Revisiting the Invasion of Iraq

Baghdad, 2011. Photo courtesy of the GSSR editorial board

Baghdad, 2011. Photo courtesy of the GSSR editorial board

This op-ed was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 2.

By John C. Gannon  

In the past few weeks, I have gobbled up numerous media retrospectives on the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which came two years after my retirement from the CIA. I heartily agree with those who assert that our military and intelligence services have performed exceptionally well and have applied valuable lessons learned in meeting the brutal challenge of asymmetric conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I also have listened to former policymakers who argue that, despite obvious failures in the war’s execution and in reconstruction efforts, Iraq and the region are better off for our removal of Saddam Hussein’s ruthless dictatorship.

My own settled view is that the invasion was a strategic blunder which has cost the United States dearly in blood, treasure, prestige, and influence in a highly unstable region critical to U.S. strategic interests. It is hard to see it any other way when we now know that our government’s rationale for invasion was exceedingly weak, its projections on the war’s costs and duration were vastly understated, and its predictions of a salutary outcome were excessively optimistic.

In the run-up to the invasion, we heard from senior U.S. government officials that Saddam’s increasing WMD capabilities constituted a real and imminent threat to the United States, and that going to war was the only remaining option for dealing with this “threat.” They highlighted reports that Saddam sought “yellow cake” uranium from Africa to fuel his nuclear reactors. A drumbeat rolled from the Executive Branch indicating Saddam also had ordered aluminum tubes that could only be intended to fit his reactors; that Saudi 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with elements of Saddam’s intelligence service in Prague; and that Saddam had provided training for al Qaeda members and was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

All of these reports were hotly debated in the intelligence community, and some were totally rejected; none of them were ever confirmed.  Yet some lingered in important intelligence assessments and most survived in public comments by top policymakers. In the fall of 2002, the Pentagon went so far as to create its own intelligence collection unit on Iraq, the Office of Special Plans, to challenge the CIA’s reporting. What I came to see in all of this was a distressing breakdown in both internal intelligence community coordination and in rudimentary collaboration between the intelligence and policy communities, both of which are essential to the proper functioning of a healthy democracy.

UN weapons inspectors under Hans Blix returned to Iraq in the fall of 2002 after a four-year hiatus. When Washington dismissed Blix’s call for more time and patience, it caused me to worry that regime change had trumped WMD as the motivation for invasion. UN weapons inspections up to the time of the invasion discovered no WMD. When the U.S. invaded, the government told us that toppling Saddam would be quick, Iraqis would see U.S. forces as liberators, reconstruction would be financed largely by Iraqi oil revenues, and a democratic Iraq would emerge as a stable model of democracy in a region of autocratic and repressive regimes. Of course, events hardly followed this script.

When no WMD were found, both the White House and Congress pointed a long finger of blame at the intelligence community, a political tack that elicited no serious dissent from the mainstream media, the political elite, and the general public at home and abroad. Both the 9/11 Commission and the WMD Commission were directed to exclude any in-depth investigation of policymakers who, in fact, had played a major role in driving intelligence priorities.

The rushed October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, which contained now-undisputed errors on Saddam’s WMD holdings, also clearly played down the notion of an “imminent threat” to the United States and the prospects that Saddam would ever use these weapons against America. Yet the flawed estimate, which the vast majority of members of Congress never even bothered to skim before the invasion, was held up by politicians and policymakers in the post-invasion period as exculpatory evidence of their complicity and as the smoking gun to incriminate the intelligence community.

A decade later, the war’s direct costs stand at over $800 billion, despite officials’ statements in 2003 that it would probably last six months and cost about $70-80 billion. The war’s immense cost in American blood can never be repaid. The Iraqi people have suffered incalculable losses of life, livelihood, and basic infrastructure. America’s influence across the Middle East has declined at a time of unsettling volatility in the region. Iran has been strengthened by Saddam’s removal and the unsurprising revival of Shia political influence in Iraq. Iraq’s hoped-for progression toward democratic rule has been hampered by widespread corruption, mismanagement, and ethnic rivalries and violence – hardly an exportable model of democracy.

We should not gloss over the mistakes made in Iraq. At this point, America cannot afford to put boots on the ground in another conflict of unclear dimensions and uncertain duration while responding to the obvious and urgent imperative that we address critical domestic priorities, including getting our own economic house in order.

The United States has strong institutions solidly based in the rule of law, a world-class capacity for innovation, a powerful if stressed economy, unmatched human capital, and a legendary resolve to retain its enviable stature as a world leader. The speed and effectiveness of our recovery, however, will depend on the extent to which we rely first and foremost on proactive diplomacy to resolve conflicts abroad, and on the degree to which our government preserves a stable intelligence-policy relationship based on mutual respect and a firm commitment to good-faith collaboration. Thankfully, this appears to be the path we are on today.

In his government career, Dr. Gannon served as CIA’s Deputy Director for Intelligence, Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production,  as head of the intelligence team in the White House to standup the Department of Homeland Security, and as the first Staff Director of the House Homeland Security Committee.


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