Remembering the Forgotten Lessons of Iraq

As we appear to be running up to a new war, perhaps it would be useful to look at the run-up to the last one and the lies behind it.

I think this is a very hard choice. But the price—we think—the price is worth it.
(Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, upon being told that a half million civilians had died as a result of U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq)

As we appear to be running up to a new war, perhaps it would be useful to look at the run-up to the last one.

“They hate us for our freedoms,” was a common refrain following the September 11th attacks of 2001, as if envy were the only possible reason to be hostile toward 21st-century Western culture. Paleoconservatives who suggested America put her own house in order before setting out to transform the Middle East were explicitly condemned in the establishment conservative press as “unpatriotic” and “un-American,” even as the neoconservative faction of the American foreign policy establishment began to press for war with Iraq. 

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

One neoconservative in particular took the opportunity to fully and properly articulate the rationale behind the Global War on Terror—and in so doing, he did us all a favor by clarifying some of the impulses driving modern politics. 

Having been a consultant for both the State Department and the National Security Council, Michael Ledeen is uniquely positioned to express the establishment’s view of what America is. In The War Against the Terror Masters, Ledeen explained that “America” exists not to serve as a stable home for the people who live here, but rather for the open-ended project of overturning tradition as such:

Creative destruction is our middle name, both within our own society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day, from business to science, literature, art, architecture, and cinema to politics and the law. Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity, which menaces their traditions (whatever they may be) and shames them for their inability to keep pace. Seeing America undo traditional societies, they fear us, for they do not wish to be undone. They cannot feel secure so long as we are there, for our very existence—our existence, not our politics—threatens their legitimacy. They must attack us in order to survive, just as we must destroy them to advance our historic mission.

These remarks highlight a fact that only a few American Catholics have grasped: whether “conservative” or “liberal,” “secular” or “Christian,” members of the American establishment generally believe that citizens who cherish “traditional societies” should not be taken seriously; indeed, they are not even really worthy to be members of the body politic. That is, what is subtly but unmistakably implied by Ledeen’s frank call to menace traditions (whatever they may be) is that Christian homeschooling parents who seek to root their children in faith, family, and tradition are just as much “our enemies” as are Islamic jihadists. 

The downside of “creative destruction” is even more obvious today than it was when Ledeen published his comments in 2002. For America has since seen Ledeen’s “whirlwind of creativity” kick into overdrive and in some cases literally “tear down” many other aspects of “the old order,” from numerous monuments and memorials, to the custom of standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” to conventional understandings of marriage, to English common law and the notion of innocent-until-proven-guilty. This is to say nothing of those traditions that would keep men out of women’s changing rooms.

So, there is not only a connection between the ideology of “creative destruction” and the invasion of Iraq but between said ideology and virtually everything that is wrong with the world. That said, to focus too much upon the unwholesome principles that animated the Iraq invasion is to gloss over the plain dishonesty and childish absurdity which went into promoting it. 

Within the conservative establishment it became fashionable to vilify France for refusing to back the American drive to war, and so “freedom fries” replaced “French fries” on the menu of the Congressional cafeteria. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein’s supposed links to the September 11th hijackers came to be frequently and repeatedly insinuated in supposedly conservative circles—even though Hussein and Al-Qaeda had long been known to be mortal enemies of one another, and Iran’s Shi’ite government could have asked for few greater gifts than to see its long-standing Sunni nemesis deposed. 

For all that and more, the best-known farce of the period surely revolves around the consistent, self-assured claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more,” Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations during a speech. “Clearly, Saddam Hussein and his regime will stop at nothing until something stops him.” To those concerned that the evidence for WMD’s was inconclusive, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice warned ominously that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” 

In 2003, the invasion finally came, and U.S. troops deftly crushed Hussein’s military, overthrew his regime, and set up a new, albeit ineffectual, government. By the time it became clear that there really weren’t any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—nor anything like a system in place for manufacturing them—rhetoric had shifted to an emphasis upon building democracy and promoting human rights. 

Powell wound up resigning due to his increasing disillusionment with Bush’s foreign policy, and during follow-up interviews the former Secretary of State conceded that his U.N. speech represented a “blot” on his record: “It turned out, as we discovered later, that a lot of sources that had been attested to by the intelligence community were wrong,” he reflected, and the whole episode represented “a great intelligence failure.” 

Regarding the U.S. intelligence community, the word failure may be a euphemism. As it turned out, those intelligence analysts who had been skeptical about the case for invading Iraq had been muzzled, and the International Atomic Energy Agency would determine that some of the documents pertaining to Iraq’s purported nuclear weapons program were simply forgeries. In addition, senior German intelligence officials observed that Powell’s speech had partly drawn upon (and misrepresented) testimony of an Iraqi defector with whom they had dealt. The Germans pointed out that the defector had himself been “not a stable, psychologically stable guy,” and added that “we could not verify the things he said.” 

What can today be verified are the over 4,000 Americans killed and 30,000 wounded, to say nothing of children orphaned and spouses widowed. Then there is the Iraqi death toll from the war, which has become a subject of lively debate. One lowball estimate of Iraqis killed hovers at around 50,000; a 2011 analysis cited by National Geographic contends that the number of war-related deaths hit a half million. (This does not count the enormous death toll from economic sanctions put in place following Operation Desert Storm.)

Iraqi Christians were especially vulnerable in the period following Hussein’s fall. Dictator or no, Hussein had at least been tolerant of Iraq’s significant Christian minority; interestingly, the constitution composed following Iraq’s capture by American forces forbids any law that “contradicts the established provisions of Islam.” Christians are frequently discriminated against and have been targeted for violence. Particularly grisly episodes include the dramatic abduction and execution of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Rahho, as well as the siege at Our Lady of Salvation, where Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists gunned down the priest before setting off a bomb that killed over fifty people. All this was the business end of a purge: since the invasion, Iraq’s Christian population has dropped from a million to around 250,000, and prospects for the future do not look especially good.

Needless to say, what with the 2016 election, and then Covid, and now the crisis in Eastern Europe, the Iraq adventure and its costs have long since dropped out of public memory. So, too, has the pseudo-patriotic war fever that led up to the invasion. Otherwise, some might remember and reflect that the number of neo-Nazis in Ukraine is at least above zero—an embarrassing contrast to the number of WMD’s in Iraq. Regardless of whether any of the culprits involved are ever punished for it, Mr. Bush’s casus belli never even rose to the dignity of a pretext.

The “creative destruction” continues, and it will continue until we learn the lessons of Iraq.


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...