A classic error for anyone studying history is to judge the acts of a previous age by the knowledge made available through the perspective of time. That is true even if the event being studied is only 10 years old, as is the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
It is all too easy today to forget what Iraq was like under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Iraq had invaded two nations, including a brazen incursion into Kuwait that had required the U.S. to intervene. During that first Gulf War, Saddam had fired SCUD missiles into the heart of Israel in an effort to goad a wider regional conflict that would have forced the rest of the Arab world onto his side. Since that time, he had led the United States and U.N. weapons inspectors on an endless cat-and-mouse game, making it look as if he was hiding what much of the world believed was a program to produce weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam was not a quiet dictator. He was constantly agitating. He continually violated no-fly restrictions put in place after the first Gulf War and tried to play assurances he would finally abide by those rules against the easing of U.N. sanctions. He had attacked ethnic Kurds with chemical weapons and boasted of his support for anti-American factions. When U.S. intelligence agents felt sure he possessed weapons of mass destruction, they were supported by intelligence experts in Europe and Russia. Indeed, it was later learned that even Saddam's closest government and military leaders believed he possessed such weapons — part of an elaborate hoax he perpetrated in an apparent attempt to strike fear in the region. Intelligence agents were intercepting conversations between those leaders.
Reasons to criticize the war in Iraq are plentiful. The United States miscalculated the aftermath of its successful invasion, underestimated the amount of troops needed to keep the peace, proved itself embarrassingly misinformed about cultural, ethnic and sectarian divisions among the Iraqi people and was naive about the forces that would seek to fill power vacuums and attempt to overwhelm democratic efforts. But the invasion itself was entirely understandable, and the world should not understate the importance of removing Saddam Hussein.
Nor should the world believe the mistakes were confined to one administration. President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. forces in December of 2011 was premature and left the nation in an unstable condition. His decision was said to hinge on Iraq's refusal to grant immunity to U.S. soldiers. Some experts, notably Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, believe the administration overplayed this disagreement by demanding that Iraq's parliament approve the immunity, just so the president could pursue the popular course of withdrawal.
True, the American people were tired of the conflict and wanted their soldiers home. Since then, however, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pursued his political enemies and inflamed sectarian violence.
Iraq's tenuous peace was underscored by insurgent violence this week, with a wave of deadly bombings across the country meant to coincide with the exact anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.
The lessons of Iraq are many. They require a bit of careful analysis to truly understand, however. They lie less in the decision to invade than in the need for cultural understanding, a sober analysis of the true costs of victory, including required troop levels, and a realistic assessment of the forces and factions that will stand in the way. There are lessons, as well, about the need for candid debate among policy makers and other experts. Even the media could be faulted for not playing a more critical role.
Given the prevailing mood of the nation today, few people would want to repeat the invasion. But 2013 is not 2003, nor is it the future. The true history of the invasion of Iraq remains to be written. It will require the perspective of much more time.
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