On March 16th, 2003, Vice President of the United States Richard Cheney went on NBC's Sunday news program "Meet the Press" and famously asserted his belief that American and coalition forces set to invade Iraq would be "greeted as liberators" by the Iraqi people. On March 19th, 2003, the world woke to the news that a military campaign against the government of Saddam Hussein began with the "shock and awe" bombing broadcast on news outlets the world over:
Exactly 10 years ago today, on March 20th, 2003, American and coalition ground forces invaded Iraq. By April 9th, those forces had occupied Baghdad and the top leaders of the Baathist regime in Iraq were in hiding. On May 1st, 2003, President of the United States George W. Bush landed on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in a Lockheed S-3 Viking aircraft to declared that "major combat operations" in Iraq were over.
This will not be an exhaustive retelling of the war after the fall of the regime, but needless to say, I personally find the mistakes made in the lead up to the war and the failures after initial fighting to be legion. The planning for the post war, if it can be called that, was both inadequate to the task and pathetically optimistic in the ease with which a transition to Iraqi governance could be made in a country with deep sectarian divisions kept in check for three decades via a brutal dictatorship. The interim authority put into place by the administration made enormous errors which were largely directives from above that mainly served to fuel resentments in the Sunni community and the former armed forces. An insurgency of former regime and army elements began almost immediately even as top U.S. officials denied that the coalition faced opposition from a genuine insurgency. By 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was talking about an insurgency that could lasy many years possibly beyond an eventual withdrawal of American troops. After intense counter-insurgency battles, the conflict morphed into one more resembling a sectarian civil war.
United States casulaities from the war number nearly 4,500 with tens of thousands more suffering physical injuries and many more psychological trauma. Iraqi insurgent and military dead are not easy to pin down, but the low estimates of Iraqi civilian dead begin at well over 100,000 and climb from there.
Since 2003, over 2.2 million Iraqis have either temporarily or permanently fled their home and become refugees. Their stories are various, but many of them left behind family members and struggle to this day. In this segment from NPR's The Takeaway, Alaa Majeed speaks of her experiences, including the painful reunion with her children who have joined her in exile. Perhaps most painful? Even today, when walking the streets of their new home, Berlin, her children warn each other of lessons they learned in surviving the civil war, of how to not touch a toy dropped on the street because it could be a boobytrap. An entire generation of Iraqi children may live without a dictatorship, but they have been permanently scarred by a civil war that is not entirely over.
The reality of what exploded in Iraq is hard to understand from safe countries many thousands of miles away. But this 2008 broadcast of Radiolab spoke poignantly of what Iraqis faced in a nation rent asunder by sectarian civil war. The discussion opens with the question of being able to "see" race and then segues into experiences in Baghdad at a time in the Iraqi civil war where the mere spelling of your last name was a potential matter of life and death.
Perhaps even more controversial than the failure to deal with the spiraling post-regime situation was the administration's unraveling case for the war. While there were always multiple arguments made for invading Iraq, the American public and international community were presented with a case that heavily emphasized the potential threat to the world of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The assumption was that his regime had them, was actively pursuing a program to continue to build them, and that the regime in Iraq, with deep animus towards the United States in particular, was uniquely motivated to allow them to be used against United States interests.
But the invasion of cut the work of United Nations representative Hans Blix short before he could finish his task of inspecting Iraq for purported WMDs. And as the post-war period went on, it became increasingly clear the regime possessed no appreciable stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and had little to no capacity to produce them. Faced with the building realization that the WMD case was stupendously wrong, President George W. Bush went so far as to make jokes about his administration's inability to find them:
Much conventional wisdom speaks to a belief that if the case on WMD was mistaken, it was a mistake that "everybody made" in every major intelligence agency in the West. Certainly, that attitude can be found in the words of former chairman of the Defense Department's Defense Policy Board Richard Perle in an interview this morning. Perle, a major champion of the war, expresses regret for the error but no remorse for the war, and additionally blames Saddam Hussein for bluffing the world into believing he had weapons of mass destruction -- in retrospect, probably as a warning to Iran that he was still powerful.
Perle is today a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. And, in fact, if you look at the major players in the administration's public case on weapons of mass destruction, then National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, none of them have paid a significant cost to their careers and future prospects. The "wisdom" that every knew the same wrong things about Iraqi weapons is hardly "wisdom". Signficantly players in the actual analysis of intelligence knew majors parts of the case were flimsy and the case that the threat was distorted and cherry-picked is hard to deny, although many still do.
Today, there are two hard questions left to discuss: First, what is the future of Iraq and to what degree is America still responsible ten years later? Second, what is the future of American power in the world and will there ever again be a legitimate case to use it preemptively?