As the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq – approaches, the global news outlets have been ramping up their pushing of editorials, fact-filled articles and general commentary that seemingly all sell one point: How we lost the war in Iraq.
I am fascinated at the fact that so many people are so prone to sell the war as a failure. Last I checked, our final troops left Iraq only last year and the country is still going through growing pains in a region that is constantly evolving. How can any of these people truly try to say we lost a war that we have yet to truly see what the outcome of it will be? This was not Vietnam where our soldiers, spooks and statesmen fled the country on helicopters as the North Vietnamese Army rolled down the streets detaining and killing any US-sympathizers.
Many of these critiques like to say that Iraq was a failure because the insurgency began after President Bush declared the infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech. Others say that because the war dragged on and our reconstruction efforts continued painfully for years that it was a failure. Frankly these people are as naive as the naivety they accuse the Bush Administration of being. Did you really think we would topple a regime and we would have a Disney World built with “a thriving, Western-style economy in the Middle East”?
This kind of thing; regime change + reconstruction + security force development + economic development takes painful patience. I would venture that this challenge was arguably one of the greatest challenges since World War Two – and you know what? We pulled it off. The catch is that our objectives operationally changed as things tend to do in when the input factors change.
Look at the real objectives we had:
1) Regime Change – Success.
2) Counterinsurgency – Success.
3) Reconstruction – Success.
4) Global Integration – Pending (in large part to Iran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs)
We accomplished the regime change we went there to do. Then when we got thrown and unexpected insurgency we revolutionized entirely, America’s Expeditionary Corps i.e. Soldiers, Spooks & Statesmen. We adapted so well that we now export counterinsurgency training to other countries that face current or potential counterinsurgencies. This is not to say it was not painful – trust me I was there I know – counterinsurgency is a very messy process. I watched a lot of death & destruction. However, from the counterinsurgent perspective I am alright living with my nightmares, regrets and self-doubt knowing that the outcome in the long run will far outweigh the cost of the war.
From the Iraqis perspective, it seems every article I have read cites carefully crafted negative responses about the pain of war. Let me offset that a bit with a quote from another article I read today “Under Saddam, the state intervened in everything. We were ruled with an iron fist. In those days, I couldn’t afford fruit and didn’t have a car. Now everything’s reversed. We have freedom. We can buy what we like.” This is not meant to paint a perfect rosy picture of the current state of affairs in Iraq today. The article continues to on illustrate the high levels of corruption, tension in the air and terrorist attack. However let us take into account that a relatively new government is going to go through some painful growth as everyone scurries to grab what power they can – corruption is bound to happen. If you think the corruption now is worst than before just take a look at the lives and Uday & Usay or even a single palace that any of the senior Baath officials lived in. If anything, the corruption is more, shall we dare say, democratic. With all of this in mind let us now take a look at the key points that we can successfully take away from the war to justify a win.
First I want to illustrate the economics of Iraq by reviewing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is a functional example of telling how well an economy is doing. Aside from a drastic drop of about 20 billion Dollars from 2008 to 2009, the GDP of Iraq has consistency grown at a fairly surprising rate considering it was in the middle of a war – much more than it was growing during the Iran-Iraq War.
Last year, in an article the Deputy Central Bank Governor, Mudher Kasim, stated that they “expect Iraq’s GDP in 2015 to jump to $360 billion from $170 billion currently” – that is more than doubling their GDP in 3 years. Doubling their GDP in 3 years. Yes, you read that right. Iraq is not short on resources to boost their economy – it is there, they just need to facilitate its export and drive profits into infrastructure & education, like many of their Gulf neighbors. Oil production is key to driving the country forward into the 21st century as a stabilizer and catalyst to a more peaceful region.
2. Protests are a good thing
This morning I read an article on the 10th Anniversary of the war in Iraq. One of the points made in the article used to illustrate how we lost the war was by saying that during the Arab Spring uprisings, there were significant protests in Iraq against their government. I remember reading about these particular protests when they happened. My first thought at the time, was “this is a great thing considering….” Think about it – 20, even 15 years ago if those kind of protests happened those individuals would have all been killed and tortured. Even during the war, the option for that to occur would have been greatly limited. At what point in promoting democracy do we say that civil disobedience is a sign of failure in that objective? Civil Disobedience is a sign of success! It means the people are not afraid to express their grievances, it means there are mechanisms in place to foster this expression.
3. Saddam is gone
There really should not be much discourse here. Saddam was a brutal leader and this world is far better off without him. Sure, Iraq has paid a dear price of lives due to the ethnic violence from not having a tyrant peace under his thumb; though in the long run they have the option to progress at their will. Saddam held such a tight grip on his country, which lived every day in fear, that I recall on a number of occasions Iraqis telling me that they did not believe the US had detained Saddam. They refused to talk to us because they expected Saddam to come back and his secret police to seek revenge on those who collaborated with us.
4. A country that will never produce WMD
We can argue back and forth for ever – as we have for years already – debating whether Iraq had or was trying to acquire any form of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The fact is they had tried in the past, and they surely would try again if Saddam had continued to reign unfettered. This will never happen under an Iraqi dictator again. It is a calming concept to consider that a country ruled by a mad man will never again be ruled by a man who felt it was acceptable to gas his own people. If you believe this is not a win then please review the image below, showing the effects of his domestic war.
5. Strategic Benefit
Yes, Iran has amplified and expanded its influence over Iraq to a great deal. This is disconcerting for American interests; however it is not necessarily mutually exclusive to a stable & democratic Iraq in the long run – which is in US interests. The US still retains a very large embassy with a ridiculously large staff that is geographically located (right in the heart of the Middle East) to be connected to future threats and issues. This is a great benefit to American interests and the interests of most stabilized countries. Embassies provide conduits of information back to the US, Public Diplomacy into the host nation, and a general feeling of the pulse of the region. They are frontier fortresses for all things international. Considering pre-invasion we had essentially no information or influence in the country, having such a staggering embassy in the nation provides us with unprecedented access to the country.
6. Lessons Learned
Iraq was a painful lesson for America, but it was a lesson and one that in the long run is showing to prove useful. In Fareed Zakaria’s “5 lessons of the Iraq war”, Zakaria points out some lessons that the US – and the rest of the world vicariously speaking – learned from the war in Iraq. These lessons for counterinsurgency, nation building, intelligence operations and public diplomacy I am confident will stick with us. The number one empirical lesson we have learned is: detect threats before they emerge, neutralize those threats with combined-joint multinational operations of the light footprint or no footprint kind. Just a brief review of conflicts started or increased since the Iraq war will provide ample illustration of this: Syria, Libya, Somalia, Mali, Yemen and the Congo region.
7. The Future through the Youth
A great telling sign of the future of a country is their youth. Having worked on the State Department’s Youth Exchange & Study program for a number of summer rotations in Washington, DC; I was able to engage Middle Eastern youth directly. I learned a lot from them and I hope they learned a lot from me. In 2008, the last rotation of Iraqi High School Exchange students came through the program – and I was their Cultural Adviser. I remember saying good bye to them at the airport after spending my second week with them in the year. They were all crying and hugging me; I knew I was sending them back to Iraq where the war was still effectively in full swing. I stood there waving them off with tears in my eyes feeling guilt that I was partially responsible for the war in their home. The experience tore me up inside. It has been 4 years since then and yesterday when I logged into Facebook I saw one of them had posted a photo of themselves in Baghdad – at the TED Youth Baghdad Conference:
Upon seeing this photo, I was immediately flush with emotion, holding back emerging tears of happiness and pride; I thought to myself ‘maybe this was all worth it’ – I cannot imagine even for a second that this young woman would have this opportunity under the Saddam regime. She is not the only one either – most of those Iraqis I met during their visit to the US have come back to the US to study in universities. The ones, who have stayed, are involved in Civil Society efforts and social development. These young men and women’s efforts & successes speak volumes to their future – one that would not have been possible under the previous regime.
Reviewing these many aspects of war in the long run, I hold the war –despite all the negative literature out there claiming it to be a failure – to be a success. Yes, a lot of people died on all sides – primarily from the insurgents however if you check the statistics; and yes an unbelievable number of dollars have been reported unaccountable and yes there were a slew of media frenzies of horrific incidents and situations. This however does not take away the success of the mission – that had to change its flight plan midway. Observers can spend countless hours expressing their appalling horror at Abu Ghraib; fraud, waste & abuse; Blackwater incidents, Bushisms, Cheney critiques, civilian casualties, possible deception for the war, etc. None of this takes away from the fact that in the end, Iraq will be better than it would have been under Saddam’s regime. If you believe the cost of this in the end was not worth it then that is a much different argument than saying your objective was not achieved. My final thought I want to leave with you is this: Just because you do not like how something worked does not mean it did not work.
This is the original version of an article published at the Fair Observer