Twenty Years after “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq: A Critical Assessment

The crisis had been building for months when, on March 20, 2003, this author stood with a group of military officers deep inside the Pentagon, watching a television tuned to CNN. At the time I was a State Department officer seconded to the Joint Staff as the senior policy assistant and political-military planner. We had been alerted in advance of the exact time that the first bombs would drop on Baghdad. They lit up the screen in all its green night-vision glory right on schedule.

There was no cheering in the room, nor any sense of triumph. We knew there was a huge job ahead to rebuild the country—physically, for sure, although civilian infrastructure wasn’t targeted as it had been in 1991—but also, importantly, politically. No one watching that feed from CNN, in that place, in that moment, took anything for granted.

The twentieth anniversary of that day in March when the US-led invasion of Iraq began has been for me a time of reflection. Casualty figures in the conflict—almost 5,000 US military personnel dead and over 300,000 Iraqi civilians, military and police troops, and opposition fighters killed—make reflection necessary, as it must be for any US official involved in the war.

As spring returns to Washington, we are also mindful of the day the Iraq war “ended” with former President George W. Bush’s now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” declaration on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003. Widely derided at the time, the speech would seem even more off-key seven years later, when President Obama finally ended the US combat mission in the country. Bush’s 2003 declaration accurately described the overwhelming US military operation that destroyed the Saddam Hussein regime. But it failed to anticipate the enormous struggle to come.

Many analyses of the conflict unhesitatingly term it a failure.

It has now become commonplace to dissect the war, the decision-making that led to it, and the lengthy aftermath in highly critical terms. Many analyses of the conflict unhesitatingly term it a failure. Much of the criticism focuses on the obvious targets: the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, the deeply flawed de-Baathification process, and the occupation authorities’ missteps in the early postwar period. The faulty (and in the case of the vital source nicknamed Curveball, fabricated) intelligence that the Bush administration presented to justify its decision to go to war on the basis of eliminating weapons of mass destruction has long been cited as prima facie proof that Bush and his senior officials lied to the American public, Congress, and the world about the threat posed by Iraq.

But serious though these issues were, the major errors that afflicted the US invasion and occupation of Iraq occurred before the first US airstrikes lit up the CNN feed in March 2003. Those mistakes included strong ideological biases that practically mandated a war with Iraq, a dysfunctional national security policymaking process that failed to vet all the options, the refusal by key policy makers to take seriously analysts and diplomats who warned of the many things that could go wrong, and a truncated and inefficiently organized post-war planning process that left too little time to develop the comprehensive, detailed blueprints that would be needed to run Iraq after the US military ousted Saddam Hussein. These blunders had major impacts on the US involvement in Iraq over the next eight and a half years, setting the stage for all that was to follow, and they would come to haunt American foreign policy to the present day.

The Triumph of Ideology Over Realism

The impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the decision to go to war in Iraq cannot be overestimated. Bush himself noted publicly how much they changed his own perception of the threat, and specifically the threat of Iraq. During a January 2003 press conference Bush said, “Prior to September the 11th, we were discussing smart sanctions…After September the 11th, the doctrine of containment just doesn’t hold any water, as far as I’m concerned…My vision shifted dramatically after September the 11th, because I now realize the stakes. I realize the world has changed.” Others in the administration, especially Vice President Richard B. Cheney and his close friend and bureaucratic ally Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, shared this view.

The Bush Doctrine, as it came to be known, held that the US had a right, and indeed a moral obligation, to attack America’s enemies before they could strike the US homeland, without seeking prior international approval, specifically UN approval. It was this view that came to dominate the thinking of a number of senior officials in the administration and soon helped focus their attention on Iraq.

In fact, Rumsfeld and his under secretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, were very much bent on a confrontation with Iraq even before 9/11. Rumsfeld argued in a memo to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (with copies to Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell) that the effort to contain Hussein—part of a strategy of circumscribing both Iran and Iraq known as “dual containment,” which was pursued by the Bill Clinton administration—was under increasing stress and bound to fail sooner or later, which would lead to Iraq “developing WMD and the means to deliver them.” Rumsfeld also opined that “a major success with Iraq would enhance US credibility and influence throughout the region.”

After 9/11, Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and others became even more firmly convinced that the times demanded a new overarching foreign policy doctrine.

After 9/11, Rumsfeld (who on the afternoon of the attack mused about striking Iraq in retaliation), Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and others became even more firmly convinced that the times demanded a new overarching foreign policy doctrine. Their own strategic views encompassed the idea that the United States, in order to demonstrate its resolve and enhance its credibility, should be prepared to invade not just Afghanistan but potentially at least one or two other countries to show that the United States was prepared to respond asymmetrically to the threat of state-sponsored terrorism, and to achieve some exceedingly ambitious aims with regard to reshaping the whole Middle East.

In a memo to Rumsfeld on Sept. 18, 2001, Feith argued for regime change in Iraq as the necessary follow-on to a campaign in Afghanistan. “The strategic purpose of the campaign in Iraq,” he argued, “is to eliminate a regime that engages in and supports terrorism and otherwise threatens US vital interests.” Rumsfeld sent his own memo to Bush on Sept. 30, 2001, arguing that, ”The USG should envision a goal along these lines: New regimes in Afghanistan and another key state (or two) that supports terrorism (to strengthen political and military efforts to change policies elsewhere).” Feith reinforced his boss’s predilections, arguing to him that taking on Iraq would make it easier to challenge Libya and Syria as well.

Cheney, too, apparently bought into this: as one of his advisors later told author Barton Gellman, Cheney thought striking Afghanistan and then Iraq would be a huge boost for the US: “We are able and willing to strike at someone. That sends a very powerful message.”

Jonah Goldberg of the National Review described this type of thinking at the time not as the Bush Doctrine, but as the “Ledeen Doctrine,” named for neoconservative historian Michael Ledeen, who Goldberg claimed once said “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” As an aphorism, this is very catchy. As a foreign policy doctrine, it is not only dangerous and half-baked, it is deeply immoral. But it appears to reflect the thinking of some of the key people around Bush at the time, and it lent considerable, even irresistible, momentum to the impulse to strike Iraq.

A Failure of Process

With the Bush Doctrine and its ever more extreme variants dominating Washington in the 2001–2002 period, it comes as no surprise that the traditional, structured policy process that should have governed Iraq decision-making was by and large circumvented by the personal deliberations of a very few in the administration, notably by President Bush himself. Unlike Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan in October 2011 after the 9/11 attacks—a decision which, although made quickly, was made as part of a full deliberative interagency process—the decision to invade Iraq was drawn out, secretive, and a surprise to many in the bureaucracy itself, even those working on Iraq.

The decision to invade Iraq was drawn out, secretive, and a surprise to many in the bureaucracy itself, even those working on Iraq.

As informal consultative processes dominated by strong personalities and distinct ideological worldviews took the place of the regular policy process, any change in the course of the rush to war became exponentially more difficult. Few if any meetings took place within the interagency to hash out, in detail, what the United States intended to accomplish by the destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime, how it would accomplish it, and how it would manage the consequences. As Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s former chief of staff at the State Department, noted in a speech to the New America Foundation in 2005, “What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.” Indeed, as one academic study put it, “Iraq War decision-making was largely confined to and dominated by a small group of like-minded Bush administration insiders, weighted heavily in favor of a cadre of neoconservatives who believed that military intervention in Iraq was essential to the nation’s security.”

This meant that the fundamental assumptions being made about the war and its prospects for transformative success were never subjected to critical discussion. Such assumptions included Rumsfeld’s conviction that a relatively lean military force would be sufficient, that Iraqis would welcome the invaders, and that a prolonged occupation would not be required. Had these assumptions been adequately vetted, political-military planning might have improved or slowed, and perhaps halted the march to war.

The Bush administration might very well have proceeded with the invasion of Iraq even had there been a valid policy process, with all factors and possible outcomes considered. But the fact that there was not meant that faulty prewar assumptions were baked into the US approach to Iraq in the immediate post-war period, not only stoking the chaos of that moment, but creating a dynamic that marked the US venture in Iraq for years. As Anthony Lake, former national security advisor for President Clinton once observed, “Bad process beats good policy.”

Failure to Consider the Downsides

Aside from the problems with the intelligence on Iraq’s presumed WMD programs, another intelligence failure had an arguably more important role in the planning failures of the Iraq War: the failure to heed the intelligence reports, diplomatic analysis, and expert advice that explained in detail the situation on the ground in Iraq and the problems that could be expected in the aftermath of Hussein’s overthrow. Ethnic violence, the collapse of civil order, and the rise of insurgency were not surprises; they were predicted, and the failure to take this information into consideration laid the groundwork for much of what was to come.

One of the people making those predictions was William J. Burns, then assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and now President Biden’s CIA director. In a July 2002 memo to Secretary Powell titled “Iraq: The Perfect Storm,” Burns warned of the many things that could go wrong, including the possibility of sectarian bloodshed and attacks on US troops, and also named dozens of other factors that should have been (but by and large were not) factored into prewar planning that was full of rosy assumptions.

Numerous similar assessments flowed from the intelligence community as well. Like Burns’ memorandum, they were largely ignored. As planning for the invasion proceeded, some of the more cautionary intelligence and diplomatic assessments were hastily factored into the postwar planning process but did not affect the decision to go to war itself.

Planning Inefficiencies

The postwar planning process has justly come in for extensive criticism, given the confusion, false starts, and chaos that attended the early days of the occupation, first under former General Jay Garner and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), then under L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The problem, however, was not a lack of planning, but the nature of the planning process itself, which suffered from infighting, stove-piping, and haste, leaving American military and diplomatic officials on the ground without detailed, workable blueprints for managing the immediate post-war period.

For one thing, at least three separate planning processes were going on at about the same time.  One was centered in the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, a second in the State Department and its “Future of Iraq” effort, and a third conducted by military planners at CENTCOM. The latter was essentially opaque to the other two planning streams, and most of the planning in all three channels was not horizontally integrated at working levels.

Senior officials did have a more comprehensive picture through the so-called Executive Steering Group, which met at the level of agency deputies to discuss critical Iraq action items, and even more senior levels, especially in the Department of Defense, met to decide much larger issues such as the model for interim government in postwar Iraq. But distrust and secrecy inhibited communications among players and agencies even at these levels, and the planning for the war itself tended to overwhelm planning for after the war. Even Rumsfeld admitted later that he had not focused enough attention on the broad overall postwar picture, and Secretary Powell was likewise largely detached.

The flawed planning process led to a certain ad hoc approach in the first months and years after the fall of the Iraqi regime.

In addition, the rushed timeline for the postwar planning process worked against the development of more comprehensive and detailed blueprints. The planning effort seems to have begun in earnest in spring or early summer of 2002—about the time Bush had apparently decided to go to war—which means that it was conducted over a period about ten months until the invasion commenced on March 20, 2003. By contrast, planning for the post-WWII US occupation of Japan was a detailed, whole of government effort mainly led by the State Department and involving not only the military but the think tank community as well, notably the Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute of Pacific Relations. Moreover, planning lasted about three and a half years, starting shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, and focused on truly foundational issues such as reintegrating Japan into the global community. The foreshortened Iraq process dealt largely with immediate tactical tasks, and much of the more detailed planning for the post-war period began only after the invasion had started.

The flawed planning process led to a certain ad hoc approach in the first months and years after the fall of the Iraqi regime, one that made many errors in implementation. Again, the lack of a functioning National Security Council process that could have more effectively organized the agencies and implemented decisions led to major difficulties for the United States and its Coalition partners.

Two Things That Went Right

By contrast with the decision to go to war and planning to deal with the aftermath, the 2007 surge of 20,000 American troops into Iraq to quell raging civil violence largely achieved its purpose and provided the Iraqi government the political cover needed to try to work out a political compact among the various opposing sectarian and ethnic groups. The strategy succeeded, in large part because both the surge and the post-surge stabilization policies combined the right proportions of hard and soft power, linking a well-calibrated military presence with a strong civilian element that worked across all lines of effort: political, diplomatic, military, and economic. The US military did its part, but civilian agencies of the US government, primarily the State Department, also mobilized to assist with the political aspects of the surge, which included a greater presence in the provinces to help with reconstruction and political reconciliation.

The development of what proved to be a successful strategy is in turn attributable to a valid and fully coordinated interagency deliberative process involving months of effort by numerous stakeholders, largely hashed out in regular meetings of agency deputies and principals, and eventually argued out in front of the president. Bush’s announcement of the surge on January 10, 2007 embodied none of the ad hoc-ism of the 2003 process. While the surge itself did not prevent further reverses in Iraq, it did stave off certain defeat for the US strategy in 2007 and helped ensure the continuation of Iraq’s experiment in representative government, however imperfect and painful.

Whether the war in Iraq was a failure or not must be judged by the trajectory of Iraq itself.

Ultimately, whether war in Iraq was a failure or not must be judged by the trajectory of Iraq itself. Here there is also some reason for optimism. Iraq was always a large country that was difficult to govern, even under Saddam Hussein. Freed of the dictator—a good on which almost all can agree—Iraq has proved to be no different. It faces traditional problems such as corruption and tensions among ethnic groups, and new ones such as the pervasiveness of sectarian militias and their associated political parties. And the malign influence of Iran continues to be felt in Iraqi politics.

Yet Iraq continues to hold elections while feeling its way toward a form of cross-sectarian politics with broad appeal. Political expression is open and boisterous, and Iraqi youth are mobilized in the fight for change, as Iraq’s self-seeking political class found out to its surprise in the mass demonstrations of 2019. The so-called Islamic State (IS) has been largely defeated. Despite serious structural deficiencies, economic activity—including foreign direct investment—is recovering from pandemic levels. The budget surplus has increased significantly, and the GDP growth rate of 8.7 percent in 2022 is expected to level out to about 3.7 percent this year.

The United States remains a close partner of the Iraqi government, assisting on anti-corruption efforts and climate initiatives, and of course maintaining 2,500 troops in an advise-and-support mission to help Iraq combat the remnants of IS, but also as a counter to Iran. This is not to minimize numerous existing threats to Iraqi sovereignty—Iran and its allied militias chief among them—but it is important to point out that the long-term transformation of Iraq into a stable, prosperous, and even democratic state remains possible.

Twenty Years On

Polling by the Pew Research Center shows that a majority of the American public, including veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, have long since come to the conclusion that the war was not worth fighting, and a majority believe that the US failed to achieve its goals. Much as Vietnam did for earlier generations, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cooled public support for foreign interventions, influencing Obama’s decision not to enforce his “red line” on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013, and giving rise to pledges and policies by both the Trump and Biden administrations to end “forever wars” and to pare back the US military presence abroad.

It is unlikely that the United States is done with “wars of choice,” whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. But the experience of Iraq has demonstrated the pitfalls of embarking on them, or on any other conflict where ambitious goals are not matched with the intellectual honesty, the detailed planning, the inclusive policy process, and the full range of resources required for success.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US DoD