Debate Debrief: Was the 2003 U.S. Invasion of Iraq America's Greatest Strategic Blunder?

The Review at NYU's Editorial Board discusses the motion for this Tuesday's (11/10/15) debate with Professor David Denoon on whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq was America's greatest strategic blunder. Be sure to RSVP at the Facebook event page

Ankit Patel, Editor of Economics & Finance

Certainly, the phrasing of the motion is nebulous, but more specifically, I feel the operative word worst will make for a debate that could very well pit two contending views that do not address the same topic. The language here opens itself up to many interpretations, and each side will define the motion that works most favorably with their argument. Nevertheless, it is difficult to empathize with the affirmative stance, if only because we have not appropriately temporally distanced ourselves from the Iraq invasion. To claim that an event twelve years young represents the single biggest breakdown in America’s strategic history is a sweeping conclusion.

         The past century alone bore witness to numerous strategic blunders, many of which trace back to intelligence errors. The Bay of Pigs was smeared in rumors that the CIA withheld relevant new intel out of fear that Kennedy would call off the operation. The Tet Offensive, a pivotal battle in the Vietnam War, transpired as intelligence officials and military generals failed to stay vigilant and anticipate the North Vietnamese attack. Likewise, there are numerous other poor decisions that litter the timeline of American history, and to brand the 2003 Iraq invasion as the definitive worst is hasty and irresponsible at best.

         Past foreign affairs, it is worth considering the ramifications of domestic policy over the 20th and 21st centuries. The motion’s vagueness, as you’ve probably gathered by now, leaves open the possibility of citing domestic legislation. From economic to social policy, there are a host of legislative decisions that draw spirited choruses of opposition. The debate will likely focus on foreign matters if only because the specified event at hand is the Iraq invasion, but the negative would be completely justified in leading the conversation beyond this narrow spectrum.

         As for the debate itself, it’s difficult to project how either side’s argument will unfold. Nonetheless, both sides will attempt to reparametrize the language to best fit their intentions. Thus, the first fifteen minutes of the debate should bring considerable clarity to whether or not the affirmative and the negative will even discuss the same ideas. The ambiguity of the motion leaves much to the interpretation of the debaters, meaning we could witness a debate characterized by conflicting beliefs that fail to adequately address the same key points.

Jared Tishelman, Chief Editor of Science & Health

            As has been addressed above, the presented motion opens itself to a multitude of interpretations, which will hopefully allow for spirited debate on Tuesday night. To declare a foreign policy decision as the worst blunder is difficult to prove without quantifying how bad a situation can get. Therefore, any decisive argument that declares the war in Iraq as the worst strategic mistake is relative to American history, and other past military, political or diplomatic mistakes. Further, how must you evaluate the failure of a strategic motion—is it measured in overall casualties, total cost, domestic public opinion, or effect on the local peoples? With these questions in mind, I believe it will be difficult to prove either side of the motion, as a position opposing the affirmative will have to provide evidence not just on how the invasion of Iraq was not the worst strategic blunder, but also how there have been others larger and more impactful in American history.

          Let’s examine some facts about the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) puts the total cost (figures adjusted in terms of the 2010 fiscal year) of the invasion and subsequent war in Iraq (2003-2010) at $784 billion. In comparison to World War 2 ($4.104 trillion), it is clearly not the most expensive war the U.S. has fought. Nonetheless, it made a significant dent in the economy. In 2008 alone, the total defense budget totaled 4.3% of the United States GDP. The U.S. isn’t even done paying for the war. Because most of the money used to finance the military operations in Iraq was borrowed, the U.S. is estimated to pay around 7 trillion dollars in interest payments by 2053. The United States even used 20.2 billion dollars a year on air conditioning during the war.

          The casualties of war were also immense: 4,488 U.S. Service personnel, 134,000 civilians, and 150 reporters died during the conflict in Iraq. This is not even including the lasting emotional effects and treatment of U.S. citizens returning from war-zones. Additionally, it is important to consider the more than 2.8 million people were displaced from their homes and forced to relocate because of the war. The invasion of Iraq put strain on existing tensions in the Middle East, such as those between Israel and Palestine, the U.S. and Iran, and even the U.S. and Russia, who initially opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and was bound by oil interests in the area—Russia was owed nearly 8 billion dollars in debt from Iraq. Twelve years after the initial invasion, these conflicts are mostly unresolved, and more troubling is what we have left behind. The U.S. has not been able to account for 190,000 guns, some of which have no doubt fallen into the hands of U.S. enemies, and even could have contributed to the violent rise of ISIS.

         Overall, the total cost of the Iraq war has been immense, and it will continue to grow. It may have not been unanimously the worst strategic blunder of all time, but it’s obvious how it has cost our country dearly.

Scott Kanchuger, Chief Editor of Economics & Finance

When I first sat down and read the official motion to our debate, I was struck by the vagueness of the motion in question. First, the wording of the motion, “Resolved that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was America’s worst strategic blunder”, leads the reader to think that the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and not the subsequent developments since then, are alone America’s worst strategic blunder. I would imagine that those arguing for the affirmative will propose an argument purporting that America’s worst strategic blunder was not only the invasion of Iraq, but the subsequent failures since then-- the failed insurgence and rise of ISIS more recently come to mind. The wording of the motion is further ambiguous as the clause “America’s worst strategic blunder” leaves me confused with what the parameters of the debate in question are. Does the repeal of Glass Steagall, a domestic policy whose repeal fueled the 2007 Financial Crisis, count as a strategic blunder? Is the debate in question only about American foreign policy? If so, does covert action-- like those performed in Guatemala or Cuba during the Cold War-- count in this debate?

Leaving the issues of the actual motion aside, I will assume that the debate will entail only foreign policy decisions of the overt and covert nature. With these parameters in place, I oppose the affirmatives position. While I do believe the invasion of Iraq and subsequent debacle that is the Iraq War, are major U.S. foreign policy mistakes that have changed the international community’s perception of us and contributed to further instability in the Middle East,  I think our overall response to 9/11 is America’s greatest strategic blunder. Following 9/11 our society was in a state of shock and disarray. Our security and place in the world was called into question and our fundamental values were challenged. If you examine our response to 9/11 you see an American government that has become much more centralized, opaque and controlling of domestic affairs. In Mary Dudziak’s book War Time she argues that modern America has been in a constant state of war, which inherently affects American governance, legal and foreign policy actions. Dudziak declares that during war, citizens of a nation are forced to confront the state and grant the state “an expanse of time: a wartime.”(22) This granting of “wartime” has significant consequences as we view this wartime as a finite period and thus allow the state to make laws and enact policies that we would not allow during time of peace. The problem with the war on terror is that there is no end in sight. Well, that is dangerous. When we consider this idea of “wartime,” we see how the Patriot Act emerged in response to 9/11 and the massive data collection that the NSA currently performs not only on international governments and institutions, but its own citizenry is not shocking. Now, I am not arguing that we should not have invaded Afghanistan or that certain security measures should not have been passed after 9/11. What I am arguing is that the pendulum has swung too far, fundamentally changing our values, domestic policy decisions, international policy decisions and our role in the international community. Therefore, America’s greatest strategic blunder is not the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but rather America’s post 9/11 declaration of a war on terror-- a declaration that has diametrically changed our social fabric, domestic policies and international policies.

Krishna Kulkarni, Chief Editor of Politics & Philosophy

I agree with the other editors regarding the wording of the motion. “Strategic” implies a variety of interrelated political, economic, social, and cultural forces, and I believe the overall quality of the debate will hinge on the supporting side’s definition of the term. Nonetheless, I find the most appropriate viewpoint for analyzing whether or not the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the U.S.’s greatest strategic blunder is through its effect on U.S. interests abroad.

Fundamentally, a ‘strategic blunder’ refers to a mistake that harmed U.S. interests more than at any time in the past. But that is not to say that one must highlight a single event as a strategic blunder (as the debate motion attempts to do). Rather, as Scott mentioned, the prudent way of understanding such a complex issue is through encompassing a process, a set of decisions and assumptions, that coalesce to inform tangible policy decisions. For this reason, I too oppose the motion, but I also disagree with Scott’s claim that the U.S. overall response to 9/11 was the greatest strategic blunder, simply because I see this response as part of a larger story of America’s global role that stretches back to the beginning of the Cold War.

Let’s attempt to, for the purposes of brevity, sum up a few key interests of the U.S. state: Economic hegemony, domestic security, and, most importantly, access to cheap oil. The U.S. has consistently done a great job of protecting interests in the short-term but has foolishly failed to understand the long-term consequences of the actions taken to protect these interests. A few examples could be the 1953 coup in Iran, the arming and training of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

With the nominal goal of shielding Iran from ‘going communist,’ and the subliminal interest in protecting British and American access to Iran’s abundant oil reserves, the U.S. in 1953 staged a coup that simultaneously propped up an autocrat who never regained domestic legitimacy, decimated a nationalistic, democratic party who were then purged from public politics by the shah, and left a deeply anti-American Islamist movement as the sole political alternative to the hated U.S.-supported regime of Mohammad Reza Shah. This movement went on to form the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has caused the U.S. innumerable headaches and has carried the torch against American foreign intervention/imperialism ever since. While securing oil interests and regional hegemony in the short term, the U.S. fundamentally erred in stamping out the embers of democracy in Iranian politics.

Another example lies in America’s arming, funding and training of mujahideen fighters so they could wage a guerrilla war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. In an attempt to secure the highly strategic geopolitical position of Afghanistan (which bordered the Soviet Union, Iran, and Pakistan) the U.S. propped up a radical movement (whose ranks included many who would go on to form Al-Qaeda, notably Osama bin Laden) that, in the short term, dealt a major blow to Soviet military and political influence, but in the long run ended up fuelling widespread terrorism around the world and enabled terrorist groups to turn the high-tech weaponry provided by the U.S. against their former sponsors.

My last example, is, ironically, the 1990 Gulf War that rebuffed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. I see this as just another link in the series of ill-informed strategic decisions U.S. policymakers have made in attempting to preserve global U.S. hegemony. This is the essential, although greatly simplified, formula: Influence over the states that extract key resources allows the U.S. to exert global power by indebting other countries (India, China, and European nations) to America for protecting the cheap flow of these resources in the global economy. The motivations underlying the invasion of Iraq can, without a doubt, be ascribed to oil. It is well-known that Saddam Hussein’s government had no WMDs, and that leaves Iraq’s plentiful oil fields as the true target. The U.S. invasion irrevocably destroyed large swathes of Iraq’s cultural history and dismantled the central state to a pitiful degree, fostering an environment where movements like ISIS could flourish. We now see that the very oil fields the U.S. sought to protect are now gradually falling under the banner of ISIS. Yet even before the 2003 invasion, the U.S. committed a catastrophic blunder by, in 1990, obliterating the entire infrastructure of Iraq in the Gulf War. However, instead of easily removing Hussein from power when he was at his weakest, the U.S. instead decided to leave the country in tatters, forcing the civilian population to fend for themselves while Hussein and his regime maintained their grip on power. In many ways, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was simply an atonement for the egregious mistakes made by George H.W. Bush’s administration, and thus even the 2003 invasion must be placed within a historical context of its own.

The United States has made several interrelated strategic blunders (many of which I have not even mentioned, for example the Vietnam War) over the course of its history that are part of a wide narrative of protecting its status as a global superpower. In my view, Iraq 2003 is just another example of this. I hope that the Opposition bench is able to fit this invasion into a wider story of fateful mistakes, and advocate that a single event cannot possibly encapsulate the historical processes that underlie U.S. foreign policy as a whole.