On March 20, 15 years ago, the United States invaded Iraq. The goal was to eliminate an aggressive dictatorship that had attacked its neighbors and developed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein’s overthrow promised to remove a recurring source of war and instability.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, many Americans were eager to eliminate this dictator. Some American leaders, including Vice President Dick Cheney, maintained that Saddam Hussein was tied to the terrorist attacks, but the overwhelming evidence of his non-involvement did not discourage support for his removal. He was part of the general problem: violence, tyranny and extremism.
We should not regret Saddam’s overthrow, but we must also recognize the war did not bring the promised benefits for the United States. Simply put, we should resolve not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
We may despise foreign dictators, but using military force to overthrow threatening regimes creates more problems than it solves. That is the main lesson of the Iraq War. We are better off investing in other forms of leverage that include foreign allies, international institutions and direct negotiations, even with those we wish to remove.
Violence in the region grew with the rise of an anti-American insurgency in Iraq, along with a sectarian civil war and the spread of terrorist groups. Our adversaries, particularly Iran, exploited the chaos, and American taxpayers and soldiers paid a high price — including more than 4,000 American combat deaths and more than $2 trillion in US government expenditures, with a price tag that keeps rising for long-term health care of wounded veterans. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, more than 165,000 Iraqi civilians have died from direct violence connected with the American invasion.
The utility of diplomacy was a hard-learned lesson, yet we have already forgotten it, as our leaders contemplate military action to eliminate another set of threatening dictators in North Korea, Syria, and perhaps Iran. In each case, the danger to the United States from aggressive leaders, weapons of mass destruction, violent paramilitaries and radicalized sympathizers is very real. In each case, the United States possesses enough power to bring down these regimes.