What Ethical Lessons Can America Learn From the Iraq War?

Ten years after the United States invaded Iraq, nearly sixty percent of Americans now believe that the Iraq War was not worth fighting since it did not “enhance U.S. security.” However, the recent discussion between Foreign Policy and the Rand Corporation on the meaning of the Iraq War is revelatory in that, to this day, the foreign policy mavens and military officers remain fixated on the tactical minutiae of the war rather than its overall significance for America’s grand geopolitical strategy.

This does not bode well for the future implementation of American geopolitical strategy. Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, one disturbing fact may be that neither the public nor those involved in decision-making seem to have given much thought to the ethical dimensions of the war. The Iraq War teaches us several ethical lessons about war as an instrument of foreign policy.

First, and foremost, the Iraq War reminds us of the folly and immorality of pre-emptive war. Andrew Bacevich wrote that, in hindsight, the Bush administration attempted to exercise its “entitlement to meddle…to demonstrate its capacity to impose its will on its designated adversaries” by invading Iraq. President Bush’s efforts to exercise his “entitlement to meddle” backfired when it gave birth to an intractable insurgency against the American occupation forces and an ongoing civil war. As retired Lt. Col. John Nagl writes, “Good intentions do not always lead to favorable outcomes.”

Second, the Iraq War offers us an object lesson on the limits of imperial might. David Rothkopf may be correct when he writes that just because a nation is considered the “the world's most powerful country…[that] does not mean it has the power to achieve whatever it seeks to do.” As if to bear this out, the Iraq War cost the United States $1.7 trillion “with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans.” Also, Bush’s proclivity for a unilateral approach to fighting in Iraq eventually squandered the goodwill of its allies.

Third, the Iraq War teaches us that the United States must enjoy categorical support from its citizens and the world and must have a clear rationale before waging war against its enemies. As the October, 2003 Program On International Policy (PIPA) report suggests, Americans misread “world public opinion on the US decision to go to war.” In retrospect, such misperception provided justification for the Bush administration’s unilateral approach to the war. It must be also noted that, once it became obvious that no discernible link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein existed, and that there were no WMDs in Iraq, the public support for the war eventually faded.

Fourth, the Iraq War teaches us that protracted counterinsurgency campaigns are not only futile but also immoral. FM 3-24, the official Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency (COIN) manual, states that “Long-term success in COIN depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule.” However, America’s prolonged counterinsurgency campaigns only exacerbated the local perception of the American troops as occupiers. Despite much hype surrounding the 2007 surge orchestrated by General Petraeus, the surge ultimately failed to “promote political reconciliation among the competing factions in Iraq.” Furthermore, a case can be made that the brutal nature of counterinsurgency damages the souls of troops involved since “signs of disrespect for the enemy…[often] assume [their] grotesque form” under constant stress of prolonged exposure to combat.

Last, but not least, the Iraq War serves as an object lesson on allowing people to decide the fate of their own countries. Despite the fact that the United States withdrew from Iraq under less than favorable circumstances, Lowell Schwartz of the Rand Corporation notes that “the Iraqi government has made some progress in stabilizing the situation.” As if to bear this out, after Wikistrat ran a simulation titled “Iraq in the Year 2023” last year, its team of analysts concluded that one possible scenario may be that “Eventually, competing sectarian dynamics and foreign interests [will] work out for the best for Iraq. The country [will] achieve internal stability.” As one of its scenarios in the executive summary boldly states, “Time is the best healer for all sectarian scars.”

Ten years after the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, the United States is gradually coming to terms with the painful experience of the Iraq War. While tactical and geopolitical dimensions of the war certainly cannot be ignored, I only hope and pray that Americans will learn to accept the ethical lessons of that bleak chapter in American history.