After Iraq, a war in the grey zone continues

I have a vivid, bleak memory of sitting in a hotel room in Havana, Cuba, watching CNN as Colin Powell addressed the United Nations about the deadly risk of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

Like millions of Americans, I was convinced.  In the months after 9/11 our elected leaders had gathered intelligence, analyzed the facts, and reached a harrowing conclusion:

It would be necessary for our young men and women to fight to defend our nation on two fronts, in Afghanistan where the fight was already underway, and then in Iraq.

Surely, a decision of that magnitude must have been made with the greatest gravity and deliberation, right?

We know now that the case for war was far weaker that Powell and other Bush-era officials let on.  And the effort to gather pre-war intelligence was less honest and less competent than any of us could have dreamed.

Journalists like myself contributed mightily to this disaster by failing to be skeptical enough.  Guilty as charged.

Perhaps most harrowing was the dawning realization that America’s military simply wasn’t prepared to fight two land wars on the far side of the globe simultaneously.

We lacked the equipment, the training and the tactics to secure a peaceful Iraq quickly.  In the end, more than 4,000 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis died.

Equally shattering was the realization that our political culture lacked the will to actually pay for the conflict.

We literally borrowed the money to fight this war, leaving generations of Americans in debt, and few resources in reserve for caring for sounded veterans returning home.

Earlier this year, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed up this painful collection of facts with crushing clarity:

“Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General Douglas MacArthur so delicately put it,” Gates said.

We are now in the process of rapidly drawing down forces from our overseas commitments.  The Iraq War is officially over.   Combat troops are expected to leave Afghanistan in the months ahead.

But it strikes me that we are still entangled in a much wider net that we wove for ourselves after 9/11.  Our nation has expanded elements of its secret government dramatically.

There are laws now allowing surveillance and detention of our citizens.  Guantanamo Bay remains open.  More and more drone aircraft patrol U.S. skies.

We spend trillions of dollars on border security, defense programs, spy agencies, and other measures with little scrutiny, little evaluation of whether these costly efforts make us safer.

Most Americans agree that we have to do more now to keep our nation safe.  And there is a nearly uniform acclaim for the soldiers and other service-members who are on the front lines.

If this is a story with a lot of villains, there are also thousands upon thousands of heroes.

But if this is to be a permanent state of alarm — a never-ending posture of looking over our shoulders — we need to be smarter, more self-critical and more more wary of the costs, both in dollars and in the erosion of our civil liberties.

Yes, we learned one thing from 9/11 — that we have to be more wary of our enemies.

But we learned quite another thing from the invasion of Iraq — that we also have to keep a wary, skeptical eye on our own government.

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33 Comments on “After Iraq, a war in the grey zone continues”

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  1. Paul says:

    The news is hard to follow over there for sure. Just this morning I heard on NPR that that mood was quiet and that although Iraqis were happy to see the US leave they were concerned about security.

    In an Indian paper online they said this:

    “The closure of the war triggered raucous celebrations in Iraq, especially among residents of Fallujah.. During the course of the noisy outpouring, some burned the U.S. and the Israeli flags, and others lofted pictures of slain American soldiers along with images of gutted military vehicles.”

    Two pretty different pictures painted there.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I never believed the Bush administration about Iraq and I never felt insecure.
    Still don,t.

  3. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    I’m in complete agreement with Knuckle. And we should dispense with the notion that we’re leaving Iraq. We still have a very large State Dept. presence based there including thousands of private contractors and Central Intelligence personnel. All of which will continue to cost us billions per year.

  4. Pete Klein says:

    I too agree with Knuckle. I never bought into the need to invade Iraq and am still angry over freedoms we lost, thanks to the Department of Homeland Security.
    And by the way, what gives with the idea we can’t fight a war on two fronts? We fought Japan and Germany on two fronts and won, and were far less prepared back in 1941.

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    Most people thought Iraq had “weapons of mass distraction” at some minimal level – enough to use against their own Kurds or may the Iranians. Turns out they were bluffing. I personally didn’t think Colin Powell would lie and it turns out he didn’t; but he was mislead. But I also believed him. Saddam Hussein was a very evil man. etc.

    All that being said – the Iraq war was one of the great blunders of our recent history. Grossly and embarrassingly mismanaged maybe until “the surge”. 1 Trillion dollars and 4000 lives (of ours) sacrificed to make Iran stronger and more secure. Oil production is still lower than it was before the war. Here it is 10 years later, and it is hard to say anything is better than it was (for us).

    There was no excuse for our government getting us in that war. We still don’t really know what they were thinking. Dick Cheney thought it was a good idea but why????

  6. PNElba says:

    Colin Powell only convinced me that we were definitely going to war. I can honestly say I was always skeptical about the reasons for invading Iraq.

  7. Walker says:

    “Dick Cheney thought it was a good idea but why?”

    1. Oil
    2. In the U.S., a war almost always boosts the popularity of the President.
    3. Halliburton
    4. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Halliburton was awarded a $7 billion contract for which only Halliburton was allowed to bid. (see )

  8. Peter Hahn says:

    Walker – you think it was just oil?

  9. Peter Hahn says:

    The war popularity thing played a big role in the Bush/Cheney reelection but its hard to imagine they were thinking that far ahead. but it could be.

  10. Walker says:

    Peter, I have no idea. I hope I never truly understand the likes of Dick Cheney. But I imagine the my little list touches on some aspects of his thinking. There was also probably something along the lines of “what’s the use of having this great military if we’re not going to use them?” Then there’s the idea that after 9/11 we had to hit back at SOMEONE, and Afghanistan is famously unwinnable. Maybe it was a desire to finish the Desert Storm war.

    Still, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Bush and Cheney are oil men, and Iraq has a bunch of it.

  11. Pete Klein says:

    And speaking of oil, exactly how much oil are we extracting from Iraq today?
    Maybe no one lied about weapons of mass destruction. But what does this say about the competence of those we elected?
    We pay all these “highly” educated elected and appointed officials to be stupid?
    Stupid, incompetent or liers are the choices.

  12. Peter Hahn says:

    There was also the naive and romantic vision that putting a democratic regime built on conservative republican values right in the middle of the Arab world would totally transform the middle east. Maybe even solve the Israeli/palestinian conflict etc.

  13. Peter Hahn says:

    Grossly incompetent.

  14. Peter Hahn says:

    Well – lets hope our oil companies get all the good contracts.

  15. Walker says:

    Paul: Great link! It’s always good to look at news sources from outside of the US.

  16. Mervel says:

    I would disagree with a small part of your analysis. The military was very prepared to fight those two wars. They defeated the Afghanistan Army without major ground troops and defeated the second largest army in the Middle East in Iraq in a couple of months. It was astounding.

    We were not prepared culturally, socially or financially for a 10 year occupation which we essentially muddled through. But militarily it was a smashing success, no other country in the world could have eliminated two governments across the globe in one month. Saddam was totally defeated and so was the Taliban.

    We should have left both countries in 2004 (once we made the mistaken decision to invade).

  17. Peter Hahn says:

    Mervel – The military was prepared to defeat the Iraqi army, but they (and we) werent prepared to maintain order afterwards. If we had thought that part through, maybe we wouldnt have needed the 10 year occupation. Or maybe we wouldnt have gone in in the first place. We assumed (very foolishly) that all we had to do was defeat the army and go home – “mission accomplished”.

  18. Paul says:

    “And by the way, what gives with the idea we can’t fight a war on two fronts? We fought Japan and Germany on two fronts and won, and were far less prepared back in 1941”

    I think that is an easy one. We didn’t even go in half way in Iraq or Afghanistan. It just cost a boat load of money because it was mismanaged. And the money was spent on the wrong things. We had all these weird discussions about all the soldiers we put in there and all the cost in human capital. It wasn’t true. We were hardly doing anything. Don’t get me wrong 4000 paid the ultimate price and 30,000 kids got wrecked but anyone who knows history even a little knows that in a 9 year battle that is a miniscule drop in the bucket. 7000 soldiers fell in 20 minutes in one civil war battle alone. The US no longer has the stomach for war like we had in 1941 Pete.

    We overreacted to 9/11 plain and simple. That is why folks like Brian Mann and I bought it. I know Knuck and some of the folks here are better than me and have always had it all figured out but they were in the minority back then.

    The soldiers did a great job considering that we never really supported them or gave them what they needed to succeed.

  19. Paul says:

    At then end of the war in Germany the US had about 1.6 million troops in Germany alone and about 3.1 million soldiers in Europe. Even the occupation force eventually numbered around 600,000 soldiers. That was in 1945 when the US population was less than half of what it is today. We have no idea what it takes to win the peace.

    One of the first thing we did in Germany was arrest 100,000 Germans that we suspected of being “trouble makers”. Try doing that today.

  20. Mervel says:

    I would say that we did succeed militarily. If we had failed Saddam Hussain and the Taliban would still be in power.

    But like we showed in the Phillipines or Vietnam we are not good colonialists, we are not France we didn’t go in and build cathedrals and mansions and streets, they know how to do that, which is why places like Vietnam sill have a French influence even though we occupied them after the French. We just suck at colonizing countries, which is not a bad thing.

    I don’t think there were master minded long term secret strategies to get the oil or influence, I think it was gross incompetence, which is actually more disturbing than believing there was an evil master plan.

  21. Peter Hahn says:

    Mervel – it wasnt that we failed as colonialists (I agree we dont want to get good at that). We failed (grossly) to secure the country after defeating their army and government. Thats something that only the military can do and something they didnt do at all. It was a huge failure and one that I would guess our military is spending a lot of time drawing up plans for how to deal with that better in the future.

  22. Paul says:

    There are about 40,000 police officers in NYC. That is one (relatively) peaceful city. What do you think it takes to secure a large and crazy place like Iraq. Think about it.

  23. Paul says:

    “It was a huge failure and one that I would guess our military is spending a lot of time drawing up plans for how to deal with that better in the future.”

    Peter we already know what works. Look at Japan and Germany. It takes lots of boots and lots of tough action. None of which would be supported by the American people. We are the problem the military knows what to do if we allow them to do it.

    Back in the 1940s if you heard people talking about trying to get the “support of the Japanese or German people” you would have been laughed out of the room.

  24. Walker says:

    Paul, things aren’t quite as simple today in Iraq as they were in Japan and Germany in the 1940s. Since the fall of Saddam, we haven’t been at war with the Iraqi nation or with the whole of the Iraqi population. That complicates things immensely. This war was more like the war in South Vietnam, which we should have realized going in. (Not to mention the fact that we shouldn’t have gone in in the first place.)

    Besides which, during the reconstruction of Japan and Germany, you certainly could talk about attaining the support of the people.

    Of course one major difference is that back then you didn’t have allied corporations selling munitions to Japanese and German resistance forces.

  25. Pete Klein says:

    We should never go to war unless we are really going to war. War should be fought with the idea of fighting until someone surrenders or there is no one left to surrender.
    War is not a game.

  26. Kent Gregson says:

    Yes Brian, lets keep a very skeptical eye on our government. To praphrase the book “World Changing” (a users guide to the twenty first century) It will be impossible to stop the proliferation of war as long as it is so insanely profitable to those who sell the bombs.
    I watched in horror as a rich kid who is educated well beond his inteligence bought the presidency by discrediting the judiciary and proceded to piss off every gun toting crazy on the planet till some of them got together and attacked us. That made enough excuse for him to go after the guy who threatened the life of his dad and enrich all his buddies who sell the bombs.
    In that context, I was not convinced when Colin Powell was thrown to the wolves.

  27. Mervel says:

    The job of the military is not to secure the peace and nation build. Certainly they have been given that role of and on, but the job of an army is to destroy the enemy.

    The fact is our military had two objectives to destroy the Iraq Army and remove Saddam Hussian and destroy the Taliban government and remove them from power. Both of those were fully accomplished by the military, no other military in the world could have done both of those things in 24 months as our military did.

    We fully won the war militarily our enemies were destroyed.

    The mission to nation build in Iraq and Afghanistan was bogus from the start, they have to figure that out for themselves. Civil war is part of most democracies, Iraq probably needs a civil war to really sort things out, we needed two wars, one to get rid of England and the other to destroy the Confederate States of America. If some meddler from the outside had stepped in to nation build in the US to prevent the Civil War we would never have made it as a nation.

  28. Mervel says:

    However, if President Obama does not start any more wars, his Presidency will be a success simply by getting totally OUT of Iraq, it is like a huge burden lifted from this country and the President deserves huge credit for getting totally out.

  29. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    Truth is Obama tried to negotiate a LONGER stay in Iraq but the Iraqi government wouldn’t accept immunity for American personnel and thus the Status of Forces Agreement the Bush administration negotiated in 2008 took affect and we had no choice but to leave. The mainstream media briefly mentioned this fact a few weeks ago.

    And if anyone thinks we’ll be completely out of Iraq anytime soon, I’ve got a brand new billion dollar embassy in Baghdad to sell you. Complete with CIA, Special Opts., and private contractor offices. It’s the biggest and most expensive embassy in the entire US State Dept. organization. And given the oil wealth still in Iraq and that American corporations are negotiating to get it, does anyone really think we’re leaving control of it to the Iranians?

  30. Walker says:

    Clapton, why would we leave control of the U.S. embassy in Iraq to the Iraqis, or sell it to a corporation? We’re not keeping an embassy in Iraq?

    NPR: “There will be about 16,000 people working for the State Department at the embassy in Baghdad and consulates elsewhere in Iraq.”

  31. Mervel says:

    I realize that we had wanted to stay longer and the Iraqi’s said no, but the difference is we listened. Results are still results Obama got us to totally out of there; in fact I think as of today we are really gone. If Bush/Cheney were still in office or if McCain had won does anyone really believe we would be totally out of Iraq right now, that the war would really be over? It is an amazing accomplishment after all of this time our military is finally gone, no more ied’s and roadside bombs no more worrying about surge’s or if the Sunni’s are happy or if the Shia’s are getting to close to Iran and on and on and on. Let them solve their own problems they are not children.

  32. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:


    I’m referring to control of the crude oil underneath Iraq, not the largest American Embassy in the world. What I’m suggesting is we’ll never leave Iraq entirely and that the responsibility for fighting the war there is really just shifting to different American personnel and different agencies within our gov’t.

  33. mervel says:

    I think the period of middle eastern oil dominance is coming to an end. With the massive reserves we are now finding it hardly seems worth it to fight and die in Iraq for something we can get in North Dakota or pipe down here from Canada.

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