Iraq 10 Years Later

Few Regrets As Neoconservative Advocates For Iraq Invasion Look Back

Ten years after the toppling of Saddam, some key neocons—and architects of the war in Iraq—say they have few regrets. Eli Lake reports.

Getty Images (3); AEI

Ten years ago, it was almost impossible to turn on cable news without seeing a policy intellectual arguing for regime change in Iraq. Many of the wonks making the case for ousting Saddam Hussein were from a tribe in Washington known as the neoconservatives, and at least the broad outlines of the Iraq War owe some provenance to their ideas. Ten years after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, many neocons today do not regret toppling the Iraqi regime.

Here are some prominent advocates for launching the Iraq War, reflecting on it a decade later:

Richard Perle2003: Chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an influential advisory committee for the Pentagon.

2013: Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

On the initial invasion: “I think the decision that was made to remove Saddam was right. The only way to judge a decision of that sort is in the context of the situation that existed at the time. You can’t go back and say, ‘I don’t like the way it came out,’ and then say you are against. It was all about managing risk. I stand by the decision.”

On the decision to establish the Coalition Provisional Authority:“The war was over in 21 or 22 days. Baghdad was in the hands of U.S. and allied forces. The mistake in my view—and I can’t prove this; nobody can prove this—the seminal mistake was getting into an occupation and not turning things over to the Iraqis. I don’t mean instantly removing all coalition forces. People have forgotten that for five months there was no insurgency. If an insurgent organization existed at this point, it was not doing anything. If we had turned things over to Iraqis, I have no doubt they would have mistakes, but we made plenty of mistakes. I doubt that they would have handled the postwar situation as badly as we did. We sent thousands of Americans over there to run a country they knew nothing about.”

On his friendship with Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the largely exile-based Iraqi National Congress—a coalition formed in the 1990s to form a unified opposition to Saddam Hussein:“I don’t regret the relationship with Chalabi. I regret what happened between the United States and Chalabi. I do not for a moment believe that Chalabi wanted anything other than removing Saddam and to see Saddam replaced by a Western-oriented democracy. I am only sorry we never put to the test the capabilities of the Iraqi National Congress, which was a lot more than Chalabi. I think he mishandled his own political efforts. But I believe his values were basically were Western values. He was in an impossible situation it seems to me.”

On the decision to base the rationale for the invasion on Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction:“I sat in the briefings, so I know what was being said on a classified basis at the time, and it was very convincing. You can look back with the benefit of hindsight and see the deficiencies of the analysis. There was a history of Saddam hiding and cheating and concealing information. We had lots of information about things that had gone into Iraq. And much less information about what had happened to those things, particularly precursor chemicals for nerve gas and other chemical and biological weapons.”

James Woolsey 2003: A former director of the CIA, Woolsey was sent by the George W. Bush White House to the United Kingdom to discuss some pre–Iraq War intelligence with the Tony Blair government. Woolsey was also one of the leading experts in the media advocating for the invasion.

2013: Woolsey is a partner at Lux Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in alternative fuel and energy companies. He is also a partner in Energy Security Partners, a firm that advises energy companies on alternative fuels.

On the failure to employ a counterinsurgency strategy for the first three and a half years of the war: “I can certainly understand how people got fed up over the Iraq War, where they were doing the same thing until they finally listened to (retired four-star general) Jack Keane and went forward with the surge and changed strategies to work more closely with the Iraqi people.”

On the decision to base the rationale for the invasion on Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction:“It was fundamentally nuts to characterize chemical, bacteriological, and nuclear weapons as part of one thing, in the old Soviet agitprop phrase, ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ People thought unless they found something nuclear that nothing was there. We had found Saddam’s preparation for nuclear programs during the first Gulf War, but what they should have done was describe precisely what he was doing separately with chemical weapons, biological weapons, and with nuclear [weapons]. He had used chemical weapons twice in major battles. His son-in-law defected and told the U.N. weapons inspectors that he was the head of the biological-weapons program. The nuclear issue was always more questionable. By the way, the entire stockpile of biological agent that Colin Powell described in his U.N. testimony if reduced to powder, to anthrax, could have fit inside four large suitcases. So the biological-weapons stockpile could quite conceivably have gone across the border to Syria in the backseat of a Volkswagen or been buried in an obscure location. It’s about 120 pounds. Who knows what happened to it?”

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On Ahmad Chalabi:“I have not seen Chalabi for years, I don’t know where things have gone with him. I think he worked hard to try to get Americans behind throwing Saddam out. I don’t know what has evolved in terms of his relationship with Iran or any other matters over the last few years.”

On Iraq 10 years after the invasion:“Iraq is pretty chaotic. There is much more Iranian influence than I would like to see. I don’t know that it is hopeless.”

Danielle Pletka2003: The vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. AEI provided several important briefings to reporters on Iraq before the war and the status of the war in the initial years.

2013: The vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Does she regret the invasion?“Ask the people who lived under Saddam Hussein whether they regret the war. People have forgotten what happened when you disagreed with Saddam. You had your tongue cut out if you were lucky. People have forgotten what totalitarianism looks like, because they became obsessed with George W. Bush. There is a lot of bad stuff in Iraq today. Had President Obama chosen not to withdraw from Iraq, it would be a different picture there. We made a lot of mistakes, though.”

On the decision to base the rationale for the invasion on Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction:“When 15 members of the U.N. Security Council believe the country has weapons of mass destruction, my inclination is to believe them.”

On Ahmad Chalabi:“I am not in touch with Chalabi anymore. But I thought the entire notion that we were not meant to traffic with exiles because there were other more authentic people who would become prime minister was absurd. Ibrahaim al-Jaafari (Iraq’s first elected prime minister) was in exile. Hamid Karzai (president of Afghanistan) was once in exile. There was only one homegrown politician in Iraq—that was Moqtada al-Sadr. I am not a fan.”

Dov Zakheim 2003: Undersecretary of Defense as comptroller for the Pentagon. Zakheim coordinated the international effort to raise money and troops from U.S. allies in the run-up to the Iraq War. Zakheim is not a neoconservative when it comes to foreign policy, though he supported the Iraq War at first.

2013: He is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Was it worth it?“It was probably marginally a good thing, but nowhere near as good as what we thought. We got rid of a very, very bad guy. The Shia no longer are oppressed. The Kurds have autonomy that was good. The Sunnis may now be oppressed.”

Did Iraq distract from Afghanistan?“I supported the war, because like a lot of other people I believed Saddam really did have some nuclear capability ... The real issue was the timing. I was not in the policy chain, so I was not consulted. But we did not fund a long war. In retrospect I would argue that having struggled in having to get resources for Afghanistan, which we did not get because of the tensions with Iraq, we did not pay attention to Afghanistan ... We should have finished the job in Afghanistan, get it on a healthy footing, and then turn our attention to Iraq.”

On the decision to base the rationale for the invasion on Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction:“We definitely lost credibility ... I think that over time we lost credibility because there were not weapons, and we did open a Pandora’s box with regime change that is still going on. Clearly Assad—having seen what happened to Saddam, Gaddafi, and Mubarak—now he will fight to the death.”