What we did we wrong in Iraq – the simple, short version

Fourth in a series of notes about grand strategy, applying the principles sketched in previous chapters to current events.


  1. Did the President lie to us?
  2. Was invading Iraq a “just war”?
  3. What did we do wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan?
  4. What should we have done?

1.  Did the President lie to us?

 Probably.  We have developed a taste for leaders that lie to us.  Lying well is one of the major attributes for which we screen candidates.  Obama is a star due to his awesome ability to speak platitudes as though they have meaning and he believes them.

2.  Was invading Iraq a “just war”?

Certainly.  Saddham made insufficient effort to convince us he was no danger to America. 

3.  What did we do wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Our error resulted from the neocon disease that infected senior elements of the Administration, spread by carriers such as Tom Barnett and others.  The prime symptom:  a delusion that America can and should remake other societies in our own image.  A delusion of Godhood.

DoD executed the invasion well, but their planning should have included the exit phase.  They appear to have forgotten that what counts is not what you win during the game, but what you leave the table with. 

4.  What should we have done?

The simple post-conflict process…

  1. Immediately place Iraq under martial law
  2. Quickly appoint new leaders,
  3. Gave them lots of money to get them started (in Iraq, the oil money sequestered by the UN) and
  4. Announced we were leaving 90 days.  Or 180 days (what matters is the firm date). 
  5. Perhaps leave advisers, trainers — and, of course, the UN and NGO’s.

Would a fast exit by Coalition forces have left Iraq and Afghanistan looking like Gardens of Eden — or even placid and adequately governed places (like Cleveland)?  Probably not.  But (see my previous chapter) these people can and must govern themselves.  In the modern era we cannot do much for them.  Money, advisers, fine advice, best wishes — that is about all.  Beyond that we, in accord with the rules of our world, turn the task over to the UN and the many non-government agencies.

These invasions would have been a clear lessons, encouraging sensible behavior by other minor league tyrants.  Our forces would remain trim and intact, ready to apply additional lessons to slow learners.

This is a grand strategy built on low but solid ground.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts about grand strategy

Does America need a grand strategy?  If so, what should it be?  Answers to these questions illuminate many of the questions hotly debated about foreign policy and national security.  Here are some posts on this subject.

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy   (31 January 2006)
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy   (1 March 2006)
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW   (4 January 2007)
  4. America takes another step towards the “Long War”   (24 July 2007)
  5. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy?   (28 October 2007)
  6. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I  (19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008)
  7. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II  (14 June 2008)
  8. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past  (30 June 2008)
  9. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris  (1 July 2008)
  10. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles  (2 July 2008)

 Click here to see a list of all posts about strategy and military theory.

10 thoughts on “What we did we wrong in Iraq – the simple, short version”

  1. Nicholas Weaver

    I disagree with #2. Saddam Hussein had pretty much folded and let the inspectors back under our terms. Thus one can make a very convincing argument that Saddam Hussein capitulated to our demands for inspections.

    It was, arguably, a success story for “Big Stick diplomacy” that we refused to acknowledge as a success.

    (In contrast, I believe, and still believe, that Afghanistan is a just war, which we have botched horribly as well)
    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a good and indeed valid point. I am overstating this for clarity. In fact he was still playing games with the inspections (the the long multi-language formal reply document). This was like playing word games when stopped by a policeman, or with the customs inspector at the border (“What do you have to declare?” “War!”). Fun, but one should expect unpleasant consequences.

    If he had a respective attitude, appropriate before a nation willing to arbitrarily squash him like a bug, he might still be ruling Iraq.

    My key point was that while the invasion was defensible — for both Iraq and Afghanistan — I believe the occupation of these nations is not wise.

  2. So America should start invading other countries and deposing their governments, and this is perfectly okay provided America only occupies those countries for 3-6 months.
    Fabius Maximus replies: America should “start” invading other countries! How many Latin American countries did we invade in the 20th Century? It has an integral part of our grand strategy for a century.

    What I suspect you are saying is that we should change our strategy, and stop doing this. Which would require a major change in the American people’s viewpoint about ourselves, about the use of force in good causes, and about our military.

  3. FM, disappointing.

    If the President lied you need a lot of evidence to back point 2. The burden of proof was not on a tiny country in the Mideast with no capacity to project any meaningful force at a distance to prove it was not a threat to the US. The burden was on us to prove it was, and we never did.

    Had the inspections been allowed to continue, that would have become clear, hence the administration attacking when it did.

    Also the fact that people have some taste for being deceived is a trait of humanity, not just the American public… the ecological evidence is that there are many situations where the deception of others or oneself has survival value.

    The tie-in of Obama is specious. Obama knows that 80% of the public thinks the country is going in the wrong direction, that 85% disapprove of Congress and 75% disapprove of the president. In order to turn this all around, one must motivate the people to believe such is possible, and address the emotional issue before the substantive ones. It’s pragmatic, viewed at this level. Think about it…
    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) As in the previous comment, you are stating that we should behave according a different strategy than we have for the past century. Perhaps so, but we are what we are.

    (2) About the inspections… agreed.

    (3) About “a taste for being decieved is a trait of humanity”: perhaps, but I doubt it. The American election process forces Candidates to lie in order to win. Like Jimmy Carter confessing that the “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times“, moments of candor are ruthlessly mocked.

    (4) I do not understand what you are saying about Obama, nor why my comments are “specious.” I am going by what Obama and his advisers say, not what I guess that Obama is thinking.

  4. My comment is to your second third point (You have two threes).

    While this might’ve been a better policy in the long run, you have to wonder about a couple of the permutations. Do we leave the Iraqi Army (its foot soldiers) armed? What prevents a general with all of his armed soldiers from simply taking over our big pile of money once we’ve left? And even if there is no coup (because of a disbanded military), what is to stop the country from falling into the chaos it is currently in? Granted there would be fewer American lives lost, but at the end of that road, after more ethnic cleansing, we have another Saddam.

    Where does that outcome leave the U.S.? With an intact military no doubt. But in the eyes of the world, we’ve invaded a country, left with some appointed leaders (are they the right people? Who makes that decision?), and a pile of cash. When that country falls apart, that’s our fault. In the eyes of our own country, what does the average American citizen think when he turns on CNN and sees that we’ve left $500 million for some sand people? Betrayed? Forgotten?

    As horrible as it is to think, perhaps in our society, a long, protracted, ‘just’ war and occupation, is more acceptable than a quick, clean conflict, complete with exit strategy. I suppose that is simply a consequence of our grand strategy shaping our expectations.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for catching that (fixed!).

    Counterfactuals are always difficult to debate. After all, who can say?

    What if Iraq had a military takeover? Our clear goal was to prevent Saddham from getting nukes. It would have been “mission accomplished.” I doubt anyone expected us to make Iraq into Iowa.

    True, Iraq might have descended into chaos — as it has. But that looks a bit like rationalization. After all, Iraq did so in fact after a series of astonishingly inept steps by the US. Disbanding the army, infidels occupying an Islamic nation (motivating al Qaeda’s recruits), etc. What basis is their to assume that an intact Iraq military could not have maintained order?

    As for the cash, that was mostly Iraq’s money held in trust. We burned through it, mysteriously, with no accounting or positive effects.

  5. Nicholas Weaver

    I don’t think our true goal was to prevent Saddam from getting nukes (part of the problem).

    That was the stated goal, true, but there was little indication that this was the actual goal, based on the actions of both the White House (not willing to change when Saddam’s practiced position WRT inspectors changed before the invasion, etc etc etc) and the orders (or lack thereof) to troops on the ground (e.g. letting KNOWN, IAEA SEALED nuclear-related sites with 100+ TONS of RDX and MDX explosive unguarded).

    I suspect (but have no proof beyond random speculation and a HUGE dose of cynicism) that it really comes down to “Doin what Daddy Didn’t” and “Saddam tried to kill my father”. If this is the case, this is the ultimate symptom of the failure of grand strategy: we had none.
    Fabius Maximus replies: While those might have been among the motivations of President Bush, I consider it unlikely they were among the reasons of the others supporting the invasion: those in the military, intelligence, other executive agencies, Congress (both parties), and NGO’s.

    Here are the Stratfor’s reports on this question:

    Stratfor’s analysis of US reasons for invading and occupying Iraq
    Stratfor again attempts to explain why we invaded Iraq

  6. While the five point plan could have been suitable for Afghanistan I have my doubts about Iraq. In particularly points 2 & 3.

    #2 — As I see it America basicly carried out a revolution. Normally that is done by domestic political forces/movements. Sometimes relatively bloodless like Fidel Castro & Co. or like ayatollah Khomeini & Co. who quickly crushed rivals for power over Iran. And then again it can ends up like the Russian revolution. Lots of bloodshed.

    The key here is if any Iraqi leaders could be found who could have copied Khomeini’s success. They would need a solid organization to move in or already in place and take over. Good local support is a must. Else you end up with the problems in Lebanon. Strong factions ripping the country apart including the army.

    Unfortunately if there was one thing the Baath party was good at it was to eliminate rivals. What strong leaders/organizations were there who also would be palatable for the White House?

    #3 — If one throws money at people who don’t feel securely in power. They would be tempted to feather their pockets. Just in case they have to run for it, which just makes it more likely that they will fail.

    I can’t see the benefits of eliminating the Baath regime would be worth the risks of an unpleasant end result.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You seem to assume that the US government cared about the post-invasion state of Iraq, assuming we got bases and access to Iraq’s oil. After all, this analysis assumes that we did invade.

    The relevant factor is whether this course would have sparked an insurgency, and if so would it have been of similar or larger magnitude. Nobody can say, this being counterfactual history, but I guess the answers are “no” and “no.”

  7. Do/would the US government care about Iraq? Not in my view. But my point was where were the Iraqi leaders who could deliver the goods. Names, groups?
    Fabius Maximus replies: I think our assumptions differ. You seem to believe that Iraq’s elites were incapable of sorting themselves out, assuming a condition of well-fund peace (however temporary). While perhaps true, I doubt it. Even if we picked someone with no local power base (e.g., Ahmad Chalabi), that would keep the machinery in motion while coalitions developed.

    Assuming we did not dismantle the government and army, the government would probably have maintained order (ex. the Kurds, who would probably have split just as the in fact have) while a new leadership worked itself out.

    This is all counter-factural history, so no way to determine who is correct. It is a discussion of lost opportunities, perhaps best that we let them go.

  8. 1. Did the President lie to us?

    Yep. The WMD was a story and just that. The story they could sell. The UN inspectors had categorically found nothing and Saddam was not playing any games. The Iraqi Govt’s submission to the UN was totally correct and verified (e.g. google Scot Ritter for more info).

    The Blair memo’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bush-Blair_memo) show that war was planned and going to happen whatever Saddam did. The ONA assessment (Office of National Assessment in Australia the peak intelligence body that reports directly the PM) stated to him that the Iraq war was a ‘US geopolitical strategy’.

    Various leaks and even books by bystanders and the main (mostly neo-con) players make it clear that Iraq was on the gun sights before 9/11 as part of the ‘Clean Break’ and “total, full spectrum, domination of the world” strategy. Control the Middle East and you control the EU and China.

    There was never any intention to leave .. ever.

    2. Was invading Iraq a “just war”?

    Nope. it was a colonisation, straight and pure from the 19th century playbook. The US always planned to build its huge and permanent bases and started straight away. The Iraqi economy was smashed and was planned to be set up to serve US interests.

    Remember before the war the “self funding” and “sea of oil” comments by US Govt neo-cons (senior members no less) – translated the US will take all their money and use it to pay for the invasion and US companies will get the oil.

    The ‘enduring bases’ would enable US dominance in the ME forever.

    Just? If you are one of the million or so Iraqis dead (40-60% from direct US weapons fire) nope.

    3. What did we do wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    Apart from the whole exercise – nothing. Short of total genocide nothing would work with the resources used. The US tactics are straight from the Israeli book. The fact they have lasted so long is a tribute to their skills (not their humanity unfortunately).

    This is not COIN or 4GW it is a straight colonisation. The round ups and dropping people into torture camps happened within weeks of taking Baghdad, it was well planned, despite some comments.

    Divide and conquer, the ‘walls’, torture, terror .. straight Israeli tactics, just on a much larger scale.

    4. What should we have done?
    Not invade. Otherwise if you want to colonise these days .. a million troops, tactical and strategic nuke use (a mistake not to drop a 10 mega-ton on Baghdad.). Get the Iraqi population down to a few million (need someone left to be rubbish collectors from the massive, town sized, ‘enduring’ bases).

    Short and simple? A failed colonisation. The fundamental mistake, they should have picked Kuwait as a target. Small, easily taken, plenty of oil, not many people to get rid of, a great position for ’enduring’ bases to dominate the ME (and hence the EU and China).

  9. YT, I really wish I wasn’t, but it is the best ‘fit to the data’ model I can can come up with.

    And, as I have said before on this blog, the US is not going down quietly. They are not the British or the USSR, who folded quietly, fortunately. The “Samson” alternative is there on the table. At a time when the US economy is tanking (long term trend but the Afghanistan/Iraq/Somlian/etc has been the “straw that broke the camel’s back”).

    Response by the US decision makers .. more wars, getting close to a US Pakistan war, let alone Iran. I remember a Russian commentator (forgot the ref) that quoted Russian Govt sources … “the US is on a death spiral”, predicted, no less by a French Philosopher, the only public person who predicted the end of the USSR .. 10 year before it happened.

    It is going to get a lot worse before it gets better, though (as stated before) I have a lot of faith in the US people .. 20 years of suffering and then they will be back again.

    Unless the US elite do the “Samson” thing of course (translated: “we’re going down and we will take everyone in the World with us”).

    War with Iran will do that.

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