Several recent events can only reinforce the assessment that after a decade of tremendous expenditures of American blood and treasure, the U.S. strategy of military invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was ill-conceived from the start, poorly executed throughout, and ultimately has failed to advance U.S. national interests in any meaningful way. Let's briefly review the anticipated achievements, the key developments in U.S. strategy, and the outcomes as they are manifested today.
- In advance of the 2003 U.S. invasion, President George W. Bush justified the coming military action to an audience at the American Enterprise Institute as necessary to "carrying out the urgent and dangerous work of destroying chemical and biological weapons." Of course, we know now that these weapons of mass destruction were non-existent (at least in any militarily significant way). The destruction of Iraqi military forces by coalition forces during Desert Storm in 1991 and a decade of international sanctions had left Saddam a toothless paper tiger.
- At that same venue in 2003, President Bush pledged that a "new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region." Yet as chaos and widespread looting reigned in Baghdad in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. military invasion, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld would only say that freedom is sometimes "untidy" and that "free people are free to make mistakes and...do bad things." The political pressure for a light U.S. military footprint and inadequate post-conflict planning had left U.S. forces both inadequate and unprepared for the monumental nation-building efforts that were to come.
- In late 2005 -- two full years into the Iraq war -- when confronted with growing signs of instability and the emergence of a full-scale sectarian civil war, Secretary Rumsfeld rejected this as a distortion of reality and responded bureaucratically and nonsensically by banning the use of the term 'insurgency.' This inability (or unwillingness) to recognize a fundamental shift in the security environment inside Iraq would effectively stall any incentive for a change to U.S. strategy for years to come.
- Eventually, as the U.S. struggled to reverse what could no longer be denied as a seriously deteriorating situation in early 2007, President Bush announced a new strategy that would 'surge' some twenty thousand U.S. troops into Baghdad for the express purpose of providing the Iraqi government the "breathing space it needed to...make [sectarian] reconciliation possible."
- Recent developments in Iraq make it clear that the intervening five years of 'breathing space' have yielded precious little in terms of genuine sectarian reconciliation even if overall levels of violence are below their previous peaks. Shi'a Prime Minister al-Maliki continues to display an increasing tendency toward authoritarianism while refusing to share real power with the significant Sunni minority in the country. Actively undermining Sunni confidence in his leadership in the wake of the departure of U.S. troops in December 2011, al-Maliki quickly issued an arrest warrant for the senior Sunni Vice President who has subsequently fled Baghdad for refuge in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq, Qatar, and most recently in Saudi Arabia. Earlier this week, tensions between al-Maliki and Iraq's Kurdish minority flared again over unresolved disputes concerning federal revenue sharing when Kurdish leaders announced their decision to stop exporting oil to the central government in Baghdad. These developments have combined to heighten sectarian tensions to the point that the Iraqi government was compelled to cancel a national reconciliation conference planned for Thursday.
- Other news suggests that President Bush's 2003 claim that a new Iraq would serve as a beacon of freedom to others in the region rings especially hollow with the recent proposal of legislation in Iraq's parliament that would severely restrict freedom of speech and association. These draft laws would carry a mandatory one year imprisonment for anyone violating "religious, moral, family, or social values" and life imprisonment for anyone engaging in online activities compromising "the independence of the state or its unity, integrity, [or] safety." Meanwhile, continued sectarian violence has led Arab publics and governments to conclude that Iraq represents a poor model for democracy in the region.
- As to U.S. national interests, the al-Maliki government opposes the most significant U.S. diplomatic efforts in the region aimed at isolating the regimes in both Damascus and Tehran. Standing alone among Arab leaders and in absolute solidarity with leaders in Tehran, al-Maliki has been a staunch defender of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's brutal repression. Moreover, througout his tenure, al-Maliki has actively courted the political and financial support of Iran and cemented multiple agreements designed to foster economic, commericial, and cultural relations between these Shi'a-led countries. Most recently -- and precisely because of its pro-Iranian stance -- Tehran has offered Baghdad as one of only two acceptable sites (the other is China) for a resumption of international talks over Iran's nuclear program.
It is hard to view these outcomes as amounting to anything other than a tragic waste and diversion of vital American resources -- human, financial, material, and moral. Hopefully, however, they will serve as important warnings to those considering yet another military campaign in the region aimed at unseating the regime in Tehran. If these lessons are properly heeded by U.S. policymakers, perhaps the many noble (if ill-advised) sacrifices made on behalf of Iraq might yet serve a useful purpose.
The author is a professor national security studies at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.