This week marks 15 years since the Iraq War began. In this issue, we’re looking at the ways that conflict shaped perceptions on three levels: global, national, and individual. We ask: What were the consequences of going to war without authorization from the United Nations Security Council? Why have Americans come to trust the military, an institution in which so few have served? And what were the lessons for the men and women involved in one of the war’s most controversial aspects, interrogation?
What America Learned by Ignoring the Security Council
John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser plunges the United States back into one of the most contentious debates of George W. Bush’s presidency. Does America need other countries and institutions? Or do they tie it down like Gulliver? In Iraq, the Bush administration made a point of assembling an international coalition for the invasion. But it also sought the blessing of the U.N. Security Council, and then went to war anyway when approval wasn’t forthcoming. Three continuing consequences from that decision show the difference between the perception of legitimacy and the reality of it.
1. U.S. allies learned where they really stood: on the outside.
Like the U.S. Congress, where bills that won’t pass don’t usually get a vote, it’s rare for Security Council resolutions to be put forward if the sponsors don’t know they’ll pass. But that’s exactly what happened in 2003. Under pressure from its allies, the U.S. backed a resolution to authorize military action, then withdrew it in the face of a veto threat. That was a bad outcome for the U.S. and its allies, since it became obvious the war was unauthorized.
That process also showed how thin the American coalition was. Allies like the U.K. could persuade the U.S. to go to the Security Council, but they couldn’t make Washington respect the decision. Alexander Thompson, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University, said that decision showed how international cooperation exists on a spectrum. For action to be truly collaborative, said Thompson, other countries should be “part of the process and not just jumping on board a policy that was started unilaterally.” That came back to bite the United States years later. In 2013, when President Barack Obama wanted British support in a plan to strike Syria, U.K. lawmakers voted the measure down, and Obama’s plan fell apart.
2. It made the world question America’s intentions, even after Bush.
September 11 created a wellspring of solidarity for the United States. A French newspaper declared, “We are all Americans,” and the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush after the attacks was none other than Vladimir Putin. The decision to push ahead with the war without the Security Council diminished that support. “It created for everyone a more cynical view of the war on terrorism,” said Thompson. That lack of legitimacy may have undermined counterterrorism efforts.
For all of Obama’s personal popularity outside the U.S., he never managed to convince the rest of the world his military policies were truly different. “The idea that Obama wiped clean the stain of American foreign policy has never been true,” said Richard Gowan, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s a very strong belief among non-U.S. diplomats that the U.S. will default back to Iraq-style interventions.”
3. It gave Russia the upper hand in legal debates.
Addressing the Russian Duma after the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin thumbed his nose at the the U.S. and its allies. “They say we are violating norms of international law,” he said dryly. “It’s a good thing that they at least remember that there exists such a thing as international law—better late than never.”
For Putin, the decision to snub the Security Council over Iraq, ignoring the domain where Russia holds veto power, “was a humiliating reminder that in the eyes of the West, Russia was irrelevant,” wrote Julia Ioffe. Given that NATO had intervened in Kosovo without Security Council approval just a few years prior, the move felt like a trend.
In the years since, Russia has loudly demanded that the world adhere to the letter of international law. “The U.S. feels that it’s doing the world a favor when it goes to the Security Council. It doesn’t think the word of what’s agreed is as important as making the effort. Other countries, ironically, think the wording does matter,” said Gowan. Russia plays that to great effect in debates over Syria, for instance, where it carefully maneuvers diplomacy to Russian advantage. The result is not stronger rule of law, however, but legalism—the use of legal instruments to advance political power.
Now Enter John Bolton
The contest over Iraq illustrated the power dynamics of the Security Council. The U.S. acted as if America was conferring legitimacy on the U.N., rather than seeking it. Bolton, who served as Bush’s U.N. ambassador after the invasion began, expresses this worldview almost explicitly. Though Bolton is an ardent American nationalist, his views overlap in certain ways with the Russians’. “They believe in international law in the same way that Bolton does,” said Gowan. “Laws are temporary, and it’s the nature of the big powers to break them.”
America has long viewed international law as a source of its power. That’s changing. Speaking about the WTO, the international lawyer Gregory Shaffer said recently, “Once other countries learn how to use the law against the powerful, then the powerful start thinking maybe the law isn’t such a great thing.”
Bush believed that America was powerful, and took the country to war without international law on his side. Trump and Bolton believe America is powerful, too, and that international law should not constrain it. Iraq revealed how other countries could seize on the perception of lawlessness, and use it to their own ends. Trump and Bolton presumably believe America will be stronger if the law is weaker; against that lies the example of the past 15 years in Iraq.
Americans Think Iraq Was a Mistake. So Why Do They Trust the Military?
In 2017, 72 percent of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in our armed forces. That’s a striking contrast from the degree of public trust in America’s other institutions: Only 12 percent of Americans, for example, have the same level of confidence in Congress; 40 percent in the Supreme Court; 32 percent in the presidency; 36 percent in public schools; and 27 percent in newspapers. But trust in the military seems to hold firm.
These high levels of support for the military clash with another fact: 48 percent of Americans believe the Iraq War was a mistake. And while that sentiment continues to shape American politics today, the public seems to fault politicians, rather than military leaders, for the war.
As James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic in 2015, participation in the military has declined, even as trust in the armed services has flourished. Ten percent of the population served in the armed forces at the end of the Second World War, while less than 1 percent serves today. Unlike other institutions, such as the church, where a decline in participation has corresponded with a decline in support, American disengagement with the military has accompanied a rise in trust for it.
“The terms of the basic civil-military contract are these: The 1 percent serve and sacrifice so the 99 percent don't have to,” said retired colonel Andrew Bacevich. “That arrangement violates basic norms. It's not democratic or equitable or moral—it's not even effective.” And so part of the reason that the rest of the country invests so much public trust in the military is because people don’t want to have to get involved themselves. “Effecting support and even warm regard for the troops provides a way for the 99 percent to justify a system that is unjustifiable,” he added. Public support, in this way, can become a symptom of neglect rather than respect. As Fallows wrote, “The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.”
What Iraq Taught Us About Interrogation
The abuse perpetrated by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, which surfaced just over a year after the initial U.S. invasion, stands out as one of the worst episodes of the Iraq War. Caroline Kitchener talked to Peter Mansoor, professor of military history at Ohio University, and Masthead member Justin Robinson, who spent 26 months in Iraq as an interrogator, about how Abu Ghraib shaped the U.S. approach to interrogation.
How Abu Ghraib changed the military’s approach:
According to both Mansoor and Robinson, it didn’t. Since 1992, the U.S. Army has been using versions of essentially the same Army Field Manual to govern its interrogation protocol, which outlaws torture and “enhanced techniques,” including waterboarding and extended periods of sleep deprivation. In 2005, one year after Abu Ghraib, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act, explicitly limiting the U.S. military to interrogation techniques approved by the Manual.
To Robinson, this seemed like a PR move. “When Congress said, ‘This is the book you will use and no other book,’ it was more or less performative—to make [the public] feel good. The book had been more or less the same the whole time and all the interrogators I knew lived by it.” If the military changed anything in response to Abu Ghraib, Mansoor said, it renewed its emphasis on supervision and oversight. Abu Ghraib abuses happened, both Mansoor and Robinson told me, because certain leaders hadn’t been stringent enough about making sure that only trained interrogators, intimately familiar with the Army Field Manual, were allowed to interrogate.
How Abu Ghraib changed the public’s perception:
Before Abu Ghraib, Robinson told me, Americans didn’t think about interrogation much—then, overnight, it became one of the hottest topics of conversation in the country. Because the issue was new to so many people, they understood the entire practice through the lens of Abu Ghraib. Today, Robinson said, even if people know interrogation has nothing to do with torture, they see it as a mysterious, almost mythical, profession. “At a dinner party, or on a date, people will say, don’t use your interrogation techniques on me. They think it’s magic.” In reality, Robinson said, it’s just talking to people. “It’s pretty boring.”
Abu Ghraib dulled the sheen of heroism that surrounds U.S. interrogators, and the entire American military. “The American people believed that we were the good guys,” said Mansoor. After Abu Ghraib, they substituted the real image of the interrogator with the image of soldiers who had “[committed] atrocities in the name of ‘mission accomplished.’” Suddenly, the pop-culture stereotype of the interrogator—both glorified and vilified in movies and on TV—was a torturer. While in reality, the glamor-less, “boring” work of interrogation went unnoticed and unknown.
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