The Iraq war’s most damaging legacy

By David Rohde
March 19, 2013

American households will be blanketed this week by a torrent of coverage, commentary and regret about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war. Liberals claim that Twitter – if it had existed – could have stopped the invasion. Conservatives argue that the links between Saddam Hussein and terrorism have, in fact, been underplayed.

The glaring lesson of the war is that American ground invasions destabilize the Middle East, instead of stabilizing it. The 100,000 Iraqis who perished, the 4,500 American soldiers killed and the $1 trillion spent should have halted what Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner has called the “creeping militarization of American foreign policy.” Instead, the civilian American institutions that failed us before Iraq have grown even weaker.

The State Department is the first example. Drezner correctly argues that as the Pentagon’s budget has ballooned in the post-9/11 decade, so has its influence over American foreign policy. Too many former generals, he contends, have occupied foreign policy important positions.

That trend has slowed in the second Obama administration, but the budget, planning capabilities and training programs of the State Department are still laughably small compared with those of the U.S. military. Money equals power, influence and a seat at the table in Washington. As one former national security reporter put it to me, weak civilian institutions leads to fewer potential civilian responses to crises.

In his first major speech as secretary of state, John Kerry tried to put the size of the American civilian effort in perspective. He cited a recent poll that found most Americans believe the State Department and U.S. foreign aid programs consume 25 percent of federal spending. In fact, they receive 1 percent. (The military gets roughly 20 percent.)

Kerry’s speech got virtually no press coverage. Just as it did a decade ago, the news media – a second vital American civilian institution – is failing us. This week the media is being correctly excoriated for its failure to be more skeptical of the Bush administration’s central justification for the Iraq war: weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.

In the months before the invasion, the New York Times published a series of exaggerated WMD stories by reporter Judith Miller on its front page. At the same time, editors at the Times and other mainstream outlets largely ignored intrepid reports by Knight-Ridder newspapers that questioned the administration’s WMD claims.

Ten years later, Miller is a Fox News contributor, and the Knight-Ridder chain no longer exists. A harrowing report released by the Pew Research Center on Monday found that the full-time professional editorial staff at newspapers has declined by 24 percent since 1989. A separate analysis found that the ratio of public-relations workers to reporters grew from 1.2 to 1 in 1980 to 3.6 to 1 in 2008.

The rise of social media and citizen journalism arguably fill the void created by dwindling newspaper resources. Eric Boehlert of Media Matters argued this week that Twitter could have forced mainstream reporters to do a better job before the Iraq invasion. He cited recent cases of mainstream newspapers columnists being forced to respond to a torrent of criticism on Twitter about pieces they wrote.

Jonathan Landay, one of the Knight-Ridder reporters whose pre-invasion work questioning the WMD evidence received little attention, said social media might have made a difference. But he hesitated to say Twitter would have silenced the White House.

“Had the New York Times, Washington Post and the networks done the kind of reporting that we had, could the administration have been able to take the country to war? I don’t know,” Landay said in an email message. “But social media would have brought far more attention to our work, and perhaps more journalists would have followed our lead.”

Looking back, Landay, a former colleague and longtime friend who now reports for McClatchy, blamed the news media and American intelligence agencies. “The mainstream news media was as egregious in its failure to do its job,” he said, “as the U.S. intelligence community was in its failure to produce accurate intelligence on Iraq’s non-existent WMD.”

Today, fears of “another Iraq” dominate America’s foreign policy debate. The choice is binary. The United States can respond to a foreign policy threat by carrying out a risky ground invasion. Or it can do nothing at all. Diplomatic, economic and other non-military attempts to influence events overseas are given short shrift. Any American involvement will make the situation worse, the argument goes, and create another quagmire.

The United States, of course, should not launch another ground invasion in the Middle East. But that does not mean it should not interact in the region at all. The Arab Spring showed that people in the Middle East, in fact, desire democracy. Young Arabs, in particular, want self-determination, jobs and modernity. Washington has an interest in helping them but no inclination – and few non-military tools — to do so.

A decade after Iraq, the State Department remains the Pentagon’s Mini Me. The news media is one-third the size of the public-relations industry. And we continue to view military force as our principal means of addressing foreign policy challenges. In post-Iraq America, our foreign policy debate has devolved into an “invade or not invade” dichotomy. Far more options are available. Every country is not Iraq.

PHOTO: An explosion rocks Baghdad during air strikes March 21, 2003. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

7 comments

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George W Bush was a man of good virtue, and he had a lot of guts. But he had poor wisdom. Boldness without wisdom is a dangerous combination.

Posted by 123456951 | Report as abusive

“The Arab Spring showed that people in the Middle East, in fact, desire democracy”

Funny from here it looks like they want Sharia, muslim law, and salafists who would deny equal rights to coptic christians, jews, or any one else who does not acknowledge that islam should be the basis of their new and improved arab government.

Posted by VultureTX | Report as abusive

A more accurate truth is that many within the the media, many members (both Republican and Democrat) of Congress, and millions of US citizens were so fearful of being labelled unpatriotic by the Bush Administration that they held their tongue and refused to challenge the rationale for war.

Both Bush’s use of domestic propaganda and the acquiesence/sheep-like behavior of the media and thinking citizens mark a dark day in the history of our country.

Last note….please, quit beating the hair off a dead horse. The invasion and occupation of Iraq had nothing to do with a failure of US intelligence. No country can hide a WMD program (nuclear, biological, or chemical) of the capacity and capability the Bush Adminstration claimed was held by Iraq. Iraq’s WMD program was fully disassembled within three years of the conclusion of the First Gulf War.

Posted by bald1 | Report as abusive

George W. Bush was as perfect an idiot as the American Presidency has seen.

And the Americans who voted him in (twice!) are nothing but stupid bastards. Neither adjective alone captures their unique combination of stupidity malice.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Agree with Vulture.

The bald assertion that the Arab spring proves that the Muslim world wants “modernity” and “democracy” should sound strange even to the author of this piece. Of course some secular elements of these societies want these things, but they are hardly the majority, to say the least. I guess you could call the election of Mursi “democracy,” but the upshot was a constitution that deprives huge segments of their human and civil rights. The rule of backward majorities doesn’t sound so great to me. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights.

Posted by From_California | Report as abusive

How come no one on this side of the pond has ever been punished for putting Saddam in power in the first place?
He was our bad guy to fight our dirty war with Iran, just as the Taliban are the descendents of the “freedom fighters of the ’80s.

Posted by alowl | Report as abusive

“The glaring lesson of the war is that American ground invasions destabilize the Middle East, instead of stabilizing it.”

-Is that true?
The fallacy of such statements is that they’re comparing a known situation at a certain point in time (e.g. now) to a the known situation in another point in time (e.g. just before the US invading Iraq), and to third, hypothetical situation (‘Hypothetical Now’) that’s not taking into account any possible bad case, worse case or worst case scenarios that could have evolved in Iraq, the Persian-Arab Gulf and the Middle East in case the US had not invaded Iraq and changed the regime in that country.
This is not just absurd short sightedness, but the equivalent of volitional blindness.

This is to say that such articles are merely exercises in partisan propaganda, and they are too light on substance or merit.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive