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Expert Panel Examines Lessons from Iraq

Global Voice Hall

Yasmine El-Sabawi is a student in SOC Journalist in Residence Bill Gentile's Foreign Correspondence class, which participated in a recent Global Voice Hall meeting and broadcast. Gentile conducts the class as a bridge between students at American University and the careers they intend to pursue in the world of work.

Nine years ago, the U.S. dropped Operation Shock and Awe on Iraq. We were told that the ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein was in possession of nuclear weapons, and so the regime had to be dismantled.

Now Israel intends to go after Iran in much the same fashion. So as tensions between Iran and the U.S. escalate, many argue that Iraq now bears the burden of significant Iranian influence—much of it playing out in sectarian violence—since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

President Obama withdrew the last of the U.S. troops in Dec. 2011, leaving behind 157 soldiers for training purposes, as well as a contingent of marines to guard the diplomatic mission at the world’s largest American embassy in Baghdad.

The U.S. spent over a trillion dollars on its invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Civilian deaths, according to the Associated Press, number more than 10,000. And although it was the most controversial American military operation in recent memory, triggering million-man protest marches around the world, some still feel that the end justified the means.

A debate entitled “Iraq, A Look Back,” hosted by Global Voice Hall and sponsored by the International Politics Student Organization at American University, brought together four expert panelists to answer the question, “Was the invasion of Iraq by U.S. troops justified?” Hassan Mneimneh, a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, argued that it was. Mneimneh says that despite Shiite attacks on Sunnis and Kurds, Iraqis as a whole are not interested in going back to what Iraq was under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. He admits mistakes were made, but says a ruthless regime was toppled where it was not possible for an Iraqi uprising to do so.

“Iraq was already a disaster because of sanctions we imposed,” says Mneimneh, and insists that Saddam’s regime had the know-how to build nuclear weapons. Robert Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist on the panel, vehemently disagreed, and blasted Mneimneh for suggesting the invasion was worth its price. Dreyfuss says it was “an act of aggression” that flouted international law, because Iraq was a sovereign nation with no ties to Al-Qaeda. “We didn’t invade Iraq,” says Dreyfuss. “We invaded the Iraq of our dreams.”

Retired Brigadier General David G. Reist, who served three tours in Iraq, took a more diplomatic approach. “The law could be how the U.S. sees the law,” he says, and so the perspective must be appreciated, considering the different lens through which it can be interpreted. But he also insists that the U.S. put Iran in a position to drive the issues in Iraq, owing to the what he terms the “failures” of the campaign. “We created the imbalance we’re likely in,” says Reist. “Terrorism is not a tactic... it has been around in war forever.”

Lawrence Korb, a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information, says “getting rid of the apparatus there” created a vacuum in Iraq that cannot be filled.

“Al-Qaeda was not there ‘til we went there,” says Korb, criticizing former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not doing their jobs. Korb says the invasion of Iraq was “definitely preventive war” and not preemptive, begging the question, “Where do you stop?”

Dreyfuss says those in government that raised objections to an invasion of Iraq were quickly excluded from the decision-making process. Mneimneh agreed, adding that the U.S. government had inter-agency rivalries during the Bush Administration that resulted in many mistakes as the operations in Iraq unfolded. But he insists that “Al-Qaeda is an Iraqi product today.”

Reist, in a question from the audience about the role of the military in nation-building, says conventional war is in conflict with the growing use of special forces. As the U.S. military downsizes, special forces and counter-insurgency teams have been expanding.

In Iraq, the U.S. now leaves behind Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s fragile government, as Iraqis grow more and more frustrated with his leadership, says Dreyfuss. Al-Maliki is currently serving his second term in office, despite disputed election results in 2010. Mneimneh says Iraq is, at the very least, on the right path.

“We have an imperfect system that is nonetheless functioning.”

The BBC says 4,500 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. The combat mission ended in 2010, when much of the security role was handed over to Iraqi forces.