The U.S. in Iraq: What Have We Gained?

As active U.S. military involvement in Iraq draws to a close, what does the moral scorecard on this adventure look like from an American point of view? Granted that a comprehensive weighing of results will only be possible some years from now, at the moment the picture is something like this.

In a perverse way, American policy in Iraq has been a model of consistency from start to finish. The original decision to invade back in 2003, based as it was on faulty intelligence and mistaken expectations about Iraqi receptivity to democracy, can now be seen to have been grossly in error. As for the here and now, it’s less obviously, but very likely, a parallel error for America to pull out prematurely, as in fact we now seem to be doing.

Yes, the Iraqi government refused to give the Obama administration what it wanted by way of a status of forces agreement that would allow American troops to remain. But it’s difficult to believe the administration truly pushed all that hard for a deal or was all that disappointed at not getting one.

So who won this war? For the moment at least, the answer to that also seems clear: the big winner was the deeply anti-American regime in Iran whose influence in Iraq appears likely to increase enormously after the Americans are gone. And who lost? That also is an easy one. The losers were Saddam Hussein, the United States, and the Iraqi Christian community. And, oh yes—probably Iraq itself.

Naturally there are people who dispute all this, especially apologists for the Obama administration. There also are people, I suppose, who still believe Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction are out there somewhere in a cave in the Iraqi desert, just waiting to be discovered. As far as I can see, neither group makes an especially persuasive case.

Thus the paradox stands. Someone trying to form a moral judgment of U.S. actions in Iraq can reasonably hold (as I do) that it was wrong for America to go to war in the first place and it’s wrong to quit now. The first conclusion is based on the fact that Saddam was not attacking or threatening to attack any American vital interests when we attacked him. As for the second, having barged into Iraq and, with much bloodshed, turned it into a shambles of doubtful governability, America should have the decency to stick around and help clean up the mess.

But it’s probably too late to do much for the Christian community of Iraq. Face to face with hostile Islamic fundamentalism after the fall of Saddam Hussein, most Iraqi Christians have fled the country. The need now is to help them find new homes and new lives.

A similar process of analysis should now be applied to Afghanistan as well as to other places in the Arab world where the United States has one or more fingers in the pie. Increasingly it appears that the merry talk of the self-deluded American media, suggesting that democracy was on the verge of breaking out on the heels of the Arab Spring, was so much wishful thinking. It’s good to see the tyrants go, but what happens next in places like Egypt, Libya, and Syria is  anybody’s guess.

American security interests will be in play in the Arab world for years to come. If the U.S. has a long-range policy there that’s both realistic and morally sound, I haven’t noticed it. How long can we afford to wait?

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Sarto

    Good article. Just War thinking has begun to ask how we pick up the pieces at the end of a war–especially a war that was begun on pretense, hubris, and deception. With the country of Iraq in a shambles, millions of refugees, and etc., we should be staying. But we leave.

    Such is the fate of an extraverted country: The water is always shallow, so jump in without a thought. Then it proves deep and, after thrashing around, the Extravert has had enough and on to other reckless things.

    • Sarto

      One other thought. Tocqeville talked about American communities, but he was also the one who coined the word “individualism,” and wondered where that would lead. Interesting that Mr. Shaw did not mention this. Our individualism has shattered the American social structure. When combined with capitalism, it has become sulfuric acid in a flower patch.

  • Stephen Perry

    Here is Mr. Shaw’s argument in a nutshell: A bunch of guys are gang-raping a young woman. One of them, seeing her suffering, starts to have pangs of conscience, and tries to persuade them to stop. The reply is, “We can’t stop now, she’s not enjoying it yet.”

    The war on Iraq was never anything except a war of agression. The decision to invade was not based on faulty intelligence and mistaken expectations about Iraq’s receptivity to democracy; it was made long before enough plausible but bogus “intelligence” could be dug up to justify it. Even the “instilling democracy” argument was put up because it was easy to sell. In respect of which I don’t see how intelligent Catholics could be so easily taken in by such a Jacobin line of reasoning, but let that pass…

    What has happened to Iraqi Christians was predictable and prophesied in several articles on long before the invasion occurred. American Christian, let alone Catholic, concern was not forthcoming. At least in my little circle, American Catholics were busy listening to the likes of Robert Spencer, hoping he could give them some way to figure how they could support a war that the Pope had already condemned, so that they could be both Good Catholics and GOOD AMERICANS.

    The same thing will happen to Syrian Christians when that country is finally invaded, God forbid.

    BTW, Mr. Sarto: countries are neither introverted nor extroverted, only people are. And it is collectivism that is rampant and rising in American society, not individualism, and that is one of the sources of our social decline. Capitalism is nothing but a system of social organization based on private property in the means of production. Combined with respect for the individual, which is what I mean by individualism, it results in increased liberty and increased prosperity. Combined with collectivism, it results in Fascism (where we’re going). Property is nominally allowed to remain private, but the collective asserts ever increasing control over it until prosperity and freedom are destroyed. “All for the state, all in the state, nothing outside the state.”

    • John Zmirak

      If you were listening to Robert Spencer you weren’t listening carefully; like me, he opposed the Iraq war back in 2003, precisely because it would empower Islamists and damage the prospects of local Christians. Get your facts right.

      • Carl

        And how are Christians making out in Egypt where we don’t have troops on the ground. Libya? Syria?

        I think we need to place blame at the source.

        Blame Herod or Christ’s birth for all the murdered children under two years of age?

        • Carl

          It was clear and predicted what the Nazi’s would do to the Church and Jews and yet we did nothing until much of the carnage was completed.

      • Janet

        Perhaps you weren’t reading right, Mr. Perry did not discuss Mr. Spencer’s opinions, rather he commented that folks were looking to Mr. Spencer (if you are correct possibly wrongly, although many would disagree with that), for justification of their desire to be both good Catholics and good Americans.

        Certainly Mr. Spencer wasn’t the only person they looked to, there were plenty of other Catholic pundits and experts who were bending over backwards to support this war.

        Back in 2003 it looked to me as futile as Vietnam was to my generation. It looks as if we have done about as well in about the same amount of time.

      • Pammie

        “John Hawkins: Speaking of the war on terrorism, do you think Iraq can be turned into a democracy, and if so, how long will it take?

        Robert Spencer: I think that Iraq could be turned into a democracy, but that it will always be a difficult process and Iraq will from the beginning as a democracy be threatened by Muslims who believe no government has any legitimacy unless it obeys Islamic law. The problem is that Islam has been conceived of as a political and social system, not just as an individual faith. So democracy is viewed by many in the Muslim world as a Western import that has no legitimacy in an Islamic context and is in fact a competitor to the establishment of Islamic law. So democracy in Iraq, it could be established, but it’s going to take a large scale change of political and theological attitudes in Iraq for it to get deep roots and thrive there.

        John Hawkins: Well let’s say it does. Let’s say we get a functioning democracy going in Iraq and it gets more stable and prosperous each year. What do you think the effect on the surrounding region would be?

        Robert Spencer: Well if that were to happen, it would be positively transforming and it might well become the linchpin for the kind of reformation I’ve been saying is necessary. This is I think our great challenge and our great opportunity at the same time. It might not be as easy as we’d like and the people in Iraq might not be as thirsting for Democracy as the President might want or hope, but there’s no doubt that if Democracy can succeed there it would be a major challenge to all the Islamic states in area, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

        This is the only quote I could find from Mr. Spencer re the Iraq war. It comes from the website “RightWing News”. Perhaps you might send us elsewhere as this certainly leds one to believe that Mr. Spencer does indeed support the Iraqi War. There is no date on the interview however.

        • John Zmirak

          Hi Pammie,
          Here is the piece that Insight on the News published during the run-up to the war; in a symposium with Abdulwahab Alkebsi, Spencer opposed the Bush plan for Iraq. Here’s the link (from an archive site):

          The question: Does President Bush have a realistic plan for bringing democracy to the Middle East?

          Here’s Spencer in the negative:
          The president believes that democracy can succeed in Iraq, and in the Islamic world in general, because human nature is the same everywhere on earth. “It is presumptuous and insulting” he told the American Enterprise Institute, “to suggest that a whole region of the world–for the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim–is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on earth.”

          One of those good things, according to Bush, is democracy. “In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same. For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror.”

          Yet, are those really our only choices? Human history is full of regimes that were neither democratic nor terrorist. In the world today there are Muslim regimes that are not democracies or terror states, and their existence points to a third possibility. Many in Saddam’s Iraq will want his secular regime to be succeeded by one that more or less conforms to the dictates of Islamic Shariah law. The president is correct that people want to be free from oppression and to seek a better life, but the particularities of what makes for that better life may differ markedly from place to place. As Bush himself notes, human cultures are different.

          Bush, however, has nothing but harsh words for those who claim that Middle Eastern culture is so different as to rule out democracy. “There was a time,” he reminded his audience at the American Enterprise Institute on Feb. 26, “when many said that the cultures of Japan and Germany were incapable of sustaining democratic values. Well, they were wrong. Some say the same of Iraq today. They are mistaken. The nation of Iraq, with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people, is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom.”

          The post-World War II parallel is gaining wide currency. Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya recently was surprised to find, according to George Packer in the New York Times Magazine, “the chairman of the Iraqi National Congress reading a thick tome on the reconstruction of postwar Germany.”

          However, warns Packer, “Anyone seeking historical lessons for a democratic Iraq has to face the fact that Germany before Hitler was liberal compared with Iraq before Saddam.” And not only that. After all, in postwar Japan the emperor told his subjects that contrary to what they had been taught all their lives, he was not divine. He formally renounced the religious justifications that had fueled the drive to war. In postwar Iraq, will anyone renounce the radical Islam that Saddam skillfully has purveyed to bolster his regime since the Persian Gulf War?

          In light of Islam’s unique characteristics as a political and social system, as well as an individual faith, the models of Japan and Germany may be less revelatory about the prospects of democracy in a Muslim nation than that of Iraq’s neighbor to the North–Turkey.

          Historically, democracy has had a hard time in Muslim countries. Things started off on a bad foot when, in order to establish the first Western-style democracy with a largely Muslim population, Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk virtually declared war on Islam. Ataturk, an open admirer of the West, looked upon his Muslim homeland and saw a benighted nation held back by its religion. He dealt the entire world of Islam a body blow in 1924 when he abolished the caliphate.

          The caliph was the successor of the prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community; the great Islamic empires of the Middle Ages were governed by various caliphs whose names still resonate with Muslims today. Although the caliphate had declined significantly in power and influence by the time Ataturk administered the coup de grace, the caliph was still an enormously important element of the Islamic intellectual and theological landscape. For one thing, most Sunni Muslim legal scholars taught that only the caliph could declare a jihad, a struggle to defend the house of Islam from its enemies. Without a caliph, in the eyes of many Muslims, the Islamic world was left defenseless before its foes.

          Osama bin Laden and other radical Muslims trace the oppression of the Muslim word by the West and other ills that the umma, the worldwide Muslim community, is suffering today to the abolishment of the caliphate. The radical British-based Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad laments that “the Muslim umma has never before been in a position where we are divided into over 55 nations each with its own oppressive kufr [infidel] regime ruling above us. There is no doubt therefore that the vital issue for the Muslims today is to establish the Khilafah [caliphate].”

          This jibes with the assessment of the Tunisian theorist Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, author of an intriguing essay entitled “Islam and Liberal Democracy: The Limits of the Western Model.” In it, he opines: “The heart of the matter is that no Islamic state can be legitimate in the eyes of its subjects without obeying the main teachings of the Shariah.” Rather than looking to Western models, Islamic states should look to their own tradition: “Islam should be the main frame of reference for the constitution and laws of predominantly Muslim countries.”

          Within that frame of reference freedom means something quite different from what it does in the West. Governments that follow it in whole or in part generally have a poor record on women’s rights. Women suffer restrictions that are quite severe in some parts of the Islamic world; in some places they cannot even leave their homes without their husband’s permission. Their testimony is disallowed in cases of a sexual nature, even if they are raped.

          Shariah law also sets penalties, some of which have become quite notorious: amputation for theft, stoning for adultery. Can this structure be modified? Some countries already follow a modified, modernized version of Shariah law. But all suffer the same pressures that have nearly destroyed Turkish secularism: A sizable number of Muslims regard the Shariah not as a man-made construct but as the eternal law of God. As such, they maintain that such modifications are illegitimate–as are elections and parliamentary debate. One does not vote on the will of Allah.

          The radical Muslim writer Abdul Qader Abdul Aziz explicitly rules out Western political models in lauding the Shariah: “The perfection of the Shariah means that it is not in need for any of the previous abrogated religions [that is, Judaism and Christianity] or any human experiences–like the man-made laws or any other philosophy…. [I]n kufr, or disbelief, is the one who claims that the Muslims are in need for the systems of democracy, communism or any other ideology, without which the Muslims lived and applied the rules of Allah in matters that faced them for 14 centuries.”

          In view of opinions like these, which are widely held within the Islamic world, the question is not so much whether the president’s vision is realistic, but whether he can convince the majority of Muslims that it is. Certainly he will find proponents of democracy in Iraq and elsewhere. But the primary opponents of these democrats will not be terrorists, but those who hold that no government has any legitimacy unless it obeys the Shariah. Even if they lose in the short run, they will not disappear as long as there are people who take the Koran and Islamic tradition seriously. And that spells trouble for any genuine democracy.

          • Sarto

            Can’t help but agree with John. Democracy is not a cure all. It requires either a small group or a long history that has attained some sophistication and a sense of the individual. As we are seeing, much to our dismay, an election in Moslem countries means the election of the most radical Moslems. Then the West, which pushed Democracy so hard, backs off and tries to punish the people for voting (as we and Israel have done in Gaza).

            But then again, Democracy has fallen into the hands of fundamentalists in the United States, as our wacky election process shows.

          • pammie

            Thanks Dr. Z.!

  • Sarto

    I think Jung would disagaree. By his measure, 75% of Americans are extraverted. This gives an extraverted flavor to the nation. Russia, in contrast, is a highly introverted nation. That is why Russia backed down in the Cuban missile crisis. America, unable to think further than jumping in to nuclear war, was pressing ahead. Russia, like any good introvert, had second thoughts.

    • pammie

      I am a closet monarchist myself so I will never argue about the merits of democracy for every culture. I think there is a rather well known quote about democracies eventually evolving into tyrannies, a scenario which appears to be playing out in my lifetime. But I also dont believe in meddling in other countries’ cultures and politics , even though one can. I know it can seem like a good idea and lots of fun at the time, but it usually turns out badly…for both meddler and meddleree.

  • Mark
  • Michael PS

    I still tend to agree with David Wurmser, when he wrote in 1996 that “to fatally strike the centers of radicalism in the Middle East. Israel and the United States should … broaden the conflict to strike fatally, not merely disarm, the centers of radicalism in the region—the regimes of Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Tehran, and Gaza. That would establish the recognition that fighting either the United States or Israel is suicidal.”

    There can never be peace in the Middle East, until Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Iraq, and the Palestinian enclave have been completely crushed.

    As Leeden said “We do not want stability in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even Saudi Arabia; we want things to change. The real issue is not whether, but how to destabilize.”