After 9/11, support of the 2003 Iraq invasion seemed ubiquitous among the general public and in the media. In 2014, American attitudes have changed. Predictably, war hawks have emerged to point fingers at the U.S. withdrawal of troops in 2011 and are pushing the government to act swiftly to “protect our interests.”
Several of those who were wrong in 2003, claiming military action would bring newfound peace and liberation to the region, are now in the media insisting on our involvement in the new crisis.
On the other hand, critics are making their voices heard, and are urging caution as lawmakers decide our course of action. In June, Fox News aired an interview with Dick Cheney in which Megyn Kelly bluntly told him that “time and time again, history has proven just how wrong he was.”
Opponents of further intervention have cited the 2003 invasion as an instigator of the sectarian violence now plaguing the country, with the subsequent purging of Ba’athists being a prime driver of the current Shi’ite government’s crisis of legitimacy. Sectarian differences have been worsened by U.S. occupation of Iraq and dissolution of Iraqi institutions, circumstances that militant islamist groups like the ISIS are now taking advantage of.
But what is interesting to note is that many critics, especially those belonging to a younger generation, seem to think that the 2003 invasion was the first go-round. In fact, the United States has a long history of intervention in the Middle East, and, as professor Max Abrahms recently pointed out, it’s difficult to say when the last time such an intervention “was a resounding success.”
Many of us have forgotten the fact that the United States initially supported the Ba’ath Party’s rise to power. Even if we overlook this instance as an irrelevant event that happened five decades ago, there has been no mention of the subsequent operation throughout the entire 1990s to end Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, which included the destruction of the Iraqi military, blockades, no-fly zones, and targeted air strikes. The truth is, the U.S. has been fighting a war more than 20 years long, racking up trillions of dollars in debt.
U.S. involvement in Iraq has been not only bad for the budget and political interests, but also for the Iraqi people – especially women, already in a precarious position within their society. Iraqi civilian deaths from the 2003 invasion onward total over 100,000 – and that number includes only direct violence, not indirect deaths due to the lack of food or medical care that may occur because of the war. Studies found that the majority of civilian deaths from air raids and mortars were women and children – those who should be furthest away from the conflict. Furthermore, violence against women escalated sharply immediately following the invasion. A lack of security has put women at increased risk for death threats, abductions, violent sexual assault, and beatings.
Now groups like ISIS are sweeping the country and intimidating and terrorizing its inhabitants. Commentators and critics are asking what have we learned from our ten-year occupation, but aren’t investigating deeper.
The problem is not that we left Iraq too soon and not simply that the occupation of Iraq has ignited sectarian conflict. It’s that our continuous destruction of the security of the country and in the broader Middle East has opened the door for minute differences between people to be exploited by groups, internal and external, seeking power and control.
The administration is currently considering its options for a course of action. From the White House briefing room on June 19, President Obama stated that while there is no military solution to the problems facing Iraq, he would be sending 300 military advisors to work with the Iraqi military. The move may seem benign enough, but sending military advisors has been known to be a precursor to boots on the ground.
Then, a few days later, the Pentagon announced they would be sending several hundred more.
When we ask ourselves what have we learned, we must look beyond the surface to the root of the problem, question the motives, and consider the law of unintended consequences.
In Iraq, the third (or fourth, or fifth, depending on how you count it) time is probably not the charm.