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Reflecting on Iraq at Ten Years

Montage of Iraq War Images.

Clockwise from top: Delta Force of Task Force 20 alongside troops of 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, at Uday Hussain and Qusay Hussein’s hideout.; Iraqi insurgents in northern Iraq; an Iraqi insurgent firing a MANPADS; the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square. PD.

Today’s guest post is by Nicholas Sparks, a Miller Center Student Ambassador and intern in the Presidential Recording Program. Sparks is a fourth year student studying History, Political Philosophy, Policy and Law at the University of Virginia.

This week marks the tenth anniversary Operation Iraqi Freedom. On March 20, 2003, a U.S.-led invasion force entered Iraq through the Persian Gulf and began to secure southern port cities and oil fields in a quick and decisive operation. By April 9, Baghdad had fallen and Saddam Hussein’s 24-year reign was over. The Iraq War, however, would not end until late 2011, by which time it had claimed countless Iraqi lives, over 4,400 American lives, and cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars, not to mention other geopolitical side effects.

For good or for bad, the War in Iraq will forever be tied to the legacy of President George W. Bush. In his last year in office, Bush marked the ongoing war’s fifth anniversary by praising the coalitions forces that had “removed a tyrant, liberated a country, and rescued millions from unspeakable horrors.” Explaining broad, long-term strategic goals, Bush argued that by nurturing democracy in Iraq, “we will help free societies take root [in the Middle East].” He had stressed similar themes in his 2004 State of the Union address, framing the mission as a means of building goodwill and defeating seeds of terrorism in the region. “As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger,” Bush explained, “it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends.”

Ten years later, Operation Iraqi Freedom leaves a complicated legacy for many Americans. Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman remembers the lack of critical media coverage during the initial months of the invasion in 2003. To oppose the war in the media ten years ago, Krugman writes, was a “career-ending” decision. International news outlets continue to grapple with the ramifications of the Iraq War as well. This month, for instance, London-based The Guardian reported a public inquiry regarding the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by British and American forces in 2004. More noticeable, though, is the general lack of intense media coverage of the anniversary. Krugman calls it suspect. Perhaps it is the product of a people that is eager to move on.

Criticism directed towards President Bush regarding the War in Iraq has hardly ceased since 2003, but Bush is not without his defenders. Last fall, Stephen Knott, a former co-chair of the Miller Center’s Oral History Project, returned to the Miller Center to discuss his recent book Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, The War on Terror, and His Critics. In his book, Knott does not argue that the Iraq War was completely justified, but rather he asserts that President Bush has been treated unfairly by partisans in the media and academia. “Many of my fellow scholars in the academic world,” Knott said in the October forum, “breached their scholarly obligations in their rush to judgment against President Bush.” In assessing Operation Iraqi Freedom, he added, we should remember that “as time has gone on, there’s been a sort of revisionism that downplays, in a sense, the impact of 9/11 and the threat that al-Qaeda presented.” A thoughtful judgment of the decision to go into Iraq, Knott contended, should not forget the state of the world in 2003.

Even though the war is often associated with President Bush, it spanned into his successor’s term. During his Inaugural Address in 2009, President Barack Obama promised that during his first term, the United State “[would] begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people.” In June of that year, Obama travelled to Egypt and spoke of developments in Iraq. “Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein,” he told an audience at Cairo University, “I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.”

As Obama’s address suggested, this chapter of American history offers lessons for the future.  Ryan Crocker, who was recently named the James R. Schlesinger Distinguished Professor at the Miller Center and who served as the former U.S. Ambassador for Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon Crocker concluded in a Miller Center Forum:

The first lesson is really pretty simple: Be careful what you get into. You need to thoroughly understand the context of the area…and the history of long war and complex relations…Know the history and know how the history informs the present in the minds of the people you are going to be dealing with….But know more than that, know the culture, know the language and know the literature.

The second lesson is to be careful what you get into, but be at least as careful about what you propose to get out of. Once you have set these forces in motion, there can be even graver consequences…Americans may think we’ve turned the page, that Iraq is done and now let’s move on… But that is what our allies have come to fear from us and our enemies have to come to expect…This is a long war not always fought by force of arms, but our engagement in Iraq over the long term is going to be very important for the prospects for long-term stability in that key country.

Ten years after the war, Americans should remember Iraq. We should also engage in a more serious debate about the United States role in the World and which tools of statecraft should be employed in achieving that role.

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