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20 years on, it’s clear our collective memory of the Iraq War is simply wrong

Twenty years ago this month the United States and allies invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Although our original goal was achieved quickly, Operation Iraqi Freedom became the most controversial and divisive American military action since Vietnam.

Like Vietnam, shadows from Iraq continue to hover over our foreign- and military-policy decisions, not always in ways that accurately reflect what we can learn from all the last two decades’ investigations, histories and personal memoirs.

It is time to try to reckon honestly with the successes and failures of the Iraq War, clarify impressions of how and why the war began, and decide what lessons for our future policy we can draw from what happened in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown.

Based on the information gathered and published in the last 20 years, we can conclude that a number of misunderstandings of how the war began have lodged in our collective memory of it.

President George W. Bush
The information about weapons of mass destruction came from faulty intelligence.

The evidence we have now makes clear the Iraq War was not a partisan, Republican initiative and an unjustified overreaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 that could only be sold to the American people by the Bush administration deliberately deceiving us about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction.

The reality is bipartisan support for removing Saddam had built up during the 1990s, culminating in 1998 when Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which declared, “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.”

The law also authorized the president to provide Iraqi opposition groups with military, humanitarian and broadcasting assistance.

The legislation was enacted because bipartisan majorities in Congress and the White House concluded Saddam threatened our security and violated our values.

He brutally repressed his citizens (particularly Shia Muslims), broke most of the promises he made to end the Gulf War, gave sanctuary and support to Islamist terrorists and had continuing aggressive designs on neighboring nations.

Two US soldiers from the 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment walk past a concrete block with a painted-on Iraqi flag.
Thousands of US troops were lost in the Iraq War.
AFP via Getty Images

The preponderance of evidence also leads to the conclusion he did not have an active WMD program when we commenced the invasion in 2003.

The Bush administration told us Saddam had WMD based on faulty intelligence that came in part from Saddam himself, who deceived most everyone into thinking Iraq had WMD because he thought that would protect him from invasion.

The evidence also argues that Saddam intended to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as soon as he could get out from under the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War.

The most relevant questions to ask today are what lessons the United States should draw from what happened in Iraq after Saddam was removed.

Democrats and Republicans now both disavow the war they authorized together two decades ago in an unusual bipartisan consensus that is contributing to a broader conclusion that America’s involvement in the world in general and the Middle East in particular is futile and wasteful.

It also probably helped bring about our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and can lead to more such foreign-policy mistakes.

The painful truth is we made terrible errors in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown that took an awful human toll on Americans and Iraqis.

It is not surprising so many Americans think of our intervention in Iraq with a mixture of anger and shame and therefore believe we should now trim our idealism and cut back what we do to protect our security beyond our borders.

A man pulls a girl to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan proved extremely chaotic.

But these bad memories are incomplete.

If Iraq illustrated Washington’s capacity for enormous incompetence, it also revealed our great national capacity for patriotic service, heroism, perseverance and self-correction.

In the end, those fine qualities did not just save Iraq and the world from Saddam but defeated two waves of post-Saddam Islamist extremism in Iraq under President Barack Obama’s leadership and stabilized the country.

Iraq has held six democratic elections since Saddam, and its parliament produced a constitution ratified in a free national referendum.

In 2003, Iraq’s gross domestic product was $20.9 billion.

In 2021, it was $208 billion.

Literacy rates have risen significantly to almost 90%, and Iraqis’ average life span went from 67 years before the war to 72 pre-pandemic.

Iraq today lives peacefully within its region and has recently shown surprising independence from its large and aggressive neighbor, Iran.

It is understandable this progress in Iraq will not convince people it justifies the war’s enormous costs in life and treasure, but it does argue that the brave and effective service of the Americans who fought, worked and died there should give us gratitude, pride and guidance as the United States faces a world full of challenges to our values and threats to our security in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and beyond.

Joe Lieberman was a US senator from Connecticut and the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president.

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