Iraq, 20 Years Later: A Changed Washington and a Terrible Toll on America

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WASHINGTON — A month before President George W. Bush first sent American troops into Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was warned that the war might end up costing the United States billions of dollars.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s reply to retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the American tasked with overseeing Iraq’s postwar reconstruction, would constitute a towering moment of hubris in a foreign policy misadventure tragically replete with them.

“My friend,” General Garner remembered Mr. Rumsfeld saying, “if you think we’re going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.”

Today, 20 years after the president ordered the airstrikes that rained down on Baghdad on the night of March 20, 2003, the war is widely seen in Washington’s power centers as a lesson in failed policymaking, one deeply absorbed if not thoroughly learned.

The United States spent an estimated $2 trillion in Iraq over the two decades, a price tag that barely begins to express the toll it has taken on both countries. Roughly 8,500 American military personnel and contractors lost their lives there, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project, and as many as 300,000 others returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders. Iraq lost nearly half a million civilians in the war and the subsequent eight-year American occupation, which Mr. Rumsfeld vowed would never occur.

Fallout from the failures has shaped a generation of politicians and policymakers. The war deeply damaged the reputation of the intelligence agencies and heightened skepticism of military leaders. It empowered politicians willing to harness that skepticism — from Nancy Pelosi, who was first elected speaker of the House in a surge of antiwar sentiment in 2007, to Donald J. Trump, who in 2015 denounced the war as “a tremendous disservice to humanity” and slammed its Republican architects.

But the greatest legacy of the Iraq war is a desire to never do it again, there or anywhere. Two decades later, there is a growing aversion to intervening overseas, among not only Democrats but also Republicans.

“Last year, we had a vote on humanitarian aid to Ukraine,” said Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan who retired two months ago after serving 36 years in the House. “Now, we’ve always had an element of isolationism in my party. But on this vote: 57 Republicans saying no to humanitarian aid? Oh, my goodness.”

The isolationism is now the position of the two leading choices for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has not yet announced a campaign but said in a statement last week that “while the U.S. has many vital national interests,” a “territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”

In his 2016 campaign for president, Mr. Trump could and did point to the highly experienced Bush war team — including Mr. Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser — and credibly question what good all that expertise brought the United States.

“I think distrust and rejection of Washington culture after Iraq opened the opportunity for outsiders to make their case,” said retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold. “And if nothing else, Trump was the quintessential outsider. Not only did Trump not have experience, he rejected experience as being irrelevant.”

General Newbold, who was the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the run-up to the war, was a rare dissenting voice at the time. He argued to no avail that the Iraq regime had been badly weakened by sanctions and posed no threat to the United States.

Two decades later, General Newbold said, the investment in the war has come at the expense of America’s current military preparedness. “Spending all that money on wartime operations left us with less money to budget for future technologies,” he said. “You look at the Chinese military’s capabilities with hypersonic missiles, and the size of their forces, versus our decline in the number of Navy ships and Air Force squadrons and Army brigades. You can’t help but get a feeling that we aren’t as capable as we were in 2003.”

Still, for a momentous event that Martin Indyk, an assistant secretary of state and a U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration, describes as “a complete disaster on every level,” the Iraq war has prompted little in the way of fulsome discussion among members of Congress who are empowered with deciding whether to authorize the use of military force.

“I think Iraq was forgotten as soon as we withdrew,” said Peter Meijer, who was deployed there in 2010 as an Army reserve officer and who later served in Congress for a single term. Mr. Meijer said that he seldom engaged in lessons-learned discussions about Iraq with his colleagues, some of whom voted to authorize the war in 2002. “I’ve become skeptical that Congress can function in any way that isn’t reactive,” he said.

Perhaps no institution has been as hurt by the Iraq failures as the American intelligence agencies, led by the C.I.A., which provided ammunition to the Bush administration’s case for war that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

As weapons inspectors scouring Iraq were already discovering in the months before the invasion, those assessments were based on speculation and outdated intelligence. The authors of the assessments made clear to their superiors at the C.I.A. that their information was far from conclusive, but those distinctions were seldom conveyed to Bush administration officials who had made clear their determination to overthrow Mr. Hussein.

“What I found frustrating after it was discovered that Iraq didn’t have W.M.D. was that the agency blamed all its mistakes on the analysts,” said Jane Green, at the time the chief of the C.I.A.’s Iraq group, which assessed the country’s political, military and economic activities. “It wasn’t the analysts who were pushing to help the administration find grounds for its political decision to go to war.”

After the C.I.A.’s determination in 2004 that Iraq had neither an illicit weapons stockpile nor an active weapons program — facts that many administration officials, including Mr. Bush, took years to accept — the chastened agency moved to adopt more sophisticated measures for situations when hard evidence was in short supply. But, Ms. Green said, “advanced analytic techniques don’t matter when policymakers are determined to strip out the nuance and demand a short, clear, yes-or-no bottom-line judgment.”

Ms. Green cited two postwar examples of U.S. elected officials continuing to misrepresent equivocal, nuanced intelligence judgments, just as had been the case before the invasion of Iraq. The first, in January 2017, was the assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the aim of helping to elect Mr. Trump.

The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. had “high confidence” in the assessment, while the National Security Agency had “medium confidence,” a lower level. Offended by the insinuation that his victory over Hillary Clinton was somehow not legitimate, Mr. Trump falsely maintained that the intelligence community had concluded that Russian interference had zero impact on the electoral outcome.

A more recent example of how post-Iraq intelligence reforms have proved ineffectual, Ms. Green said, is the Energy Department’s assessment last month that the coronavirus originated from an accidental laboratory leak in Wuhan, China, rather than from that city’s outdoor market. Intelligence officials at the department stipulated that this was a “low confidence” assessment — with which the C.I.A. and nearly every other intelligence agency did not concur — but those caveats did not stop a number of Republicans from calling it proof of malice on the Chinese government’s part.

“It’s easy to see how even sophisticated intelligence assessments, such as the one on the origins of Covid, can be turned into political footballs,” Ms. Green said, “especially when confidence levels are low and intelligence agencies disagree with each other.”

Perhaps the most poignant measure of the toll the war has taken on America can be seen in military service. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. military recruitment spiked to a level not seen since the attack on Pearl Harbor, coinciding with the sense of national unity that pervaded the country.

Ultimately, 1.5 million Americans would serve in Iraq. The casualties and disillusionment of that wartime experience have been followed by steady declines in recruitment. Last year’s numbers fell 25 percent below the Army’s goal.

Among those who had heeded the call was a wayward Alaska resident, Mark Jalone, who was ambling through Anchorage one day in late 2001 when he heard an Army advertisement on the radio and impulsively drove to a recruiting office. Mr. Jalone became a staff sergeant and served three tours in Iraq, until severe injuries in July 2006 from a roadside bomb brought his combat duties to an end.

What followed, Mr. Jalone recalled recently, “was a roller coaster, to be honest. After coming home, the burn marks and scars slowly faded, but what didn’t were the PTSD and the traumatic brain injury.”

He began taking as many as 18 medications at a time. The erosion of his short-term memory, Mr. Jalone said, led to outbursts of frustrated anger. His marriage broke up. He spoke a language of alienation and pain that only fellow veterans in his Facebook chat group understood. A close friend he had served with in Iraq committed suicide. Mr. Jalone acknowledged having such thoughts himself.

Recently, however, Mr. Jalone — now 46, retired from the military and living off disability payments — said he had begun to turn a corner.

“I started to understand through intensive therapy, from writing down my feelings and separating them from facts, what was triggering my PTSD,” he said. “It was that I’d been holding against myself the fact that the I.E.D. went off, and I and my team members got hurt. I’d been the one in charge. I’d convinced myself that it was my fault.”

Of course, the facts said otherwise.

Mr. Jalone realized, he said, that he was among the last to blame for what happened that day in Iraq.

General Garner, who ran Iraq’s postwar construction from March to May 2003 as civil order broke down and violence escalated, recalled Mr. Rumsfeld’s early plans in an interview last week, just after returning from a trip to see old friends in the Kurdish-dominated northern part of Iraq. “His thinking was that we would liberate Iraq and then just walk away,” he said of Mr. Rumsfeld, who died in 2021.

General Garner’s own assessment of the country that Mr. Bush was bent on liberating from Mr. Hussein is, with the benefit of hindsight, brutal.

“We overthrew Saddam and handed the country over to Iran,” he said, lamenting how Iraq’s neighbor now exerts its influence. “The whole thing’s been a disaster. You had to be blind not to at least suspect that this would happen.”

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