Three Major Intervention Lessons Learned from Iraq

President Barack Obama greets Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki in the Oval Office on July 22, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

One of the major lessons learned from America’s regime change action in Iraq is that Middle East dictators should never be forcibly removed from power, unless America is willing to commit many thousands of its own soldiers to assist in the peaceful transition to a provisional government. Failure to take that step will result in the needless deaths of many thousands of people and the displacement of many thousands or millions more.

A second major lesson learned from Iraq is that these American soldiers must remain in the host country for many decades following the country’s first election, in order to guarantee that the new democratic norms and institutions take root.* Failure to take this step will result in the morphing of the fledgling state into a sectarian antagonist.

A third major lesson is that any future regime change endeavor must be strongly and vocally supported by both major American political parties.** Failure to take that step also may result in the failure of the fledging state.

These three lessons learned from America’s experience in Iraq may be taken as qualifying conditions to any future Middle Eastern regime change endeavor. It is to say that if these conditions cannot be met, then no matter the Middle Eastern dictator and his perceived or real threat to American interests, that dictator should not be forcibly removed from power because of the mass bloodshed and chaos that will result.

(Special note: for purposes of highlighting the above points, Iraq is here treated as largely an American endeavor, which it was. President George W. Bush called it a “coalition” since many countries sent military and civilian personnel to Iraq, but American personnel were by far the largest group and, unquestionably, if not for America, the world would not have attempted Saddam’s ouster.)

Many Americans supported the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq in 2003. Saddam was a vicious dictator who violated the human rights of his own people and committed mass atrocities. He was even accused of using chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds.

Many of these same Americans assumed that following Saddam’s removal, Iraq’s future would magically transition to a successful democratic exhibit in the heart of the Middle East. In fact, one theory floated before Saddam’s removal was that if Saddam were removed, Iraq would become a Western-like democratic state and its success would reverberate throughout the region causing Arabs to rise up and to demand democratic governments of their own.

As it turned out, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the easy part. However, the Iraqi government, rather than magically or seamlessly transitioning to a democratic form of government, evaporated away and with it the nation’s security. Widespread looting by Iraqis pushed the Bush administration to begin using the very American troops who removed Saddam from power to begin policing efforts.

A few months after Saddam’s toppling, a bloody Sunni-led insurgency began, and it was followed by a bloody two-year Sunni-Shiite civil war. The four years of bloodshed resulted in thousands of Iraqi and American casualties, as well as many billions of American dollars added to the U.S. deficit.

The death and destruction in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 played out daily on American television screens and influenced the thinking of many Americans who had supported Saddam’s ouster. Many of these Americans now either doubted the need to remove Saddam in the first place or completely rejected the regime change policy all together. Disillusioned Republicans wondered, “What they hell did we get ourselves into?”

The chaos and bloodshed in Iraq caused a steep drop in American support for President Bush and, consequently, the Republican Party lost both houses of Congress to the Democrat Party in the 2006 mid-term elections. To President Bush’s credit, he kept American troops in Iraq and, in fact, by 2007, a relative peace returned to Iraq and the nation’s future brightened.

However, President Bush’s term was coming to an end and a new president, Barak Obama, from the Democrat Party, was elected the next president. Candidate Obama was strongly opposed to the war and had promised to withdraw all American troops from Iraq without considering the dire consequences of that action. Obama had supported the war in Afghanistan but thought that Iraq was a mistake.

While history so far has affirmed that Obama was correct in opposing the Iraq war, American troops nevertheless needed to remain in Iraq for many decades to ensure that Iraq’s fledgling democratic institutions took root. This did not happen.

The first signs of the complete “unraveling” of Iraq were evident in President Bush’s closing months, as it became clear that Obama was going to win the election, and accelerated from March 2010, when Iraq held a critical parliamentary election.***

The Iraqi prime minister from 2006, Nouri al-Maliki, was a Shiite with close ties to Iran. As soon as he felt he had leverage vis-à-vis the U.S., he began displaying authoritarian and sectarian tendencies, particularly against the Sunnis where Saddam drew most of his support. Maliki’s confidence was based on the fact that Bush’s term was ending and Obama, who opposed the war, was going to become the next president.

In 2010, Maliki sought a second term in office. However, a moderate Iraqi coalition political party narrowly won Iraq’s election edging out Maliki’s party by only two seats. Maliki refused to step down and tried to have some of his parliamentary rivals from the winning party disqualified after the election.

Instead of pressuring Maliki to respect the election results, the Obama administration backed Maliki and urged the election winners to accept him for a second term. In 2011, after “winning” a second term as Prime Minister, Maliki refused to permit American troops to remain in Iraq any longer.

With American troops out of Iraq, Maliki began expelling all Sunnis from the Iraqi government. Sunni politicians were falsely accused of terrorism and given the choice of jail or abandoning their government positions. This purge resulted in the disenfranchisement and disillusionment of Iraqi Sunnis who now lent receptive ears to a new radical Islamic terrorist group called ISIS that promised to fight on their behalf.

In retrospect, it is evident that while Saddam was a dictator guilty of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity, his government also provided authority in Iraq, which suppressed the country’s religious and ethnic tensions, as well as those people having criminal tendencies as the looting suggested.

Viewed another way, when President Bush removed Iraq’s authority, or Saddam, it opened the proverbial Pandora’s box. Fortunately, Bush used the thousands of American troops that were already in Iraq to forcibly push the evil back into the box and to close it, figuratively speaking, but it took four years to accomplish that plus the loss of thousands of lives who would not have died had Saddam not been removed in the first place.


*It is worth noting that more than 70 years after WWII, America still has thousands of troops in Germany, South Korea, and Japan. Obviously, they have remained in these countries due to ongoing security concerns, but clearly American soldiers were needed on the ground for many decades to guarantee that the new democratic institutions took root.

**There was some initial Democrat Party support for President Bush to take military action against Iraq; however, the party was divided from the start and when the war soured, most Democrats aggressively opposed the war.

***Most of the facts presented in this article of Iraq’s unraveling may be found in two excellent eyewitness accounts to these sad events. See: Ali Khedery, “Why we stuck with Maliki – and lost Iraq,” Washington Post, July 3, 2014; and Emma Sky, “How Obama Abandoned Democracy in Iraq,” Politico, April 7, 2015. The term “unraveling” is swiped from Emma Sky’s book “The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq,” PublicAffairs, 2015. Ali Khedery places the start of Iraq’s unraveling with the end of Bush’s presidency, as Maliki’s position strengthened, while Sky places it from the election.