Rush: The Iraq War Was a Success, Just Not a Moral One


US Army

U.S. Army Soldiers transport a trauma victim to a U.S. Army medical helicopter in Tarmiyah, Iraq, Sept. 30, 2007. The Soldiers are working with local Iraqi hospital personnel in administering aid to trauma victims following an explosion caused by insurgents, which wounded several civilians. The Soldiers are from Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division out of Ft. Lewis, Wash. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Summer M. Anderson) (Released)

By Nicholas Rush


In an interview on May 14, Bernie Sanders reflected on the Iraq War, saying, “We were supposed to go in [Iraq], establish democracy, get out, and everybody would live happily ever after … not exactly what happened.”

A poll by Princeton revealed 54% of people “remember the Iraq War as a failure” and that 59% agreed that sending U.S. forces to Iraq was a “mistake.” What rubric are more than half of Americans following to constitute this war as a failure? Generally, the rule for what constitutes winning a traditional war is the defeat of the opponent. But that concept of victory doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To Americans, to win in Iraq was not to win militarily but morally.

It is clear that many Americans are disillusioned by other factors outside the Iraq War’s military success, especially the somewhat hopeless promise to liberate and democratize Iraq. In the years of prolonged chaos following Saddam’s removal, radical factions filled the power vacuum and Iran became the chief influencer in Iraq after the U.S. departure in 2011. It is evident that smooth democratic transitions were a failure, as Sanders recognized.

However, the true goal of the Iraq War was never democratization and to judge it through that moral framework is naive. Mistruths about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and dossiers of faulty intelligence distorted the classical nature of what it means to win a war. After Saddam’s overthrow, the Bush administration asserted the U.S. as the world’s chosen democratizers, supplying much of the cannon fodder for the negative sentiment that surrounded the war.

Negativity sparked after the initial overthrow when the U.S. searched for and found no WMDs. In Bush’s 2003 “mission accomplished” speech he said, “In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world.” With that, he sealed the fate of how the war would be judged. The cause was never to free the people from the rule of Saddam, but to free Iraq itself.

The determination of victory in Iraq should constitute the actual intent of the mission. That mission — to overthrow Saddam and his regime, which, by means of foul play in oil markets, could destroy the global economy — deserves nuanced analysis. It doesn’t deserve the simplistic write off as an outright failure because “Bush lied about WMDs” or that we failed to democratize Iraq.

Naturally, it’s often hard to isolate positivity or victory, whether it be our defeat of the globally despised Saddam regime or our under-reported decision to continue to allow Saddam’s nationalization of oil. To this day, Iraqi law only allows contracts to foreign drillers, not operational control — making the “stealing the oil” cliché a myth.

The geopolitical foothold we gained in Iraq was a foreign policy success overlooked because throughout the war there were false promises of finding WMDs and terrorists. It was drowned out by the administration’s post-Saddam rhetoric that declared a moral battle of good-versus-evil — this rhetoric was self-sabotage. 

Bush’s melodramatic declaration implied that the U.S. was the arbiter of truth and thus reality. In turn, this undercut one of America’s fundamental ideals. We were no longer only an example of liberty, but exporters of it. Liberty, by definition, must be stumbled upon, not forced upon a people. Forcing liberty undermined the legitimacy of the original mission that most Americans, being pragmatic, would have understood. With that declaration, the U.S. transformed from the shining light on a hill to the flammable incendiary in a barrack.

Claiming the mantle of “liberator of democracy,” it was as if Bush was writing a new Magna Carta for the world to blindly obey. This hubris damaged America’s reputation as a faithful steward of freedom and democracy by believing we could contrive it. We had fought controversial wars before, conducted coups and deceived — but we never claimed to be the arbiters of reality. Ironically, the U.S. never wanted democracy in the Middle East because its inherent volatility threatened the stability of the region. 

The WMD debacle and the other intelligence mishaps are merely a part of war. “All warfare is based on deception,” as Sun Tzu said. In context, Sun Tzu was speaking of tactical deception, but deception is not bound to battlefield maneuvers. While this does not excuse the lies or fear-mongering about Saddam’s weapons — he did possess chemical weapons at one point — it is only to point out that deception in war is natural and expected. Most wars start under questionable pretenses. That said, the fever pitch and sanctimonious outcry of “WMDs!” was highly overwrought.

This deception sugarcoats the true, complicated, politically unpalpable gripe at hand. The façade of liberation and WMDs was misguided. It changed the rubric by which the war was “graded,” and made the American public cynical toward American exceptionalism. This, coupled with the intelligence failures, sunk the ship. Bush let his deception and idealism overwhelm the practical nature of the war because what is practical is not always ideal.

The inevitability of deception and fraud during wartime does not justify the consequences. Wars, with all their causes and justifications, are deterministic and operate on the same substrate which Western society has implicitly agreed to. The undergird of this social substrate is rooted in competition for resources and hegemonies.

This substrate dictates foreign policy, social policy and economic policy. It can be a benign or deadly competition. This has manifested in infinite grappling for authority and extreme economic excesses, due to the insatiable essence of our economic value structure and the economic structure itself. Buttressing the dollar as the world’s reserve hegemonic currency requires much to do. Power grappling is baked into the very fabric of our society and exists within a structure of infinite competitiveness and global ambition. It is no surprise this power struggle plays out in warfare.

Sadly, the American corporations that employ millions of Americans are a direct cause of this deterministic penchant for geopolitical supremacy. Even if corporations are “private” and seemingly untethered to the government, they wield undue influence in our foreign policy through lobbying and the revolving door from the corporate boardroom to the bureaucratic boardroom. Their needs, wants and interests are cobbled in the same boot that spurs on global conflicts.

National security and economic interests are inseparable. Greater access to resources — both territorially and politically — increases national capital. This creates more power in the dollar, the linchpin of it all. The U.S. military has the means to enforce this hegemony. This power is distributed among our political, governmental and corporate elite. It’s what I call the bureaucracy of political economics, manifested in the competition for resources.

A 1991 declassified national security directive titled “Responding to Iraqi aggression in the Gulf” states “Access to Persian Gulf Oil and the security of key friendly states in the region are vital to U.S. National Security.” When any government official talks about “protecting America’s National Security interests,” they mean protecting the territorial integrity of potential and existing economic assets. Our economic structure breeds the need to maintain “friendly states” and access to oil. This is not to say the war was waged over oil, only that our economic machine partially determines these policies.

When judging the Iraq war, we must understand our complicity as citizens in manifesting these structures which hanker for dominance and authority. Surely, Americans want the U.S. dollar to be strong, who would say otherwise? Yet wars for the “dollar” or to “free up markets” are not politically palpable. This is why the government dolled up the true reason for the Iraq war in morally fashionable garb.

Yet even this was unnecessary. Most on the left and right would agree that they desire that the United States hold the key to global financial hegemony over another country on the UN roll-call. Our way of life — our bountiful America — is buttressed by our geopolitical economic position which is maintained by our keenness to grapple for it. Yet, just like empires before us, “our ambition has one heel nailed to the wall, while we reach for the heavens.” The Bush administration’s hubris embodied this. Consequently, Americans wrongly think the Iraq War was about the failure to empower Iraqi’s, not taking power from Saddam.

Even the name of the flagship operation in Iraq was dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” feeding the narrative that the war was about liberating Iraqis — oh, and to find those elusive WMDs. Bush continued the liberation rhetoric in the Fall of 2003 in a speech about the ideals behind liberating Iraq. Freedom is worth fighting for, dying for and standing for, and the advance of freedom leads to peace,” he said.

Bush didn’t need to deceive. Saddam was isolated, proven unfit — despite his many second chances — to be the steward of such a powerful country and resources. In the ’80s, he used chemical weapons 16 times, killing tens of thousands over the course of a decade. He was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths from an invasion into Iran in 1980. Most notably, Saddam carried out a genocide on the Kurdish people in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war, killing thousands in what’s known as the Anfal Genocide.

It didn’t stop there. After losing the Iran War, Saddam demanded Kuwait waive $30 billion of debt he borrowed from them to fund his misadventure in Iran. Kuwait refused and Saddam invaded, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. Months after Saddam invaded Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 660 which demanded Saddam withdraw from Kuwait — allowing him time to leave. He didn’t and was subsequently defeated by a U.S.-led coalition in the First Gulf War via UNSC resolution 678. Even after this, he was still allowed to rule, albeit saddled with tough sanctions. 

Saddam’s past behavior was justification for the 2003 invasion. Legally, because the Gulf War ended in a cease-fire, and not with an official treaty, the U.S. could use the Gulf War authorization, UNSC resolution 678, as a legal basis to invade Iraq in 2003. In these legal terms, a cease-fire is only a “suspension” — the initial use of force resolution (678) from 1990, was a legally sound route to invasion in 2003 because the ceasefire resolutions were violated by Saddam (687), thus nullifying the ceasefire, resulting in resolution 1441.

Resolution 1441, affirming these violations by Iraq, and demanding immediate inspections, passed unanimously in the Security Council in the fall of 2002. “Acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the UN, decides Iraq has been and remains in material breach of its obligations under relevant resolutions, including resolution 687 (1991), in particular through Iraq’s failure to cooperate with United Nations inspectors and the IAEA, and to complete the actions required under paragraphs 8 to 13 of resolution 687.”

Chief UN Arms Inspector Hans Blix said of Iraq’s report released after the UN demand from 1441, “During the period 1991–1998, Iraq submitted many declarations called full, final and complete. Regrettably, much in these declarations proved inaccurate or incomplete or was unsupported or contradicted by evidence. In such cases, no confidence can arise that proscribed programmes or items have been eliminated. Iraq, with a highly developed administrative system, should be able to provide more documentary evidence about its proscribed weapons programmes.”

Bush gave Saddam a 48-hour grace period to leave the country, with corporeal integrity intact. One can play whataboutism and dredge up all the unholy things our government has done, but if all the world’s a stage, Saddam played the role of the unabated antagonist for quite some time. Bush could’ve sold this legal argument to the public easily, as it is logical and has legal veracity. The failure to do this was a fatal miscalculation on the Bush administration, who preferred moral navel-gazing to practical, legal truths. 

After over two decades of Saddam’s behavior, it was time for Act II. While Bush used Resolution 1441 as the diplomatic justification for Iraq, politically, with U.S. citizens he went with the WMDs! playbook. Armed with U.S. congressional approval to take military action in Iraq, in spring of 2003, it began and ended. The U.S. took Baghdad, overthrowing Saddam, his army and his regime in a mere three weeks. It was a resounding military and strategic success. It should’ve ended there, but Bush inserted a moral chapter into what should’ve been a legal and military playbook. 

Saddam was a bad actor begging to be written out of the script, but the Bush administration failed by using one too many props. This shifted the spotlight from Saddam to the U.S. The result? Americans don’t recognize that three-week military success or the legal framework for invasion. Excessive moralizing of the war has caused cynicism to ripen into disillusionment within the U.S. body politic, and more troubling, the ranks of our military.

Bush overplayed his hand, preaching holy ideals instead of pitching legal and military pragmatics, resulting in half of America viewing Iraq as the new Vietnam. The Iraq War, thanks to Bush and his administration, is judged by the rubric of morality and not the rubric of military and legal reality.

That’s why it’s viewed as a failure — of our morality, not our military. It was a strategic — not idealistic — operation. The guise of “freeing Iraq” was just that. This unnecessarily hoisted the judgment of war on its own petard. Saddam sought the bubble reputation, violated resolutions, only to end up in the cannon’s mouth. The mission was actually accomplished in three weeks, but Bush declared moral success in the same breath as military success. He should’ve stopped at the latter and pitched the legal argument to the public as the reasoning. Bush didn’t need the ornaments of WMDs and democracy. In the words of Yeats, “There is more enterprise in walking naked.” 

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