After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
US marines from the 3/5 Lima company take position on the roof of a building while conducting search operations in the restive city of Fallujah 13 November 2004, west of Baghdad. US troops tightened their grip on Fallujah but clashed with rebels in rag's third city of Mosul and outside Baghdad where insurgents shot down a Black Hawk helicopter injuring three crew members.
US marines from the 3/5 Lima company take position on the roof of a building while conducting search operations in the restive city of Fallujah 13 November 2004, west of Baghdad. AFP / Patrick Baz
Commentary / United States 12 minutes

After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention

The core lesson of the 2003 Iraq war is that ruptures in autocratic settings are inherently fraught with risk. Policymakers should approach proposed interventions in such settings with caution.

When President Barack Obama admonished his foreign policy team, “Don’t do stupid stuff” (he used an earthier phrase), there was no real question what he had in mind. In 2002, as an Illinois state senator, Obama had warned that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would be “a dumb war … a rash war”. Six years later, this prescient opposition helped him win the Democratic presidential nomination and then the White House. By the time Obama’s pithy staff guidance became public in 2014, there was a growing Washington consensus that the Iraq invasion had been the biggest U.S. foreign policy blunder since the war in Vietnam. It was clear what he meant.

As a guiding principle, Obama’s caution certainly had some merit. The war launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush, was disastrous for Iraq, the Middle East and the United States. While many now take heart that Iraq has a democracy, albeit a messy one, this limited achievement in no way justifies the war’s moral and strategic costs. Yet an examination of Obama’s own record finds that the wisdom behind his warning was, on key occasions, honoured in the breach. What happened?

From Theory to Practice

Even if Obama’s advice was clearly right in the abstract, his own administration found it difficult to follow in practice. Indeed, any fair reflection upon the historical record would have to conclude that the Obama administration repeated some of its predecessor’s foreign policy mistakes, albeit on a lesser scale and in different circumstances.

This kind of exacting hindsight may appear unfair, particularly given the challenges Obama’s team faced as it navigated the difficult (and unforeseen) policy terrain created by the 2011 Arab uprisings. It is virtually impossible to imagine the Obama administration turning a cold shoulder to people taking to the streets to rail against repression and corruption and demand their basic rights. Nor should it have done so.

But the Obama administration’s blind spots, certainly clearer in that hindsight, are nevertheless apparent in its misadventures in Libya and Syria. Faced with the heroic mass movements that propelled the uprisings in both places, the sense of transitional potential they created, the brutality of the reactions of these autocracies and the intense domestic political pressures on the administration to assert U.S. leadership, the administration stumbled. It used language and pursued policies that – at that moment – were consistent with the role that the U.S. and its allies wanted Washington to play in the global order. But they also contained what it is now clear were significant missteps and, indeed, seeds of failure.

The U.S. and its partners ... helped Libyan rebels topple the Qadhafi regime ... but also set the country on the path to a still unresolved civil war.

Libya, of course, is Exhibit A. There, as the population rose up against the autocratic regime of Col. Muammar al-Qadhafi, which was threatening an ugly crackdown (particularly in the eastern city of Benghazi), the Obama administration led a push at the UN Security Council for a resolution authorising the use of force to protect civilians. The U.S. then led the military operations to enforce the resolution, alongside European and Arab allies. The intervening countries interpreted the text expansively, however, and what had begun as a civilian protection mission became a war for regime change. The U.S. and its partners eventually helped Libyan rebels topple the Qadhafi regime, which did remove an immediate danger to the vulnerable population, but also set the country on the path to a still unresolved civil war.

Then came Syria. As the Libya intervention was drawing to a close – and before the chaotic contours of its aftermath had fully emerged – the Bashar al-Assad regime’s growing brutality confronted the administration with what seemed in some ways like a similar choice. As the Assad regime trained its guns on the crowds demanding its downfall, the demonstrations gathered momentum and military officers began to defect. It appeared to many that the Syrian leader would have to relent. President Obama was initially reluctant to weigh in, amid divisions within his administration about how to respond, but in August 2011, watching developments on the ground, he appeared to take a stand, declaring that “the time has come for Assad to step aside”. The regime’s end seemed a safe bet at that point – and for some time to come. A senior UN official working on Syria told me in December 2012 that even Assad’s staunchest external supporters, Iran and Russia, had expressed to him their concern that the regime could not hold out.

But Assad did not step aside. Rather, his backers stepped up their assistance to his regime and, eventually, their own involvement in the conflict. In a sense, Obama’s declaration married an analytical failure – however understandable the mistake was in the moment – to a policy blunder. The administration had come to the conclusion, based on events, that Assad was doomed, like the other Arab leaders who had been pushed aside during the uprisings. Against this backdrop, the administration may have thought that its strategy was low-cost – both aligned with the protest movement’s expectations and merely anticipating (if perhaps accelerating) where history was headed.

Whatever Obama intended by the statement, it created expectations that the U.S. would take steps to ensure the outcome it purportedly sought. Instead, Obama’s anti-interventionist instincts prevailed, and the administration entered the realm of half-measures. Amid the civil war’s mounting horrors, the U.S. felt compelled to do something about its repeated insistence that the Assad regime had lost its legitimacy. Eschewing direct military involvement, it chose instead to support a series of self-described “moderate” rebel groups. At the time, Syrian rebels of various stripes were receiving weapons through uncoordinated, non-official channels, such as Islamist networks and arms smugglers. The U.S. entered the scene providing only non-lethal assistance, but later on, it reportedly trained and equipped the rebels through various covert means. Other outside actors, such as Türkiye, Gulf Arab states and European countries, were also involved in this effort, which on the U.S. side grew substantially to reach an annual budget of nearly $1 billion.

As the Syrian civil war deepened and expanded, the Obama administration’s goals evolved away from regime change toward a new objective: it would try to use calibrated support for military force to alter the calculations of Assad and his circle so that they would be amenable to a negotiated agreement to end the war. This task proved equally unmanageable, as the Assad regime understood itself to be in a fight to the death and, in any case, the U.S. could not fully control what its on-the-ground partners were doing. Inside the U.S. government, there was talk of “catastrophic success”, in reference to concerns that Assad’s removal could exacerbate ethno-sectarian conflict and other ills. The cumulative effect of these indirect forms of intervention was to nearly topple Assad, but not quite, instead accelerating the cycle of outside interference in ways that redounded to his benefit. The rebels might well have ousted him in 2015, but Russia came to his aid.

Obama and his advisers saw a crucial difference between Bush’s regime change effort and their own.

What drove the administration to disregard the anti-interventionist underpinnings of its own political success and entangle itself so thoroughly in these conflicts – before tacking back in Syria? Certainly, Obama and his advisers saw a crucial difference between Bush’s regime change effort and their own. In the former case, Bush had pushed to get rid of Saddam Hussein by linking him spuriously to the 9/11 attacks. There was no mass Iraqi movement demanding the dictator’s removal. In their own case, the Obama team decided to align the U.S. with brave protesters who seemed to be on the right side of history. Some appeared to believe that the latter circumstances, combined with the moral imperative of preventing mass atrocities and (in Libya) a UN mandate, gave them both greater justification and better odds of success than their predecessors enjoyed. Whatever the case, in their zeal they lost sight of the core lesson exposed by U.S. failures in Iraq. All political ruptures are fraught with danger, in these two cases even when created by heroic popular mobilisation.

Even today, when some of the Iraq invasion’s biggest boosters have repented, and calls to end the post-9/11 “forever wars” are commonplace, it is hard to know whether the U.S. foreign policy establishment has really learned this lesson. The Biden administration withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan and dialled back counter-terrorism operations elsewhere, but the U.S. continues to be engaged militarily on a global scale and the legal underpinnings of the post-9/11 war on terrorism remain very much in place. The pathway to old-style interventionism is obstructed by fatigue, among both politicians and the public, as well as the fresh memories of past failures. But – as illustrated by surging calls for U.S. military action against Mexican drug cartels – it is not fully closed. While the appetite for full-scale humanitarian intervention seems to be at low ebb, the notion of regime change as a U.S. goal has intermittently fuelled post-Obama policy discussions about countries as varied as Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Russia. Nor is the over-confident militarism that animated the post-9/11 era gone; some of the same voices that preach caution when it comes to U.S. policy toward Ukraine are among the most hawkish when it comes to U.S. policy toward China.

Moreover, many critiques of U.S. intervention continue, dispiritingly, to focus on what Washington could have done to execute its post-9/11 ventures more competently rather than to examine the mistaken premises of the whole enterprise. One cri de coeur came from Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan, who said the Biden administration showed a lack of “strategic patience” in withdrawing from the latter country. Similarly, much of the reflection upon the Obama administration’s decisions on Syria continues to lament its failure to intervene more vigorously.

Why Shortcuts Fail

The temptation to believe that regime change can offer a ready-made way out of the intolerable present, a shortcut through history, is at some level understandable, but it misses some key points. First among these is that authoritarian regimes are better than Western governments like to admit at propping up their own rule and making the conditions for their collapse extremely dangerous. The failures of the Iraq war, and then of the Arab uprisings, highlight the dilemma facing local democrats and their outside supporters. The mechanisms for keeping autocracy in place the destruction of independent political parties, the hounding of civil society, the stifling of all manner of non-conformity, the relentless centralisation of power ensure that at moments of political change the rudiments of a successful transition are lacking. With would-be reformers lacking an exit, it almost resembles a hostage situation.

When the Arab uprisings began to lose traction, some found solace in the notion that autocracy, inherently unstable, would eventually spark dissent well enough organised to prove its undoing. President Obama himself had already seemed to give credence to this notion in February 2011, when mass protests forced the ouster of Husni Mubarak in Egypt, noting that “the world is changing” and “you can’t maintain power through coercion”. But as even a cursory reading of contemporary history demonstrates, the authoritarian bargain, flawed as it is, is often quite sustainable. When Mubarak lost power, he had been president for over 30 years, in a continuation of the military-backed order established by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952 and maintained by Anwar al-Sadat.

Autocratic Arab regimes have worked assiduously to forestall the development of alternatives to their rule.

None of the foregoing is to repeat the contention that the Arab world is inherently and uniquely inhospitable to democracy and that any attempt at it is destined to fail. But political culture and institutions matter, and they are the product of years of effort and organisation. Autocratic Arab regimes have worked assiduously to forestall the development of alternatives to their rule. In doing so, they limit the choices available to any successor regime. Changing the landscape is a big project, and one that will take time.

Egypt is a case in point. While the 2011 uprising triggered regime attacks aimed at suppressing the protests, the country did not succumb to civil conflict and never faced state failure. But even without civil war and pervasive violence, the obstacles to a successful political transition in Egypt remained steep following decades of autocracy.

Washington was absolutely right not to stand in the way of Mubarak’s fall, which was brought about primarily by Egyptians themselves. Likewise, the failures of the post-Mubarak transition were of mainly Egyptian authorship. But while Washington’s analytic errors did not drive events on the ground, they are worth revisiting because of what they reveal about the U.S. foreign policy mindset, namely, unrealistic assumptions about how quickly the state and society could adapt to the disorienting realities of the transitional period. After Mubarak fell, some U.S. officials complained about the fecklessness of the country’s non-Islamist parties and politicians, who failed to form a coalition strong enough to rival the Muslim Brotherhood, either in vision for the country or organisation on the ground. Their frustration suggested they thought that such institutions could spring up, mature and fully formed, almost overnight.

In practice, of course, these institutions could not emerge so quickly. The non-Islamist forces might have made progress in coalescing, but only over time. By design, decades of repression had left the Egyptian political landscape fragmented. The Brotherhood was never able to control the state it ostensibly led. It was ousted in a July 2013 coup that produced a variant of the old military-backed order, retooled and fiercer than before, under President Abdelfattah al-Sisi.

Lessons Not Fully Learned

These underlying lessons were not yet clear for the Obama administration in their deliberations about Libya and Syria. To the extent they had begun to crystallise, they might have been harder to make out because, in these cases, the moral case for U.S. intervention seemed compelling and the trajectory of developments encouraging. Alternative paths were also hard to chart in such circumstances. The administration was loath to be seen as hampering the uprisings’ goals. There was immense public pressure to side with the protest movements. Key decision-makers in the administration were understandably sympathetic to the uprisings and their seeming promise to rid the Middle East of its twin afflictions, ruinous autocracy and the allure of Islamist extremism. Perhaps most decisively, there was no constructive discussion to be had with the regimes about a peaceful way forward because they saw the struggle as existential.

The good intentions [from the US] that accompanied the push for regime change did not spare either Libya or Syria a fate similar to Iraq’s.

But the good intentions that accompanied the push for regime change did not spare either Libya or Syria a fate similar to Iraq’s. Understandable as its policies may have been as a response to unspeakable violence, the U.S. must contend with the outcome of its own words and deeds in both places. The primary blame lies at the feet of the regimes that, refusing to relinquish a smidgen of power, moved to crush the uprisings, turning them into wars. It is hard to know what results different policies would have yielded. But the actions the U.S. did take must be scrutinised if lessons are to be durably learned.

Its past missteps do not mean the U.S. should back away from advocating for sensible political reform in the Middle East. But its policies need to reflect the reality that longer-term questions of political reform will continue to sit alongside the present possibilities for instability. While there is no blueprint for how to respond to each instance of instability, and the U.S. response will vary case by case, Washington should approach these situations with a clear sense of the limits on any outside power’s ability to drive events.

Will it? On one hand, there are signs that Washington has absorbed this lesson. In Iran, for example, the Biden administration has shown support for courageous protesters with targeted sanctions against regime actors and expressions of support for human rights – often in coordination with Western allies. It has steered well clear of suggesting that the U.S. seeks regime change. This approach does not satisfy the regime’s most ardent critics, but it may be the most responsible way to support demands for dignity and freedom while managing expectations about Washington’s capacity to deliver the transformation that so many in both Iran and the U.S. wish to see.

Still, it is fair to wonder whether this sort of humility and caution will endure. Pressures for decisive U.S. action could well return. Faced with a moment like the 2011 Arab uprisings, it is not impossible to imagine this or a future generation of officials persuading themselves that they can intervene better than those who failed before them. If there is one lesson from the Iraq war and the misadventures that followed, it is that such self-assessments are rarely, if ever, correct.

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