“And then if we really mean it, if we really mean it, we will ensure that this country does not start yet another war before every peaceful, diplomatic, nonviolent alternative is explored and pursued. And those wars that we ask our fellow Americans, these service members to fight on our behalf, 17 years and counting in Afghanistan, 27 years and counting in Iraq, let’s bring these wars to a close and bring these service members back home to their families, to their communities and to their country.”

Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D) in El Paso on March 30, 2019

“Do we really want to fight wars forever? Twenty-seven years in Iraq, 18 years, almost, in Afghanistan and counting with no definition or strategy or end in sight. Trillions of dollars we are spending to fight and to rebuild countries that we’ve invaded.”

O’Rourke in Ames, Iowa, on April 3

“Given what others are already sacrificing in this country, men and women who are deployed right now in wars that have gone for 17, 27 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

O’Rourke in Storm Lake, Iowa, on April 5

Call it the new political math.

President Trump in recent months has complained about “endless wars” and the fact that soldiers have been “fighting in Afghanistan for 19 years.”

The invasion of Afghanistan began Oct. 7, 2001, so Trump’s calculation is a little off. O’Rourke, in also decrying fighting wars forever as he campaigns for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, is closer on the mark about the Afghan war, saying either “17 years and counting” or “18 years, almost.” (It’s 17½ years.)

But O’Rourke’s math for the Iraq War left us flummoxed. He keeps mentioning 27 years in Iraq, which takes you back to 1992. Not only does that date not make much sense, but his comments especially make little sense in the context of talking about “service members who fight on our behalf.”

The Facts

There are three, or maybe four, points at which the United States can be labeled as fighting in Iraq in the past three decades. But there has not been a continuous war.

The Gulf War (1990-1991)

There are two parts of the Gulf War: Operation Desert Shield, the buildup of troops in Saudi Arabia in response to Iraq’s invasion and seizure of Kuwait, and Operation Desert Storm, the combat phase in which a coalition of nations ejected the Iraqis from Kuwait. One could mark the beginning of the conflict from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, or date from start of combat operations on Jan. 17, 1991. The invasion ended Feb. 28, 1991, after just 100 hours of ground combat.

Congress adopted a resolution authorizing the invasion on Jan. 12, 1991. The United Nations also backed the invasion, passing a resolution that gave Iraq until Jan. 15 to withdraw from Kuwait and authorized nations to use “all necessary means” to force Iraq out of Kuwait.

But oddly, O’Rourke’s use of 27 years appears to exclude the Gulf War.

No-fly zones and cruise missile attacks (1991-2003)

After the Gulf War, the United States and its partners imposed no-fly zones on the northern and southern parts of Iraq. At various times during this period, the United States launched cruise missiles against Iraqi facilities, primarily on the grounds of forcing Iraqi compliance for U.N. resolutions.

The most prominent action in this period was Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign in December 1998 ordered by President Bill Clinton. But no troops entered Iraq in this period.

Invasion of Iraq (2003-2011)

The United States and allies invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, 16 years ago. O’Rourke might have more properly started his narrative here. Congress in October 2002 passed a resolution authorizing an attack on Iraq to force it to give up its stash of weapons of mass destruction — weapons that turned out not to exist. So, this war was waged for different reasons than the Gulf War.

The Iraq War was essentially wound down by 2009, but some troops remained. In 2011, President Barack Obama announced an end to the U.S. mission, and combat troops were withdrawn in December 2011.

Intervention in Iraq (2014-today)

After the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, Obama ordered troops back to Iraq to assist the nation in repelling the group from Iraq and Syria, a mission that continued under President Trump.

So, if you add it up, it works out to about 12 years of boots on the ground in Iraq, though the numbers were relatively small at some points.

Chris Evans, a O’Rourke spokesman, said, “It’s not that the Iraq War lasted 27 years; it’s that we’ve been at war in Iraq for 27 years.” He indicated that O’Rourke was dating from 1991 — 28 years by our math — because “Beto was a senior in high school when he watched as President George H.W. Bush announced military action in Iraq.”

Evans said O’Rourke’s remarks were inspired by Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, the Air Force’s vice chief of staff, who came before the House Armed Services Committee on Oct. 3, 2017, and stated: “The 26 years of continuous combat has limited our ability to prepare . . . against advanced future threats. Scenarios with the lowest margin of error and the highest risk to national security. This nonstop combat, paired with the budget instability and lower than planned top lines, has been the United States Air Force, the smallest, oldest equipment and least ready in our history.”

We checked, and Wilson said virtually the same thing at another hearing on Feb. 1, 2017, part of a regular plea for additional modernization funding for the Air Force when the Budget Control Act capped defense spending. It was not made in the context of Iraq, and it was only about the Air Force.

Experts we consulted were puzzled by O’Rourke’s reference to a 27-year war in Iraq.

“It does not really make sense to talk about being at war in Iraq for 27 years and counting,” said Philip H. Gordon, who was White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region from 2013 to 2015.

“The 1991 Gulf War was a distinct event with a beginning and an end. It was authorized by the U.N. Security Council with the mission of expelling Iraqi security forces from Kuwait, and it ended when that mission was accomplished,” he said. “In December 1998, the Clinton administration bombed Iraq for four days in Operation Desert Fox. The goal of that operation was to set back Saddam’s missile and nuclear programs. It seems a stretch to argue that it was part of the same war as the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

“In 2003, the U.S. went to war against Iraq again, but with a separate and new congressional authorization from the 1991 war, with a different mission. The 2002 AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] was about dealing with Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction programs, obviously not expelling it from Kuwait.”

Experts also said that the George H.W. Bush administration certainly attempted diplomatic alternatives short of war, giving Saddam Hussein an option to withdraw from Kuwait, which is one reason international support was so strong. The George W. Bush administration did not fully explore “peaceful, diplomatic, nonviolent” alternatives in 2003, in part because the White House was intent on ousting Hussein.

“There is a fair argument that the U.N. diplomatic efforts were cut short too soon in 2003, which was why the second UNSC resolution attempt failed,” said Philip D. Zelikow, who served in both Bush administrations as a senior policymaker.

Notwithstanding confusion over O’Rourke’s math, the experts said that his broader critique is worth considering.

“The U.S. government has employed a number of diplomatic and military tools in the service of different goals and different strategies in Iraq since at least 1980. From arms sales to arms embargoes, engagement and isolation, the deployment and withdrawal of troops and trainers, we’ve tried it all at some point. None of it has worked, assuming ‘worked’ means we don’t have to pay attention to Iraq any more,” said Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Where his critique reads true to me is that we’ve embraced quick and decisive military action without thinking through how we want things to be and what it will cost to get them there (if we even can get them there), and that’s put us in the hole for future costs — military and economic — that we hadn’t ever considered."

“Of course he’s making a political argument about endless war,” Zelikow said. “Culturally, people feel that and so, politically, it’s a resonant argument. But the circumstances and merits really vary a lot, unless he really wants to say the U.S. should have stayed away from every one of these concerns.”

“I think O’Rourke’s basic point is right — we should consider the long-term costs and complications of these wars, which always seem to have unintended consequences, and pursue all diplomatic options before launching them,” Gordon said. “But on the narrow point, no, I would not say we’ve been at war with Iraq for 27 years.”

The Pinocchio Test

This is an example of how a salient argument can run astray with bad numbers. O’Rourke may have a case that the United States has embarked on costly military adventures without exploring enough alternatives. But the critique concerning Iraq does not extend back 27 years.

The Gulf War was 28 years ago — and it took place after substantial diplomacy. The flawed invasion of Iraq took place 16 years ago, but troops left after eight years and then returned to help fight the Islamic State a few years later. At best, it adds up to 12 years of war.

Given the number of times O’Rourke has said this, it’s no slip of the tongue. But it’s also mostly false.

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"Those wars that we ask our fellow Americans, these service members to fight on our behalf, 17 years and counting in Afghanistan, 27 years and counting in Iraq, let’s bring these wars to a close."
during a rally in El Paso, Texas
Friday, March 30, 2018