Could America Have Won the Iraq War?
The official reason the Bush administration gave for invading Iraq was to capture Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Because such weapons were never found, the war is considered a blunder rare in American history. That is narrow thinking, however.
The Iraq War is actually a failure less because no weapons were found than because of the financial cost, the lives lost and the military quagmire that ensued and that worked to strengthen Iranian power in the region for nearly a decade. But what if the financial cost and the lives lost were significantly less, so that no military quagmire ensued?
In fact, the real question is whether the Iraq War could have been fought more intelligently, thus changing our perception of it. If you say "no," then you are a determinist: someone who does not believe in the power of human choice to alter the direction of events. And if you do not believe in the power of human choice, then your own life -- and history, too -- has no purpose.
I am not saying that the decision to invade Iraq was smart. I am saying that once we did so, there were better and worse outcomes based on the many individual choices made by President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and others. For example, what if the Iraqi army had been immediately reconstituted after the collapse of the regime; or what if the Baath Party had only been purged at its uppermost levels rather than completely eviscerated?
Probably the most famous acknowledgement of this distinction is found in the work of journalist and military historian Thomas E. Ricks, a former colleague of mine at a Washington think tank. In Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-2005 (2006), Ricks essentially lambasts the decision to invade. But in The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012), Ricks demonstrates further that while opposed to the war, he is not a determinist, for he dissects the blunders made by Rumsfeld-appointed generals that led to Iraq being, well, a fiasco.
Here are some examples of what-ifs, concerning Iraq, that illustrate that the Iraq War was not necessarily fated to turn out exactly as it did.
As Ricks and others have documented, the war's commander, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, was a conventional and narrow-minded thinker who lacked the intellectual firepower to challenge civilian leaders in the Pentagon when they failed to plan adequately for governing a post-invasion Iraq. But what if the combatant commander of Central Command at the time was not Franks but someone of the caliber of Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni? Zinni, a military intellectual, had run Central Command prior to Franks. Zinni had thought hard and deeply about a post-Saddam Iraq falling into chaos. Someone like Zinni would certainly have challenged Rumsfeld, while threatening to resign if meticulous plans were not laid out by the Pentagon and the White House for governing Iraq. Individuals matter in history -- it is not all about impersonal forces of geography, technology and so on. The difference between a Zinni and a Franks could have been the difference between one outcome in Iraq and another, and between one historical perception of the Iraq War and another.
Not only was Franks not up to the job, neither was Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who replaced Franks in post-invasion Iraq. Sanchez was arguably among the least experienced three-star generals in the U.S. Army, a veritable two-star, in fact. While Franks' lack of imagination did not allow him to foresee chaos in Iraq, it was Sanchez's lack of competence that helped allow for such chaos to become reality. It was under Bush and Rumsfeld that Sanchez was chosen: This was not mere fate, about which the administration could have done nothing; this was human agency working in the service of perhaps the worst possible result.
There were no clear lines of authority, furthermore. Who was in charge in Baghdad: Sanchez or the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer? Not only did Bush and Rumsfeld choose military leaders lacking in intellectual distinction, they concocted a system of multiple chains of command, again, in the service of perhaps the worst possible result. Sanchez was followed by Army Gen. George Casey, a fundamentally average intellect immersed in a foreign culture of which he understood not nearly enough. The story of how Army Gen. David Petraeus replaced Casey in early 2007 and partly turned the tide of the war through the intelligent application of a counterinsurgency strategy is well known. But ask yourself: What if Bush and Rumsfeld (along with Cheney), once having decided to invade Iraq, then vowed from the beginning to work only with the most far-sighted commanders that the armed services could offer -- men of the Zinni-Petraeus caliber? What if they always demanded exceptional intelligence and independence at the top of the command structure? Anyone who says that would not have mattered would be a rank determinist.
Better generalship and logical command chains would likely have improved the security situation, leading to less financial cost, less loss of human life, less opportunity for Iranian meddling, and thus a better geopolitical outcome. The Bush administration may have failed less because it chose to go to war than because of the manner in which it did so.
Of course, the very indifference in which the White House and the Pentagon chose generals was indicative of something much deeper -- for the failure to competently prosecute a war and occupation was inherent in the very hubris of the conception. In other words, the arrogance of thinking that you could invade and make over a complex society like Iraq's -- something to which admittedly I and many others subscribed, or at least partly subscribed -- led, in the case of top administration officials, to assume the task would be straightforward enough for a Franks or a Sanchez to manage.
Lesson: The greater the geopolitical risk one takes, the more expert must be the execution of the enterprise! Iraq may not in any case have been winnable, but it need not have turned out to be quite the disaster it was. This is especially the case when one considers that the administration's deeper motives for invading Iraq -- unconnected to the mere official one of finding weapons of mass destruction or the philosophical one of spreading democracy -- had to do with providing a demonstration of naked American power in the aftermath of 9/11 for Arabs to take note of. But this backfired precisely because the military-civilian execution of the post-invasion phase was so wanting.
Nevertheless, I have merely indicated what might have been, not what was. At the end of the day, we who supported the war (with all of our caveats) are left with the facts that we have: in this case indicating that the war was a failure. Counterfactuals, as I have written before, are interesting for the analyst, but not for the families of the dead. They have only the facts as they are.
As for the Bush administration, the record is deeply contradictory. Bush's first six years of decision-making in Iraq make him arguably the worst American president in decades. But his last two years, after Cheney lost influence and after Rumsfeld was replaced at the Pentagon by Robert Gates -- with Petraeus replacing Casey in Iraq -- arguably ranks as one of the bravest presidential records in foreign policy in decades. Bush went against both Republicans and Democrats, and against public opinion at large, by actually increasing the number of troops in Iraq in 2006-2007. The result was a dramatic drop in Iraqi casualties. That was by any measure a profile in courage. Too bad Bush's critical thinking early in his presidency was not equal to the courage he demonstrated toward the end of it.