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Reflecting on Lessons Learned From the U.S. Invasion of Iraq, 10 Years Later

March 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
At the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Judy Woodruff taks to New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and Washington Post editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran about the United States military's perspective on the conflict, the legacy left behind in Iraq and the long-lasting effects on U.S. foreign policy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we return to Iraq and the lessons learned 10 years after the U.S. invasion.

I’m joined now by two journalists who have written extensively on the subject, New York Times reporter and author of “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq From George W. Bush to Barack Obama” Michael Gordon, and Washington Post editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.”

We welcome you both to the NewsHour.

Rajiv, it’s been more than a year since the U.S. pullout. What shape is Iraq in after the war? What’s the legacy of the war now?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, The Washington Post: Well, Iraq, in my view, still remains a tinderbox with some real red-hot embers inside.

There’s some parts of the country where things are not just stable. They’re booming in the southern parts of the country dominated by the majority Shiite population, fueled by plentiful oil revenue. You see construction. You see investment. Life’s pretty good for those people.

In the central part of the country, where the minority Sunni Arab population largely lives, particularly out west, people feel a lot more frustrated, a lot more disenfranchisement. In the capital, there have been some large protests by the Sunni community because they feel they have been cut out of the political process.

And up north, where a quarter of the population lives, the ethnic Kurdish population, again, things look pretty good for them economically, but there are real questions about the tensions there between them and the central government, particularly over oil revenue — some key issues unresolved among these communities that were supposed to be addressed with the addition of more American troops that really have not been solved over these last several years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gordon, you see problems associated with how the U.S. left and what’s happened since then.

MICHAEL GORDON, The New York Times: Well, one factor — and I agree with Rajiv’s breakdown of the situation in Iraq — but another factor has really been the decline of American influence.

And really over the last several years, it wasn’t really the withdrawal of all of the forces, which Secretary Panetta has said has curtailed American political influence, but also there’s been a bit of a disengagement on the part of the Obama administration itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I think they view Iraq as just another country. They don’t have the same emotional or psychological or even foreign policy stake in it that the previous administration had.

So I think the United States can’t solve all the problems in Iraq certainly, but it’s not playing as active and forceful and influential role in mediating these internal issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s the relationship, Rajiv, between the people of Iraq and their government? How is that working?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Depends on which people.

For the majority Shiite population, they see the government as largely working in their interests. The others look at the government and say, these people aren’t here to help me and serve me. I think there is a desire among many Iraqis for sort of a big tent, more secular government. But that’s not the shape of the political system that they have today.

 

And much of this, in my view, is a result of the legacy of the American occupation and our military intervention there, decisions made almost 10 years ago today. De-Baathifying the country, meaning excluding some members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, those who didn’t have any blood on their hands from future involvement in the country’s economy and government, disbanding the army, those have had a lasting legacy in pushing these other groups out into the fringes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add about the government?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, a big problem is not merely the sectarian and ethnic divides, but the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has been an increasingly authoritarian figure.

And he was a person that actually was picked by the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad — encouraged at least — to run for the prime minister’s post. But a problem that a lot of communities have in Iraq, the Sunni, the Kurds and even some Shia, is that he is overstepping the bounds of his constitutional authorities as commander in chief.

The Obama administration made an effort before it took out the troops to try to curtail that and create a different governing arrangement. But it didn’t work out.

GWEN IFILL: Let me bring you both to the U.S. side.

Michael, how — you talk — you both talk to the military a lot. But what — how does the U.S. military view the war and what happened in Iraq for the most part?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, you’re never going to have any one view even within an institution like the military certainly.

I do think that the military can look at what they did in Iraq and they see a lot of early mistakes in the first years which exacerbated the conflict, the rush to failure, so to speak, handing over to the Iraqis before they were ready to shoulder the burden. I do think the surge, as a military operation and military strategy, was effective and was essential.

In fact, I can’t imagine how President Obama could have withdrawn the forces and left behind a reasonably stable Iraq without it. So, I think the military acquitted itself well. Where there’s been a shortfall has been on the political side in trying to craft a political set of arrangements in Iraq that leads to a stable and democratic country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rajiv, what’s your sense on how the military views it and also lessons learned?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: You look at the military today that is fighting still in Afghanistan, it looks nothing like the military that went into Baghdad in 2003, the advancements in vehicles, from soft-skin Humvees with no armoring, to these big, hulking, mine-resistant trucks, the advancements in battlefield medicine, just in the way our troops suppress insurgencies, instead of focusing in on killing and capturing bad guys exclusively, as we tried to do in 2003, this focus on counterinsurgency strategy and how it’s really been absorbed within the ranks and implemented.

People can debate about whether it’s a wise strategy or not or it’s a — it involves a good use of resources, but the way the military has gone about adapting and learning, particularly from those grim early years of the Iraq war, is nothing short of phenomenal, in my view.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the legacy? How do you see the legacy in terms of what the military has learned and how it’s affected U.S. foreign policy?

 

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I think the military learned how to do counterinsurgency. The public opinion may no longer support that, but forever is a long time. And I think you can’t say we won’t have to do that again at some point in the future.

Foreign policy-wise, Iraq poses some challenges, particularly now because of Syria, because Maliki has become and emerged essentially as a supporter of Assad, Bashar al-Assad, because he fears the consequences of a Sunni success really in Syria and what it might mean for his own domain and his own rule in Iraq.

And so it’s become a very serious foreign policy challenge. And he, in fact, has been essentially cooperating with Iran, which has been flying military supplies across Iraq to Damascus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see as the long-lasting effects on U.S. foreign policy?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: I think that these sorts of large costly conventional force operations we saw in Iraq, we had in Afghanistan, I think, has led many to recoil here in Washington, particularly at senior levels of the Obama administration.

And, to some degree, I think it’s propelled the White House toward a greater reliance on drones, on intelligence operations, on the use of small special forces teams to target terrorist cells around the world, as opposed to trying to go and do more traditional nation-building and remaking of societies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Michael Gordon, thank you for helping us look back.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Pleasure to talk to you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we are collecting your Iraq war stories, your reflections and lessons learned on this anniversary. Find out how to share those on our home page.