America’s Failing War Effort (Part 2 of 12): Iraq

by | Nov 20, 2003 | Middle East & Israel, POLITICS

Despite the rapidity and efficiency of the American war in Iraq–and the glowing moments accompanying the liberation of Baghdad–the Bush administration has confronted a series of embarrassments since major combat operations were declared over on May 1st. The worst of these has been the apparent failure to uncover any real stocks of weapons of mass […]

Despite the rapidity and efficiency of the American war in Iraq–and the glowing moments accompanying the liberation of Baghdad–the Bush administration has confronted a series of embarrassments since major combat operations were declared over on May 1st. The worst of these has been the apparent failure to uncover any real stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). At the same time, a guerrilla campaign against the American occupation has been continued unabated.

Iraq’s WMD program was cited by the administration as the primary threat warranting the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. But since the end of major combat activities, many doubts about the veracity of American intelligence on Iraq’s weapons program have arisen, prompting many to believe that the Bush administration had exercised either negligence or willful deception in making its case for war with Iraq.

To the credit of the administration, however, Iraq did have a long, well-documented history of the pursuit of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. There is also virtually no doubt that the long, drawn-out UN inspections process gave Hussein all the time he needed to hide and/or destroy any evidence of that program before the war began. Even if Hussein did not intend to deploy these weapons in the immediate future, there is little doubt that after having duped the UN inspectors and persuaded the United States to leave it alone, Iraq would have quickly resumed its program in an effort to gain long sought-after regional hegemony, eventually posing a direct threat to American interests.

That being said, it remains true that the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons program–even in the worst case scenario envisioned by the Bush administration–would not have been a direct or imminent threat to American lives, at least not as much of a threat as other regional powers, like Iran.

Indeed it is highly probable that the reason the Bush administration decided to pursue the WMD justification was not because Americans genuinely feared an Iraqi attack, but because removing it was an easier task than removing other, greater threats. Throughout the 1990s, Iraq became an international pariah by flouting United Nations resolutions, in effect dismissing weapons inspectors in 1998. Thus the Bush administration assumed that it would be fairly easy to motivate the UN to take up the Iraq issue again and act to enforce the variety of resolutions it had already issued ordering Iraq to disarm. It appeared, therefore, that the Bush administration was trying to find the easiest, most internationally palatable way of doing something to combat some enemies of the United States.

But we should be able to see now that such half-measures were doomed to failure. However easy a war with Iraq was to be, this advantage was more than cancelled by the distractions of seeking international approval. By submitting UN resolution after UN resolution, and drawing out the inspections process, the U.S. gave Iraq time to hide or destroy incriminating WMD evidence, to prepare the country for war and to prepare for the insurgency against American troops that would follow the war. Even more dangerous, however, was the message sent by continuing deference to international authority: that the Bush administration would subordinate American national security to the vicissitudes of international opinion. The attempt to find a short cut for protecting American security instead created a short circuit. Even greater weaknesses were to be found in the administration’s attempts to link Iraq to terrorism. Iraq did indeed have a long history of supporting terrorism, although mainly against regional rivals like Iran, Turkey, and Israel.[1] While such support certainly would have warranted Israeli action against Iraq, for example, and while it also indicated Iraqi willingness to use terrorist methods, it did not constitute a direct threat to American security. Where there were allegations of Iraq’s support for more threatening terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, the evidence was weaker and more circumstantial. In the aftermath of the war, further evidence did emerge verifying some of the alleged connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda, but the fact remains that when the decision was made to go to war, these allegations were not nearly as substantiated as those about other governments.[2]

Even though the administration’s case for war with Iraq was weak, better justification could have been offered. Even though the threat posed by Iraq was not as great as other threats, the United States could have announced to the world that it would treat even the slightest threat to its security as warranting a military response, thereby making an easy example of Iraq for other nations to heed. The United States could have declared that other threatening dictatorships in the region would be next in line, the day after the Iraq war ended, if they did not immediately accede to American demands. If, for the purposes of military efficiency, Iraq had to be the first target, then the resulting occupation of its strategically positioned territory should then have been used by the United States to move against greater neighboring threats. But none of this was done, and as we will see in Section II, the United States has squandered any opportunity for action against more threatening regimes, and has instead sought to appease them.

The second embarrassment of Iraq has been the continuous guerrilla campaign directed against American soldiers and Iraqi civilian infrastructure. While some partisan resistance is to be expected in the aftermath of any military campaign, the aims of the American war, and the manner in which they have been sought, have only made this resistance worse.

In the aftermath of the war, The United States has, for example, concentrated much energy on locating elusive stocks of WMD, rather than focusing exclusively on exterminating insurgents. And to the extent that it has focused on capturing enemies of the American occupation, the emphasis has been on capturing the celebrities: Saddam Hussein and his sons. While capturing the former Ba’athist leadership does serve to cut off potential sources of funding and inspiration for insurgents, it is questionable to what extent, especially when there is a strong likelihood that much of this support could be coming from terrorist organizations and governments outside of Iraq.[3] But again, the United States is anxious to prove to the world that it is making progress, and thus feels compelled to produce evidence of weapons and captured personalities. But this concern for justifying itself in the eyes of the world has had costly results on the ground.

In the meantime, even when our military has been permitted to hunt down relevant targets (both during and after major combat), the politicians planning the war have hindered this mission with an unjustifiable emphasis on avoiding the deaths of Iraqi civilians, and avoiding offense against Iraqi cultural sensibilities. To this end American troops have been subjected to incredibly restrictive rules of engagement, requiring them to take more risks in the face of enemy fire, thereby encouraging the use of Iraqi human shields.[4] Irrational restrictions against the use of force against mosques naturally encouraged their use as shelters for Iraqi fighters. And spurious claims about the theft of artifacts from the Baghdad museum caused American resources to be used for hunting down rare antiquities, when they could have been used to hunt down killers.

It is, in fact, a testament to the extraordinary skills of American troops that so few American casualties were sustained even under the burden of these restrictions. But even the smallest number of American deaths traded to protect Iraqi lives and feelings is morally unacceptable, given that the American government’s first moral obligation is to protect the lives of its own citizens, which includes the lives of its own troops. The deaths of innocent foreign civilians in war, while tragic and unfortunate, is not the moral responsibility of a government fighting a war of self-defense, but of the government which has initiated the threat warranting that war. One nation’s right to self-defense is not to be sacrificed to the protection of the hostages of a criminal regime–or to the international opinion that demands that protection.

In a further step designed to protect Iraqi cultural sensibilities, and to lay the groundwork for an Iraqi representative “democracy,” the United States has permitted religious clerics to assume power over local affairs, thereby permitting the incitement of further hatred toward the American occupiers.[5] But what the new Iraq needs instead of the rule by local clerics is the same mission that the American government needs: the task of protecting of the individual rights of Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity or religion. This end is not achieved by permitting the creation of a democratic government–“democratic” in the true sense of unlimited majority rule–which would quickly lay the groundwork for the election of oppressive Islamic theocrats.

By the same token, it is not the rebuilding of Iraqi economic infrastructure, but the rebuilding of a government charged with the protection of Iraqi lives and property that should be a concern for American occupiers. As recent attacks on oil pipelines have demonstrated, insurgents will destroy any rebuilt infrastructure in the attempt to foil American success. It is the insurgents, then, who need to be targeted by a strong, American-led, military government. It was wrong to portray the Iraq war by the moniker “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” because its aim should have been to protect American lives. But if we intend to stay in Iraq, it is a government protecting Iraqi freedom that will be required, not one concerned with the impossible and undesirable task of creating and running a centrally planned economy.

The Bush administration still has a chance to salvage its operation in Iraq. It can begin by immediately letting up on the restrictive rules of engagement assigned to its soldiers, and then giving them a more focused mission designed to root out insurgents on the ground. It must then work to expand the authority of a properly functioning central government. But even the most focused campaign in Iraq will be fraught with peril as long as foreign sources funding and inspiring the insurgency go unchecked. There is already strong evidence of militants from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran infiltrating into Iraq, in the attempt to create a “second Lebanon,” driving out American forces. The recent bombings of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, and a Shi’ite mosque in Najaf foreshadow methods likely to be employed again and again unless the United States takes its battle to the sources of this infiltration.



[2] “Al-Qaeda henchman says Iraq furnished chemical, biological arms aid: Whouse.” Agence France-Presse report. August 8, 2003 ; “The proof that Saddam worked with bin Laden.” Daily Telegraph. April 27, 2003 ; “Saddam’s missing billions and link to al-Qaida.” The Guardian. April 16, 2003 .

[3] See notes 16 and 40.

[4] ‘Time to stop being Mr Nice Guy.’ Daily Telegraph. March 25, 2003 <
=/news/2003/03/25/wfeda25.xml&sSheet=/news/2003/03/25/ixnewstop.html>. See also howtomakewar/default.asp?target=htlead.htm&base=htlead&Prev=105&BeginCnt=126>.

[5] “Shiite clerics move to assume control in Baghdad.” The Washington Post. April 14, 2003. <

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