The Iraq War Is Over. Now What?

Iraqi National Police cadets carry their national flag at a graduation ceremony in southern Baghdad, Iraq on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008. The National Police Training School graduated 700 cadets on Tuesday.

Iraqi National Police cadets carry their national flag at a graduation ceremony in southern Baghdad, Iraq on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008. The National Police Training School graduated 700 cadets on Tuesday. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)

March 19, 2013

The Unintended Consequences of Iraq

Jane Arraf, freelance journalist for Al Jazeera English and the Christian Science Monitor

Lessons from a War of “Unintended Consequences”

Jane Arraf is a freelance journalist reporting for Al Jazeera English and the Christian Science Monitor. She covered the war for CNN.

“Can I ask you a question?” said the young Iraqi. That’s almost always a prelude to a lecture about how the United States wants to destroy the Arab world. In this case on a recent day in a parliamentary political office, it wasn’t. “Does the United States even think about us?” he said.

It’s not you, it’s them, I wanted to say. Well maybe it is you. I tried to explain that Iraq was a painful subject in the U.S. right now. That the Iraq war hadn’t gone the way they’d planned and the U.S. administration felt it better all around if it didn’t play such an active role in Iraqi affairs.I told him I didn’t think it was all about oil, that the architects of the war felt they were bringing democracy to the region.”Instead they brought sectarianism,” he said. It was difficult to argue against that, there on the site where the U.S. established a government along sectarian lines.

A few days later, at the White House, it was clear that it was a very different U.S. that went to war 10 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein.

“The United States is unlikely for the next generation or two to again so cavalierly stumble into a country it understood so little of to change the course of history.”

As Syria implodes in ways never imagined, U.S. officials acknowledge that even supporting a no-fly zone would be tantamount to a declaration of war. The lack of troops, money and political will has left them with limited options in Syria, or any other emerging conflict that might remind them of the unintended consequences of intervention.

Part of those unintended consequences in Iraq is a country with such widespread corruption and inefficiency that a $118 billion national budget doesn’t keep one quarter of Iraqi children from being under-nourished. A country where a growing sectarian conflict still fueled by policies of the first U.S. administrator ebbs and flows into neighboring countries.

The United States is unlikely for the next generation or two to again so cavalierly stumble into a country it understood so little of to change the course of history.

Perhaps never again will it send soldiers to war with plastic laminated cards of Arabic phrases in the wrong dialect. The soldiers I was with asking frightened families “Mujahideen?” when they raided their homes looking for insurgents elicited only terror and confusion.

Perhaps we won’t see the roll-on suitcases full of hundred-dollar bills — payment for contracts normally awarded to those who could speak English.

It’s a much more realistic and perhaps more sophisticated U.S. administration at the end of this war than at the start.

At the Baghdad airport though, where Iraqi families still clutch plastic bags with refugee documents waiting for flights into exile 10 years after Saddam was toppled, it’s no consolation.

Iraq and the Future of U.S. Leadership

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

In 1970, Edwin Starr, a singer recently signed by Motown, released a single called “War (What Is It Good For?),” music and lyrics by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. The song became a hit and something of an anthem for the Vietnam antiwar movement, then in full flower.

Whitfield and Strong’s answer to the question posed by their song’s title was unequivocal: “Absolutely nothing!” Fast-forward 33 years and the question has acquired renewed salience, even if inviting a more nuanced response.

The end of the Cold War found American political and military leaders well on their way to discovering that war was actually good for quite a few things. Memories of Vietnam had faded. The invasion of Panama in 1989, followed soon thereafter by Operation Desert Storm in 1991, restored popular confidence in the efficacy of American arms. During the decade that followed, U.S. military intervention, albeit usually on a modest scale for limited periods of time, became commonplace, Washington demonstrating a pronounced tendency to ignore failure (Somalia in 1993) while overstating the significance of success (Kosovo in 1999).

Still, by the dawn of the new millennium, Americans had come to believe that military power had become a particular strong suit. Simply put, U. S. forces were the best the world had ever seen. Better still, they knew how to win, quickly and efficiently. So, at least, it appeared.

“If … the best military in the world can’t guarantee victory, then Washington needs to rethink the emphasis it has placed on force over the past two decades.”

These were the expectations that informed the global war on terrorism at its outset — expectations that the initial entry into Afghanistan and then Iraq appeared to validate. The fall of Kabul in the fall of 2001, followed by the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003, provided ample proof that U. S. forces had developed a sure-fire formula that all but guaranteed decisive victory.

Of course, all of this proved to be illusory. That U. S. troops performed their duties bravely, skillfully, and (for the most part) honorably was beyond dispute. Yet when it came to winning, they proved unable to close the deal. Wars expected to be short became long — the longest in U. S. history. As a direct consequence, they also became very, very costly. The Iraq War has now ended, its outcome far too ambiguous to be classified as a victory. Afghanistan gives every indication of ending on equally problematic terms.

So what is war good for? If Washington intends to cling to the notion that force is an all-purpose instrument for exercising U.S. global leadership, then there is work to be done in figuring out why the wars of the past decade have yielded such disappointing outcomes. The Pentagon needs to figure out why its promises of victory fell flat. We can’t afford another Iraq or another Afghanistan. Next time, we need to win.

If on the other hand, the best military in the world can’t guarantee victory, then Washington needs to rethink the emphasis it has placed on force over the past two decades. Perhaps there are better ways to demonstrate leadership.

Life in the New Iraq: Are Iraqis Better Off?

Zainab Salbi is an Iraqi-American writer and a women’s rights activist. Her new book, If You Knew Me You Would Care, was released in March. She is the founder of Women for Women International, and has written this piece from Baghdad, where she is currently working on a new book on Iraq.

The question everyone asks — whether things are better or worse in Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s time — is an unfair one.

For Iraqis, this is a question that requires them to choose between two evils.It’s been 10 years since the invasion of Iraq, and talk of explosions, lack of basic infrastructure, corruption, and sectarian violence still dominate daily discussions during family meals and on TV talk shows.

Recently in Baghdad, after we’d discussed the the latest explosion in the city, an old friend asked, “Do you also talk about such daily misery in America?” When I shook my head, he looked down. “It is sad what has happened to our Iraq,” he said. “I don’t know how will we ever go back to normal life.”

“America may have gotten rid of Saddam,” another friend added. “But it threw out the baby with the bath water by destroying the country in the process.” When asked about the good things America and its allies brought with the invasion, Iraqis quickly respond with the same list: They got rid of Saddam, brought us the internet, cell phones, freedom of political expressions and satellite TV.

But there was a tradeoff. As Duha, a 37-year-old woman, told me recently: “We gained the freedom of expression, but we lost our security.” Iraqis worry not just about the loss of security. They also talk about food, infrastructure, electricity, fuel and jobs. What was once provided at a subsidized price by the government under Saddam — clean water and electricity for example — now costs extra, and comes at a lower quality, leaving many in an endless struggle to keep up with life’s daily demands.

“It is sad what has happened to our Iraq,” an old friend told me. “I don’t know how will we ever go back to normal life.”

After the war, the country moved from producing its own food and light manufacturing to importing everything. Factories have been closed and farms have been abandoned for the same reason: lack of infrastructure and security. Limited job opportunities are available for men — mostly in the army and the police. Employment opportunities for women have nearly disappeared.

Women may have gained some political power in securing 25 percent representation in the Iraqi parliament, but they have regressed socially and economically since the invasion.

Amid the rise of religious conservatism in the new Iraq, violence against women by their husbands is often considered a right. Women have few legal repercussions for such abuse, and in many cases, it is even justified by religious authorities.

Most women have embraced the headscarf simply to avoid harassment. Many have retreated to their homes, abandoned jobs, and taken their daughters out of school. There are more illiterate girls and women in the country than 25 years ago. The average marriage age — once 18 — has fallen to 15, with even some 13-year-old girls becoming brides.

The few Christians who have chosen to remain in Iraq despite harassment from both Sunni and Shia religious zealots have given up hoping their status will improve. Sectarianism no longer only impacts their safety, but also their ability to get jobs.

They are not the only ones who have started to sound resigned to this new life. “We have given up on hope,” one 30-year-old women’s activist told me. “It has been 10 years now, and every time we leave our home, we still don’t know if we will come back or make it by the end of the day.”

The “Tragic Irony” of America’s Invasion of Iraq

James Zogby is the the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters.

Guided more by ideology than reality, proponents of the Iraq war believed a show of decisive force there would make us stronger, securing America’s global hegemony. Not satisfied with that, they also projected that victory in Iraq would pave the way for democracy across the Middle East and even help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The tragic irony, of course, was that this war left our country less respected, compromised our values, over-stretched our resources, emboldened our enemies, hastened the emergence of a multi-polar world, and, diverted our attention from the region’s other pressing problems.

It is disturbing to tally the damage done by the Iraq war. On the American side, we can count more than 4,400 lives lost, and tens of thousands of young men and women shattered by permanent injuries of war. There are also the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who perished and the millions whose livelihoods have been destroyed. One-fifth of Iraq’s population has been forced to live as refugees or internally displaced persons, many forever unable to return to their homes. In the midst of the vicious ethnic cleansing campaign that followed the downfall of the Ba’ath regime came the destruction of the ancient Christian community of Iraq, a tragedy that went unnoticed by the Bush Administration’s architects of war.

Iraq today is a dysfunctional state beset by violent civil strife, a direct result of the American decision to enter the country without attention to its history and culture, and therefore, unable to understand the consequences of our intervention. Indeed, Iraq has been left on the verge of civil conflict. The leadership in Baghdad remains at odds with the Kurdish north, and a restive Sunni Arab minority chafes under what they perceive to be the harsh and exclusionary rule of an Iranian-backed Shia majority.Our polls consistently show that many Arabs see Iran as the big winner of the Iraq war. It has been empowered by the defeat of its regional nemesis and emboldened by widespread anger at the U.S. invasion and conduct during the war (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, rendition, and “black sites”).

“Our polls consistently show that many Arabs see Iran as the big winner of the Iraq war.”

In fact, the holes dug during the past decade have been so deep and the problems created so great, that it has been difficult for even the best-intentioned president to dig us out.

The world breathed a sigh of relief when Barack Obama took the oath of office in 2009. There were great hopes that he would change direction by restoring America’s image and values, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and addressing the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the challenges proved to be too great for the new president to solve in just one term. Facing stiff opposition from Republicans in Congress and weak support from his own party, the president was unable to close Guantanamo, reintroduce fundamental principles like due process and judicial oversight, change American policy towards the Middle East, or restore civility to our domestic political discourse.

Today, facing the challenges of an Arab world in crisis, the Obama administration finds its options restricted. The world has become more complex. Russia is flexing its muscles and Iran is projecting its influence — so much for the claims once made by proponents of the war that victory in Iraq would reinvigorate American hegemony. Meanwhile, a war-weary U.S. public remains skeptical of any further military involvement in the Middle East. And the still simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only become more difficult to resolve. It festered during eight years of neglect by the Bush Administration, with Israeli and Palestinian publics becoming hardened and cynical. Peace, once within reach, is now a distant dream.

Ten years after the start of the Iraq war, we are seeing the consequences of the fateful decisions made by the Bush administration to take us into two failed wars and to neglect the peace process, and the inability of the Obama administration to correct the damage done by these policies. As a result, Americans and many others across the Middle East are still paying the price for a war entered into based on big lies and bad decisions.

In the Wake of War, a Shattered Vision of Democracy

Ahmed Fadaam is a former translator and reporter who worked with western media in Baghdad. He currently lives in North Carolina, where he teaches at the school of communications at Elon University.

Ten years already. As an Iraqi who lived through the occupation, I still can’t believe that it’s been that long, especially considering the memories created by the horror of the fighting. I guess we, “the Iraqis,” were too busy trying to survive. Maybe that’s why we lost track of time.

I still wonder why all of this happened, what we did to be punished like this? Was it because of the oil? The weapons of mass destruction? Was it really about getting rid of Saddam Hussein? About bringing us freedom and democracy? The way I see it, none of this was true, especially the part about freedom and democracy.

What happened in Iraq was beyond anyone’s imagination: the death; the killing; the destruction; sectarianism; the attempts to divide a once unified country; the loss of history and culture; the rise in illiteracy; the dwindling access to health care; the corruption eating the country; oh, and not to mention, the lack of freedom and the ugly interpretation of democracy.

“Happiness doesn’t exist in Iraq anymore. A rose cannot be watered with blood, and happiness cannot be found amid such violence.”

This is not what we were told about democracy. Politicians are fighting each other for power, using bombs and assassins to get rid of their rivals. This is not democracy. This is jungle law.

And what did the American people gain from this? The United States lost trillions of dollars, thousands of lives, suffered a ruined economy, as well as a ruined reputation.When it comes to war, there is rarely ever a true winner. I still remember the words of Tariq Aziz, the former foreign minister under Saddam, when he addressed the United Nations in the 1990s. Back then, Iraq was under the UN’s embargo, and as he told the assembly, “Your embargo is not hurting us, the government. We live in palaces; we eat well and have everything we need. Who you are hurting with your sanctions are the Iraqi people.

“My family and I are living in the U.S. now, far away from Iraq, from home, living with memories we still hold about a country we once had, where we were born, lived and loved, and where we first felt the taste of happiness. But happiness doesn’t exist in Iraq anymore. A rose cannot be watered with blood, and happiness cannot be found amid such violence.

Do we feel safer now? Yes. Do we feel happier now? Not very much. America is a whole new place and culture for us, but after years of daily violence in Iraq, I had to make a choice. And when choosing between my family’s safety and their happiness, I have to choose safety.

Iraq and the Future of U.S. Leadership

Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University

Are Iraqis Better Off Today?

Zainab Salbi, Iraqi-American women’s rights activist and founder of Women for Women International

A Shattered Vision of Democracy

Ahmed Fadaam, former translator and reporter for western media in Baghdad

The “Tragic Irony” of America’s Invasion

James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute

*FRONTLINE asked several experts who supported the invasion and still back the war to contribute. All declined. A few have offered recent reflections on the war elsewhere. David Frum, Bush’s speechwriter, wrote Monday about the run-up to the war from inside the White House, and where he feels the war has left us today. Bush’s secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, said in an interview with The Sunday Times over the weekend that the Bush administration made mistakes in its execution of the war, but that it was too soon to judge Iraq a success or a failure. And in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal Fouad Ajami recalls “An Honorable War, Began With Wide Support.”

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



More Stories

Kherson After Liberation: Co-producer of ‘Putin’s Attack on Ukraine’ Documentary Describes Visit
A Ukrainian filmmaker and journalist who was on one of the first trains traveling to the newly liberated city talks to FRONTLINE about the damage he saw in Kherson after eight months of Russian occupation.
November 29, 2022
As Donald Trump Announces His 2024 Run, a Look Back at His Presidency and Impact
FRONTLINE has built a unique public record, in documentary format, of the former president’s impact on American life, politics and democracy — and his previous battles with a special counsel and the Department of Justice.
November 16, 2022
How American Politics Reached This Fraught Moment: 12 Documentaries to Watch Ahead of the Midterms
As a divided America prepares to vote and fears of political violence continue, these FRONTLINE documentaries show how U.S. politics reached this moment.
November 4, 2022
How Russian Soldiers Ran a "Cleansing" Operation in Bucha
"I’ve already killed so many civilians,” a Russian soldier told his wife from Bucha, Ukraine. The Associated Press and FRONTLINE obtained hundreds of hours of CCTV footage and intercepts of audio calls by Russian soldiers that show for the first time what a Russian "cleansing" operation looked like.
November 3, 2022