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Iraq's bitter lessons

IraqSeptember 11, 2001 AttacksColleges and UniversitiesInternational Military InterventionsArmed ConflictsIraq War (2003-2011)

It has been 10 years since then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's U.N. speech on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. I watched the secretary's presentation intently on assignment to Fort Jackson, S.C. that day. The presentation, of course, would make the final case for war with Iraq before the world, Congress and, arguably most importantly, the American people.

Like many of my colleagues on active duty, I had been highly skeptical of this pretext for war while serving as a military planner, particularly over what many regarded as plausible exaggerations and outright distortions. The latter, by all indications — and certainly among planners on the inside of the process — took on increasing intensity in the months following 9/11. Iraq, of course, was initially implicated in the attack itself — with at least one senior administration official, Paul Wolfowitz, arguing for a regime takedown in the days immediately following the attacks, according to accounts. There soon followed stories (never confirmed) of 9/11 hijackers who met with Iraqi intelligence agents in Czechoslovakia, and later of the Iraqi agent code-named "Curveball," who first proclaimed the existence of the mobile weapons labs cited by Secretary Powell. Many Americans would wrongly come to believe Iraq was behind 9/11, and this was no accident.

Mr. Wolfowitz, known as an intellectual architect of the war as deputy secretary of defense, and others brought into government by Vice President Dick Cheney were said to have been intent on doing something about Iraq from the outset of the Bush administration, after a decade of sanctions and no-fly enforcement that were of limited effectiveness. That this intention would soon take the form of building a case for a ground war in Iraq on the heels of 9/11, and would find a receptive audience in the White House, astounded many of us, especially with military planning at the time indicating possibly five years or more of a costly, bloody ground war, probably involving several hundred thousand troops. Mr. Wolfowitz later indicated that the possibility of weapons of mass destruction was "the only thing we could all agree on" as the case for war was made. That possibility, eventually advertised as a virtual certainty, became the casus belli.

In April 2003, I was in attendance at the Army War College Annual Strategy Conference in Carlisle, Pa. On April 9, the day Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad was taken down, the keynote speaker for the conference was Richard Perle, another so-called intellectual architect of the war, as a previous assistant defense secretary and later as chairman of the Defense Policy Board (and frequent talk show guest). When, at the conclusion of his remarks (which centered on the elimination of the strategic threat posed by Hussein's WMDs), I asked him, "What's next?" he replied, "Iran or Syria — take your pick." I countered that there was a very high likelihood that the cost and duration of the Iraq war would never enable that, and that many unforeseen difficulties would soon arise. This was greeted hostilely by speaker and audience alike. The rest is history, however, and bears no repeating here.

Whatever the actual, versus the articulated, motivation for the war with Iraq, the likelihood that a misbegotten military adventure like this one — costing America over 4,000 dead, over 30,000 wounded and well in excess of a trillion dollars — will be repeated anytime soon is, thankfully, very low if not altogether non-existent. Americans have once again had to learn, the hard way, to be skeptical of the policy process, particularly where the cost to America, and ordinary Americans, can be extraordinarily high. That's the side of history where I want to stand.

 Ralph Masi, a collegiate professor at University of Maryland University College, studied the Iraq war following a career on active duty. His email is ralph.masi@faculty.umuc.edu.

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