Neocons Falsify Iraq War ‘Lessons’

Having escaped accountability for the Iraq War disaster, U.S. neocons are urging the use of more military force in the Mideast, in line with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand to block the Iran nuclear deal. From their important perches of power, these war hawks also twist the history of their catastrophic misjudgments, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

It really rankles some people that Barack Obama was correct from the outset, before any unfolding of the history confirming he was right, that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a huge mistake. And one can understand how to some ears Mr. Obama’s subsequent references to the Iraq War may have a grating “I told you so” quality.

Those most likely to be annoyed are the President’s most fervent political opponents, who include most of those who were the most fervent promoters of the Iraq War. Possibly there also is some unspoken annoyance among those who fit into neither of these categories but who allowed themselves to be swept up in the pre-war militancy that the war promoters skillfully exploited.

Washington Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.

Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt.

These latter people include, as Washington Post editorial page chief Fred Hiatt reminds us, President Obama’s Vice President and both of his secretaries of state, all of whom were among the majority of Democratic senators who voted, along with nearly unanimous Republican ranks, for the war resolution in 2002. Hiatt makes this observation in the course of acknowledging his own support for the war at that time and suggesting that the Iraq War ought not to be a “single-issue litmus test.”

Hiatt is right that no one issue should be such a test, but meaningful distinctions can and should be made between those who actively promoted the invasion and those whose offense consisted instead of insufficient attention to the consequences of what the promoters were promoting or insufficient political courage to try to stop the train that was hurtling down the tracks toward war.

Moreover, correctness or incorrectness about the war today is not, as the headline of Hiatt’s piece on the Post‘s op-ed page suggests, merely a matter of hindsight. Careful attention to the realities of Iraqi political culture and political demography provided ample basis for anticipating before the invasion the sorts of difficulties that would come after it, and multiple sources of expertise did anticipate those difficulties, but the war promoters ignored them.

Belief that the invasion was a good idea (and not just going along with it for the political ride) was rooted in destructive patterns of thought that Mr. Obama referred to the other day as a “mindset” that is also destructive when applied to other issues. Even if a past position on a single issue does not disqualify one as a source of policy advice, repeatedly exhibiting such patterns of thought ought to be a disqualifier.

Hiatt, giving himself a pass for his own support for the Iraq War, offers us a couple of “lessons” from the war that he says should be applied to the issue of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The most obvious lesson, he asserts, “is that intelligence on nuclear capabilities is notoriously unreliable.” Maybe many people see that as the most obvious lesson, but it is certainly not the most important one, given that , as I have discussed at length elsewhere , intelligence on Iraqi nuclear capabilities did not drive the decision to go to war at all.

I won’t repeat all the evidence that it did not, but suffice it to note that in the intelligence community’s comprehensive, annual unclassified statement of worldwide threats, and specifically the statement in 2001, the latest one before the war-selling campaign began, the possibility of an Iraqi nuclear weapon did not appear at all. It didn’t even make the cut of what the intelligence community considered to be worth mentioning in the statement.

Hiatt accuses President Obama of not taking Hiatt’s “lesson” to heart when the President expresses confidence that any Iranian cheating under the nuclear agreement will be caught. But regardless of whether one regards U.S. intelligence on such subjects as reliable or unreliable, any problem or challenge in following Iranian nuclear developments certainly would be no worse with the agreement than without it.

In fact, the ability to follow those developments will be substantially greater with the agreement. That gets to what is actually the most important lesson from the Iraq War about understanding a foreign state’s nuclear capabilities: that there is no substitute for on-site monitoring and inspection.

International inspectors were doing their job in Iraq in the weeks prior to the war. Their leaders expressed well-founded confidence that if they were permitted to keep doing their job they could reach accurate conclusions about what Iraq was or was not doing in the way of nuclear and other unconventional weapons. But they were not permitted to keep doing their job.

The Bush administration kicked them out of Iraq to make way for the invasion. The war-makers had already decided what they wanted to do and were not interested in hearing any findings from international inspectors.

The Iran agreement of today reflects a taking of the relevant lesson very much to heart by establishing the most comprehensive and intrusive international monitoring regimen ever applied to any nation’s nuclear program.

The rest of Hiatt’s piece seems to be saying that the usefulness of military force hasn’t been given a fair shake and that you never know when you might need more of it. He argues that President Obama has not used it, or persisted in using it, enough. He gives Mr. Obama a well-deserved slap for the way Libya has turned out, but then contends that the problem there was in not committing enough “U.S. resources for postwar stabilization.”

Apart from the fact that the Libya situation has never gotten to a postwar stage, this seems to assume that nation-building in a badly divided and violent society would somehow go more smoothly in Libya than it has in Afghanistan or Iraq. It likely would have gone even worse, even with more application of U.S. military force, given the vacuum left with the removal of Gaddafi’s personalized rule.

The problem was not in any follow-up but rather in the initial decision to join in a military effort to topple the dictator, which, by the way, sent a very unhelpful signal to the Iranians and others, given that Gaddafi had reached an agreement with the United States and Britain to completely give up his unconventional weapons programs peacefully and to forswear international terrorism.

The notion of insufficient military follow-up leads Hiatt to recite one of the most persistent myths about the Iraq War: that the war was won at the time that George W. Bush left office and that Barack Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by withdrawing U.S. troops too soon.

It is not surprising that this myth has been relied on as heavily as it has. For the fervent crowd that was pro-Iraq War and is now anti-Obama, the myth is a twofer: a way to attack Obama as well as a way to relieve the mountain of cognitive dissonance that comes from having thought the invasion of Iraq was a swell idea but then seeing the violent mess that resulted from the invasion.

It is remarkable how much purveyors of the myth express it in terms that are so patently divorced from reality. In a public debate in which I participated last year, the neocon pundit Bret Stephens stated that Iraq was “at peace” as of 2009. Hiatt’s formulation is that at the time President Obama was withdrawing troops from Iraq, the country had achieved “unity and relative stability.”

To speak of Iraqi unity at this time is a joke; the country was at least as fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines as it has ever been. And as for being at peace, the number of Iraqis killed in the continuing civil war in the year 2009 was around 5,000, which by way of comparison is more than the total number of U.S. troops killed there in eight and a half years of war.

Iraq’s troubles are a direct consequence of the U.S. invasion. Toppling Saddam Hussein unleashed the civil war. The supposed alliance between Saddam and Al-Qa’ida that was one of the war-selling themes was another myth, but once the United States invaded, Al-Qaeda in Iraq became a reality and evolved into what we know today as Islamic State or ISIS.

The “surge” of U.S. troops during the latter part of the Bush administration gets described by the myth-purveyors as a success, but as Peter Beinart aptly reviews that piece of history, it was not. It was a blatant failure regarding the objective of leading to political reconciliation among the contending Iraqi factions. It was a stopgap step, fortuitously coinciding with some other developments that reduced the intensity of the civil war, that enabled the war-makers in the Bush administration to slam shut the door on the mess they had created and to get out of town before it would be said that the war had been lost on their watch.

No one perpetuating these myths explains why there should be any reason to expect that keeping 10,000 or 15,000 or some such number of U.S. troops in Iraq for however long they would be there could have accomplished what 160,000 troops and more than eight years of war did not.

Nor is it explained how any of this constitutes a criticism of the Obama administration when it was implementing a troop withdrawal schedule that had been negotiated by its predecessor.

Now the Republican presidential candidate who is the front-runner for the nomination among those whose name is not Trump has joined in the promoting of the Iraq War myth. The twofer becomes a threefer, with the added motivation being that it is a way of attacking the front-runner for the other party’s nomination, the idea being that she somehow should have done more to fix Iraq while she was secretary of state.

Or maybe it is a fourfer, given that it is a way of dealing with the political liability that association with his brother’s war is for Jeb Bush. So expect to hear more of this in the coming months of campaigning.

Hiatt’s concluding application of his “lesson” about military force to the Iran agreement is that insufficient brandishing by Obama of the threat of military attack means Iran has not made as many concessions at the negotiating table as it otherwise would have. The Iranians, upon hearing this sort of contention, probably wonder whether, as far as lessons from the Iraq War are concerned, most Americans think the way Hiatt is thinking and whether disinclination to start another Middle East war is just a matter of wimpiness on the part of Barack Obama.

Whether the Iranians wonder that or not, we should wonder why anyone should expect that a threat of armed attack would make the Iranians any more inclined to accede to U.S. demands on points on which the Iranians have shown firmness for reasons of pride, sovereignty, credibility and internal politics. We should especially wonder that about a nation that endured what the Iranians endured with stoicism and determination for eight years the last time someone else attacked them.

Hiatt also needs to explain how threats of military attack are supposed to reduce, rather than increase, any remaining Iranian interest in developing a nuclear deterrent, the very purpose of which would be to ward off such attacks.

Yes, let us not establish one-issue litmus tests. But let’s use the evidence from recent experience to identify where sound judgment has existed and where it has not. And as we draw lessons let’s make sure they are the right ones.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

19 comments for “Neocons Falsify Iraq War ‘Lessons’

  1. Phree Man
    August 17, 2015 at 13:00

    Maybe not a “single litmus test”, but the question of spending more blood and treasure on another war in the Middle East overwhelms all other issues in my my mind for the current election. Jeb and anyone else who is unable to even acknowledge IN HINDSIGHT that it was mistake is done and finished as a candidate in my book. If they can’t even say IN HINDSIGHT that invading Iraq was a mistake, they are lying, ignorant or incompetent (or all three), and have disqualified themselves from the presidency.

  2. August 16, 2015 at 06:28

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  3. mike
    August 16, 2015 at 03:41

    A new kind of democracy where fascists Zionists run the US and use the illusion of a democracy. Where the government only exists to manage the masses. Republicans are the tools of their rich patrons. Essentially through propaganda from media outlets, news for hire, infotainment all designed to manage the masses. The republicans use every means imaginable to relentlessly attach their president and disable any progressive policies whether it’s good for the nation or not.. By news propaganda, legal attacks like Hillary and some e-mail.

    We all know, smell and feel that there is something deeply wrong in the US political and media establishments. The ‘No’ vote for NPT Iraq deal confirms it, it shows who is soiled. With Propaganda as strong as it is I’m beginning to wonder if US political integrity exists and the voters seem to count for nothing. Manipulation instead of representation.

    Less then 1% of the ultra rich control the US. Republicans have nearly destroyed the world economy, saddled the US with 7 trillion dollars of debt all cost in for the wars. Is it possible to do any worse? All through this Epic fiasco, the media gave the man a pat on the back. Obama comes up with a diplomatic win for Iran to spare the US another war. War is profitable, especially the Iraq war. Obama must be some kind of idiot interfering with profit doing ridiculous things like peace, health care improvements, repairing the US reputation. What’s the point of being a world power, unless you show the world someone being bashed, how can anyone respect the US if we don’t club someone routinely.

    The infiltration of the Zionists maybe nearly complete. The Republicans are the gangsters of our age and this ‘No’ vote proves it.


    • Mortimer
      August 16, 2015 at 09:50

      >>>>>>>>We all know, smell and feel that there is something deeply wrong in the US political and media establishments. — Mike<<<<<<<<

      "As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know." – Rumsfeld morphing Mephistopheles… .

      It's a truism that we live in an age of soundbites, where quick quips—or even better, anything that fits in 140 characters—are the rhetorical weapons of choice. (Rumsfeld's remark, from those innocent pre-Twitter days, clocks in at a behemoth 244 characters.) The truism is likely reductive, but also seductive, in part because anyone can use it to advance their view of contemporary society. For Cassandras, it's a sign of how the culture has degraded into bluntness and black and white, throwing aside nuance. For Pollyannas, it makes communication easier than ever, flattening the playing field and removing obstructions. For most people, it's the simply the way we live now, decontextualized and fragmented. No matter where you fall, it's certainly new and different, disjointed from historical experience.

      Rumsfeld's Knowns and Unknowns —

  4. Anna
    August 16, 2015 at 03:07

    Saudi Arabia already in crisis.

    Expert assessment of Academy of Geopolitics.

    The budget deficit of Saudi Arabia can reach 20% of GDP. The country for the first time for the last eight years started borrowing money in the financial markets. One of bonded loans was placed this week. But experts believe that the saved-up reserves to the kingdom will last still for a long time, and Riyadh won’t refuse the policy of strengthening of oil export. This week Saudi Arabia placed state bonds for 20 billion reals ($5,3 billion). It is the second loan for this summer — the size June made 15 billion reals ($4 billion). The kingdom can attract $27 billion by the end of the current year. Money was necessary for saudita because of double falling of prices of oil, receipts from which export form almost all income of the country. In 2015 the budget was under construction of calculation of price of oil in $105 for barrel. We will remind that at Saudi Arabia the income from export of oil makes more than 90% of state revenues. Deficiency of the state budget of the country, according to experts of Academy, can make 20% of GDP this year. These are about $140 billion. For comparison: the budget deficit of Russia is predicted in the current year of 3,4% of GDP, or about $40 billion. Saudi Arabia closed the arisen hole at the expense of an expenditure of the saved-up reserves until recently. Since August, 2014 for maintenance of the public expenditures the kingdom spent $65 billion from the state reserves which $672 billion equal at the moment. It should be noted that the budgetary problems of Saudi Arabia turned out to be consequence her politicians in the oil market. The kingdom supports the excess offer of oil and low price level to keep the market share and as much as possible to complicate strengthening of production of slate oil in the USA. And here the IMF considers that to make real GDP growth next year — 2,7%. In many respects, it manage to achieve due to maintenance of high level of state expenses, including due to decumulation of reserves. $672 billion very impressive sum, but experience of other countries ( including Russia) shows that it can be spent very quickly, especially, if to support state expenses at the current level. Therefore the kingdom, most likely, will continue to borrow money in the market.For Russia it not the best signal. Present forecasts of the government assume an increase in prices for oil next year and if it isn’t, the budget will continue to be under pressure. And reserves at Russia are almost twice less, than at Saudi Arabia.

    Besides the country is under sanctions, and economic growth negative. All this does the Russian economy more sensitive to falling of oil quotations, than economy of the Saudi kingdom.

    Same strengthens positions of Riyadh at negotiations with Moscow on such sensitive topics as Syria, Iran and Palestine. Saudita do all new trade offers to the Kremlin that that refused support of the Syrian president Bashar Assad.

    At the negotiations of Foreign Ministers Adel al-Dzhubeyra and Sergey Lavrovcompleted the other day, it was talked, for example, of the contract for delivery of the Russian Iskander missile systems. Riyadh also offered investments into $10 billion. Thus, as experts of Academy of Geopolitics believe that the change on the Syrian question is quite possible. However, are for this purpose necessary not only the Saudi billions, but also positive shift in the Russian-American relations as in the Kremlin perceiveRiyadh only as the ally of Washington.

    Arayik Sargsyan, the President of Academy of Geopolitics, the academician, the Honourable Consul of Macedonia in Armenia.

  5. Joe Tedesky
    August 16, 2015 at 01:46

    Would it not be cool, if in one of the many wills (all which weren’t ignored) of the late Phil Graham were that his dying wishes would be that his Washington Post would become disconnected finally from the CIA. Add to that wish that all media would strive to stay independent from outside agenda driven influences. Allen Dulles created a monster out the the post WW2 Cold War anti communist & patriotic American red white and blue media. Dulles main man was Henry Luce of TIME empire of it’s day. At the time it seemed to make really good sense that we should broadcast over Radio Free Europe. The Church Committee was way out of it’s league when they feebly questioned the CIA’s relationship to our American media outlets. George H.W. Bush really made it hard for all the Church Committee Senators. Bush wanted the senators to tone it down a bit. Like I said these guys were out of their league.

    There is another side to our American media we must look at, and that is how it literally censors such as when MSNBC held Jesse Ventura and Phil Donhue off the air. What makes these two show host something special, it was because of their views of the Shock & Awl war on Iraq. Looking back we should have listened to Ed Asner along with Scott Ritter. Ritter swore there were no WMD. Asner yelled down some righty on FOX stating, paraphrasing… “If we (USA) are so good then get these Iraqi people good water inside 3 weeks. Then call me in three years from now and tell me your still working on it”. Instead of Trump maybe we should get Ed Asner. At least I know Mr. Asner would do something to get us a truly independent free press.

    It maybe a good thing if Mr. Fred Hiatt were a stringer for the CIA, because at least he would be on the American side. Today, people such as Hiatt could be representing another foreign agenda. An entity not really even of anyone nation, but of a few individuals. Okay, everything isn’t a conspiracy, but then what constitutes a conspriracy. If they smashed over 8,000 printing plates of a new selling book, because of it’s revealing secret nature then anything is possible. (The book…Tragedy & Hope – Carroll Quigley’s look behind the curtain at the CFR). I have heard estimates that the 2001 Afghanistan 2003 Iraq wars will someday exceed 6 trillion dollars in total expenditures. I always thought America had tough nosed bosses who fired people over any losses to the bottom line. Yet, people such as Hiatt are still around….where’s the Donald!

    • Joe Tedesky
      August 16, 2015 at 01:59

      all which weren’t ignored …. Were

      Wikipedia states the since Hiatt took his position that WaPo’s Sunday circulation be 46%.

      The Washington Post goes way back with the CIA. Who does Fred Hiatt really represent. What agenda would influence him. Lastly, why are people like him, who were so wrong about Iraq still around? We know there is no accountability. I don’t believe everyone is trying to attain the same goal. So in Hiatt’s world he maybe doing just a terrifically good job,

  6. August 15, 2015 at 22:46


  7. F. G. Sanford
    August 15, 2015 at 17:44

    Now the word is out that El Jebbe has hired Paul Wolfowitz as his foreign policy advisor. There’s also a rumor circulating that young Jebbalito has been implicated along with Ted Shackley for involvement in the “October Surprise” operation, along with some of those JMWave Cubans, and something was also mentioned about Iran-Contra cocaine money laundering after his debriefing with Mr. Gambino of CIA fame. Of course, all this may be just unfounded rumor. You CIA guys would know more about that than the rest of us, of course.

    • Mortimer
      August 15, 2015 at 19:31

      “Of course, all this may be just unfounded rumor.”

      truer words have n’er been whispered, “red fox” —— —

  8. August 15, 2015 at 16:22

    In the summer of 2000, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neo-conservative think tank riddled with soon to be Bush administration officials and advisers, issued a document calling for the radical restructuring of U.S. government and military policies. It advocated the massive expansion of defense spending, the re-invasion of Iraq, the military and economic securing of Afghanistan and Central Asia, increased centralized power and funds for the CIA, FBI, and NSA, among a slew of other policies that would, in the near future, be enacted upon their ascension to power. In the same document, they cite a potential problem with their plan. Referring to the goals of transforming the U.S. and global power structure, the paper states that because of the American public’s slant toward ideas of democracy and freedom, “this process of transformation is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”

  9. Chet Roman
    August 15, 2015 at 15:03

    Fred Hiatt and Bret Stephens (formerly the editor of the Jeruslalem Post) are just part of the zionist/neocon fifth column in the U.S. and I doubt even they believe the lies and propaganda they spout on behalf of their ideological agenda.

    • Mortimer
      August 16, 2015 at 09:30

      In the autumn of 2004, Ron Suskind recounted a conversation between himself and an unnamed senior adviser to the president:
      “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create reality. And while you are studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

  10. Mortimer
    August 15, 2015 at 14:56

    I wrote the below (and since published) after appraising the “New Pearl Harbor” statement with GW Bush’s Supreme Court INSTALLMENT as president and Cheney’s secret meeting w/oil execs along with the steadily rising drumbeat for WAR against a Defenseless country on the occasion of our Forth of July “celebration of independence” — .


    Full Disclosure,
    a good night’s sleep
    under the spell
    of transparency.
    An Open Sky,
    the rest of trust
    beneath the wealth
    of stars.

    Presidential priviliege,
    burning midnight oil
    covering a web
    of secrecy –
    Behind the scenes
    executive braintrusts
    with covert powers
    of deception.

    Replace my Haven
    with slogans of terror
    which they’ve concocted
    in error
    And in their dream
    of ruling the world,
    their plans’ve created
    a Nightmare.

  11. Bill Bodden
    August 15, 2015 at 14:12

    This year has seen the recognition of a number of 70-year anniversaries – VE Day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, VJ Day. Hopefully, there will be a recognition of the 70th anniversary of the commencement of the Nuremberg Trials so that we might recall the application of justice (admittedly, victors’ justice) against the perpetrators of the greatest form of crime of all and reflect on similarities to the Iraq war. The big difference is that the Nazi criminals were tried and punished in Nuremberg; whereas, many of the Anglo-American criminals occupy high offices and, in some cases, would repeat their crimes elsewhere..

  12. Mark
    August 15, 2015 at 13:36

    Anyone informed with the facts, who has not deceived themselves or is attempting to deceive others, knows the neocon/Zionist intention to have the US bomb Iran on Israel’s behalf is all part of the same PNAC plans from the 1990’s that was the reason behind all the lies that led to the 2003 illegal Iraq invasion — and none of this would have been possible without the extremely biased pro-Israel “US” media.

    Mr Pillar’s arguments here make it perfectly clear that accepting the Iran nuke deal will do far more to monitor and prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms than not accepting the deal.

    Like with the 2003 Iraq invasion, the “US” media networks are more interested in having Ameicans support Israel’s pre-planned war crime to attack Iran, than they are in having America act as a democracy and base our political decisions on factual information and sound judgement.

    Call and write your US representatives that support Israel’s foreign policy, and tell them to resign from their US office and move to Israel where they can fight directly in Israel’s wars without betraying America.

    Call and write the major “US news” networks as well. Make sure they know you’re boycotting All their programming and news — as they are criminal with their misrepresentations of facts with the intention to have the US fight in and pay for Israel’s wars with American blood and tax money.

  13. John B
    August 15, 2015 at 13:09

    The arguments of warmongers are never accompanied by fact and argument, because their goal is merely tyranny over a democracy, always practiced by creating a foreign enemy so as to demand domestic power as protectors and to accuse their opponents of disloyalty. The warmonger never has a history or a plan for humanitarian results, never understands the cultural or historical context. In fact the warmonger merely shops for propaganda fragments and shouts them while waving the flag, an infantile bully, the lowest imitation of masculinity. It is well to point out to others their lack of reasoning, but has no effect upon them: their intended audience is the timid, the ignorant, those fearful of bullies and the irrationality of their own kind.

    Advocates of war, other than repelling invasions, should be required to fight it in the most hazardous positions, and then jailed for the resulting war crimes.

    • mike
      August 17, 2015 at 11:51

      Congress is up for sale to the highest bidder. It is the money men who pull the strings on this puppet.

    • mike
      August 17, 2015 at 15:59

      I think you are referring to integrity, which is the measure of a man. Congress has no integrity and control lies with the Zionist, the ultra rich who are the patrons of congress and benefit form wars that then are sold to the public through propaganda. The Devil is in money, and big money controls congress. What kind of devil does that make congress?

      There are no lessons to learn, Iraqi war was a success, the new Iran war will be a success as quickly as they can get Obama out of the way with his ridiculous plans of solving problems diplomatically. The IS war will be a success whether the war is won or not, for the few. That is what big money is paying for as patrons to congress, the more costly and longer it is the greater the success. If the politicians don’t manage the marketing with the people, and they get the boot, no problem, they do business with both sides of congress and back everyone so there is no possibility of loosing. Guy’s like Obama with diplomatic solutions and careful and cautious commitment to war are just in the way.

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