Twenty years ago this month, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
Although the original goal was achieved quickly, Operation Iraqi Freedom became the most controversial and divisive American military action since Vietnam.
Like Vietnam, shadows from Iraq continue to hover over foreign- and military-policy decisions, not always in ways that accurately reflect what can be learned from the investigations, histories, and personal memoirs of the last two decades.
It is time to honestly reckon with the successes and failures of the Iraq War, clarify impressions of how and why the war began, and decide what lessons for future policy can be drawn from what happened in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown.
Based on the information gathered and published in the last 20 years, it can be concluded that some misunderstandings of how the war began have lodged in the collective memory of it.
The evidence clarifies that the Iraq War was not a partisan, Republican initiative and an unjustified overreaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 that could only be sold to the American people by the Bush administration deliberately deceiving them about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The reality is bipartisan support for removing Saddam had built up during the 1990s.
The preponderance of evidence leads to the conclusion that Saddam did not have an active WMD program when the invasion commenced in 2003.
The Bush administration told the public that Saddam had WMD based on faulty intelligence that came in part from Saddam himself.
The evidence also argues that Saddam intended to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons as soon as he could escape under the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War.
The most relevant questions to ask today are what lessons the United States should draw from what happened in Iraq after Saddam was removed.
Democrats and Republicans now both disavow the war they authorized together two decades ago in an unusual bipartisan consensus.
This consensus contributes to a broader conclusion that America’s involvement in the world in general and the Middle East, in particular, is futile and wasteful.
It also probably helped bring about the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and can lead to more such foreign-policy mistakes.
The painful truth is that terrible errors were made in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown, which took an awful human toll on Americans and Iraqis.
It is unsurprising that many Americans think of the intervention in Iraq with a mixture of anger and shame and therefore believe that the idealism should be trimmed back and that what the US does to protect its security beyond its borders should be cut back.
But these bad memories are incomplete. If Iraq illustrated Washington’s capacity for enormous incompetence, it also revealed the great national capacity for patriotic service, heroism, perseverance, and self-correction.
In the end, those fine qualities did not just save Iraq and the world from Saddam but defeated two waves of post-Saddam Islamist extremism in Iraq under President Barack Obama’s leadership and stabilized the country.
Iraq has held six democratic elections since Saddam, and its parliament produced a constitution ratified in a free national referendum.
In 2003, Iraq’s gross domestic product was $20.9 billion. In 2021, it was $208 billion. Literacy rates have risen significantly to almost 90%, and Iraqis’ average life span went from 67 years before the war to 72 pre-pandemic.
Iraq today lives peacefully within its region and has recently shown surprising independence from its large and aggressive neighbor, Iran.