There is something almost irresistible about an anniversary. Like top 10 lists and pictures of puppies, we love anniversaries big and small. Last week, we witnessed the anniversary of Nevada’s vote to legalize gambling (1931), CSPAN’s first broadcast of Congress (1979), and President George W. Bush’s announcement 10 years ago that the United States was invading Iraq.
As a guy who thinks about war for a living, I spent much of last week reading reflections on the war in Iraq. The quality of the writing has been impressive. Yes, there has been score settling as well as tortured and awkward defenses of a war that pretty much everyone on the planet recognizes as a colossal blunder. But there have also been a number of thoughtful pieces from interesting angles: strategists trying to tally the damage to U.S. interests, soldiers and civilians who served in Iraq, Iraqis who survived the war, and even former intelligence analysts who faced pressure from the White House to alter their findings.
After taking in last week’s ruminations, two points stand out for me about the war and its lessons for the future.
In the U.S., decisions to go to war are made without regard to cost.
This is part psychological predilection and part the nature of war.
As a country considers entering or initiating a conflict, it tends to focus on future dangers, not the final bill. Policymakers and the public are prone to overestimating the need for immediate action and underestimating the obligations. The only time costs loom large is in the aftermath of a previous war gone wrong, when the memory of lives lost still lingers.
The war in Iraq was supposed to cost $60 billion. It will end up costing at least $2 trillion and possibly substantially more than that. Given today’s “crisis” in Washington over deficits, it seems fantastical that the U.S. spent more than $2 trillion dollars on a war of choice and even worse, paid for it using debt — not revenues or budget cuts, but borrowing. Of course, there are more important things than money, but a great power cannot afford many $2 trillion errors and expect to be a great power for long.
War is presidential, and therefore personal.
The war in Iraq was President George W. Bush’s war — in ways that are both appropriate and counter-productive.
When it comes to fighting a war, the U.S. has tremendous technical capability, and the decision to employ that capability belongs largely to the executive branch. Presidents declare war, and as a general rule, everyone else pretty much follows along until things take a turn for the worse. The public does not focus on foreign policy, and it often confuses patriotism with support for the use of military force. Congress tends to be timid. For senators who hope to be commander-in-chief one day, the political risk of letting a president have his or her unsuccessful war is lower than opposing a war that turns out to be a success.
In short, a determined president can lead the country into war. But if the war goes poorly, it’s the president that gets the blame. This is appropriate but not nearly sufficient. There were many proponents of the war in Iraq who, despite the consequences of their advocacy, walked away unscathed.
In think tanks and on cable television, advocates who aggressively made the case for the war are doing quite well, thank you very much. William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Danielle Pletka, and Max Boot among others, all enjoy the professional rank, airtime, and op/ed space they did a decade ago. In fact, it is striking that 10 years after the war, the “neocons” remain the voice of the Republican Party on foreign policy. The very same people that pushed for war with Iraq today urge the use of military force in Syria and Iran — as if Iraq had never happened.
Sadly, the war in Iraq won’t be the last of its kind. At some point down the road, a determined president will be able to sell a new war promising large benefits at little cost. Congress and the public will go along, and if it goes badly, the talking heads will slip away only to make their case for a different war at a different time.
So here is to anniversaries, to keeping memories alive. The longer we remember, especially the cost in lives, the less likely it will happen again.