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The Iraq War: 10 Years Later
March 19, 2013, 9:01 pm
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The Iraq War: 10 Years Later:

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom,
the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. To mark the
anniversary, Reason asked a group of leading policy
analysts, scholars, and journalists to consider the lessons and
legacies of the war, a decade after the launch of hostilities. What
follows is a critical look at both the war abroad and its impact at
home.—Matthew Feeney
Ronald Bailey
On the 10th anniversary of the U.S. liberation of Iraq (how
ironic “liberation” now sounds), I admit that I was wrong to
support that war. In a March 17, 2003 article, “Liberators
or Invaders?
,” I speculated on how the Iraqi people would
respond to American troops landing in their country to topple the
tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. I noted in that column that
the Azores summit meeting in of the “coalition of the willing” had
issued a declaration:
“The Iraqi people deserve to be lifted from insecurity and
tyranny, and freed to determine for themselves the future of their
country. We envisage a unified Iraq with its territorial integrity
respected. All the Iraqi people—its rich mix of Sunni and Shiite
Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and all others—should
enjoy freedom, prosperity, and equality in a united country. We
will support the Iraqi people’s aspirations for a representative
government that upholds human rights and the rule of law as
cornerstones of democracy.”

Thousand of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars later, how
naïve those good intentions and goals now seem. Yes, the Iraqi
people “should enjoy freedom, prosperity, and equality” and a
“government that upholds human rights and the rule of law,” but too
late I realize that it is not possible to force freedom on
My hope/assumption that people, given the chance, would choose
to loosen the fetters of tribal loyalty and embrace the ideal of
individual liberty has been proven decisively wrong. The
institutions that underpin a liberal capitalist society cannot be
built in just a few months or years. Meanwhile, at home, the Iraq
and Afghanistan wars were used to justify the construction of an
ever more intrusive national security state. Henceforth, I will do
what I can to dismantle it.
Ronald Bailey is science correspondent
Reason magazine and
Matthew Feeney
The decision to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom was one of the
most disastrous American foreign policy decisions in recent
history. Thousands of people were killed during the war, and many
continue to be killed, thanks to the American-led invasion of Iraq
that failed to uncover Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass
destruction, which were cited as one of the main reasons for the
invasion. As well as resulting in unnecessary deaths, the war also
damaged America’s reputation abroad and destabilized an important
geopolitical region. However, while the war was an unnecessary
tragedy it has impacted American foreign policy in a way that now
makes the sort of direct intervention seen during the war in Iraq
anathema to contemporary American foreign policy.
This is not to say that the American military has not intervened
abroad during the Obama administration. However, the interventions
are more hands-off than the interventions that began under the Bush
administration. No-fly zones and drone strikes, while still
unnecessary and unjustified interventions, are different to the
invasion and occupation of a country.
Some have argued correctly that the legacy of the war in Iraq
has been one of the considerations made by the Obama administration
that has kept America out of direct involvement in Syria. While the
U.K. and France have both recently said that they are open to the
possibility of arming Syrian rebels, the U.S. remains comparatively
removed from the conflict.
While the Obama administration seems to be wary of repeating
some of the Bush administration’s disastrous foreign policy
mistakes, it is important to remember that despite the deaths, the
lack of weapons of mass destruction, the worsened reputation
abroad, and the cost of the war in Iraq, there are still some who
argue that America’s foreign policy should employ more
direct intervention. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey
Graham (R-S.C.) have both argued that the U.S. should be more
involved in the Syrian conflict.
That the war in Iraq has made the Obama administration wary of
direct military intervention is the only silver lining of a vast
and very dark cloud. But the war has also allowed Obama’s foreign
policy to seem more accurate, considered, humane, and modern than
Bush’s adventure in Iraq. In isolation, the killing of hundreds of
people in countries we have never declared war on with drones would
be met with far more justified outrage than it currently is.
However, with Iraq still fresh in our memories many of us are too
quick to overlook the serious moral, political, and diplomatic
concerns raised by Obama’s own interventionist and unconstitutional
foreign policy. 
Matthew Feeney is assistant editor of Reason 24/7.
Nick Gillespie
Back in August 2002, I wrote about what I called a “Baghdad
Bait and Switch
”: Invading and occupying Iraq was a non
sequitur in the “global war on terror.” There was no pressing
military or foreign policy goal involved. The move on Iraq was a
political response to the failure to capture Osama bin Laden. When
you can’t lash out at an actual problem, why not take a swing at a
country—especially one ruled by an absolutely unredeemable figure
such as Saddam Hussein—that you’ve already effectively
That’s why the Bush administration sold the war not simply as a
necessary step in stemming the supposedly existential threat of
radical Islam but as an affordable exercise in nation- and
region-building. Remember when Bush adviser Larry Lindsey got
canned for suggesting that the war might be as much as $200
billion? We’re
now looking
 at a $6 trillion price tag, a total that pales
in comparison to the human toll, which is somewhere north of
176,000 people. It’s worth constantly recounting the cost and
stupidity of the Iraq war because we’ve already started to forget
Indeed, we started to forget just how ill
conceived and poorly executed
 the whole thing was even
before we kinda sorta left Iraq. Recall how former Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta tried to keep
U.S. troops
 in both Iraq and Afghanistan for as long as
possible—and beyond nominally appointed withdrawal dates. Panetta
failed, but not for lack of trying.
Barack Obama was elected not because he was critical of the
generally interventionist foreign policy that has prevailed in
post-Cold War America (Bill Clinton ordered 25
major troop deployments
 in eight years, double the number
than Ronnie Ray-Gun did). Obama bravely came out against dumb wars
but has had nothing to say about forging a foreign policy for the
21st century that might lead to a safer and more peaceful
A decade after the Iraq war started, the one positive sign on
the foreign policy front comes not from the Nobel Peace Prize
winner in the White House but from a senator who has been attacked
by members of his party as a “wacko
 flying high on “isolationism.” Rand
Paul’s February
6 speech
 at the hawkish Heritage Foundation (of all
places) is the most promising step forward on a national
conversation that should have been started even before George H.W.
Bush put together the first Gulf War in 1991. Whether you agree
with Paul’s ideas of containing U.S. enemies through a mix of
economic, cultural, and military engagement, he is at least
starting the sort of discussion that might avoid another decade of
dumb war and tens of thousands of dead people in an elective war.
We should have been ready to have that conversation without ever
having invaded Iraq and it’s a point of national shame that only
now do most of us seem ready to start talking.
Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of and Reason

Anthony Gregory
The Iraq war qualifies as the worst U.S. government project in
my lifetime. It has devastated millions, killed tens of thousands
directly and hundreds of thousands indirectly, spawned mass
displacement, and abused thousands of captives, many guilty at most
of defending their country.
The propaganda and promises of a fast, cheap liberation were
transparently absurd. Neocons warned against balsa-wood drones,
mushroom clouds in New York, anthrax and radiation attacks against
which we could shield ourselves with duct tape. The absurdity made
Cold War duck-and-cover drills appear comparatively rational.
Iraqis had no plausible responsibility for anti-American terrorism.
Saddam’s genuine brutality never justified killing people who
happened to live in Iraq. Yet the establishment and most Americans
ignored millions of protesters’ pleas. They cheered as Bush
inflicted the moral equivalent of 9/11 on a defenseless country.
The hysteria of 2003 gave hints of how fascists rise to power.
Operation Iraqi Freedom unleashed terrorism, draconian Shariah
law, and the systematic persecution of women and religious
minorities. Bush’s gang established martial law, deadly
checkpoints, and torture chambers; used white phosphorous, flooded
the country with sewage and disease, destroyed infrastructure that
twelve previous years of U.S. war and sanctions had yet left
standing, confiscated Iraqis’ guns, and implemented central
taxation and economic planning.
Wilson’s WWI bungling helped lead to communism, Nazism, and
WWII; Bush’s bungling has exacerbated jihadism and will reverberate
for decades. Scholars will never forget this attack on
civilization’s cradle, including the ravaging of ancient Sumerian
relics and the earliest known writing, which Chalmers Johnson
compared to the Mongol destruction of Baghdad’s libraries in
Year after year, many of us demanded withdrawal, and “realists”
told us that “we” must fix what “we” broke. The full-scale civil
war, predictably sparked by U.S. intervention, only subsided when
the Sunnis essentially lost and the U.S. military bribed many of
its adversaries.
One good resulted: Global disrespect for American empire.
Indeed, the war on terror should delegitimize the U.S. government
for everyone.
Thousands of Americans were killed, maimed, and psychologically
wounded. Many thousands more, deprived of the basic right to quit
their jobs, endured numerous deployments, only to return home to an
aggrandized government and weaker economy. The connection is
inextricable. For any chance at liberty, Americans must reject war.
Libertarians should lead the opposition to militarism as the core
statist evil, responsible for expanding corporate socialism and
abusive police power.
Those who were wrong should fess up and commit themselves to
peace. Those who excuse or downplay this atrocity will always
suffer in credibility.
A year into the bloodbath, Bill Buckley said, “With the benefit
of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn’t the kind of
extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration….
If I knew then what I know now… I would have opposed the
Too little, too late, but he did concede error. The least we can
do is learn: Never, ever—ever—trust the war party again.
Anthony Gregory is Research Fellow at the Independent
Institute and author of the forthcoming 
The Power of
Habeas Corpus in America: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on
Terror (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Robert Higgs
Ten years after the U.S. government launched its second war
against Iraq, we may draw many conclusions about its having done so
and about the actions and events that followed. The chief
conclusion I draw is nothing new; indeed, it is the oldest axiom of
statecraft: crime pays.
In 1945, the jurists that the U.S. government and its wartime
allies sent to compose the Nuremburg Tribunal spelled out the
nature of crimes against peace in considerable detail, including
“(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of
aggression or a war in violation of international treaties,
agreements or assurances; (ii) Participation in a common plan or
conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned
under (i).” The chief American prosecutor at Nuremburg, Justice
Robert H. Jackson, said: “To initiate a war of aggression… is not
only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime
differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within
itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Although certain lawyers might concoct a variety of avowedly
“legal” justifications for the war launched in 2003, any
fair-minded person must see that if this war does not qualify as a
war of aggression, it is difficult to identify one that does. The
United Nations Charter obliges all member states to “refrain in
their international relations from the threat or use of force
against the territorial integrity or political independence of any
state.” Every disinterested observer must see that this war was not
waged in self-defense: Iraq did not and had not threatened the
U.S.; it had neither the means nor the intention of attacking this
country or otherwise harming U.S. national security. The war was
plainly one of choice and aggression, thinly disguised as
Among the war’s countless consequences are more than a hundred
thousand deaths, innumerable physical and psychic injuries, vast
destruction of property, and displacement of millions of people
from their homes. By comparison, any conceivable good that came of
the war was relatively insignificant. The war has (or eventually
will have) squandered more than a trillion dollars of U.S.
If waging aggressive war was the crime, the criminals who
perpetrated it are obvious because they made no attempt to conceal
their culpability; indeed, they took public credit for the crime.
Heading the list are George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld,
Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice, followed by a
large number of subordinates and co-conspirators, including Douglas
Feith, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, and virtually every other
prominent neoconservative in the country.
Notwithstanding their crimes, they have prospered. Bush and
Cheney were reelected. All of the others have gone on to live as
seemingly respectable members of society. They occupy prestigious
positions and move about freely; they receive public honors; many
people treat them as praiseworthy figures. None of them were ever
indicted by a U.S. court. In short, they have got off scot-free.
Crime pays.
Robert Higgs is senior fellow in political economy for The
Independent Institute.

Malou Innocent
Prominent (neo)conservatives who promoted the war, such as Sen.


(R-Ariz.) and
Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin
, have blamed
the U.S. military drawdown from Iraq for a rise in Iranian
influence. That popular contention willfully ignores that Iran
became a beneficiary of the war as a result of Saddam Hussein’s
removal, not that of American troops.
Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq war proponents were so focused on
removing Saddam from power that they largely overlooked how it
would enable Tehran to back its political allies in Baghdad with
far greater impunity. Take Iraq’s current Prime Minister, Nouri al
Maliki, head of the Shiite (Dawa) political party. From 1982 until
the U.S.-led invasion, Maliki found refuge in Iran while other Dawa
members found refuge in Syria. Why Iran and Syria? According to

, “These two countries were most sympathetic to the cause
against Saddam’s regime at the time.”
That was also when top officials in
Washington were assisting Baghdad’s secular Ba’athist regime
its ongoing conflict against Iran and
refused to punish Saddam
for gassing Iraqi Kurds. The Iran-Iraq
War (1980–88) ultimately devolved into a protracted stalemate,
allowing the rivals to weaken each other. Because the region
remained divided, neither side could achieve hegemony and shut out
American influence. As Henry Kissinger
reportedly quipped
, “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.”
In August 1988, after the bloody Iran-Iraq War finally ended
with a U.N.-mandated ceasefire, Saddam did not intend to preserve
the status quo: His forces invaded
Kuwait in August 1990. The immediate objective of the resulting
U.S.-led international coalition was to expel Iraqi forces from
Kuwait, and to avoid what President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of
State James Baker warned,
“something that would result in the fragmentation of Iraq because
we didn’t think that would be in our national interests.”
Washington’s larger aim was to prevent Iraq from dominating the
Persian Gulf. For the next 12 years, no-fly zones and a sanctions
regime contained Saddam’s expansionist tendencies. Iran’s strength
grew, Iraq’s strength receded, and the balance of power in the Gulf
remained reasonably intact. That all changed dramatically after
March 2003.
Bush administration officials, and their Democratic and
Republican supporters on Capitol Hill, underappreciated the wider
geopolitical ramifications of dethroning Iran’s principal regional
counterweight. Realist scholars
pointed out at the time
that no amount of prewar planning
or “boots on the ground” could have prevented
the Islamic Republic’s

into a neighboring country with a 60 percent Shiite
majority. By 2010, leaders in Tehran
helped create
Prime Minister Maliki’s Shiite-led government,
and according to reports, began “calling in favors among its allied
factions in Iraq.”
It is useful to keep in mind that many prominent politicians and
pundits who originally promoted the war have now seized on
expanded Iranian power to press for action against its regime.
These proponents of perpetual aggression convincingly illustrate
what Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises described as the deception of government
: When the government perceives a problem, it
intervenes to solve it, but instead of solving the initial problem,
the intervention creates two or three further problems.
Those who blame America’s troop withdrawal for increased Iranian
influence have their causation wrong. The preventive war of choice
they were so confident would yield a positive outcome helped
strengthen Iran’s geopolitical assertiveness and limit U.S. policy
options across the region.
Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato

Ed Krayewski
The war in Iraq started 10 years ago, on March 20, 2003,
pursuant, according to the Bush Administration, to United Nations
Security Council Resolution 1441, as well as the Authorization for
the Use of Military Force in Iraq, which actually
 enforcement of Resolution 1441 and prior
Iraq-related Security Council resolutions as a reason for the
president to deploy the armed forces. Most international
 viewed the invasion of Iraq as illegal, but the UN
Security Council (of which the U.S. is a veto-wielding member)
never repudiated the war and no decision in any federal or
international court has ruled on the matter one way or the other.
But the Iraq war, a.k.a. the Second Gulf War, is the U.N.’s baby
even absent Resolution 1441. After all, nearly 800 resolutions
earlier, in 1990, the U.N. Security Council authorized military
action by the U.S. and its coalition of allies to remove Iraqi
forces from Kuwait. The 1991 (First) Gulf War was followed by a
decade of UN weapons inspectors, tasked with ensuring Saddam
Hussein did not continue to develop nuclear, chemical, and even
biological weapons of mass destruction. Before democracy-building
became the policy du jour in the Bush White House,
WMDs were the modus operandi for war. Those WMDs were never found.
It was later revealed Saddam Hussein was bluffing;
he didn’t want Iraq’s regional enemies (and namely Iran, whom he
considered a greater threat to Iraq than the U.S.) to know he
didn’t have WMDs.
Iraq was put on the fast track to war in 2002, when George Bush
identified it, along with Iran (that archnemesis of Iraq) and North
Korea (4000 miles away), as an axis of evil. The intelligence
community’s speculated on Iran going nuclear since
the 1990s
. By 2002, North Korea had been dabbling with nuclear
weapons for years. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in 2009 it announced it had nuclear
weapons. It has performed at least three tests in the last 16
months. North Korea, too, is the U.N.’s baby. The participation of
U.S. forces in the Korean War in 1950 came as a result of U.N.
Security Council Resolution 83. The war ended (?) in
an armistice and stalemate along a boundary close to the one that
existed at the beginning of the conflict. That armistice called for
a “peaceful settlement of the Korean question,” which hasn’t
happened yet.
U.N. Security Council resolutions were also used to support the
U.S. pursuing Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan (Resolution
1368, passed on September 11, 2001) and, most recently, to
authorize NATO-led intervention in Libya (Resolution 1973, passed
March 17, 2011, just two days before NATO entered the civil war).
That intervention, and the expansion of the drone war to
as far as Yemen and Somalia
, and the deployment of U.S. troops
in Africa, from Uganda to Niger (in
support of the French-led intervention in Mali), and the
increased agitation
for intervention in Syria
 suggest few real lessons were
learned in Iraq.
Ed Krayewski is associate editor of Reason 24/7.
Daniel McCarthy
Peter Beinart was wrong about the Iraq war in 2003, when he was
a leading liberal hawk. But
today he’s right
about the idea behind it: “The real Bush
doctrine was neither about democracy nor terrorism; it was about
containment and deterrence. Throughout the Cold War, hawks had
repeatedly questioned both strategies.” Neoconservatives and other
hardliners hated the realpolitik of Nixon, Ford, and even Reagan.
They demanded direct confrontation with America’s enemies:
regime-change by covert action or pre-emptive war. At last, after
9/11, they got to put the theory into practice.
Afghanistan wasn’t enough—that war was a reaction. Iraq would be
a revolution, the first domino in a chain that would remake the
Middle East. Saddam Hussein’s (nonexistent) weapons of mass
destruction supplied grounds for war. But its planners and
promoters, from Dick Cheney to Christopher Hitchens, always
imagined neutralizing a fictitious nuclear program as only the
beginning of great things. The war would liberalize Islam, destroy
Al Qaeda, bracket Iran, and create a hospitable environment for
Israel. Advocates dismissed any question about the costs. They
turned it around: What would be the cost of not intervening?
 “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,”
Condoleezza Rice unrealistically warned. But there was also an
opportunity cost—losing the chance to unleash creative
on the Islamic world. The time may have come,
First Things editor
Richard John Neuhaus, for
“thinking about military action in terms not of the last resort but
of the best resort.”
The “best resort” meant more than 4,400 Americans dead, a toll
that grows with every postwar veteran suicide. Cashiering Saddam
proved well within U.S. capabilities. Creating a liberal democracy
was not. Iraq plunged into civil war: Shiite fought Sunni as
foreign jihadists flocked to the country to promote their own model
of regional transformation. Over 110,000 civilians died—probably
many more, but who was counting? Two million Iraqis fled the
country; a similar number who remained were displaced. Eventually
Sunni tribal leader rose to eject the outside Islamists. That, and
not the vaunted “Surge,” defeated Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia—which
didn’t exist before the war.
Regime change came home. The war
did to the Republican Party
and conservatism what Vietnam had
done to Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic Party and Cold War liberalism.
Disgust with the war contributed to two GOP presidential defeats
and gave Barack Obama an edge against Hillary Clinton among
Democrats in the 2008. Republicans lost both houses of Congress in
2006: the seat that decided the Senate was that of Virginia’s
George Allen, whose opponent, former Reagan administration Navy
secretary Jim Webb, ran as a Democrat (and won) because of the
Civil war has come home as well. The GOP is now a battleground
between neoconservatives and other adherents of the cult of
rollback, on the one hand, and, on the other, Ron Paul-inspired
libertarians and newly emboldened realists. It’s a bloodless,
metaphorical war—but its outcome may determine whether there are
more Iraqs.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American

Scott Shackford
When the United States launched its first strikes on Iraq, I was
the city editor at a small community daily newspaper in Barstow,
California. The town is the closest to the National Training Center
at Fort Irwin, an Army post in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
We immediately contacted the post to try to determine how this
strike on Iraq would affect what the Army was doing in the desert.
The spokesman for Fort Irwin was insistent that the military
actions in Iraq would have absolutely no impact on the Army post.
They were going to continue their training as usual. And because
they were a training post, there shouldn’t be any concerns about
soldiers deploying from Fort Irwin. The soldiers were there to help
teach other soldiers, not to go to war.
He ended up being terribly wrong on all counts. When the Iraq
war began, Fort Irwin was training soldiers in tank battles and
other tactics that weren’t entirely applicable to the current
conflict. The training center underwent major changes over the
course of the decade, after the war had started. The tank wars were
replaced with mock Iraqi villages (and later Afghan villages). The
Army built a facility there to study improvised explosive devices
to help train troops fight this new threat.
The soldiers there were deployed as well. Soldiers from the 11th
Armored Cavalry Regiment, which typically serves as the mock enemy
forces for training rotations that come to the post, were sent to
Iraq, as were some additional specialists. The post suffered its
first casualty of war almost exactly two years after the Sept. 11
After the post’s transformation, Fort Irwin played a great media
game, inviting outlets across the country and the world to visit,
witness, and report on the way the training center now prepared
soldiers for rotations in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But those who were in the area in 2003 know that when the war
began, the Army really had little idea what they were getting into
and the length of time they would be in action in military theaters
in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scott Shackford is associate editor of Reason 24/7.
Ilya Somin
Ten years after the start of the Iraq war, we are still far from
reaching consensus on its lessons. Both the critics and the
defenders of the war make some valid points. It is undeniable that
the Bush Administration erred in believing that Saddam Hussein had
a large stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The
administration similarly overstated his support for terrorism and
possible ties to Al Qaeda. Much less excusably, they also badly
mishandled the occupation of Iraq, thereby greatly increasing the
human and financial cost of the war. The war also did severe damage
to America’s public image in much of the world, and harmed
relations with key allies.
On the other hand, The Kay and Duelfer investigations of Iraq’s
weapons programs found that Saddam Hussein did have a WMD research
program, and that he was increasingly finding ways to circumvent UN
sanctions. Small amounts of WMDs were actually found, including

artillery shells filled with deadly sarin gas.
The 9/11
Commission found that Saddam Hussein had offered assistance to Al
Qaeda in the late 1990s. Saddam’s record showed that he was a
dangerous risk-taker. Such incidents as his invasions of Iran and
Kuwait, and his ordering of an assassination attempt on former
President George H.W. Bush in 1993 attest to that. Given this
propensity for risk-taking, it would have been difficult to contain
him indefinitely. Since he was likely to “break out” of the
sanctions regime sooner or later, allowing his regime to continue
its efforts to stockpile WMDs and develop relationships with
terrorists was hardly a safe proposition. Finally, today’s Iraqi
government, for all its flaws, is far more liberal and democratic
than Saddam’s dictatorship. Most importantly, it does not engage in
periodic bouts of mass murder and genocide, as Saddam did.
On balance, I think that both America and Iraq are, overall,
better off for having removed Saddam than either would be if the
U.S. had left his regime in power. But this judgment rests on
difficult-to-assess counterfactuals about what the world would be
like had the U.S. and its allies acted differently in 2003. The
same is true of the opposite position, which implicitly rests on
the assumption that a world in which the US did not invade Iraq
would have turned out better. Neither side in the debate has an
airtight case.
Given that reality, we should be careful about drawing sweeping
conclusions about the proper future policy for the United States.
Libertarians, in particular, should resist concluding that the
failures of the Iraq war prove that we should never go to war
except in response to an actual or imminent attack. As I have
explained more fully elsewhere, there
is a serious libertarian case for a more active military policy.
The Iraq war actually strengthens that case in one sense. The 2006
and 2008 elections showed that the voters notice military failure
and punish it at the ballot box. This contrasts with many
less-visible forms of government failure that are often ignored
because of widespread
political ignorance
. Although far from ideal, democratic
leaders’ incentives to avoid failure in war are much stronger than
in most other areas of public policy.
We may ultimately conclude that the Iraq war was a failure. But
any general prescriptions for American foreign policy must be based
on a much broader assessment of relevant history and political
Ilya Somin is a professor at George Mason University School
of Law.

Jesse Walker
The good news about the Iraq war’s legacy is that it has made
ordinary Americans far more skeptical about intervening abroad.
Like World War I and Vietnam, Iraq showed Americans just how
destructive an ill-conceived military adventure can be. This lesson
may need to be re-learned every few decades, as the generation that
saw the effects of a war dies off and a new crisis (or apparent
crisis) prompts a new set of leaders to overreach in their
reaction. But for now the skepticism is in place.
Unfortunately, this skepticism is much scarcer in the governing
class. A president carried into office in part because of his
antiwar reputation has already fought a small war in Libya and may
soon try to enter another conflict in Syria or, worse yet, Iran.
And for all the recent influence of Sen. Rand Paul’s small band of
Republican doves and quasi-doves, the leadership of the GOP is
still filled with unreconstructed hawks. In Washington,
interventionism is still the default position, even in a time of
public reluctance and even in the face of fiscal crisis.
Jesse Walker is books editor at Reason magazine and

Matt Welch
The occupational curse of generals actual and armchair alike is
fighting the last war. World War I hero Maurice Gamelin
prepared France to defend against Hitler’s panzers with cavalry and
a glorified
. Critics of U.S. interventions spent a generation
comparing each and

, inaccurately if cautionarily, to
The Iraq war deserves its place in the Hall of Interventionist
Shame right alongside that
JFK/LBJ folly
, even though the
death toll
and political
, mercifully, do not come close. Not only did Gulf War
II lead to a decade-long quagmire of misery, massive expenditure,
and a series of unplanned contingencies (characteristics it shares
with our dual nation-building sinkhole in Afghanistan), Iraq was a
war not of retaliation but of “choice.”
We could have chosen to avoid it. So we’re compelled to explore
why we did not.
One key factor in America’s disastrous discretion was that the
overriding lesson we thought we learned from the Gulf War,
Bosnia, and Kosovo—hooray, we don’t have to worry about the lessons
of Vietnam anymore!—turned out to be false.
In February 1991, flush with the stunningly rapid liberation of
Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush declared, “By God, we’ve
kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all
.” As Bush’s
secretary of state, James Baker, recalled in his
, “Emotionally, the success of the war was powerful tonic
for the American psyche. In six short weeks, the bitter legacy of
Vietnam had been swept away by Desert Storm. Euphoria permeated the
country to a degree not seen since World War II.”
It was a euphoria that had no time for limning important
analogical differences between the two wars. Vietnam was about the
United States choosing sides in a civil war as a buttress against
regional communism; the Gulf War was about a genuine international
coalition reversing naked state-on-state aggression. Wars are
easier to conclude in
100 hours
(as opposed to 100+ months) when the objective is
limited and clear.
The Vietnam Syndrome had taken a body blow, but was not quite
dead. Draft-dodger Bill Clinton spent most of his first term
drifting in and out of minor conflicts while the bodies piled up in
Yugoslavia and Rwanda, while congressional Republicans sounded
reliable warnings against American interventions just about
anywhere. “The aspect of the future of this nation that bothers me
more than anything else,” said one GOP senator in January 1993, “is
the prospect of sending American troops on the ground into Bosnia.”
That senator’s name was
John McCain
The success in finally bombing Serbian authoritarian Slobodan
Milosevic to the negotiating table in 1995, after four years of
frustrating diplomatic impotence in the face of Milosevic’s
gruesome ethnic slaughter, converted many peacenik lefty types into
liberal hawks
. By the time American warplanes started bombing
Serb forces in Kosovo in March 1999, many Republicans had lost
their gun-shyness as well. “For a while we made our way in the
world less sure of ourselves than we had been before Vietnam,”
McCain wrote at the conclusion of his September 1999 Vietnam
Faith of My Fathers
. “That was a pity, and I am relieved
today that America’s period of self-doubt has ended.”
As we gear up to learn what one hopes are the right
lessons from the Iraq war, let us volunteer as an underrated if
unsatisfying virtue a little of that ol’ self-doubt. And let us
recognize that any American president, of any party, who acts
without restraint from either Congress, international opinion, or
the long-degraded
principle of sovereignty
, will inevitably
lower the bar
for our next great self-inflicted calamity.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason


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