The Iraq Takeaway: American Ground Invasions Destabilize the Middle East

There are alternatives to sending in troops.

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U.S. soldiers stand near the Swords of Qadisiyah monument in Baghdad on March 13, 2008. (Ceerwan Aziz/Reuters)

American households will be blanketed this week by a torrent of coverage, commentary and regret about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war. Liberals claim that Twitter - if it had existed - could have stopped the invasion. Conservatives argue that the links between Saddam Hussein and terrorism have, in fact, been underplayed.

The glaring lesson of the war is that American ground invasions destabilize the Middle East, instead of stabilizing it. The 100,000 Iraqis who perished, the 4,500 American soldiers killed and the $1 trillion spent should have halted what Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner has called the "creeping militarization of American foreign policy." Instead, the civilian American institutions that failed us before Iraq have grown even weaker.

The State Department is the first example. Drezner correctly argues that as the Pentagon's budget has ballooned in the post-9/11 decade, so has its influence over American foreign policy. Too many former generals, he contends, have occupied foreign policy important positions.

That trend has slowed in the second Obama administration, but the budget, planning capabilities and training programs of the State Department are still laughably small compared with those of the U.S. military. Money equals power, influence and a seat at the table in Washington. As one former national security reporter put it to me, weak civilian institutions leads to fewer potential civilian responses to crises.

In his first major speech as secretary of state, John Kerry tried to put the size of the American civilian effort in perspective. He cited a recent poll that found most Americans believe the State Department and U.S. foreign aid programs consume 25 percent of federal spending. In fact, they receive 1 percent. (The military gets roughly 20 percent.)

Kerry's speech got virtually no press coverage. Just as it did a decade ago, the news media - a second vital American civilian institution - is failing us. This week the media is being correctlyexcoriated for its failure to be more skeptical of the Bush administration's central justification for the Iraq war: weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.

In the months before the invasion, the New York Times published a series of exaggerated WMD stories by reporter Judith Miller on its front page. At the same time, editors at the Times and other mainstream outlets largely ignored intrepid reports by Knight-Ridder newspapers that questioned the administration's WMD claims.

Ten years later, Miller is a Fox News contributor, and the Knight-Ridder chain no longer exists. Aharrowing report released by the Pew Research Center on Monday found that the full-time professional editorial staff at newspapers has declined by 24 percent since 1989. A separate analysis found that the ratio of public-relations workers to reporters grew from 1.2 to 1 in 1980 to 3.6 to 1 in 2008.

The rise of social media and citizen journalism arguably fill the void created by dwindling newspaper resources. Eric Boehlert of Media Matters argued this week that Twitter could have forced mainstream reporters to do a better job before the Iraq invasion. He cited recent cases of mainstream newspapers columnists being forced to respond to a torrent of criticism on Twitter about pieces they wrote.

Jonathan Landay , one of the Knight-Ridder reporters whose pre-invasion work questioning the WMD evidence received little attention, said social media might have made a difference. But he hesitated to say Twitter would have silenced the White House.

"Had the New York Times, Washington Post and the networks done the kind of reporting that we had, could the administration have been able to take the country to war? I don't know," Landay said in an email message. "But social media would have brought far more attention to our work, and perhaps more journalists would have followed our lead."

Looking back, Landay, a former colleague and longtime friend who now reports for McClatchy, blamed the news media and American intelligence agencies. "The mainstream news media was as egregious in its failure to do its job," he said, "as the U.S. intelligence community was in its failure to produce accurate intelligence on Iraq's non-existent WMD."

Today, fears of "another Iraq" dominate America's foreign policy debate. The choice is binary. The United States can respond to a foreign policy threat by carrying out a risky ground invasion. Or it can do nothing at all. Diplomatic, economic and other non-military attempts to influence events overseas are given short shrift. Any American involvement will make the situation worse, the argument goes, and create another quagmire.

The United States, of course, should not launch another ground invasion in the Middle East. But that does not mean it should not interact in the region at all. The Arab Spring showed that people in the Middle East, in fact, desire democracy. Young Arabs, in particular, want self-determination, jobs and modernity. Washington has an interest in helping them but no inclination - and few non-military tools -- to do so.

A decade after Iraq, the State Department remains the Pentagon's Mini Me. The news media is one-third the size of the public-relations industry. And we continue to view military force as our principal means of addressing foreign policy challenges. In post-Iraq America, our foreign policy debate has devolved into an "invade or not invade" dichotomy. Far more options are available. Every country is not Iraq.

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