Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team enter a building in Fallujah, Iraq, during Operation Al Fajr on Nov. 9, 2004.

Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team enter a building in Fallujah, Iraq, during Operation Al Fajr on Nov. 9, 2004. Sgt. 1st Class Johancharles Van Boers/ U.S. Army/AP

How the Iraq War Crippled U.S. Military Power

Iraq was ‘the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time’ and its costs are having a devastating effect on defense policy and national security decision making. By Nathan Freier

If you want to appreciate risk today, just surf the web for five minutes. Dramatic and dangerous change is happening everywhere in the international security environment. In some cases, the use of United States military forces or even the credible promise to act would help prevent hostilities, reduce and limit hazards, or mitigate greater harm. Increasingly, however, we appear unwilling to consider military tools to secure common goals — except under the most benign circumstances. To understand why, look no further than the Iraq War. 

Among world events nudging global insecurity toward new levels of danger are the tense rivalry between China and Japan, Russia’s ongoing proxy invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s continued provocations, and the greater Middle East and South Asia’s persistent threat of contagious civil conflict. The U.S. appears paralyzed in the face of potential catastrophe, responding timidly with one arm clearly tied behind its back. In almost every case, bold collective action, including a potential show or limited use of military force, would serve to communicate resolve, reassure friends and, if necessary, compel adversaries to back down. Among our still-potent instruments of power, U.S. armed forces still have the most distinctive competitive advantage

Yet, Iraq’s long shadow has made consideration of even a modest use of force unpalatable to policy elites and the public at large.

The decline of American military influence actually began with 9/11 and the reflexive response to a growing threat the U.S. government never completely understood. It was exacerbated by the impetuous decision to go to war against Iraq in March 2003. Eleven years on, this course will be difficult to reverse. Iraq’s greatest risk, after all, was always less about whether or not we’d successfully destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime and much more about the future implications of choosing to fight in Iraq in the first place. From the very beginning, there was a real chance that great cost, misfortune or — worse — failure in Iraq would deter decisive U.S. leadership at a future time and place of much greater need.

Welcome to that future. The United States is now reaping by the bushel what it painfully sowed in Iraq. To begin with, the adverse impact of a terminally destabilized Iraq in the world’s most combustible region is obvious, even to the casual observer. For all of our effort, we also got a much more emboldened Iran. Unfortunately, that’s just the prologue. 

Fixation on Iraq also left American power hopelessly adrift in Afghanistan. Iraq’s distraction blinded American officials to the potential advantages of a limited retaliatory approach in Afghanistan, a course that might actually have resulted in a much more manageable long-term outcome. A punitive campaign in Afghanistan wouldn’t have definitively eliminated al-Qaeda or foreclosed terrorist sanctuaries. However, it would have left an indelible impression on U.S. adversaries: cross American red lines again and the U.S. will come in strength to inflict great harm where you live. An appropriate analogy is that of the mixed martial arts athlete who chooses fights strategically and seeks to end each fight quickly — not because he thinks he’ll never fight again, but because he recognizes the need to preserve strength for the inevitability of future bouts in the unforgiving octagon. 

Instead of a more modest, risk-conscious design in Afghanistan, however, U.S. decision makers opted late to go “all in.” This occurred well after the odds of success were in freefall. And, as in the case of Iraq, that course ultimately also undermined the potential value of military force at a different and perhaps more important future time and place. Predictably, the two wars resulted in profound disappointment over costs and benefits.

Without Iraq’s enormous price, the once unassailable U.S. military strength would be whole, intact, unrivaled and unquestioned. Had we not fought in Iraq, the reach, capability and capacity still required of a great power with global interests would not be in jeopardy as it is today. For example, because the U.S. military had to rapidly expand to fight two simultaneous ground wars, personnel costs (some of which are likely fixed and irreversible) soared so much that U.S. leadership now recognize them to be unsustainable.

Further, the kind of war Iraq became — a grinding and costly counterinsurgency, or COIN — not only resulted in rejection of future U.S. involvement in wars like it, but also in near-rejection of the necessity for robust ground forces in general. Air and sea forces weren’t immune to harm either. A decade plus of irregular war in the greater Middle East resulted in material and conceptual neglect in high-end warfighting and emerging threats like a rising China, Iran, North Korea or Russia. In short, long-overdue defense innovation is certain to run headlong into war weariness and tight budgets.

To be sure, the U.S. military learned a lot in the crucible of Iraq. Without the Iraq War, for example, there would’ve been no COIN revolution. Further still, with no Iraq War important lessons about sectarian conflict, hostile human networks and security force assistance would have been missed. Because they largely emerged first in Iraq, even these lessons are in jeopardy given DOD’s quite public and rash drive to expunge anything that looks even remotely like Iraq from U.S. defense calculations.

More to the point, for all of the important lessons learned in Iraq, no responsible decision maker would measure the value of one war according to how much the experience contributed to understanding the next one. Wars aren’t “pre-season games” where tactics are honed to prepare for a future contest. While wartime learning is inevitable, that learning will never be so important so as to transform a fatal mistake like Iraq into net win for the country and its military.

Truth be told, because of Iraq, senior U.S. decision makers are more prone to institutionalize precisely the wrong lessons. The Iraq experience has had such a dramatic negative impact on U.S. risk calculations that it has effectively blunted all appetite for future intervention in response to failed political authority, regardless of where, when and under what conditions it occurs, or no matter what’s at stake. Given contemporary events as far afield as the Middle East and Europe, this is more hope than certitude. A simple question is in order. At a time when stable government is persistently under assault, social mobilization occurs virtually and at lightning speed, and the means of effective lethal resistance is increasingly more accessible, can we be that certain that civil war won’t be as problematic for the United States as traditional war between states?    

We can’t change history. We fought an eight-year war in Iraq to questionable and costly ends. However, we can effectively shape our forces and the rules or conditions for their future employment. Doing so most effectively will require some appreciation of our past experience but, in the case of Iraq, not necessarily how we came upon that experience.

The specter of Iraq is already fundamentally clouding elite judgment on what is and what is not important in defense affairs. Universally recognizing Iraq as “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time” — employing Omar Bradley’s judgment on widening the Korean War to China — will help clear heads. Doing so may free up the intellectual space required to consider all possible future hazards; not just those that “aren’t Iraq.” In the end, Iraq’s legacy cannot be denial of prudent future military options. It may be too late. But, security of core U.S. interests and design of the most appropriate future force may just require an “Iraq-free” dialogue.     

Nathan Freier is an associate professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed in this article the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army War College, the United States Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

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