George Bush, imaginary weapons of mass destruction, an endless war in the Middle East—that’s not all there is to the story of the Iraq War.
In 2003, a small coalition of countries led by the United States invaded Iraq, at the time ruled by the autocratic Saddam Hussein. While supporters and planners of the invasion hoped to establish a liberal democracy in Iraq, their mission rapidly became a quagmire that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, and gave birth to a corrupt and unstable regime that has failed to provide Iraqi citizens with security or prosperity. But to understand why America failed in its project of nation-building, it’s necessary to examine the decades leading up to the invasion, as well as the weeks and months following it. From military planning to international sanctions, political purges and serious administrative blunders, the answer emerges.
You’ve probably heard a lot about Iraq, a lot about George Bush, Dick Cheney, Oil, Weapons of Mass destruction, and if you watch Johnny Harris, you may even know about Paul Wolfowitz.
But our story has a different cast — three men who you didn’t know ruined Iraq.
One, Bill Clinton, you know well but probably don’t think of much when it comes to Iraq.
Another, Paul Bremer, you may be more familiar with than you realize.
And the last, William DePuy, you’ve probably never even heard of.
This isn’t an exhaustive story of everything that went wrong in Iraq, partly because that would take, well, a much longer video.
But it is a critically important part that stretches back to the 1970s.
This is the story of how an idealistic project of nation-building gave way to widespread violence, rampant poverty, and persistent political instability, how an attempt to install humane government brought about some of the most profound human suffering since World War II.
It’s the story of why democracy failed in Iraq, but it’s a different story than the ones you’ve heard before.
CHAPTER I: Ghost of Vietnam
It begins with military doctrine: a sometimes technical and dense subject, but it’s really, really crucial to understanding the Iraq War. And we’re going to make it easy.
In the 1970s, the US military was in shambles. Somehow, the power that had won the second world war and remade global politics had been beaten—badly—by Vietnamese guerilla forces.
One officer had an idea why everything had gone so poorly. His name was William DePuy, and he was tasked with a groundbreaking responsibility—revising American military doctrine. By 1973, DePuy was watching intently as the Israeli army achieved a remarkably rapid victory in the Yom Kippur War and knew that there was something worth learning from it.
What he saw was that the traditional two levels of war were defunct. Strategy—the broader objectives of a war and means of achieving them—and tactics—how to win individual engagements—no longer captured the realities of modern war, as militaries developed increasingly powerful weapons with ever-greater range. Soon, DePuy’s observations would give rise to the conception of a new intermediate level of war: operations, concerned with rapid military campaign success.
In the 1990s Saddam got his first taste of this new military doctrine in the first Gulf War, as America and its allies pushed Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in a matter of days. But when it came to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the doctrine proved almost too effective. While the coalition had a politically complex strategic objective—regime change in Iraq—America, haunted by the ghost of Vietnam, became obsessed with the operational goal—destroying Iraq’s warfighting capabilities, and doing so quickly.
In a matter of weeks, American forces delivered tens of thousands of bombs. Any semblance of an Iraqi state melted away in the face of the onslaught. While breaking the Iraqi regime made for a military victory, it set the stage for a devastating political defeat that would soon become clear.
CHAPTER II: Bill, Not Bush
But it wasn’t just shiny new military doctrine that shattered the Iraqi state, and, crucially, the offensive began well before 2003.
After the first Gulf War, the United Nations voted to implement a massive sanctions package against Iraq, the largest ever of its kind.
Side note: China and the Soviet Union voted with the US for this proposal. Can you imagine that today? Yeah, history was super ended, but also, Saddam was that bad.
Anyways, under President George HW Bush, the US largely adhered to the UN sanctions goal—compliance: getting Saddam to comply with conditions and dismantle a number of Iraqi weapons programs.
But when Bill Clinton beat Bush in the 1992 elections, the purpose of the sanctions changed.
Even after Iraq’s weapons programs had largely been dismantled—compliance basically achieved—Clinton continued to press the sanctions, to devastating effect on the Iraqi state. Barred from exporting its only major product, oil, Iraq’s economy collapsed.
Compliance was no longer the goal. In the words of Madeline Albright, Clinton’s Secretary of State, “We’re talking about regime change.” And thanks to the sanctions, the regime was changing, but not in the way Albright seemed to mean.
Until recently, Iraq had been a top-down style autocracy, but the embargoes and economic collapse transformed it into a web of clientelistic patronage and corruption. As state capacity dwindled, its regular functions transformed into black market transactions.
In a word, the Iraqi state was diminished—a shadow of its former self. Decreasing Saddam Hussein’s maniacal hold on power is cause for celebration, but the collapse of a state hurts far more than the strongman.
Following reports that excess deaths from starvation and illness increased dramatically in the 1990s, with perhaps hundreds of thousands of children dying as the public health sector proved unable to cope, Albright replied, "We think the price is worth it."
CHAPTER III: RULE BY DECREE
By 2003, this enfeebled Iraqi state stood less of a chance than ever against DePuy’s lightning military doctrine. Saddam’s regime crumpled.
That kind of thing makes winning a war easy, but the part after…
[“It’s difficult, difficult…lemon difficult.]
In the resulting security vacuum, violence and looting spread like wildfire, leaving Iraqi civilians terrified and vulnerable. The coalition had to bring order, so they brought in Jay Garner.
Garner, a career military man with degrees from Florida State and Shippensburg State Universities, saw his mandate as limited: stop the violence, punish Saddam’s top thugs, hold elections, and leave.
In his own words, “What we need to do is set an Iraqi government that represents the freely elected will of the people. It's their country ... their oil.”
But soon, Garner was out. Taking his place at the head of the coalition’s provisional government was Lewis Paul Bremer III. This guy [we got him clip]. Bremer, a graduate of Philips Andover Academy, Yale, and Harvard, whose father was President of Christian Dior Perfumes, cut a stark contrast with Garner, and he had an equally different vision of what Iraq needed.
He was appointed on May 11th, 2003. By the 16th, he issued his first decree: a political purge.
Any and all members of Saddam’s political party—fully 10% of Iraq’s population—were fired and banned from public employment, despite Garner’s warning that it would cripple the state and the CIA Baghdad station chief’s that it would put “50,000 people on the street, underground, and mad at Americans.”
Shortly thereafter Bremer met with President Bush to request permission to expand his purge — he wanted to dissolve the Iraqi army. Despite this contradicting the original Pentagon plan for Iraq, Bush told Bremer it was his call. Again, he was warned by Garner, who said, “You can get rid of an army in a day, but it takes years to build one.”
On May 23, less than two weeks in Iraq, Bremer followed through with the second decree of his term.
With the stroke of a pen, he rendered 400,000 men, either young and healthy or old and respected, but all trained in violence and many armed, out of a job.
Soon, militias blossomed and violence flourished.
CHAPTER IV: Echoes of Occupation
By 2007, after four years of widespread chaos and horror across Iraq, the Bush administration finally decided it was time for something to change; it was time for the surge.
To establish a garrison of comparable size to America’s other most recent state-building effort—in Bosnia—would have required half a million soldiers. The surge brought 170,000.
Still, below optimal, but violence dropped precipitously,
as once-menacing militias were squashed. At last, Iraq was safe.
By 2011, it finally looked like…mission accomplished,
and American forces made their much-delayed departure.
But the surge and the American military were a band-aid—a veneer of stability pasted over what remained, thanks to Bill Clinton’s sanctions, William DePuy’s visionary military doctrine, and Paul Bremer’s bumbling ineptitude, a shambolic, barely existent Iraqi state.
Within just a few years of America’s departure, ISIS sprung to life in Iraq.
The Iraqi military response was an unmitigated disaster.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi troops turned out to be “ghost soldiers”—names on Army payrolls and nothing more. Where such nonexistent soldiers’ paychecks went isn’t clear, but it was a profound symbol of the state’s impotence and corruption.
Soon enough, America was back to do what Iraq, thanks to America, couldn’t.
But it isn’t just the Iraqi military that’s in shambles; Iraq to this day is wracked by clientelism, corruption, economic cartels,
And a widespread sense that political competition is empty and pointless, not least because those who are elected are either powerless or paid off.
Iraq couldn’t—can’t—provide security because Iraq lacks a competent state — or the other way around.
Whatever their virtues as individuals, however right-headed Bremer’s convictions, however justifiable Clinton’s sanctions, and however effective DePuy’s reforms, they all combined to achieve one thing: the dismantling of the Iraqi state.
And one simple truth remains: that if you want to transition a state to democracy, a state must first exist.
These men, whatever their intentions, were architects of chaos, and chaos is no fertile seedbed for any ordered politics, let alone democracy.
Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks.
“What Went Wrong in Iraq,” via Foreign Affairs
01:04 — via Iraq Body Count
01:42 — Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks
01:51 — “Fighting Outnumbered: The Impact of the Yom Kippur War on the U.S. Army,” by Saul Bronfield in the Journal of Military History
02:28 — Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks
02:35 — The Gulf War 30 Years Later: Successes, Failures, and Blind Spots, via War on the Rocks.
02:54 — Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks
04:06 — The 2004 Roundtable on US Sanctions Against Iraq: Lessons Learned, via Uppsala University
04:35 — Exports of goods and services (% of GDP) - Iraq, via the World Bank
04:45 — Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Interview on CNN's "Early Edition," via State Department Archive
04:59 — “Criminalizing Consequences of Sanctions: Embargo Busting and Its Legacy,” via International Studies Quarterly
05:42 — “Madeleine Albright: The 1997 60 Minutes Interview,” via 60 Minutes
06:07 — Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks (All of Ch. 3, except where specified)
06:33 — “Unreported: The Zarqawi Invitation,” via Znet
06:56 — “Paul Bremer, Ski Instructor: Learning To Shred With The Bush Administration’s Iraq War Fall Guy,” via Task & Purpose
08: 35 — “President’s Address to the Nation,” via the Bush White House
08:36 — “What Went Wrong in Iraq,” via Foreign Affairs
08:48 — “Report to Congress on the Situation in Iraq,” via the Defense Technical Information Center
09:25 — “Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall if the Islamic State,” via the Wilson Center
09:34 — “Iraq says it found 50,000 ‘ghost soldiers’ on payroll,” via Reuters
09:54 — “Timeline: The Rise, Spread, and Fall if the Islamic State,” via the Wilson Center
09:59 — “Inside the Iraqi Kleptocracy,” via New York Times Magazine