The Aftermath Of Iraq

[ Posted Thursday, March 21st, 2013 – 17:01 UTC ]

Ten years ago this week, America went to war in Iraq for the second time. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, but that certainly didn't stop us from invading. Jingoism ran high in the supposedly-liberal press, and only a few voices were raised against the war in Congress. But plenty of others have been rehashing the whole run-up to the Iraq War, and plenty have been busy this week pointing out all the mistakes that were made along the way. I leave all that to others, though, for now. Instead, what I am left thinking ten years after the initial invasion is how badly America's record is when it comes to cleaning up afterwards.

Every time America involves herself in wars in smallish foreign countries, the reconstruction effort is always an afterthought, and is always carried out on a very ad hoc basis. Even the Marshall Plan -- the most successful of all such efforts -- was also thrown together from scratch. Why not, instead, create some sort of "Department of Nation-Building" at the federal level? The phrase does have a lot of negative connotations -- nation-building isn't seen in a very good light these days, but this is precisely why the idea is needed. America hasn't been very successful at nation-building efforts because we enter into each one from scratch, with no real knowledge base of what works and what doesn't.

Imagine America fighting in some future conflict halfway around the world. When the "shock and awe" is over and the occupation of the country is begun, instead of being led by people who have no clue what they are doing, experts would take over and direct reconstruction efforts. Imagine people whose whole lives and careers are centered on creating the nuts and bolts of new societies from the rubble of war or other disaster, and imagine such expertise ready and available to be called on to hit the ground running after some pacification effort or another.

Iraq's reconstruction efforts were, for the most part, a new textbook example of "what not to do." Ineptitude reigned. A final report was just issued by the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, which stated that at least eight billion dollars was wasted in Iraq. That's "at least," mind you -- the report also stated that the final total would doubtless be much higher if every single account were fully audited. That is a whale of a lot of waste and abuse and corruption.

Of course, the idea of planning ahead to avoid incompetence is not really a new one. One of the biggest reasons that the reconstruction of Iraq was such a fiasco was political in nature. The Bush administration sent in very young people who were ideologically pure when it came to setting up a conservative Utopia, but who in reality had no clue what they were doing. Before they did so, they tossed into the garbage can an extensive and well-thought-out framework of how to rebuild Iraq that the State Department had put together. Things would no doubt have been different if this had been used as a blueprint for Iraq rather than Republican dogma.

There's a saying the Irish use to describe what happened back in the 1920s after their war of independence from Britain. "We won the war," they'll tell you, "but we lost the peace." The reasons behind this are many (and unrelated to the subject at hand), but suffice it to say that the phrase works pretty well for quite a number of conflicts America has fought since World War II. We win the warfare part of the struggle, but then we fall down on the job of putting together any sort of representative democracy and working infrastructure in the aftermath. We win the war, and then we go right ahead and lose the peace -- over and over again.

This leaves the rest of the world with the impression of American military might, and also of American governmental incompetence. To bring the impression home, it's like the aftermath of Katrina -- sheer incompetence for no apparent reason other than politics.

But it doesn't have to be this way. While pacifists will decry any attempt to plan for future wars' aftermaths (since they believe such wars should not be fought in the first place), realistically America is going to enter into small-scale conflicts every so often. Planning for the aftermath should be something we do proactively, instead of always reacting afterwards with halfhearted and usually-inept flailing around.

While those in the media who mark the ten year anniversary of America's invasion of Iraq have so far mostly focused on the buildup to war, the war's start, and the occupation which seemed to grind on forever, I consider these issues to be largely over. The American public cheered the war on, the media cheered the war on, and the politicians did nothing to stop it. Later, the public realized that the whole thing was a misadventure and now feels it wasn't really worth the effort in the first place. The dust has settled on the political battles of ten years ago, and not many minds remain left to change over any aspect of the war's justification or prosecution.

But there are still lessons to be learned about the aftermath that are just as valuable to study for the future. Instead of just shoveling money at any contractor with his or her hand out who is making rosy promises, we should professionalize the entire process. This way, people would still make mistakes, but then the next time around such mistakes could be avoided -- by people who had learned from the initial experience. Build on the knowledge we gain each time, rather than just disbanding the whole effort at the end. There's got to be a better way than just throwing together an ad hoc reaction each and every time. People do learn from mistakes, and how America approaches reconstruction efforts obviously has enormous room for improvement. If we didn't have to start from scratch each time, perhaps next time around we won't waste quite as much money, time, or opportunities.

American soldiers die in battle because politicians send them into harm's way. This is not going to change. The lull between wars may vary, but the reality of America claiming superpower status means that such wars will eventually be fought. But if we can field a superpower's professional military effort when we go in to such conflicts, it seems we could also manage to field professionals who know how to deal with the aftermath as well. By doing so, we would raise the rest of the world's opinion of America's competence in general. And, for the countries involved, we could build much stronger and longer-lasting goodwill by competently rebuilding before we leave. This may not be the main lesson to be learned, a decade after we entered Iraq. But it certainly seems like an important one, to me.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


11 Comments on “The Aftermath Of Iraq”

  1. [1] 
    michty6 wrote:

    Don't forget the cost. The sequester - which was supposed to be over-the-top cuts created to force parties to compromse - just signed into was about $1.2t worth of cuts.

    To put that in context, that isn't even HALF the cost of the war.

    That doesn't even account for the cost of externalities created by the war (eg. higher price of oil)...

  2. [2] 
    michty6 wrote:

    Don't worry though. It will definitely not cost $2.5t. It will only cost 50 TIMES less than this - $50b. Bush and Cheney said so and we all know they would never lie/be horrible running the budget...

  3. [3] 
    michty6 wrote:
  4. [4] 
    Americulchie wrote:

    I always thought everyone accepted the theory that all war is bad full stop,as a veteran of a previous conflict I had hopes that we would reject out of hand any more of this nonsense. I have a theory that if we went back to a draft with absolutely no deferments for any reason save a conscientious objection to war,we'd have a lot more forethought about these misadventures.

  5. [5] 
    TheStig wrote:

    The Second World War and its aftermath looms large in our thinking, but we need to recognize it as an historical anomaly, not a model for the future.

    The United States was the only combatant that didn't come out of the war with an unravaged economy. Continental Europe was in ruins, England soon lost its empire. The US was the world economic behemoth, with real no real competition. Russia could push back in Eastern Europe, but on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the US could and did exert tremendous economic leverage. Not everywhere, but where it most mattered. IMHO, this, rather than the Marshall Plan (which did work out fairly well) was why the outcome of WWII looks rosey to American eyes.

    Iraq was a completely different situation, and I don't believe any externally imposed recovery plan would have helped that much, except in the not altogether unimportant category of wasting less US National Treasure.

    Iraq was a bad war, fought for the wrong reasons, and fundamentally flawed at the strategic level, even if brilliantly executed at the small unit level. We may not like this, but we better learn from it.

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Is the world a better place without Saddam Hussein??

    Yes it is..

    'Nuff said..


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Maybe if we had a little more "Iraq Mentality" about Syria, 70,000 Syrians might still be alive today..



  8. [8] 
    Pastafarian Dan wrote:

    In War there are no winners.
    There are losers and those who lose less badly.

  9. [9] 
    Paula wrote:

    Michale asks if the world is better off without Saddam Hussein and answers as though it is self-evident.

    I think it would be interesting to hear from people who have lived and still live in Iraq since before the war. I think it might be enlightening to hear from the women who are giving birth to deformed babies; to the citizens who are experiencing extremely high rates of cancer due the use of depleted uranium; to the people who get up every day not knowing if a bomb is going to go off, or a suicide bomber is going to walk amongst him or her as he/she tries to get on with his/her life.

    I'd be interested to hear how many Iraqi's consider the maimings/tortures/deaths of family members and friends to have been "worth it".

    I think that if we could fly in thousands of psychologists to do testing we would find that the entire population is suffering from PTSD. These are people who have endured and are still enduring traumas almost without cessation.

    Our "leaders" lied us into intervening forcefully in a complex situation that we proceeded to make a hundred-thousand times worse for people who had absolutely no power to do anything about it.

    But of course, who gives a damn about the Iraqi people? What's important is what WE think.

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I had the same reaction to Michale's assertion that the world is better off without Saddam. There are many Iraqi's who might argue otherwise and certainly the Israeli's are not better off with an emboldened Iran.

    Little in this world is as simple as Michale likes to imagine.

    Sadly, I notice that he has not replied to your very thoughtful post.

    That's a shame - I thought you might have begun an interesting and intelligent conversation with him.

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Why not, instead, create some sort of "Department of Nation-Building" at the federal level?

    Because, that would be, ah, starting from scratch!

    An attempt to re-invent the wheel would be another apt phrase for the US Department of Nation-building. Aside from that, it would be completely antithetical to the Obama doctrine and how the US provides effective global leadership.

    Much of the expertise in nation-building currently rests within the United Nations and the US would be wise to make use of that expertise and act to strengthen it.

    God forbid, should the US find it necessary to act militarily - in Iran or anywhere else - it will need the rest of the world to share in the sacrifice and burdens of war and in the clean-up during the aftermath.

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