last post, I wrote a bit about my changing views on foreign policy prior to the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003. Here I want to explain why I supported that invasion, ultimately with an idea to explaining why I now believe I was mistaken to do so.

September 11 made clear that substantial portions of the Middle East presented a danger to the United States and its people. What actions could we take to address that danger?

If the United States could help to establish a relatively free nation in Iraq – one that provided basic freedoms and some kind of democracy – that would not only be good for Iraq, but would help to establish a model for other nations in the region – one that might lead towards greater freedom in the area and greater safety for the United States.

While the concern about WMDs struck me as being plausible, that was never my main reason for supporting the invasion. Instead, it was establishing a more free nation in Iraq. Yes, this was a form of nation-building.  But if done right, it would create enormous benefits. I don’t believe this invasion violated the rights of  the Iraq people, who after all were being tyrannized by the dictator Saddam.

I continue to believe that had the invasion and follow-up been handled competently, it could have been an extremely valuable action. People forget how significant the benefits were from the initial invasion, before the US became bogged down in responding to the insurgency. As I wrote in 2009:

Early on it was possible that the liberation of Iraq would help to transform the region. The United States had just toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan with minimal effort and then quickly ousted Saddam. Tyrants in the region were scared and started to alter their behavior. Most importantly, Libya was concerned enough to disclose and abandon its nuclear weapons program. The Libyan revelations informed the United States about a much more advanced nuclear weapons program than they had ever suspected. But the benefits from invading Iraq extended far beyond Libya. Syria was pressured to withdraw many of its forces from Lebanon, and it seemed like the resulting Cedar Revolution might lead to greater freedom.

Even Iran was pressured to allow additional nuclear inspections that helped reveal the extent of its nuclear program. Moreover, Iran seemed concerned enough to announce that they were cutting back on their nuclear enrichment efforts. While the announcement was probably more cosmetic than real, it still showed concern on Iran’s part. These discoveries about Iran and Libya also helped to reveal the A.Q. Khan nuclear distribution network. In addition, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were led to expand elections, albeit in modest ways. Although it is contested as to how much these events were influenced by America’s invasions, there seems little doubt that American military actions played a significant role.

These developments, however, were soon stalled and to a certain extent reversed once it became clear that the United States was bogged down in Iraq. With the insurgency leading to increased American casualties and costs, the war soon became unpopular domestically, and it became clear that the United States was no longer a threat to invade any other countries in the region. Its influence waned, and its enemies, especially Iran, have grown bolder.

But this setback need not have occurred. If the United States had not wasted the four years prior to the surge, committing one blunder after another, the insurgency need not have grown so strong.

The main blunders at the time were not having enough troops and not having plans to govern the nation once the prior government had been toppled. My conclusion of that essay stated:

We can all be happy with the success of the surge and the possible benefits in the years to come. At this point, Iraq stands as a success for the Bush administration. But let’s not deceive ourselves into believing that the surge made up for the prior missteps. Had the Bush administration competently pursued the Iraqi reconstruction from the beginning, we might now be seeing the beneficial results of a genuinely transformative policy.

Thus, when the Bush administration left office, the Iraqi invasion, which could have been transformative, nonetheless represented in my view a mild positive – one where a relatively free nation had been established. In my next post, I will discuss how the Obama administration turned that into a major negative.

Mike Rappaport

Professor Rappaport is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism. Professor Rappaport is the author of numerous law review articles in journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, the Georgetown Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. His book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, which is co-authored with John McGinnis, was published by the Harvard University Press in 2013.  Professor Rappaport is a graduate of the Yale Law School, where he received a JD and a DCL (Law and Political Theory).

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  1. gabe says

    Look forward to remaining posts on this – they should be good.
    Have a question or two thus far:

    ” With the insurgency leading to increased American casualties and costs, the war soon became unpopular domestically, and it became clear that the United States was no longer a threat to invade any other countries in the region. Its influence waned, and its enemies, especially Iran, have grown bolder.”

    While the causal link here is correct – unpopularity = lessened influence / fear – does it not understate the problem with Iran, which from the beginning was actively engaged in undermining the US efforts via their support for Muqtadr (sp?) al Sadr and others. Iran did not at time demonstrate any great fear and in fact continued both their covert (sometimes overt) support for Shiite sectors and their internal arms programs. Perhaps, a little more explanation here would be helpful.

    ” Had the Bush administration competently pursued the Iraqi reconstruction from the beginning, we might now be seeing the beneficial results of a genuinely transformative policy.”

    I have come to believe that no matter how competently the US could have acted, there was very little likelihood of success in building a US or Western style democracy. The ground upon which such a political regime is based was simply absent and the various sectarian differences are of such a magnitude that no effort to overcome them would have succeeded. This is not to minimize the striking incompetence and arrogance of (Viceroy-in-his-own-mind) L. Paul Bremer, who with his trademark “combat boots” proceeded to trample all over several of the contending factions and impose the US State Departments version of a functioning government.
    It simply seems that this “building” effort was doomed from the start. Unfortunately, like you and many others, at the time, I too held hope that it could be so. No longer!

    • Devin Watkins says

      The sectarian differences could have been dealt with if the U.S. had realized they were there early on, and took active steps to deal with them. One problem is that in the creation of the constitution it was done by majority vote of the representatives. This means that the majority party doesn’t need to listen to the minority participants in creating the constitution. In this case it was the National Iraqi Alliance, a Shi’a based party funded by Iran, who was able to create the constitution. So for instance the chairman of the drafting committee, Humam Hamoudi, said repeatedly that there would be no compromises on what the Sunni’s wanted. This is not how you create a government which respects minority interests, and it was the fault of the U.S. for setting this system in place.

      So in the end you get a government in which the area’s that were sunni voted against the constitution but were overruled by the majority. That’s a disaster waiting to happen, and ISIS a sunni based militant group is that disaster. Had they followed the U.S. system of creating a constitution, and had majority support of each region that joined the new federal government this wouldn’t have been such a problem. The constitution would have included concessions to the Sunni’s or the Sunni’s would have refused to join the new government and formed their own state. Either way it would have worked out. But trying to force a government upon the Sunni’s that they didn’t want was never going to work.

      • gabe says

        I am not so certain that those sectarian differences could have been worked out.
        Yes, there is historical evidence of “sectarian quiet” – Saddam Hussein was able to quell sectarian agitation via a somewhat brutal regime. I suspect that neither the US nor the Iraqi people were prepared for such a regime.
        You are quite right concerning “majoritarian” assent. Perhaps, if a supermajority had been required then tradeoffs would have been required. Yet, at the time there was talk of doing precisely that via an allegiance that would use the Kurds to provide a supermajority. Gets a little complicated.

        Yet, I stand by my basic point – that the ground for an effective democracy, which we claimed to be installing in Iraq, was absent in a land with no such tradition and one in which various sects behaved and stigmatized each other in a fashion quite more harshly and directly than is the case in an accompanying essay here by Ted McAllister on “moral outrage” – heck these folks are talking blasphemy / heresy and hellfire and damnation.

  2. Devin Watkins says

    Look at the vote on the Iraq constitution (red=voted no, green=voted yes):

    Now look at the current ISIS conflict (grey=ISIS controlled area, yellow=Kurdish controlled area, pink=Iraq government controlled area):

    How can you look at that and not say this is a constitutional problem. The Sunni’s did not support the new Iraq government which was forced upon them, and so when ISIS came in they supported the Sunni based organization over the government which they never supported. Can we in this country really blame them? Was our government not created in rebellion against a government we didn’t support that was forced upon us?

    Just a few reactions of Sunni’s for example:
    Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni who described the fall of Mosul as a “Revolution of the oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized people in Mosul”, denied ISIS played a leading role amongst the government’s opponents and alleged the militancy against the central government was led by Sunni tribes and disenfranchised Sunnis.

    Another prominent Sunni, Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, claimed “It is the tribal rebels who are in control of the situation in Mosul. It is not reasonable to say that a group like ISIS, which has a small number of men and vehicles, could be in control of a large city like Mosul. Therefore, it is clear that this is a tribal revolution, but the government is trying to force us all to wear the robe of the terrorists and ISIS.”

    A member of insurgent held Mosul’s governing council, a former colonel in the Ba’ath era military alleged that the opposition to the government was composed of multiple Sunni Arab factions, most of which are lead by officers from the disbanded military. The former officer claimed that the various opposition factions were working to minimize ISIS influence and appoint officials capable of restoring services in insurgent held areas.

    • gabe says

      Oh, you misunderstand me. I am not saying that this is NOT a constitutional problem. I am saying that it was inescapable that there would be a constitutional problem.

      Without a supermajority requirement which, as you say, would have required meaningful concessions from all parties, the likelihood of an effective governing structure was rather small.
      However, I am also saying that without a “ground” in democratic traditions and further complications arising out of a rather long history of religious intolerance, all mixed into an essentially tribal system, to expect a functioning western style democracy was fanciful.

  3. john trainor says

    Transformative,, with what, the human rubble of the Mid-east, the debris of a religion prohibitive of any democratic, constitutional and dynamic regime, I recall a classics professor saying that a certain Latin American leader did as well as he could with the populace he had to work with. Silk purses, sows ears? The adminstration did have, if one recalls, an almost instant insurgency on it’s hands after entering Baghdad. And this apart from the complete lack of any conception of a ordered, open, tolerant society. It does help to recall that for about 1400 years this hell hole of an area has been a societal, political, human disaster. Shame on Bush for not turning this mess into an Athenian symposium. And where are they now? So it goes. But the post on Obama might be, should be, interesting.

  4. Bob Pomerene says

    The ONLY valid strategic reason for our large scale military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq was to establish long-term forward-operating bases for American forces in this important but dangerous region — along the lines of what we have in Korea. I originally hoped that this was behind the Bush administration’s actions, but merely cloaked for reasons of public acceptance. It soon became clear, however, that both these campaigns were being carried out with a lack of strategic clarity. IMO, no outcome in Afghanistan or Iraq was worth the lives and treasure if it did not result in long-term basing of American forces in those two countries. Of course, the Obama administration had no interest in changing gears, and has actively pursued the founding myth of these two wars — that we should not and would not be there for a long time.

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