The Already Forgotten Iraq War

Will there be autocracy in Iraq or renewed civil war? The country seems headed for either one or the other, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tightens the noose on Iraqi democracy and sectarian bombings resume.

Mohammed Shayaa al-Sudani, Iraq’s human rights minister, recently declared that casualties in the roughly nine-year period since the American invasion in 2003 have now exceeded 70,000 killed and 250,000 wounded, according to Margaret Griffis of This official figure is probably a gross understatement. Even Iraq Body Count — which only reports fatalities that it can fully document and thus likely understates those killed — puts the death figure at the much higher number of 106,613 to 129,458. Probably much more accurately, the British polling agency ORB estimates Iraqi deaths since the invasion at 1.2 million. Survey research, such as that done by ORB, which asks Iraqis if they have experienced a death from the war, has been demonstrated in past wars to more accurately measure the number of fatalities than other methods.

If the above death total estimates are converted into average deaths per year over the nine-year period, even the first two (likely understated) figures approach or equal the magnitude of the average annual domestic deaths during the 24 years of Saddam Hussein’s rule. The third (and likely more accurate) estimate vastly exceeds it. The number could skyrocket even further if the Iraqi civil war resumes among ethno-sectarian groups — either as a result of the Kurdish-Sunni Arab disputes over oil, the city of Kirkuk, or the boundary of the Kurdish region or as a result of a resumption of the prior Arab Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian battle because of spillover from the increasingly sectarian conflict in Syria.

So after nine years of U.S. intervention (the U.S. still has a heavy armed-contractor presence in the country), the neoconservative dream of converting the Middle East to democracy using a “freed” Iraq — achieved through the application of American military power — as a model has been a failure for Iraq, the United States, and the Middle East.

To echo what opponents of the Iraq invasion originally argued, democracy is much more likely to take hold when it bubbles up indigenously from the bottom rather than when it is imposed top-down by an invading empire. Ironically, as Iraq slides back into authoritarianism and maybe a resumption of civil war, the indigenous Arab spring democratic revolts have had some success in Egypt and Tunisia. Understandably, people everywhere want to think political changes are the result of their own efforts, not those of an alien invader. In the latter case, the armed messenger discredits democracy.

Also, removing Saddam, a Sunni ruler and Shi’ite Iran’s principal adversary, has allowed America’s number- one enemy in the region to make inroads into Shi’ite ruler Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq. This outcome was so obvious before the invasion that it caused the conservative retired Lt. Gen. William Odom, Reagan’s blunt head of the National Security Agency, to be one of the few opponents of George W. Bush’s invasion. Odom’s feeling was that you never start a war that will help your primary adversary.

Of course, all this neglects what was best for the average Iraqi, which none of America’s, Iraq’s, or Iran’s leaders much cared about. As bad as the oppression was under Saddam, a foreign invasion followed by a violent insurgency and sectarian civil war probably ruined the social fabric of Iraq even more. Throughout history, wars — even good-intentioned ones — usually don’t make countries better places. The result of an increasingly fragmented postwar society portends ill for Iraq.

Remembering the similar effects of the Vietnam War, “the Vietnam Syndrome,” cooled American passions to remodel political systems of countries by armed force, but only for a time. Because the U.S. finally seemed to contain the Iraqi violence until it could get out and didn’t suffer an embarrassing all-out humiliation à la Vietnam, the “Iraq Syndrome” unfortunately has apparently been attenuated. Even while the Iraqi misadventure was trailing off, President Barack Obama couldn’t resist providing crucial air power to help rebels in Libya overthrow another old American nemesis, Moammar Gadhafi. With all the armed tribal militias running around that country now, a renewed civil war is also possible there. But as Bill Clinton before him learned from Somalia in the early 1990s, President Obama seems to have learned from Bush’s Iraq fiasco only that when meddling abroad, try to avoid a quagmire with ground troops.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.