Iraq: The Mistake was Staying

by Harvey Sapolsky on March 18, 2013

Note from the Editor: This article is part of The Fletcher Forum’s “Iraq War Special Series” commemorating the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. 

It is easy to have regrets when reflecting back on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Nearly 4,500 Americans died in the occupation that followed, and tens of thousands more were wounded. Hundreds of billions of American tax dollars were wasted in the largely futile effort to reform Iraq. The country was wrecked, and many, many Iraqis suffered greatly in the process. After all this pain and the departure of American combat troops, it is still uncertain whether or not democracy will take root in Iraq, burdened as it is by continuing sectarian violence and corruption.

Nevertheless, I believe the decision to invade was right and necessary. The policy mistake was staying there beyond the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The invasion of Iraq was necessary not because Saddam was behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States. He wasn’t. Nor was it necessary because many (understandably) believed in 2003 that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. And it was certainly not necessary so that the U.S. could convert the Middle East to democracy, with Iraq becoming the leading example.

Instead, the necessary reason was the need for the U.S. to leave Saudi Arabia, the home of the two holiest sites of Sunni Islam. In 2003, the U.S. had over 10,000 troops in Saudi Arabia, mostly airmen, protecting the world’s prime oil supplier from Saddam Hussein, who had threatened the country continuously since his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Al Qaeda largely justified its attack on the U.S. to the Muslim world by the American presence in Saudi Arabia.

Although the United States would seek al-Qaeda’s utter destruction through military action, leaving Saudi Arabia was a necessary action to rid the U.S. of the threat from Al Qaeda, and the road out of Saudi Arabia led through Baghdad. Why? Because Saudi Arabia would never be safe with Saddam in power. With Saddam deposed, and the Iraqi threat to Riyadh’s territorial integrity removed, the U.S. left Saudi Arabia in August 2003.

Accepting Colin Powell’s ridiculous and gratuitous Pottery Barn rule—“you break it, you own it”—was the mistake. Staying in Iraq turned the U.S. from a liberator into an occupier. Our promises to develop and democratize the nation apparently meant little to the Iraqis. Many there thought we had designs on their oil wealth. Others saw us as the protector of Israel’s interests. Thanks to Saddam’s divide and rule strategy, based on the cultivation of ethnic and tribal hatred, Iraq was a land with many internal scores to settle. Some of Iraq’s neighbors, especially Iran, feared our success and worked intensely to prevent it.

We came to Iraq foolishly misled by analogies to our experience after World War II in Germany and Japan. Our interest in Iraq was quite narrow, but we made it impossibly broad. We needed to leave Saudi Arabia while assuring its safety. We ended up trying to remake Iraq into a Middle East showcase for our good intentions by attempting to construct the democratic government we imagined the Iraqis wanted. A dethroned Saddam was good enough for the U.S. and totally justified from our own security perspective. Nation building is something best done at home. It is the Iraqis who should determine how Iraq should be governed.

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