The Causes and Consequences of the War in Iraq
September 4, 2003
by Alan W. Dowd
“The mission of our troops is wholly defensive,” President George H.W. Bush intoned as elements of the 82nd Airborne and US Air Force arrived in Saudi Arabia to defend it against an Iraqi invasion. “Hopefully, they will not be needed long.” That was August 8, 1990.
Thirteen years later, the Americans are finally withdrawing from the land of Mecca and Medina—and the long, strange war against Saddam Hussein is over. When it began, no one thought it would last thirteen years, that it would set the stage for a global conflict unlike any in history, that it would fracture the Atlantic Alliance and mortally wound the United Nations. But it did. As the postwar period begins, it is largely left to the United States to face these realities and brace for new challenges. To avoid making similar mistakes in the aftermath of this war, the United States should be guided by the ‘Three Rs’: Rebuilding, Reviewing, and Reforming.
As others have explained elsewhere at great length, the forces of Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism seldom work together. However, in a very real sense it was Saddam Hussein—once the very definition of Arab nationalism—that catapulted fundamentalist al Qaeda into a terror superpower and set in motion a series of events that led to the bloodiest day on American soil since the Civil War:
By invading Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Saddam left the defenseless Saudis with two options—cut a deal and surrender, or allow the Americans to dig in. The Saudis chose the latter, hopeful that the American deployment would be short and small. Of course, those hopes weren’t realized. The initial deployment of a few hundred troops swelled to some 600,000 in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. Kuwait was liberated and Saddam was weakened, but Washington declared a ceasefire before the American juggernaut could destroy key units of the Republican Guard, which were vital to Saddam’s survival. Historian Derek Leebaert calls the war a “tactical success misread as strategic triumph.”
Deflecting criticisms of the war’s untidy conclusion in their book A World Transformed, Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, argued in 1998 that shutting down the ground war at the hundred-hour mark was the right thing to do. “The United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land,” they concluded. Of course, that’s effectively what happened, at least in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his followers.
In a sense, occupation was inevitable after the war; perhaps the United States ended up occupying the wrong country. Since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, US troops took up permanent residence in the Saudi kingdom. The presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land galvanized al Qaeda, which carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001, which triggered America’s global war on terror, which led inevitably back to Iraq, which is where America finds itself today. When viewed from this side of history, the events between 1990 and 2003 look like something out of a Greek tragedy—each decision fateful, each step leading inexorably to the very thing we hoped to prevent.
This is not to say that the first Bush administration is to blame for the tragedy. The elder Bush crafted a historic diplomatic and military campaign, hewed to the UN mandate, and took a calculated risk that Saddam would fall. He wasn’t the first president to make such a calculation, but like Kim, Castro and others, Saddam survived. To finish him off, Washington waged what came to be known as “low-grade war.” It consisted of sanctions, CIA operations, and weekly or even daily air attacks on targets of opportunity such as radar posts, SAM sites, and other facilities on the extreme periphery of Saddam Hussein’s power.
Capitalizing on Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq, al Qaeda and its partners launched a global guerilla war against the United States in 1993. Perfecting asymmetrical warfare, they hit America in unexpected places and used unexpected tactics—a van full of explosives parked under the World Trade Center, foreign-trained gangs in Mogadishu, a truck bomb outside the Khobar Towers, simultaneous bombings outside lightly guarded embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, a bomb-laden rubber boat alongside the USS Cole, and of course, civilian airliners as guided missiles in Manhattan and Washington. Only then did Washington muster a real response to the enemy, smashing al Qaeda’s spawning grounds in Afghanistan and ousting the medieval Taliban regime.
More connective tissue between the Gulf War’s loose ends and the attacks of September 11 was exposed on the road to Kabul: Saudi Arabia was funneling money to the Taliban—$100 million in 1997 alone and millions more in daily oil shipments, as former CIA officer Robert Baer explained in a revealing Atlantic Monthly piece. In fact, Baer found that the Saudis “transferred $500 million to al Qaeda over the past decade.” The reason? It was a simple matter of insurance. By shoveling cash and petroleum to al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts, Riyadh struck a tacit deal with bin Laden: We’ll keep the money flowing as long as you keep your jihad away from the king. Rather than attacking the kingdom, al Qaeda attacked the kingdom’s defender, which leads us back to the rationale for America’s deployments in Saudi Arabia—Saddam Hussein.
The Bush Doctrine’s principle of preemption was tailor-made for Baathist Iraq—a country with growing ties to terror, an underground unconventional weapons program, and the means and motives to mete out revenge on the United States. “As a matter of common sense and self-defense,” President George W. Bush explained in a 2002 national-security document, “America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.” The strengths and weaknesses of this doctrine could be the subject of a book (and no doubt will be the subject of many). The purpose of this essay is not to dissect the Bush Doctrine. Suffice it to say that the Bush Doctrine is idealistic, bold, even risky. However, when analysts conclude that it is too idealistic, too bold, or too risky to work, one can’t help but compare it to the doctrine of nuance, realism and stability that guided prior administrations and died a violent death on September 11, 2001.
Rebuilding: Patience is a Virtue
As US troops have learned in the months since the statues fell in Baghdad, rebuilding Iraq is no easy task—but nor is it beyond the realm of possibility. As long as the American people stay patient and focused, the American military can succeed in its important postwar mission. To doubt this is to dismiss what MacArthur and Marshall achieved in Japan and Western Europe after World War II. Yet the skeptics are quick to point out that 21st-century America is a different country than that of the 1940s. After all, presidents are more skittish—and the American people more squeamish—today than they were after World War II. For evidence, look no further than the rapid withdrawal of US forces from Lebanon in the 1980s and Somalia and Haiti in the 1990s, when rebuilding or peacekeeping missions turned messy. As RAND international security analyst James Dobbins observed in a Washington Post interview, “We’ve done these things quickly and we’ve done them well, but we’ve never done them quickly and well.”
However, the attacks of September 11 have altered the way America and its leaders view open-ended military missions. Moreover, contrary to the critics, the United States is not out of practice when it comes to rebuilding failed states. The ongoing nation-building operations in Afghanistan and the Balkans illustrate that America still has the capacity to be patient.
From Bosnia to Baghdad
In 1991, Slobodan Milosevic’s henchmen began a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia. By 1995, their war of attrition and siege had erased 250,000 people and displaced another 2 million. The lopsided war haunted two presidents and divided their administrations. Under the elder Bush, it was Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger who worried “about the shadow of Vietnam,” as historian David Halberstam writes in War in a Time of Peace. Early in the Clinton presidency, it was Secretary of State Warren Christopher who labeled Bosnia, “the problem from hell.” Defense Secretary William Perry warned of the possibility of a guerilla war in Southeast Europe. And after the nation-building debacle in Mogadishu, official Washington had little faith in America’s capacity to do any good in the ethnic wars and general chaos that roiled the post-Cold War period.
When the White House finally shook off the doom-saying and launched robust air strikes against Serbian paramilitaries in 1995 (in conjunction with Bosnian and Croat ground operations), the war came to an abrupt end. Yet the White House was extremely anxious about public support for a long-term peacekeeping operation, so anxious that the president promised to have the troops out within a year. That was in December 1995. The troops are still there, of course, and the peace is still holding. In fact, the armistice has now held longer than the war itself lasted.
A similar formula has worked in Kosovo. Less than five years ago, Milosevic’s terror squads were rampaging through the tiny Albanian enclave of Serbia, purging 850,000 ethnic Albanians and killing thousands more. Defying the odds, a US-led NATO force evicted Milosevic and returned all 850,000 refugees to Kosovo—the only case in modern history where a systematic removal of ethnic groups has been reversed.
Today, Milosevic is pacing in a jail cell, awaiting his sentence for a decade of war crimes; the Kosovars are home; Serbia is a democracy; the Balkans are more stable than they have been since Tito; and not coincidentally, there are some 7,000 US troops keeping the peace. They arrived in 1999, and it doesn’t appear that they will be leaving anytime soon.
A New Country
Some have criticized America’s postwar Afghan operation as halfhearted. Some even claim that Washington has abandoned Kabul. While there’s much left to do, America has hardly abandoned Afghanistan.
In 2002 alone, the United States poured $620 million into Afghanistan. By the end of this year, Washington plans to invest another $820 million in Afghanistan. Much of the Pentagon’s Afghanistan outlays have been devoted to provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), military units which work with civilian organizations to rebuild key infrastructure beyond Kabul. According to the Congressional Research Service, “The objective of the PRTs is to provide safe havens for international aid workers to help with reconstruction and to extend the writ of the Kabul government throughout Afghanistan.” PRTs are already at work in Gardez, Bamiyan and Konduz; another five to seven will be launched in other cites in the months ahead. 
There are just under 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan; they are joined by roughly the same number of allied troops, most of them from NATO countries. In addition to their PRT work, they are training Afghanistan’s new army, hunting al Qaeda, and protecting the nascent Afghan government. US forces literally saved Afghan leader Hamid Karzai’s life during an assassination attempt in September 2002.
Still, the work is far from over. Karzai warns that the police and army remain weak. Lawlessness still reigns beyond major urban areas. Not coincidentally, there has been an upsurge in Taliban activity. Many countries have failed to make good on their pledges, most notably, Germany (which has 71 percent of its pledge unpaid), France (72 percent) and Japan (73 percent). However, even though the postwar peace is not perfect, the operation is a success: First and foremost, al Qaeda no longer has a base of operations. The Taliban is no longer in power. Almost 2 million Afghan refugees have come home. And as one of those returning refugees put it, “Life is good here…This is a new country.”
The Yardstick of Yesterday
That former refugee understands something that the pessimists in America do not: The measure of success in the Balkans and Afghanistan is not Jeffersonian democracy or postwar Germany or Japan—and it’s certainly not perfection. It’s simply yesterday. For him and millions of others, yesterday in Afghanistan was so brutal, so horrific that they fled. But today, the country is new. For America, yesterday in Afghanistan was so deformed that it spawned mass murder in Manhattan. But today, the Afghan government is friendly and the Afghan countryside is being purged of al Qaeda.
And so it is with Iraq. The measure of US success or failure is a simple comparison between today and the situation before Saddam Hussein fell: Are the American people more secure with Saddam Hussein in power or deposed; are the Iraqi people freer and better off under Saddam’s heel or under interim allied stewardship; and is the region closer to stability or chaos now that Saddam is gone? We must revisit these questions often to gauge our progress. If the answer is no, then the mission is failing; but if the answer is yes, then it is succeeding.
By that yardstick, America’s rebuilding mission is succeeding, some weeks faster than others, in some cities better than others. Much of it began even before the collapse of Saddam’s regime. Just days after entering Iraq, the allies were repairing water-pumping stations and unloading tons of food and other supplies. Less than a week after the liberation of Baghdad, US forces hosted a job fair in the Iraqi capital. And by Day Seven of life after Saddam, joint US-Iraqi teams were patrolling the streets of major Iraqi cities.
The lifting of UN sanctions in May opened the gates to a steady flow of aid and dollars, especially petrodollars. The wealth generated by Iraq’s oil wells is critical to the rebuilding process. Because of Saddam’s cynical manipulation of sanctions, Baathist Iraq pumped only about 2 million barrels of oil per day. That number is sure to rise with the help of foreign investment. Indeed, before Saddam plunged Iraq into a quarter-century of war, Iraq was producing 3.5 million barrels per day.
Postwar Iraq needs every bit of the wealth generated by its oil. The rebuilding effort could cost $20 billion per year. Iraq’s modern infrastructure never recovered from the 1990-1991 war. A New York Times investigation found that not even Baghdad had a steady, dependable supply of electricity after the US-led liberation of Kuwait. Water purifying plants, essential in the desert nations of the modern Middle East, fell into disrepair. Saddam allowed hospitals to import less than a tenth of the supplies they imported prior to 1990. All of this privation had more to do with Saddam’s spite than with international sanctions. The UN allowed Baghdad to trade oil for food and medicine, and Saddam had plenty of wealth and annual income to rebuild postwar Iraq’s electrical and water-filtration plants. Yet he shunted much of the food to the military, hid Iraq’s wealth in foreign banks and underground vaults, and used black-market oil profits to build 48 new palaces.
However, restoring water, oil and electricity service is only part of the rebuilding mission. Under the umbrella of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Iraq
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. He is a frequent contributor to The World & I, The American Enterprise, National Review Online, and The American Legion Magazine, where he publishes policy commentaries and a monthly column covering national security and military issues.
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