The Iraq War of 2003 was undone by blithe assumptions, cultural ignorance, and careless planning. But compared with the accelerating drive to confront Iran, the Iraq War looks like a masterpiece of meticulous preparation.
The project of a war with Iran is so crazy, it remains incredible that Donald Trump’s administration could truly be premeditating it. But on the off, off chance that it is, here’s a word of caution from a veteran of the George W. Bush administration: Don’t do it.
I supported the Iraq War in 2003 because I believed the Bush administration’s case that Iraq was again actively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. (A first program had been destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 1981; a second had been halted by UN inspectors after the Gulf War of 1990–91.)
Yet the goal in 2003 was bigger than denuclearization. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was both oppressing his own subjects and menacing his neighbors. By replacing Saddam’s regime with a more humane and peaceful successor, the U.S. could set the Arab Middle East on a path to a better future—contributing to America’s own security after 9/11.
Had the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam achieved those things, the world would indeed be a better place. It is an unknowable question whether, with more resources and wiser decisions, those things could have been achieved. It is also a futile question. The American political system of 2003 was not going to provide more resources, and even in retrospect, it is difficult to identify what wiser decisions could have delivered better success in Iraq.
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the decisions you have made, not the decisions you wish you would have made with better hindsight.
I believe that those of us who advocated the war, whether inside or outside government, carry lifelong responsibility for that advocacy. You do not disburden yourself of that responsibility by changing your mind after the fact. What matters to posterity are the things you said and did at the hour of decision. You cannot revoke the irrevocable.
I still think President Bush did right to warn the world of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, a speech to which I made some modest contributions. (I tell the story in a memoir, The Right Man.) Back then, it was controversial to claim that North Korea was proliferating weapons technologies to Iran and Syria, or that Shiite Iran armed and supplied Sunni Hamas. These things are now universally known. But the step from describing the problem to acting on it was large and inadequately considered.
Inside the Bush administration, we thought we were ready to remake Iraq for the better—but we were not. We were ignorant, arrogant, and unprepared, and we unleashed human suffering that did no good for anyone: not for Americans, not for Iraqis, not for the region. Almost two decades later, the damage to America’s standing in the world from the Iraq War has still not been repaired, let alone that war’s economic and human costs to the United States and the Middle East.
The idea of repeating such a war, only on a much bigger scale, without allies, without justification, and without any plan at all for what comes next staggers and terrifies the imagination.
The Trump administration is very probably bluffing in its current menaces to Iran. President Trump dislikes foreign military interventions and has tried to withdraw American forces from Syria and Afghanistan. It seems unlikely that he would willingly launch a major war against a near-nuclear state of more than 80 million people. But bluffs do get called—and then the bluffer must rapidly make some hasty calculations. Wars of words can escalate into real wars, real fast.
If the goal of some inside the administration is to goad Iran into striking first—thus forcing Trump’s hand—that’s a ruse that risks igniting a conflict much bigger than the one with Iraq, and one even less likely to succeed.
In 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney’s now notorious promise, “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” had solid basis in plausibility. Shiite Iraqis had risen in arms against Saddam Hussein’s regime after the Gulf War of 1990–91. By 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan was a more or less autonomous region, hostile to the regime. The Iraqi government was regionally isolated: friendless and feared. Its military and security forces were broken and unreliable.
Standing up a new Iraqi regime post-Saddam looked like a plausible project. A large Iraqi diaspora had formed a National Congress. Oil prices in 2003 had slumped to historic lows, promising a surge of new revenues to rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq once oil markets returned to more normal levels.
To invade Iraq, President George W. Bush asked for and got a congressional authorization to use force. He sought and received enabling resolutions from the United Nations. He built a military coalition that included not only the United Kingdom but many other allies, notably Australia, Poland, and Spain. U.S. allies who opposed the decision to use force—notably Germany and Canada—nonetheless pledged postwar assistance to a post-Saddam Iraq. Bush mobilized domestic public opinion behind him as well. More than half of Americans approved of the decision in the months leading up to the war, a number that rose to two-thirds on the eve of the conflict, and hit three-quarters the day after hostilities began. Leading Democrats in Congress—including the future presidential candidates John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—cast their vote in favor of the effort.
None of this was sufficient to bring success. But it was all a lot more than has been done to prepare for a conflict with Iran in 2019.
Trump has no legal authority of any kind to wage war against Iran—not from Congress, not from the UN. He has no allies, and has in fact imposed trade punishments on the European Union, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and many others, above and beyond the escalating trade conflict with China. America’s most militarily capable ally, the United Kingdom, is paralyzed by the Brexit process, which Trump did everything in his power to urge forward.
The supposed provocations by Iran cited by administration sources as the reason for a U.S. response look petty, even assuming they are genuinely Iran’s doing.
Iran is a formidable state, home to a great civilization. And while the Iranian regime has acquired even more regional enemies than 2003 Iraq, its interests also converge in ways Iraq’s never did with the interests of other major powers, Russia most of all.
Iran’s theocratic state rightly inspires protest and complaint inside Iran. But there’s no evidence that Iranians would welcome military action by foreigners against their cities and military. The regime can mobilize shows of support and participation when it wants to. It rules by repression, not by terror. The regime has demonstrated global reach, sponsoring terror attacks in Europe and Argentina. U.S. officials have alleged that Iran even planned an assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador to Washington in 2011. If the U.S. attempts surgical air strikes, Iran has proved it can retaliate against American allies. And if the Trump administration intends outright regime change, it has evidently done none of the requisite planning.
The administration has not made any public case for war. What would that case sound like, if anybody bothered to articulate it? By 2003, Iraq had spent more than a decade repeatedly cheating on the terms of the 1991 cease-fire that ended the first Gulf War. It had menaced Kuwait again in 1994, carried on forbidden military operations against the Kurds, been caught in a clandestine chemical and biological program in 1996, and evaded sanctions via a complex system of bribes and payoffs.
But in 2019, the U.S. is the international scofflaw. It ripped up a multilateral nuclear arms–control agreement with Iran. Whatever that treaty’s deficiencies, few inside the U.S.—and nobody outside it—deny that Iran complied with its terms. Iran’s behavior in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza is vicious and destructive, as it has been for decades. But where’s the casus belli here? What declared-in-advance U.S. red lines has Iran tripped? Any U.S. military action will look to the world like a bolt-from-the-blue act of aggression. It will look that way for the excellent reason that it’s precisely what it would be.
In any conflict with Iran, the U.S. would find itself without allies except for Israel and the Gulf states. The Trump administration would find itself even more isolated politically at home. Most Americans do not support, trust, or respect Trump's leadership. There is no Colin Powell–like figure in this administration, no senior official who commands respect across party lines. Pitifully few people in this administration command respect even within party lines. The administration’s record of casual incompetence at minor tasks raises terrifying questions about its capacity for a gigantic undertaking like a land war against a Central Asian state.
Even as a bluff, the war talk violates the rule: Don’t threaten to do something so obviously stupid, nobody will believe that you would actually deliver on your threat. You get the worst of all worlds in that case. The threat will not frighten, because it will not be believed. That, in turn, will either push you to do the obviously stupid thing you never intended to do, or force you to walk away from your threats and expose yourself as a bullying blowhard.
If you will not do it, you should not talk about it. If you are thinking about doing it, stop. And if you are talking without thinking? The U.S. and the world have had more than enough of that from Washington, and not only since January 2017.