1st Division Marines outside of Fallujah, Iraq, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2004.

1st Division Marines outside of Fallujah, Iraq, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2004. AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

Iraq’s Do-Nothing Legacy

The 11th anniversary of the Iraq invasion finds U.S. leaders paralyzed and gun-shy to intervene anywhere in the Mideast. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Eleven years have now passed since United States armed forces invaded Iraq and pushed Saddam Hussein from power. But the political reverberations of the 2003 military intervention continue to be felt. And they have only grown stronger with the distance of time. The 2003 invasion now looms over every decision to act – or not act – America takes.

More than 4,000 American servicemen and women died in Iraq. And from 2003-2012, America spent $60 billion for “relief and reconstruction” of the country, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. Yet today Iraq is in chaos, with deadly violence, a dysfunctional government and a thriving al-Qaeda-aligned insurgency gaining hold in cities that Americans gave their lives to secure. This February, at least 700 Iraqis died in violence consuming the country. Hundreds more deaths in Anbar province – home to the rising al-Qaeda forces -- remain reported but unconfirmed because security concerns keep United Nations officials from the area.

Americans now see the war in Iraq as having failed to achieve its goals. In a 2004 survey, more than 60 percent of those polled said they thought the U.S. had made the “right decision” in using military force in Iraq. By the start of this year that number had fallen to 38 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. What the numbers don’t show is the emotional toll the conflict has taken on a now-wary America that is far less inclined to believe its leaders when they argue for military intervention of any sort.  A decade of war in Iraq, plus America’s longest-ever war in Afghanistan, has left Americans eager for what President Barack Obama has called “nation-building here at home.”

"Iraq put handcuffs on us,” said one former State Department official familiar with U.S. policy in both Iraq and Syria. “It was a constant ghost hanging over everything.”

The most obvious example is Syria. Moderate rebel leaders fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad told reporters that it was their “bad luck” that the fight in Syria came after Iraq. Obama, recall, reached the Oval Office office in part because of his pledge to end the war in Iraq. Now, despite declaring in the summer of 2011 that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” and despite warning that use of chemical weapons would constitute the crossing of a “red line,” Obama has worked hard to keep America far from another conflict in the Middle East.

(Read more Defense One coverage of Iraq here)

“Absent Iraq, we would have acted in Syria early on,” said the former State Department official. “I don’t know if that would have made things better or worse, but two-and-a-half years into it as we looked into taking action, no matter what we did it would have made things worse.”

Indeed when the administration went to Capitol Hill last summer to win congressional approval for what Secretary of State John Kerry called an “unbelievably small, limited” military strike, lawmakers looked ready to refuse the presidential request.

“The reaction was, ‘You have not gamed this out and your ‘discrete action,’ as you describe it is going to lead to us getting involved in another major war like we got involved in Iraq,’” said a second former State Department official, at the time. “I was surprised by how uniform it was. At least in the Democratic Party it was left and right and moderates, it was everybody.”

Indeed, the unexpectedly long and bloody Iraq war that followed the 2003 invasion has left Americans ready to steer clear of grand visions for the Middle East. Or even smaller-scale interventions there. The world has watched in real time as Syria descends into a chilling nightmare of civilian carnage, with barrel bombs dropping on civilians in populated cities, children dying of entirely preventable disease, and men and women starving in plain sight. Yet the impotence America feels at its ability to change the balance of power on the ground in the complicated region has left it unready even to pursue more energetic humanitarian efforts.

Consider that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who commanded the Iraq war, repeatedly warns Washington audiences against what the U.S. may face in Syria “the day after” any intervention.

“You know, if somebody asked me do I think I should put thousands of soldiers here I would tell you no,” he said, at the Council on Foreign Relations last month, “because what we would do is, we would be the uniting factor of everyone. We would go in there, and the extremists would want to come after us, the Syrians would want to come after us. You know, so we wouldn't solve anything. Right now, we'd create more violence than there is now.”

“So I think what we have to do is watch and see what's going on, try to influence as much as we can and then when -- you know, if -- if it comes to a point where we think that the deployment of troops is appropriate, then we'll make that decision. But it's not now.”

Dan Layman, spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, agrees: “If we hadn’t just gotten out of these wars there wouldn’t be this giant hesitation on a policy level to get at least a little more involved in Syria, whether it was humanitarian aid drops or the formal establishment of humanitarian corridors into besieged areas.”  

But right now even considering greater involvement in the region has taken on an unavoidably toxic feel.  And some experienced diplomats say that bodes ill for America’s longer-term security.

“It is the fear of failure right now that dominates, and the problem is that it can be so constraining that you never act,” said veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. “The consequences of never acting add up and you may face a bigger threat down the road that requires much more of you.”

And that, says Ross, is the concern: that the Iraq lesson means the costs of inaction are minimized to America’s short-term satisfaction and long-term peril.

When there is a legacy of wariness and weariness and it is really profound, you tend to create these binary choices of ‘What does it take to produce success?’ and the answer is nobody really knows. And therefore you don’t do anything, versus [asking] ‘If we don’t do anything, where is this headed and how bad can it get?’”

For those on the ground in Iraq during the blood-soaked years, America’s caution is understandable and even well advised, but not when it comes to countries it already has invaded.

“We may think Iraq is done, but Iraq isn’t,” says former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who served in Baghdad from 2007 to 2009. “Once you are in, you are in. You can have a great philosophical debate about whether it was wise or not, but it doesn’t affect the reality; you are there.”

Only America isn’t there. Iraq is largely on its own – and largely by its own request – to build institutions, battle an insurgency and fight back against sectarian violence taking hold across the region fueled by Syria’s chaos.

That failure to roll up the diplomatic sleeves and stay engaged in Iraq is showing consequences. “What we have got,” said Crocker, “is a country that is facing huge internal as well as external challenges and needs the engagement that we effectively promised them through these (Strategic Framework) agreements, through our actions, through our efforts to create for them institutions that are not yet ready to function completely on their own. We have decided we are out, goodbye and good luck. Well, that may not have a happy ending.”