(Washington) A month before President George W. Bush first sent US troops to Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was warned that the war could end up costing the United States billions of dollars. United.
Donald Rumsfeld’s response to retired General Jay Garner, the American tasked with overseeing Iraq’s post-war reconstruction, will be a moment of hubris in a foreign policy mishap that is tragically riddled with it.
“My friend, Jay Garner recalls, if you think we’re going to spend a billion dollars of our money there, you’re sorely mistaken. »
Today, 20 years after the president ordered the airstrikes that slammed into Baghdad on the night of March 20, 2003, the war is widely seen in Washington’s power centers as an abject lesson in failed politics, a lesson deeply assimilated, if not well learned.
The United States has spent approximately US$2 trillion in Iraq over the past 20 years, an amount that only imperfectly reflects the toll paid by the two countries. According to Brown University’s “Costs of War” project, approximately 8,500 American servicemen and contractors lost their lives there, and as many as 300,000 more returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The fallout from these failures shaped a generation of politicians and decision-makers. The war deeply tarnished the reputation of intelligence agencies and reinforced skepticism about military leaders. It has empowered politicians willing to exploit that skepticism – from Nancy Pelosi, who was first elected Speaker of the House of Representatives during a wave of anti-war sentiment in 2007, to Donald Trump, who , in 2015, denounced this war as “enormous harm to humanity” and criticized the Republican architects who waged it.
But the greatest legacy of the Iraq war is the desire never to do it again, neither there nor anywhere else. Two decades later, aversion to foreign intervention continues to grow, not only among Democrats, but also among Republicans.
“Last year we voted on humanitarian aid to Ukraine,” said Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who retired two months ago after serving 36 years in the House of Representatives. “We have always had an element of isolationism in my party. But in this vote, 57 Republicans said no to humanitarian aid: 57 Republicans say no to humanitarian aid? Oh my God ! »
Isolationism is now the position of the two leading candidates for the Republican nomination, Mr. Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has yet to announce his campaign but said last week that “if states States have many vital national interests”, a “territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them”.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump was able to reminisce about Mr. Bush’s highly experienced war team – including Mr. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser — and credibly questioned the benefits all that expertise had brought to the United States.
“I think the mistrust and rejection of the post-Iraq culture of Washington allowed outsiders to make their point,” said retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold.
Mr. Newbold, who was director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the build-up to the war, was a rare dissenting voice at the time. He argued unsuccessfully that the Iraqi regime had been greatly weakened by the sanctions and that it posed no threat to the United States.
According to Mr. Newbold, 20 years later, the investment in war has come at the expense of America’s current military readiness. “By spending all this money on war operations, we have less money left to spend on future technology,” he said. “If we consider the Chinese military’s hypersonic missile capabilities and the size of its forces, we see that the number of navy ships, air force squadrons and brigades of the army has decreased. You can’t help but think we’re not as capable as we were in 2003.”
Yet for a major event that Martin Indyk, Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, described as “a complete disaster on every level,” the Iraq War did little. sparked extensive discussion among members of Congress, who are empowered to decide whether or not to authorize the use of military force.
“I think Iraq was forgotten as soon as we pulled out,” said Peter Meijer, who deployed there in 2010 as an army reserve officer and later served in Congress. for one term. Meijer said he rarely gets a chance to discuss lessons learned with his colleagues, some of whom voted to authorize the war in 2002.
Perhaps no American institution suffered more from the failures of the war in Iraq than the intelligence agencies, notably the CIA, which provided ammunition to the Bush administration to justify the war, namely that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
As weapons inspectors touring Iraq discovered in the months leading up to the invasion, these assessments were based on speculation and outdated intelligence. The authors of these assessments made it clear to their superiors at the CIA that their information was far from conclusive, but these distinctions were rarely communicated to Bush administration officials who had made clear their determination to overthrow Saddam.
“What I found frustrating after finding out that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction was that the agency blamed all its mistakes on analysts,” Jane Green said at the time. head of the CIA’s Iraq group, which assessed the country’s political, military and economic activities.
After the CIA determined in 2004 that Iraq had neither illicit weapons stockpiles nor an active weapons program — facts that many administration officials, including Mr. Bush, took years to accept – the agency adopted more sophisticated measures for situations where hard evidence was lacking. But, according to Ms. Green, “Advanced analytical techniques don’t matter when policymakers are determined to strip away nuance and demand a short, clear, and unapologetic yes-or-no judgment.”
Military service is perhaps the most poignant measure of the impact of war on America. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, recruitment into the US military reached a level not seen since the attack on Pearl Harbor, coinciding with the feeling of national unity that pervaded the country.
Ultimately, 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq. The losses and disappointments associated with this wartime experience were followed by a steady decline in recruitment. Last year, the numbers were 25% below the army’s target.
Jay Garner, who led post-war construction in Iraq from March to May 2003 as civil order crumbled and violence escalated, recalled Donald Rumsfeld’s early plans during an interview given last week. “He thought we were going to liberate Iraq and then walk away,” he said of Donald Rumsfeld, who disappeared in 2021.
Jay Garner’s own assessment of Iraq is, in hindsight, stark.
“We overthrew Saddam and handed the country over to Iran,” he said, lamenting how Iraq’s neighbor wields its influence today. “It was all a disaster. You had to be blind not to at least suspect that it would happen. »