Stephen J. Hadley, a principal at RiceHadleyGates LLC, was national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.
Ten years on
, public views of the war in Iraq are still highly politicized and partisan. As passions cool, what should Americans conclude about the war?
1. The war went too long and cost too much — in the lives and treasure of Americans, our coalition partners and Iraqis. The quick toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was followed by a prolonged insurgency and sectarian violence that threatened to tear Iraq apart. It was the responsibility of the U.S.-led coalition to prevent this, and we didn’t.
We also did not anticipate that al-Qaeda would move into the security vacuum created by Hussein’s fall and seek to defeat the United States in Iraq. Ultimately, history is likely to show that the Pakistani-based “core” of al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 was defeated in Iraq. But it was a long, hard struggle.
2. After more than three years of escalating violence and increasing sectarianism, the United States and its allies turned around a war that we were not winning. President George W. Bush made a bold decision in 2007 to change strategy and add 30,000 U.S. troops. Working with coalition and Iraqi counterparts, U.S. troops, intelligence officers and diplomats implemented the “surge” with imagination and courage — and largely ended the violence. Agreements Bush signed in December 2008 established the terms for an enduring bilateral partnership and the schedule for withdrawal of U.S. forces. President Obama, who as a senator had opposed the surge strategy that made it possible, implemented the withdrawal plan, and U.S. military forces were out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
3. Ultimately, the United States achieved its national security objectives. Today’s Iraqi government does not pursue weapons of mass destruction, support terrorists, invade its neighbors or brutally oppress its people. Hussein had done all these things, despite some 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on him to stop. The United States went to war because of his failure to stop after 12 years of international diplomatic effort, economic sanctions, “no-fly” zones, various inspection regimes and limited military strikes ordered by President Bill Clinton.
After Hussein was deposed, we did not find the stockpiles of WMDs that all the world’s major intelligence services, the Clinton and Bush administrations and most members of Congress thought that he had. It was less an intelligence failure than a failure of imagination. Before the war, no one conceived what seems to have been the case: that Hussein had destroyed his WMD stocks but wanted to hide this from his enemy Iran. The U.S. team charged with searching for WMDs concluded that Hussein had the intention and the means to return to WMD production had he not been brought down. (With Iran pursuing nuclear weapons, it is a good bet that he would have.)
4. The U.S.-led postwar reconstruction and stabilization effort was fraught with problems and failed to accomplish what we hoped for or what Iraqis expected. A lot of mistakes were made. While the United States has invested heavily in its military for decades, it has not made a comparable investment in the civilian capabilities and institutions needed to help postwar societies build reliable security institutions, ignite economic growth and deliver basic services.