The long-lasting impact of the U.S. invasion of Iraq

Twenty years ago, thousands of American troops were racing across the deserts of Iraq toward Baghdad to depose Saddam Hussein. It led to a near-decade of civil war and occupation, no discovery of weapons of mass destruction, the deaths of more than 4,400 American troops and an estimated 300,000 Iraqis. Amna Nawaz discussed the decision to invade with Paul Wolfowitz, Vali Nasr and Charles Duelfer.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    At this moment 20 years ago, thousands of American troops were racing across the deserts of Southern Iraq toward Baghdad to depose Saddam Hussein and dismantle his alleged weapons of mass destruction programs.

    The quick victory over Saddam led to a near decade of civil war and occupation, no discovery of WMD, and the deaths of more than 4,400 American troops, and, by some estimates, 300,000 Iraqis.

    Now we look back at the decision to invade the bloody American occupation and where Iraq stands today with Paul Wolfowitz. He was deputy secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration. During the 1980s and '90s, he held a number of senior jobs at the Defense and State Department.

    Vali Nasr was an adviser at the State Department during the Obama administration. He's now a professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And Charles Duelfer, who helped run U.N. weapons inspections during the '90s in Iraq. After the U.S. 2003 invasion of Iraq, he led the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, which also looked for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

    Welcome to all three of you, gentlemen, and thank you for joining us today.

    Ambassador Wolfowitz, I'd like to begin with you, because you were an advocate for the invasion and for toppling Saddam Hussein. Knowing what we know today, what we have known and watched and learned over these last 20 years, is the U.S. better off today as a result of that war? Are Iraqis better off?

  • Paul Wolfowitz, Former U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary:

    I think the right question to ask is, are we better off today than if Saddam Hussein or his sons were still in power in Iraq?

    And, for me, the answer to that is definitely yes. I believe it was the right thing to do. And I think we're much better off as Americans today because Saddam Hussein is not running the second most important country in the Persian Gulf.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tell us why you think that is. What do you think the threat would be today?

  • Paul Wolfowitz:

    Look, I — let's start with a fact which is indisputable. There has not been a repetition of the 9/11 attacks or anything like it in the 20 years since.

    That was President Bush's main concern, as it had to be, I believe. President Clinton had been warning about the danger of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction back in the '90s. And his secretary of defense actually went on television with a small bag of sugar saying, if this were anthrax, it could be spread out in the air and thousands of Americans would die. He was right about that.

    And I honestly believe that there's been a misunderstanding, partly caused by our inadequate intelligence, the belief that there was stockpiles of various things in Iraq. The important question — and I believe Charles Duelfer's Iraq Survey Group established the fact that Saddam was ready to restart all three of his programs.

    The one that I always considered most dangerous was not the nuclear one, which was — would be much harder to conceal and much further down the road and much harder to hand over to any terrorist group. It was, frankly, the biological weapons program, which Charles can contradict me if I'm wrong, but I believe the ISG said that this would — could be reconstituted in a matter of weeks or a few months.

    And it's worth bearing in mind that, when we finally found his — not we — when UNSCOM finally found his program in Iraq, it was five years after they'd started inspections. And they only found it then because Saddam Hussein's son-in-law defected and told us about it. In other words, the time between the development of a biological threat and its actual discovery is going to be much too long.

    And we have seen, in this pandemic, what a biological threat can do to the whole world and to the United States. So, having that in the hands of one of history's worst megalomaniac dictators would not be a good thing for America.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Vali Nasr, what do you make of this idea that Saddam could have reconstituted those weapons, could have posed a greater threat?

    Do you believe the U.S. and Iraqis, the world is better off without him in power today?

    Vali Nasr, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University: Counterfactual history is difficult to conduct here.

    Things might have been very different. Saddam might have died a year later, maybe not, and maybe he would have been a greater danger. But it's difficult to see that the United States and the Middle East are better off.

    Firstly, we removed a brutal, dangerous dictator, but we replaced him with chaos. And Iraqis went through hell and back in the aftermath of what transpired. And I don't believe that they feel that they're better off. I was recently in Iraq. And most of the young people, even the Shia young people, have a nostalgia for the Saddam era.

    Secondly, by dismantling the Iraqi military, shattering the Iraqi state, we opened the Arab world for a level of Iranian infiltration into the Arab world that was not possible before the removal of Saddam from power. It has been at a scale that we cannot reverse it. We have been for 20 years trying to put the Iranian genie back in the box, and we can't.

    The now-much-feared and ballyhooed Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard was a small unit of the Guard before Iraq happened. It was in Iraq, that it became the empire that it is. And, finally, I would say that, regardless of what we argue about the sagacity of going into Iraq, at some point, the war lost the American public, the cost of it, the outcome of it.

    It created a sense of aversion to war on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats. At the base of these parties, there is an aversion to war. In the region, but I'm sure farther away, in China, in Russia, the conclusion is that the United States will no longer go to war that easily. We rely on sanctions.

    But, essentially, we are far less capable of getting our way on the world stage, because many friends or foes don't see credibility in our use of threat — threat of force. And I think we — American geostrategy, American world standing, particularly in the Middle East, has not recovered from the outcome of the Iraq War.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I'd like to get more into the impact in just a moment.

    But, Charles Duelfer, I will turn to you here about those weapons of mass destruction, because they were the primary justification to launch the invasion. And you led the Iraq Study Group to find those weapons of mass destruction in 2005.

    Your final report said that the hunt for those weapons had — quote — "gone as far as feasible," and all the headlines ran, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

    But I'd like to get your reaction to what Mr. Wolfowitz raised about the possibility of Saddam Hussein reconstituting those weapons. Did you find that to be true?

  • Charles Duelfer, Former Chief U.S. Weapons Inspector:

    In a word, yes.

    And, bear in mind, the intelligence assessments about Saddam's WMD were wrong, but they were wrong with — for several reasons. For one reason, there was an attitude basically that Saddam would be crazy not to have WMD. Remember, in the 1980s, he was at war with Iran. Iran was using something called human wave attacks. Saddam made and used 101,000 chemical munitions. Arguably, that saved him in that war.

    Secondly, in the 1991 war, when Iraq went into Kuwait, the United States expelled him from Kuwait, but did not go to Baghdad. Saddam had in his mind that one of the reasons contributing to the failure or the decision not to go to Baghdad in 1991 was his possession of WMD at that time.

    Add to that the experience, as Paul mentioned, of the weapons inspectors, where we were in Iraq, on the ground, trying to account and put in place a monitoring system for what he had acknowledged, but he started off with a big lie.

    He only acknowledged at first the obvious things, ballistic missiles and chemical munitions. There was a pattern of great, gradual revelations, which, ironically, the closer he came to telling the truth, the less we really believed him, because the pattern of lies was longer and more established.

    When the weapons inspectors left, the United States intelligence community and intelligence communities around the planet were left largely blind. From 1998, when the weapons inspectors left, up until the beginning of the war, there was very little data to make assessments on. And so the assessments tended to be negative, particularly after 9/11, when the risk of being wrong, the tolerance for risk was very low.

    So I think it's important to understand the background when the decision was made to go into the war in 2003. The decision, I think, and the implementation of it, you can make very strong criticisms of, as Vali has done. But the point in time when that decision was made, it's hard to imagine a different decision, in fact, being taken.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador Wolfowitz, you have said that there were mistakes made after the invasion, and that helped to contribute to the destruction we have seen and the devastation for Iraqis in the years since.

    What were those mistakes, in your mind?

  • Paul Wolfowitz:

    I wouldn't put it was a mistake to disband the Iraqi army. It was an instrument of tyranny and it wasn't very popular.

    And most of the Shia draftees in that army just went home after at the end of the war. The mistake was trying to replace it with a small mechanized force that was not supposed to do internal security. This is in the middle of when the only real threat in Iraq at that point was an internal one.

    And we formed, I think it was a small — three very small divisions that were only supposed to guard the borders. That wasn't the problem. And there were many, many Iraqis who were lining up to reenlist in the army. We could have created a different one. And that's what we in the Pentagon and most of the interagency thought we were going to do before we went in.

    We went to Iraq saying we would liberate Iraq. And, instead, we impose an occupation. And some of the leading religious authorities in that country said, what are you doing here? You said, you would liberate us, and now we have an occupation.

    That sounds just like what the Israelis are doing on the West Bank and Gaza. It was a terrible mistake. And I think we paid a large price for that at the beginning. But on the other point of…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador Wolfowitz, I…

  • Paul Wolfowitz:

    Can just say very quickly?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, please.

  • Paul Wolfowitz:

    I really disagree strongly with the idea that we needed a brutal Saddam regime in order to provide stability in that region.

    It didn't stop the Iranians and Hezbollah from killing, I don't know the number of American Marines in Beirut in 1983, when Saddam was securely in power, and, unfortunately, when we were supporting him in his war against Iran.

    The consequence of that brutal Saddam was a eight-year war against Iran, in which I think 300,000 Iraqis and 600,000 Iranians died, followed on by this occupation of Kuwait in which we had to mount one of the largest military forces in modern history to evict him from that small country. We didn't — Iraq was not a force for stability under Saddam at all. Quite the contrary.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Vali Nasr, would you like to respond to that?

  • Vali Nasr:

    Well, I would put the issues that Ambassador Wolfowitz raised a little differently.

    The issue is not that we needed Saddam for stability in the Middle East or we needed a brutal Iraqi army. The issue is that we didn't replace these with elements of order, something that either within Iraq or within the region would serve our broader goals.

    The issue is not protecting Saddam or the — or the military. The issue is that we never had an adequate plan of, what do we replace them with, I think is a larger legacy for the United States now, because we're still dealing with the consequences of this part of it, Iranian power in the Arab world, and still a weak Iraq that can be home to ISIS, can potentially be a source of danger again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador Wolfowitz, in terms of where we are today, where this war resides in American history, Americans recognize one of the primary justifications to even launch that war was weapons of mass destruction that were never found.

    And it's been well-reported since he passed that Colin Powell said the act he most regretted was the 2003 U.N. Security Council presentation where he laid out evidence, U.S. evidence, for those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to exist.

    What is your response to that?

  • Paul Wolfowitz:

    I think it was a mistake to talk about stockpiles.

    And I attribute that to the way the intelligence was coming through. Everyone believed that intelligence, not only our people. The French and German intelligence were pretty much saying the same thing. We should have been more careful. And I think the conclusion that Charles Duelfer arrived at, which is that there was a capability to regenerate programs would have been a much better place to stand on.

    And history would also be very different if we had adopted a different military strategy from the beginning. It took us, I think the correct number of years is from 2003 to 2006 or '7 to institute the counterinsurgency strategy that General Petraeus applied successfully.

    If we had started that earlier, I believe history would look very different now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Vali Nasr, I will give you the last word here.

    What would you say?

  • Vali Nasr:

    It's important to think about the fact that, had this war as Ambassador Wolfowitz suggested, been conducted differently after we entered into Iraq, had we left a different legacy there, the question of the reasons we went in would not loom as large as they do right now.

    When we continuously debate reasons why we went in and question the motivations of going in, it's almost we are admitting to the fact that it's better we wouldn't have gone to war, because, if we went to war, we're going to make a mess of it.

    And I don't think that's a good legacy for the United States. I think how we conducted the war after we arrived is as important as the reasons why we went in.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's striking that, 20 years later, we are still debating and still discussing the impact of that war.

    Vali Nasr, Charles Duelfer, and Paul Wolfowitz, thank you very much for joining us.

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