Iraq: No Comfort in Being Right

In 18 days, the last of the remaining U.S. forces will have left Iraq. So far, no fanfare has heralded this significant event, which has been quiet and orderly — nothing like the “shock and awe” of the initial invasion in March 2003, or the furor and tumult that marked the nearly nine-year occupation afterward.

After years of talking about what victory would look like (and downgrading that definition, conveniently, to accommodate evolving realities “on the ground”) it seems to matter little. No one — not the most strident defender of Bush’s preemptive strike strategy or the war’s greatest skeptic — can say with any sincerity that the U.S. and its coalition partners have achieved greatness in Iraq. For those who feel obligated to maintain pretenses, any rhetoric about democracy and peace sound like boilerplate now and feel as satisfying as a tie in a fight. Everyone just wants to go home, pride dented, bodies bloody and tired, and without cause for celebration.

“Empty” seems like the right word. One in three returning veterans say the war in Iraq was not worth the cost; 67 percent of Americans say the same.

For those of us who have been writing about the war since it was a gleam in Dick Cheney’s eye, this is a strange time. The civil war has largely gone underground, festering in the hearts of the disempowered Sunnis. Broader attempts to join the Arab Spring were eventually tamped down with promises of reforms that are so far unfulfilled. Deadly bombings continue and U.S. personnel warn about widespread security concerns, but things look “improved” compared to the savagery of a few years ago.

Reports continue to charge the central government run by U.S.-friendly Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with widespread corruption. Maliki never brought the Sunnis on board as promised, and he’s barely dragging Iraq’s economy into the 21st century. Tensions simmer just under the surface in places like Salahuddin and Basra, which are now seeking autonomy from Baghdad, like the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north.

The infamous oil revenues are still tied up in legislative and regional politics, denying the Iraqis south of Kurdistan the chance to rebuild. For many, clean water, waste removal, and health care are still elusive.

Although the oft-marginalized critics of the Iraq (mis)adventure could be validated a hundred times over, it is but a lonely and fruitless perch, sitting on laurels laced with thorns. Plus, there are plenty of diehards who will never admit they were wrong, and unfortunately, they still have the biggest soapbox in politics today. They — including almost all of the Republicans running for president — would prefer we stay in Iraq forever.

Kimberly and Frederick Kagan, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholars who helped get us in this mess in the first place, said as much in a Washington Post op-ed Monday.

I thought it might be interesting to talk to some of the people I’ve interviewed over the years — national security and military experts, journalists, foreign policy analysts — to get some of their gut reactions on the withdrawal and the long, strange evolution of the Iraq War.

For his part, University of Boston professor and Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich has never wavered in his criticism of the war policy, not before or after losing his only son, 1st Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich, 27, in Iraq in 2007. He has spent the last four years countering a now-failed attempt by COINdinistas to whitewash “victory” in Iraq and apply the so-called Surge to Afghanistan.

Iraq “demolished the bizarre utopianism that gripped American political elites in the immediate wake of the Cold War,” Bacevich said in an exchange with

“In the 1990s, people in Washington had convinced themselves that liberal democracy was destined to be everywhere triumphant, that neoliberalism and globalization defined the world’s economic future, and that the United States had mastered the art of warfare,” he continued.

“In 2011, each one of those notions stands thoroughly discredited. Nothing made a greater contribution to their demolition than did the Iraq War.”

Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren, who was recently put on paid suspension by the State Department for his blog posts and, he believes, his explosive tome on failed reconstruction efforts in Iraq, had this to say to in a recent email:

The United States lost 4,485 soldiers (and counting — who will be the last to die for this mistake?), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return. Blood for oil? Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at prewar levels and will be for some time. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed, and is home now to a small but bustling al-Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil.

So who won the war? Iran. Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship, but after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelop America.) We leave Iraq now with an increasingly influential Iran seeking a proxy battleground against the United States and a nicely weak buffer state on its formerly troublesome western border.

None of that tallies toward a stable Iraq. Indeed, quite the opposite. Worst-case scenario might look a lot like the darkest days in Lebanon, with many of the same players at the table.

We also spoke to Celeste Ward Gventer, director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas and former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Bush administration; Gordon Adams, professor of international relations at American University and a former White House national security official in the Clinton administration; journalist Gareth Porter; journalist Pepe Escobar; and journalist Dahr Jamail, who spent considerable time in Iraq in 2003-2005. Here is some of what we asked and their generous responses.

Antiwar: Was Iraq worth it?

Celeste Ward Gventer: So far, the war in Iraq has not advantaged the United States strategically, while costing the country somewhere around a trillion dollars and thousands of lives. Iran was the primary beneficiary of the war, at least so far. We will never know what would have happened in Iraq or the region in the absence of the war, and in a few decades it will be easier to judge the real outcomes. But, to date, we have paid dearly for relatively meager returns.

Gareth Porter: Like every major use of military force by the United States since the beginning of the Cold War, the invasion of Iraq was yet another poison pill that could only destroy U.S. influence in the region while it undermined the bases of domestic socio-economic health of the United States itself.

Pepe Escobar: “Worth it”? This is one of the greatest tragedies of the young 21st century (plenty more ahead). Ask the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died, directly or indirectly, because of the war, or the millions who were exiled. It was “worth it” for sections of the weapons complex and “contractors” like Blackwater/Xe. The symbol of all the horror, for me, was the siege of Fallujah in late 2004: the 21st-century Guernica.

Gordon Adams: No, it was definitely a strategic mistake, a waste of American personnel, and fundamentally damaging to U.S. interests in the region. The lesson: the U.S. cannot remake another country, no matter how hard it tries. And when it tries in a combustible region like the Middle East, a massive U.S. military presence reinforces anti-Americanism, making our strategic position in the region even worse. It will take years to recover our standing, if we ever do.

Dahr Jamail: Was it worth launching a war that contravened international law and led to the deaths of more than 1.3 million Iraqis and counting, and more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers, and cost hundreds of billions of dollars?

Antiwar: What was the U.S. government’s biggest mistake and/or failure in Iraq?

Ward Gventer: After deciding to go to war, the biggest mistake was probably attempting an occupation, a project that was implausible, at best, from the start.

Porter: The biggest mistake was the whole idea that the United States could dominate the Middle East militarily by a takeover of a weakened Iraq. That is the classic fallacy of the dominant-power aggressor, of course, which I found in evidence in the case of Vietnam as well.

Escobar: Hubris, which enveloped a set of monumental lies.The arrogance/ignorance of the “liberators” in “remodeling” a society they knew nothing about was… cosmic. For all practical purposes, the Bush administration’s “leaders” are guilty of a monumental war crime.

Adams: We made two fundamental errors. One was to invade, at all. It took our eye off Afghanistan, letting that situation fester to a point of no return. And the other was to invade with so pitifully little awareness of the consequences, a mistake compounded by dissolving the Iraqi army and much of the civil service. Iraq will take years to recover, along with the damage to the American reputation.

Jamail: Invading in the first place.

Antiwar: What kind of Iraq is left behind, and can we point to anything there we can be proud of ? (I’m not being facetious here; I do want to know.)

Ward Gventer: We should be proud of the valorous conduct of our all-volunteer forces, who sacrificed enormously and were consistently brave, persevering, and inventive in trying to fulfill what was probably an impossible mandate. Also, whatever the aftermath, we got rid of one of the world’s most loathsome dictators and thereby offered the Iraqis the opportunity of a different future. Time will tell what they ultimately make of it.

Porter: It is a deeply wounded society, still far more deeply divided in sectarian terms than it ever was during the Saddam era. It will take many years — perhaps decades — for Iraq to get over these war-inflicted wounds. Meanwhile, there is little chance that the society will escape still more violent conflict, not only between Sunni and Shia but probably even worse, between Kurds and Arabs.

Escobar: What’s left is a segregated, fragmented, almost totally devastated country. The supreme graphic metaphors are the blast walls across Baghdad. Strategically, the unprovoked war and invasion handed Iran a geopolitical victory. The U.S. didn’t get a colony, didn’t get the oil, didn’t “remodel” the “Greater Middle East.” “Responsibility to protect” as applied to Libya/Syria — and supporting the House of Saud’s counterrevolution — points to another (cheaper) way of doing it.

Adams: There is virtually nothing to be proud of, except soldiers who did the best they could to execute bad strategic decisions. The Iraqi economy is worse off; government services are as bad as ever; ethnic tensions run high, feeding a broader regional confrontation; Iran continues to push forward with a nuclear program. I am not among those who think the Arab Spring is a response to the U.S. campaign to spread democracy. It is a response to bad leadership and decades of economic backwardness. If anything, the successor regimes are likely to be less friendly to the U.S. and its strategic interests. That said, it is a very positive potential turning point for some countries — Tunisia, Egypt, possible Syria. U.S. policy would be best served by backing off and leaving space for events to develop.

Jamail: What is left behind is a country that has been eviscerated by decades of failed U.S. policy, a country that is left largely in the hands of power-brokers who care little for the aspirations of the Iraqi people. What is left behind is a U.S. “embassy” the size of Vatican City, populated with thousands of armed mercenaries and thousands of “State Department employees” and much of Iraq’s oil in the control of Western oil companies.

Antiwar: Was there any big turning point or event in the last 10 years where you found yourself saying, “That’s it, this thing is lost, let’s go home”?

Ward Gventer : Pretty much the whole time, but especially by 2005-2006 things were grim, and we had probably accomplished what we could in that country. I’m not sure that the ultimate outcome would have been different if we had simply left then. After all the triumphalism and spin of the Surge has died down, historians will debate whether in fact the Surge may have prolonged the conflict by several years.

Porter: When I finished writing my Vietnam book in 2004 and started really cluing into news about Iraq, it was quickly apparent to me that this was a losing proposition from the beginning — that the U.S. position in relation to the Sunni insurgency was even weaker than it had been in relation to the Vietnamese Communist resistance.

Escobar: The first turning point was right at the start: a street demonstration that started, spontaneously, at a mosque in Adhamiya only nine days after the “liberation” of Baghdad. Sunnis and Shi’ites alike. The first enraged cries of “American imperialists go home.” And that was even before the Marines started killing civilians in Ramadi and Fallujah. The other turning point was the siege of Najaf in 2004; Muqtada al-Sadr in fact won because Ayatollah Sistani backed him up against the U.S. military.

Adams: I thought “that’s it” at the time of the invasion, reinforced by the decisions on the Iraqi army and the civil service. I was against the invasion, never believed the proliferation rationale (based on intensive conversations with UK members of the U.N. inspectorate, who made it clear the U.N. had shut down his nuclear and biological programs), and had (and have) no faith in the ability of the U.S. (civilian or military) to “rebuild” other nations.

Jamail: Yes, when the invasion was launched in March 2003.

Antiwar: What do you think of the media embed system? How has it helped or hurt America’s perception and understanding of this war?

Ward Gventer: This is an extremely important question that deserves considerably more debate than it has yet received. The embed system might have worked too well for the military and especially the senior commanders: it arguably distorted the incentives of members of the media, who depended on those senior officers for access to the battlefields and the theater. Some reporters handled it better than others, but the power of the senior officers may have encouraged reporters to write flattering portraits (and sometimes ludicrous hagiographies). At the same time, reporters were able to use the compelling stories inherent in wartime to sell books and gain readership, thus effectively creating a group with an interest in continuing those wars. Everybody was gaining from the relationship except for the American public and the hundreds of thousands of service members and their families. This dynamic deserves a serious and honest appraisal.

Porter: It has clearly reduced independent journalism in covering U.S. war to a minimum. But it’s only one factor in the news media becoming part of the military team when the U.S. goes to war.

Escobar: Embedding is not journalism; it’s war pornography. That’s the reason why most Americans didn’t have a clue about the real facts on the ground.

Adams: Media embeds are good for soldiers, good for the Pentagon, exciting for reporters, and, on balance, a terrible way to get objective coverage of a war.

Jamail: It has done nothing but reinforce false stereotypes of how the U.S. wages war by embedding so-called journalists with the U.S. military to do its bidding. Let’s not forget that the current embed program was set up specifically by the U.S. military as a means of controlling information, and it has worked exceedingly well.

Antiwar: In the end, will history be kind to Gen. David Petraeus?

Ward Gventer: One hopes that history will judge him as a man; that is, a person with both talents and flaws, who made great decisions and foolish ones. A pinch of realism to leaven the romance would serve us all better.

Porter: No, once the historians begin to chew over the evidence, it will be clear that he was a political charlatan of a commander.

Escobar: Petraeus is just a functionary of Empire — like a Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now drenched in PR. The “surge” was a myth he sold to U.S. public opinion with major help from complicit corporate media. It’s not bags of cash to Sunnis that made the difference; it was the strategic decision by the Mahdi Army not to engage the Americans anymore. They knew the battle of Baghdad would turn into a Shi’ite victory — as it did.

Adams: Hopefully not. He may end up the last advocate left for COIN and nation-building, a mission that has sapped the Army (for all they “learned”) and opened the door to a limitless expansion of military missions, at some risk to civil-military relations.

Jamail: I hope not.

Follow Kelley Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.