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Iraq War at 20: Have U.S. Elites Learned Anything?

It is that arrogance that produced the Iraq War and Washington’s other military misadventures. Until U.S. leaders finally comprehend the inevitable, toxic effects of that mentality, the United States will sink ever deeper into the quagmire of Iraq-style follies. 

U.S. Army Sgt. Andrew Barnett scans the area using the optic lens on his M14 enhanced battle rifle outside an Afghan border police observation point in Kunar province, Afghanistan, Jan. 28, 2013. Barnett is assigned to the 101st Airborne Division's 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jon Heinrich

As we mark the twentieth anniversary of one of the most disastrous wars in U.S. history, America’s foreign policy elite have learned surprisingly few worthwhile lessons. What lessons they have learned seem to be the smaller and less important ones. In that sense, the aftermath of the Iraq War has replicated the Vietnam War’s unfortunately limited and temporary beneficial impact on America’s foreign policy perspective.

One frustrated colleague observed to me as he witnessed the onset of Washington’s regime-change wars and its nation-building ventures in the 1990s and early 2000s that the lesson most Americans seemed to have taken away from the Vietnam debacle was, “Don’t fight a war in a country called Vietnam.” 

Much is the case again as most of the bigger, more fundamental lessons from Washington’s failed crusade on the Euphrates have gone unheeded. Indeed, there are still a few dead-enders who insist that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Iraq War actually was both justified at the time and a success in retrospect.

John Bolton states bluntly that, “The reasons to invade were clear and compelling: Saddam directly threatened U.S. security by pursuing WMD and supporting terrorism.”

He adds that this “was well understood and endorsed across America, which is why congressional and public support for the invasion was overwhelming. Indeed, in hindsight, Saddam should have been removed in 1991 after his unprovoked aggression against Kuwait.” The turbulent aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, “for good or ill, cannot detract from the logic, fundamental necessity, and success of overthrowing Saddam.” From Bolton’s perspective, the two biggest mistakes were Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops in 2011, and Washington’s timidity in not following up Bush’s supposed success in Iraq by conducting a regime-change war in Iran.

Terrible Costs Global and Domestic

However, even some of the hawks who pushed the United States to launch its invasion and occupation have tempered their views. The most celebrated recent shift has come from Max Boot in a March 10, 2023 article in Foreign Affairs. “The neoconservative position — which eventually triumphed in the George W. Bush administration — was that the United States could not simply topple the old regimes and leave chaos in their wake,” Boot wrote. “The Americans had to stay and work with local allies to build democratic showcases that could inspire liberal change in the Middle East. In this way, Washington could finally lance the boil of militant Islamism.”

Boot concedes, though, that “regime change obviously did not work out as intended. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were, in fact, fiascos that exacted a high price in both blood and treasure, for both the United States and—even more, of course—the countries it invaded. As the saying goes, when the facts change, I change my mind.” But not too much. Boot is an enthusiastic supporter of the current U.S. proxy war using Ukraine to bloody and weaken Russia. He seems oblivious to the danger that Washington’s current crusade threatens to create even more chaos in the international system than the Iraq War produced.

Although at least some members of the West’s policy elite now grudgingly concede that their regime-change wars and nation-building experiments did not fare well, they still understate the damaging effects. The multi-trillion-dollar expense of the Iraq War alone has weakened the U.S. economy and inhibited the urgent modernizing of America’s aging infrastructure. Almost any alternative expenditure or tax saving would have been far preferable to wasting that money in trying to bring a democratic revolution to the Middle East.

The Iraq War not only created instability in Iraq, leading to the rise of the Islamic State, but the contagion spread to other portions of the Middle East, especially neighboring Syria where a civil war continues to rage. Such destabilizing waves have produced adverse impacts that are not always obvious. For example, the massive refugee flows from Washington’s regime-change crusades have led to worrisome political tensions and the rise of extreme nationalist movements in several European countries.

Iraq Hypocrisy Lives On

Launching the Iraq War in blatant violation of international law als fatally weakened America’s claim to moral leadership. That point has become glaringly evident with the obstacles that the United States and its NATO allies have encountered in trying to enlist the rest of the world to support a coercive policy toward Russia because of the Kremlin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Governments throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America have spurned that effort. A key reason for their resistance has been the sense that Washington is being monumentally hypocritical in condemning Russia’s aggression, given the West’s own actions in Iraq and elsewhere.

The most important, unlearned lesson from the Iraq War is the need for greater humility in America’s conduct toward the rest of the world. Ironically, it was George W. Bush who explicitly articulated the case for that change in a March 1999 address. He was correct that a more humble U.S. foreign policy was needed. Unfortunately he did not practice what he preached once he became president. 

Instead, Bush and his successors continue to epitomize the arrogance that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed: “We are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”

It is that arrogance that produced the Iraq War and Washington’s other military misadventures. Until U.S. leaders finally comprehend the inevitable, toxic effects of that mentality, the United States will sink ever deeper into the quagmire of Iraq-style follies. 

Author Expertise 

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).



  1. Tamerlane

    March 20, 2023 at 4:56 pm

    Short answer: “no”.

    They continue championing loser interventions abroad bc they have a fundamentally utopian view of human nature and thus wish to via either neoconservatism or liberal interventionism impose “progress” upon others by force. They hubristically think they can do this domestically, and abroad.

  2. Kevin H

    March 20, 2023 at 5:11 pm

    Why are are you calling them Elites??? There is nothing elite about them. They are parasites to our political system. Elites makes it sound like they are smart and moral, all knowing. And they are definitely not!!

  3. Gary Jacobs

    March 20, 2023 at 5:39 pm

    Speaking of arrogance, that seems to be this author’s M.O. Plenty of blame and mistakes to go around for the 2003 invasion of Iraq… but completely blaming the US is absurd.

    Saddam was a horrendous dictator, and it would not at all have been surprising to see him overthrown by the Shia majority at some point. There was a lot of pent up tension in a region known for bloodletting. It was highly likely a matter of when, not if, a civil war in Iraq was going to break out.

    There’s a lot more to be said on this subject, especially the way the first Bush at the end of the 1st Gulf War encouraged Shia and Kurds to rise up against Saddam and then allowed Iraq to keep their attack helicopters and slaughter the uprisings. HUGE mistake.

    Then of course there are the actions of Syria and Iran playing both sides of the Sunni-Shia civil war, including the rise of ISIS. Syria and Iran could have tried to help rebuild Iraq after Saddam, but they encouraged and armed the civil war from both sides. Much like Putin fears democracy in Ukraine, so does Assad and Khamenei fear democracy in Iraq.

    In reality, the biggest mistake we made in Iraq was not doing better by the Shia to help propel Sistani to greater influence over the Iran-back factions.

    The Sistani version of Shia islam does not allow the Ayatollah to be the head of the government. That is the real Shia islam, and Iran hates it.

    Iraq still has its problems to be sure, but it has a chance to be a stable well run democracy at some point. As with peace and stability in much of the region, the road to it in Iraq goes through Iran.

    IF the Iranians can take back their country from the Ayatollah run terror state… there is a much better chance for peace in Iraq, and the region at large.

  4. 404NotFound

    March 20, 2023 at 5:51 pm

    US elites have learned nothing useful from the 2003 invasion of iraq.

    They have only learned that they can now get away with murder and unbounded mayhem.

    Thus the current brazen proxy war against a nuclear power on its front doorstep.

    Tomorrow ? Tomorrow will see the elites preparing and sparking outright ww3.

    The US elites are destined for the great lake of fire, with joe biden among the first to take a dip in it.

    Biden himself voted for war on iraq in october 2002, the war being pushed through congress using false intelligence.

    Today, biden voting, funding and pouring fuel on the US-NATO war in europe.

    He and the other elites, especially the fascismo democrat elites, have certainly learned nothing useful from the iraq war.

  5. GhostTomahawk

    March 20, 2023 at 6:04 pm

    Don’t look now..Ukraine is going to be the rainmaker for the political elite.

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    March 20, 2023 at 8:42 pm

    It was known at the time that Democratizing the Islamic Culture was likely to fail (many papers were written expressing this fact), but that didn’t remove American Culture’s moral obligation to try to change the Terrorist Spawning Islamic Culture. So what has the West learned? That it is impossible to change violent, criminal, authoritarian Islamic Culture, and the West need never try again. The extermination of Muslims that attack the West is now morally on the table (Jacksonian Justice).

    But, comparing the effort in Iraq and Afghanistan with that of Ukraine is a bogus apples and oranges comparison. The Ukrainian war is not being fought by Americans, so no blood is being shed fighting for another culture’s freedom (evading the Vietnam and war on terror mistakes). Nor is it an effort to change the Ukrainian Culture which is already a Christian, Democratic Culture, trying to escape the Corrupt Authoritarian Russian Culture. Also, the Ukrainians have the Morale High Ground, being invaded and murdered by the Orcish Russians. The Treasure being spent (billions not trillions) is mostly of paid-for weapons whose shelf life is nearing expiration (obsolescent Industrial Age dumb weapons), and smart weapons that require combat testing on a near peer battlefield, and the development of the tactical doctrine for their use. So basically the West is giving the Ukrainians hand me downs, and using them for developmental research, all while destroying the Russian military machine (50% completed).

    Finally, Leftist Culture (the worst of the authoritarian cultures) has been tearing down Western Democracies in recent years. The West has a moral and defensive obligation to support a culture that wants to join the 1st world, like the rest of Eastern Europe. If the whole world was Democratic, there would be no wars of conquest.

  7. dave

    March 21, 2023 at 2:12 am

    Haven`t learned a thing. Ukraine is collapsing.

  8. The Past

    March 21, 2023 at 9:35 am

    Yes, they have learned that way pays.

  9. Jim

    March 21, 2023 at 11:25 am

    Gary Jacobs gives the Neoconservative apologia for Iraq.

    These people will never admit Iraq was a disaster.

    They’ll write whole books to avoid responsibility.

    These people should never be put in public, positions of power.


    You don’t double down on failure, you relieve it of command.

    Instead, countess examples exist of people “failing up” and being promoted after failure… no one was directly held responsible for the debacle… a telling result.

    That’s a recipe for more dysfunction beyond the disaster Gary Jacobs claims was a good thing… it was well intended, but mistakes were made.

    Classic passive voice to avoid criminal responsibility.

    Neoconservative thought leads to disaster because @ bottom they want to rule the world… democracy has nothing to do with it… that’s simply a cover for their Hitlerian goals.

    Tell them to pound sand… that’s what they deserve.

  10. Gary Jacobs

    March 21, 2023 at 12:28 pm


    LoL. Your ability to twist logic and pretend to use the word ‘neocon’ correctly gets funnier as you get more desperate.

    I said quite clearly “Plenty of blame and mistakes to go around for the 2003 invasion of Iraq… but completely blaming the US is absurd.”

    I would not have invaded Iraq as we did. It has had disastrous consequences [the only correct thing you said in your entire screed.]

    That does not merit blaming the US for everything that went wrong.

    Nor does it mean that Iraq will not become a better place than it was under Saddam.

    That’s called an intellectually nuanced perspective. You should try that some time.

    Just because you cant ever win an argument based on facts, doesnt mean you have to ascribe to others a bunch of nonsense that was never said in order to make yourself feel better about the epic failure of your faux notion of smarts.

  11. Gary Jacobs

    March 21, 2023 at 1:20 pm


    One more thing:

    I am certainly no fan of the actual ‘neocons’, but your use of the word ‘Hitlerian’ in this context is not only absurd on its face relative to the actual neocons, who are far more naive than nefarious… but Your attempt to associate them with Hitler is not only insulting to the actual victims of Hitler…it has an added irony in this context you stumbled into because your faux notion of smarts consistently steers you wrong.

    The founder of Saddam’s Ba’ath party was a man named Michel Aflaq, who came of age during WWII and was heavily influenced by the actual Nazis and their collaborators.

    The Ba’ath party was once a singular organization covering Iraq and Syria. Their Pan-Arabism reflected Hitler’s designs on invading much of Europe and uniting Aryans. So although Aflaq was Syrian, he substantially aided the pro-Nazi coup/revolt in Iraq in 1941.

    That Pro-Nazi revolt had key figures in it worth noting in this context: Khairallah Talfah, and Haj Amin Al Husseini.

    Haj was the former Mufti of Palestine who was expelled by the British for causing decades of violence, and his relations with the Nazis.

    Khairallah Talfah was the proxy Nazi uncle of none other Saddam Hussein. He would go on to have a lot of influence in Saddam’s life.

    BTW, Haj Husseini would flee Iraq after this revolt was put down and end up in Germany as Hitler’s right hand for Muslim affairs, and raise for the Nazis the 1st two SS Battalions of non Aryans from the Muslims in the Balkans.

    He also stayed in touch with his proxy Nazi buddies in Iraq and the rest of the mideast. The trickle down effect of all that would have heavy influence on Saddam’s life, and tyrannical rule

    Bottom line: your faux notion of smarts still never stands up to the slightest bit of research. Though this one is me being PhD level, and you being the equivalent of an 8th grade bully trying to get your way, and just happen to run into an adult who knows A LOT more than you.

    I could go on for days with this history lesson, but for now I digress.

  12. Jim

    March 21, 2023 at 1:26 pm

    Exactly, Gary, you stated, “Plenty of blame and mistakes to go around for the 2003 invasion of Iraq… but completely blaming the US is absurd.”

    My response, “…it was well intended, but mistakes were made.”

    No, it was criminal, Bush lied, people died… lied about weapons of mass destruction… Powell lied before the U. N. Security Council… or was misled to make such statements… reckless… if you are willing to give the benefit of the doubt… many have no doubts at all about Powell’s culpability.

    Gary stated, “I would not have invaded Iraq as we did. It has had disastrous consequences…”

    Okay, fine.

    But that suggests you had a different way?


    Neoconservative mental gymnastics… apologia.

    When Neoconservatives fail, they blame somebody else.

    Every time!

  13. Gary Jacobs

    March 21, 2023 at 5:00 pm


    LoL, ‘Bush lied, people died’?

    Bush may have been wrong about large stockpiles of WMD in Iraq in 2003, but Saddam deliberately misled the weapons inspectors for years.

    The best estimate I heard is that Saddam quietly and secretly destroyed his own large stockpiles around 1995. But never made that information public.

    Saddam had every opportunity to come clean about his past programs, yet he did nothing of the sort. He would reveal to his interrogators later that he wanted everyone to believe he still had those weapons to keep from being overthrown from within and so Iran would not invade.

    For years the UN and IAEA weapons inspectors faced regular obstruction from a concealment committee run by Qusai Hussein, the younger son of Saddam.

    In the 1990s, international inspectors nonetheless managed to confirm the existence of a nuclear program far more advanced than they had known or expected. (Saddam had initiated a crash program in 1990 to acquire a nuclear weapon in less than a year.) These findings elicited modest concessions from Saddam, but the regime never accounted for numerous prohibited items or ceased to harass and hinder arms inspectors.

    This sequence of events prompted Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act under Bill Clinton, which proclaimed that US policy was “to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government.”

    The vote was 360–38 in the House, unanimous in the Senate, and President Clinton signed the act on October 31st, 1998.

    Although few choose to recall this support for regime change in Baghdad, it captured the growing impatience of the pre-Bush custodians of American power with the regime of Saddam Hussein.

    In December 1998, Iraq expelled again the UN weapons inspection team… The inspectors insisted that the regime had not destroyed its bacteriological agents, disclosed all its chemical programs, or renounced its atomic ambitions.

    The US and UK responded to Iraq’s breach of its commitments by launching a barrage of cruise missile attacks against suspected chemical weapon sites.

    By Clinton’s own admission, however, this did not conclusively destroy the illicit weapons program or bring Saddam Hussein into any sort of compliance.

    Without intrusive inspectors to contend with, Saddam sought (with French and Russian collusion) to break free of sanctions and reconstitute its WMD programs.

    The fact that he was not yet able to do so does not mean he did not intend to do so. If fact he stated that intent clearly to his interrogators after his capture.

    There is so much more where this came from it’s really sad at this point that you tried to speak so confidently about something so easily proven false. But that’s your standard MO. You should try learning from your mistakes that way you claim the ‘neocons’ havent.

    Once again, your faux notion of smarts does not stand up to the slightest bit of basic research. You just mindlessly trot out spoon fed slogans on all subjects to pretend you are smart. You still arent.

    Not. Even. Close.

  14. Fred Leander

    March 21, 2023 at 5:13 pm

    Halleluja, finally a contributing writer, mr. Carpenter, to this web-site, with the head firmly on his shoulders.

  15. Joe Comment

    March 21, 2023 at 6:41 pm

    Pres. Bush II and Vice-Pres. Cheney won’t think they need to learn anything. They won re-election. Generals and civilian officials who served during the Iraq intervention won’t think they need to learn anything. They advanced their careers.

    Lesson 1 is to build institutions that are more responsive to voices that are in touch with reality. Often what’s realistic is not popular and what’s popular is not realistic.

    Lesson 2 is for all of us to get more in touch with reality.

  16. David Chang

    March 22, 2023 at 9:45 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Thanks Mr. Carpenter for this philosophy question.

    The elite in D.C. and Ivy League, because of their thought is European philosophy, so they won’t learn any lessons.

    European philosophy is an atheism philosophy, worshiping democracy, a few people are self-righteous and call themselves elite, and manipulate people with democracy. Those famous elites are Democritus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, etc. They advocate to worship heroes, claim to oppose populism, pursue wisdom, virtue and democracy, then control others by them, so democracy is only the synonymous of populism. The freedom elites talk about is immoral, not justice of God.

    Political scholars, international relations scholars, and strategy experts of the Ivy League and the District of Columbia believe atheism. They teach geopolitics, like Darwin’s theory of evolution, and believe that people are animals driven by instincts, so they incite wars for personal glory, instead of obeying Ten Commandments. Their policy is to propagate atheism with opposing Communist Party and Nazis, so they make wars and inflation. But they don’t admit that their philosophy thought is the same as Communist Party and Nazis, so they don’t admit that Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad are elites as them.

    As they think the Iraq War is their glory, their great victory, and their social justice. Next sin of them is the battle of Taiwan Strait, even if they think they will win a nuclear war with balance and offset tactics.

    But, General Washington remind us, “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations”. And lawyer Lincoln remind us, “judgements of Lord are always true and righteous all together.”

    God bless America.

  17. Jim

    March 22, 2023 at 12:15 pm

    Yes, Bush lied… and Cheney… people died.

    Get to know it.

    I can’t get inside a person’s head. All I can do is look at what they write (in this forum).

    But there’s an old saw: if it looks like a duck, moves like a duck, sounds like a duck… it’s a duck.

    People who claim they don’t espouse a certain ideology or another, but fit the above saw, are in a bad place… perhaps, they’re a poor writer who has a hard time conveying their ideas in the written word (but maybe, they espouse their ideas without having their ideas labeled as such… perhaps… they know the label is politically radioactive.

    Gary wrote, “Saddam deliberately misled the weapons inspectors for years.”

    I agree.

    Then Gary goes on:

    “The best estimate I heard is that Saddam quietly and secretly destroyed his own large stockpiles around 1995. But never made that information public.”

    That’s also something I generally agree with.

    But nobody knew that at the time (unless the CIA kept it quiet).

    The point is this: in 2002 and 2003 in the run up to the war… Bush & Cheney wanted to invade Iraq… Cheney “stove piped” dubious intel about WMD into certain agencies… it was well known what was wanted (by Cheney… an by implication, his boss, Bush).

    To say Bush lied, people died… all it takes is evidence Bush & Cheney knew there was no WMD or were reckless in their disregard of falsifying evidence. By the eve of the Iraq invasion… multiple sources of evidence had cast extreme doubt on claims of WMD in Iraq… and evidence Bush & Cheney knew there was none.

    Scott Ritter in his official capacity as a U. N. Weapons Inspector, plus his team of professionals, while encountering some initial refusal, were given unfettered access to any suspected WMD site.

    Ritter and team reported their findings of NO weapons of Mass destruction (and evidence Saddam had already destroyed it… long ago) to U. S. intelligence agencies & to the U. N. Security Council. Bush & Cheney knew of the weapons inspectors report and simply chose to ignore it.

    It wasn’t what they wanted to hear.

    Bush lied people died.

    Neoconservative mental gymnastics, apologia.

    Sorry, Gary, with due respect, you write as a neoconservative would in every situation I’ve read.

    And for a person who claims otherwise, you claim to know a lot… and suspiciously you attempt to shut down anybody else who uses the term… extremely touchy…

    I can’t read your mind… but given what you write… the evidence is overwhelming.

    And, in this case understandable… There is NO DOUBT: Neoconservatives started the Iraq war and are responsible for its failure… period, full stop.

    Nothing you can write will change that… the attempt only convicts you along with them.

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