The end of our Expedition to Iraq: war-boosters cheer despite its long-predicted failure.

Summary:  Now that our role has ended we can look back at and score the Iraq War.  The most important lesson is the simplest.  The Iraq War evolved like a dance, predictable to anyone familiar with post-WWII warfare and the basics of 4GW.  So we need write nothing new, just review what was said during the war — and ponder our inability to learn from sixty years of experience.


Which is correct, view A or B?

(A)  We won:  “Obama Ignores That U.S. Won in Iraq — Twice“, Christian Whiton, op-ed on Fox News, 21 October 2011

(B)  We didn’t win in any meaningful sense.  War is the use of violence to achieve political objectives of the nation, not a violent football game.

War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will. … We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.
— Carl von Clausewitz in On War, Chapter One

“So we won in Iraq.  How many more such victories can we stand?  The words of the immortal Pyrrhus echo through the ages: ‘One more such victory will undo me!’  And the Red King had a legitimate claim to having won his battles.”
— Anonymous 4GW expert.  From Britannica:  Pyrrhus (319 – 272 bc) was King of Epirus (Greece) whose costly military successes against Macedonia and Rome gave rise to the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.”


  1. What were our goals, what we sought to accomplish in Iraq?
  2. The big picture:  America in dreamland
  3. A brief history of the American expedition to Iraq
  4. Conclusion
  5. For more information

What were our goals, what we sought to accomplish in Iraq?

First, let’s clear away the chaff.  We invaded Saddham to eliminate his WMDs and WMD program; both were fictions.  Although only implied by President Bush, we invaded to eliminate an ally of al Qaeda; that was fiction, too.  We did not invade to defeat the insurgents, which arose as a reaction to the occupation of Iraq by infidel foreigners.  Now for the facts…

Victory In Iraq Defined“, part of Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, November 2005:

In the longer term:

  1. An Iraq that has defeated the terrorists …
  2. An Iraq that is peaceful, united, stable, and secure …
  3. An Iraq that is a partner in the global war on terror and the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction …

Most experts considered this list incomplete, since rulers of great States usually have goals for war more firmly rooted in the nation’s needs.  Such as bases from which to project power across the Middle East.  That goal was not mentioned but obvious from the start:  “Pentagon Expects Long-Term Access to Four Key Bases in Iraq“, from the New York Times of 20 April 2003 (also see the For More Information section at the end):

The United States is planning a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the unsettled region, senior Bush administration officials say.

American military officials, in interviews this week, spoke of maintaining perhaps four bases in Iraq that could be used in the future: one at the international airport just outside Baghdad; another at Tallil, near Nasiriya in the south; the third at an isolated airstrip called H-1 in the western desert, along the old oil pipeline that runs to Jordan; and the last at the Bashur air field in the Kurdish north.

Stratfor stated our goals in terms of explicit realpolitik:  “Smoke and Mirrors:  The United States, Iraq and Deception”,  21 January 2003:

However, attacking and occupying Iraq achieves three things:

  1. It takes out of the picture a potential ally for al Qaeda, one with sufficient resources to multiply the militant group’s threat. Whether Iraq has been an ally in the past is immaterial – it is the future that counts.
  2. It places U.S. forces in the strategic heart of the Middle East, capable of striking al Qaeda forces whenever U.S. intelligence identifies them.
  3. Most important, it allows the United States to bring its strength —conventional forces — to bear on nation-states that are enablers or potential enablers of al Qaeda.

And of course we wanted access to Iraq’s oil (oddly enough, Libya — another of our helpful interventions — also has oil).

Now our troops are leaving Iraq.  We have no bases there.  US firms have received only a small fraction of the oil contracts (Iraq resisted our pressure to enact a neo-colonial oil law).  Iraq was never an ally of al Qaeda (an AQ might no longer exist in meaningful form), but has switched from opponent to ally of Iran.  These things were visible to any who cared to see, even from the early days of the war.

See the FM Reference page Iraq War – Goals and Benchmarks for a complete listing of documents on this topic.

The big picture:  America in dreamland

The War occurred after the tech bust, as the rise of China became apparent, and 12 years after the first report by the National Council on Public Works warning about our decaying infrastructure.  It accelerated during 2003, when the flood of warnings began about our deteriorating finances (see here).  Rather than confronting our problems, we took refuge in dreams of military power, exultation at stomping enemies into the dust.  As I wrote on 29 February 2008 (two months after the recession began, but when its existence was still widely denied):

This is perhaps a foreshadowing of the “dreamland” described by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Culture of Defeat.  The grim reality of future geopolitical and economic problems presses on our imaginations, the end of our hegemonic delusions of power founded on unlimited borrowing at low interest rates.  In response we retreat into comfortable dreams. … Something will shatter our dreams, probably bad news of an economic or geopolitical nature.  That is the nature of dreams, that one must eventually wake from them.

A brief history of the American expedition to Iraq

To counter of national tendency to amnesia, we can review the war in reports from the FM website.  The comments show that these were fiercely denounced when written, although they look obvious in hindsight.

The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007:

The fighting wages today in two areas, plus low level of background violence throughout Iraq.  First, fighting rages in the ungoverned or disputed zones — mostly for control of the northern oil fields and Baghdad.  This violence spreads throughout Iraq as groups strike into each other’s zones of control.  The only military solutions that seem viable to stop this are genocide or massive ethnic cleansing.

… Throughout Iraq local elites are creating regimes.  Backed by or evolved from militias – which run the gamut from criminal gangs to formal armies – they fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the central state.  This fragmentation can be seen as a descent into civil war, or instead as the preliminary to formation of a new Iraq state.  These proto-states can be building blocks for something larger.  Most importantly, many of these powerful local elites have the power to negotiate and strike deals.  This offers a path to peace for us and the Iraq people, perhaps the only such.

In one sense, the conditions are ideal.  After four years of war, no group can reasonably anticipate victory.  Everybody has something to offer.  Everybody needs something.  The winners can consolidate their gains.  The losers can prevent further losses.

Our emphasis has been on creation of a national structure, probably because that maximizes our leverage.  Local elites will be more difficult for us to manipulate.  Nonetheless a federal structure appears to be the only solution.

Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007:


  1. Iraq is fragmenting into three parts.
  2. Development of local, armed “governments” drives this process.  Ethnic cleansing is their major tool.  This is a road to peace for Iraq, perhaps the only path still open.
  3. It’s not about us. The Coalition has been and probably will be irrelevant to nation-building in Iraq.
  4. More fighting lies in Iraq’s future, mostly battles for control of the new proto-states and border wars. Hopefully this means less killing.

… The “Anbar model” shows the future of Iraq: local elites defeat “foreign” forces, consolidate power, then “ally” with the Coalition. That is, we provide arms and training; in exchange they give us little or nothing. No wonder the Shiite Arabs wish to join the Kurds and Sunni Arabs at this free lunch.

… Elites in all three regions have come to terms with the foreign occupiers (i.e., us). To varying extents we arm and finance them in exchange for real or imagined concessions and/or support.

Our government’s actions, if not yet its words, acknowledge defeat in Iraq. Our “national strategy for victory in Iraq” is titled “Helping the Iraqi People Defeat the Terrorists and Build an Inclusive Democratic State.” The terrorists are what pass for governments in Iraq, except for the tiny fraction of foreign terrorists now being expelled. These new governments are not inclusive. Some of them might become democratic.

Our long-term goal: “Iraq is peaceful, united, stable, and secure, well integrated into the international community, and a full partner in the global war on terrorism {GWOT}.” At best we might get some of these things. Which of these is most important? Which are worth paying this war’s high cost in blood and money?

We collect our winnings in Iraq, 12 December 2009 — Detail added in brackets {}.

What did we win in Iraq?

  • At vast cost in blood and money we’ve turned a weak secular state into a potentially strong Islamic ally of Iran.
  • Women and religious minorities have paid a high price for our victory.
  • Despite 5 years of pressure on the Iraq government, they refused to pass the exploitation-by-foreign-corporation-friendly oil law.  Now we have the results of the Iraq oil auctions.  We didn’t even get lush oil contracts for American companies:  “US groups miss out as Shell, Lukoil and CNPC snap up Iraqi oil deals“, Financial Times, 14 December 2009.  We might run an Empire, but have not learned to do so profitably.

Let’s run a preliminary score for the Iraq War.  The winners are…

  • The Arab Shiites of Iraq  {became the dominant power in Iraq}
  • The Kurds, not just of Iraq but in the entire around {an autonomous area, another step towards Kurdistan}
  • Iran (or rather its political regime)  {gaining great influence inside what had been its chief rival}
  • China, forging close relationships with oil exporters Iraq and Iran

The losers:

  • Women in Iraq  {perhaps the biggest losers from Iraq’s transformation from secular society to theocracy}
  • religious minorities in Iraq (e.g. Christians)
  • Sunni Arabs    {from rulers to oppressed minority}
  • America  {spending both money and blood, gaining nothing in return}


We remain bogged down in Afghanistan, with expanding wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan — with our experts advocating many more.  Will we learn anything from our experience in Iraq?  So far we reamin resolute in our hubris and arrogance.  While seldom punished by the Gods, at least according to the ancient Greeks, this often results in expensive lessons.

For more information

(a)  Most important post about Iraq, describing why it need not have ended list thisWhat we did we wrong in Iraq – the simple, short version, 9 July 2008

Reasons we fought in Iraq

  1. Stratfor’s analysis of US reasons for invading and occupying Iraq, 4 March 2008
  2. Why we fight.  Causes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan., 5 August 2009 — A look at one of Ralph Peters most brilliant and insightful essays.

(b)  About our victory in Iraq:

  1. The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
  2. Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007:
  3. Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008
  4. Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008
  5. If we won in Iraq, what did we win?  Was it worth the cost?, 15 July 2009
  6. We collect our winnings in Iraq, 12 December 2009
  7. One criterion of victory in Iraq: when will the oil flow?, 3 February 2010

(c)  How often do foreign armies win against local insurgencies?

  1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006
  2. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  3. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  4. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard.  She examines the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  5. A look at the history of victories over insurgents.  How often do foreign armies win?, 30 June 2010

(d)  Articles about our (former) bases in Iraq:

  1. If the U.S. is ultimately leaving Iraq, why is the military building ‘permanent’ bases?, Friends Committee on National Legislation
  2. Iraq Facilities, Global
  3. A Permanent Basis for Withdrawal?, Tom Engelhardt, 14 February 2006
  4. How Permanent Are Those Bases?, Tom Engelhardt, 7 June 2007
  5. Baseless Considerations, Tom Engelhardt, 4 November 2007
  6. A Basis for Enduring Relationships in Iraq, Tom Engelhardt, 2 December 2007
  7. The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world, FM website, 8 September 2008

10 thoughts on “The end of our Expedition to Iraq: war-boosters cheer despite its long-predicted failure.”

    1. I don’t understand this comment; it seems wrong in several ways.

      (1) I not only listed oil as a goal for the Iraq War (and Libya too)…

      (2) …I said that we did not get the oil. That is, Iraq neither enacted the oil law we so strongly pushed nor awarded US companies a large share of the oil production contracts.

      (3) How do you know that oil was the primary goal? As compared with, for example, the bases which we spend tens of billions of dollars building.

  1. One useful definition of ‘victory’ is: “at the cessation of hostilities, who commands the field?”

    In the case of Iraq, the answer appears to be, our former enemies, the Shiite people of Iraq and their allies in Iran.

  2. Victory could also be defined in terms of how it advances the US’s grand strategy.

    (1) Improve our morale and that of our allies
    10 years of war and casualties have sapped the morale of the US and its allies. Domestic problems have grown while leaders and the media focused on the war.

    (2) Degrade that of our opponents
    The war has produced sufficient propaganda to inspire the next generation of anti-US jihadis. US troops leaving Iraq will be seen as a victory by any opponents in Iraq, thereby increasing their morale.

    (3) Attract the uncommitted
    The fair-weather tribal allies will likely end up going their own way once US troops are gone.

    (4) Without setting the stage for future (unfavorable) conflict.
    Iraq will remain a stable democracy until its citizens or Iran decide otherwise. Future conflict is likely inevitable, what is uncertain is when it will occur and whether the US will deign to become entangled again.

    1. Nicely said!

      The late American strategist Col. John Boyd (USAF) said that a grand strategy focused our nation’s actions — political, economic, and military — so as to:

      • Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.
      • Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.
      • Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.
      • Attract uncommitted states to our cause.End conflicts on favorable terms, without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.
        — From Patterns of Conflict, slide 139.

      In his essay on grand strategy, DNI editor Chet Richards quoted Boyd as recommending a “unifying vision”:

      A grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances — yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems. Such a unifying vision should be so compelling that it acts as a catalyst or beacon around which to evolve those qualities that permit a collective entity or organic whole to improve its stature in the scheme of things.
      — “Patterns of Conflict”, Chart 143)

      As one of Boyd’s closest associates, Chuck Spinney, summarized Boyd’s concept:

      … grand strategy is the art of pursuing national goals in a way that improves our nation’s fitness to shape and cope with the conditions of an ever-changing international environment. A nation’s grand strategy is about its organic vitality and growth … or in Sun Tzu’s words, it is the “road to survival or ruin” over the long term.

      For more about this see The Myth of Grand Strategy, 31 January 2006

    1. Excerpt from THE ART OF WAR – Chapter Two: Doing Battle

      No nation has ever benefited from protracted warfare.
      Therefore, if one is not fully cognizant of the dangers inherent in doing battle,
      one cannot fully know the benefits of doing battle.
      Those skilled in doing battle do not raise troops twice, or transport provisions three times.
      Take equipment from home but take provisions from the enemy.
      Then the army will be sufficient in both equipment and provisions.
      A nation can be impoverished by the army when it has to supply the army at great distances.
      When provisions are transported at great distances, the citizens will be impoverished.
      Those in proximity to the army will sell goods at high prices.
      When goods are expensive, the citizens’ wealth will be exhausted.
      When their wealth is exhausted, the peasantry will be afflicted with increased taxes.
      When all strength has been exhausted and resources depleted,
      all houses in the central plains utterly impoverished,
      seven-tenths of the citizens’ wealth dissipated…

  3. While I strongly agree with the sentiment of scoring the war, I think it is too early. We only see Iraq through the lens of the US government and media further filtered by a heavy weighting towards war-oriented stories. Let us reconvene this discussion at least 6 months after the last US soldier has left Iraq and see what we think at that time.

  4. Slate: "President Bush said we were liberating Iraq. Now Republicans think we own it."

    The Fief of Baghdad“, Slate, William Saleton, 24 October 2011 — “President Bush said we were liberating Iraq. Now Republicans think we own it.”

  5. It has been long confirmed that there was no WMD in Iraq, and Saddam himself was no longer a big threat to anyone.

    The second Iraq war (invasion) was without reason and has only made things worse. Instead of saying “stunning pictures”, the article should have been titled “horrific pictures”.

    Like all those who commit crimes against humanity, the US too will some day repent and pay for its sins.

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