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Preventive War or Forever War? The Confusing Legacy of the Iraq War

George W. Bush
Image of US President George W. Bush.

The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was justified by its proponents as a preventive war to shield the United States from a dangerous foreign adversary. Instead, it turned into the quintessential forever war—a geopolitical vortex from which successive US leaders have found it seemingly impossible to break free. The costs to the United States in terms of blood and treasure over the past 20 years have been enormous. The damage done to US soft power, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, is likely irreparable.

Scholars will debate the origins and causes of the Iraq War for a long time to come. But the most obvious (albeit, perhaps, overly charitable explanation) is to take the architects of the war at their word. From this view, the invasion was caused by Saddam Hussein’s stubborn refusal to give UN weapons inspectors unfettered access to sensitive sites in Iraq. In the post-9/11 world, the United States and its allies could not take the risk that weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists. An invasion to disarm and depose the Ba’athist regime—which had a track record of using chemical weapons on the battlefield and against its own people—was the only recourse.

In effect, this was the doctrine of preventive war embraced by President Bush and his advisers. The White House was adamant that the United States was entitled to use force to neutralize foreign threats even in the absence of compelling intelligence that an attack on US interests was imminent. Condoleezza Rice put it succinctly: “We don’t want the smoking gun [that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons] to be a mushroom cloud.”

At the time, most Americans accepted the logic of preventive war. Opinion polling later revealed that many US citizens remained committed to the idea of preventive strikes even after the Iraq War had become a quagmire. Among elites in Washington, however, Iraq soon became byword for blunder. It is perhaps telling that both President Obama and President Trump saw it expedient to claim opposition to the war when running for the White House. Certainly, few elected officials today would regard the invasion as a model for future military interventions.

If there is a silver lining to the Iraq War, then this is it: a legacy that militates strongly against the United States initiating a large-scale land war for many years to come. Even neoconservatives such as Max Boot now regret their support for the invasion of Iraq. The settled wisdom in Washington is that blunt military force is the wrong tool for bringing about major changes to the government, politics, and societies of foreign countries—and rightly so.

But at the same time, the experience of fighting in Iraq has laid bare that the US political system has an alarmingly high tolerance for permanent war—just so long as such conflicts can be kept on the smaller side and mostly hidden from public view. This is a problem. For it is not enough that Washington has rejected the doctrine of preventive war. If Americans are ever to enjoy the fruits of genuine national security, their leaders must repudiate the doctrine of forever war, too.

The acquiescence in constant, low-level warfighting is one of the most insidious legacies of America’s relations with Iraq. It is often forgotten that between 1991 and 2003, US aircraft flew hundreds of thousands of sorties over northern and southern Iraq with the goal of weakening Saddam Hussein’s grip on power and eroding his ability to terrorize vulnerable segments of the Iraqi population. For 12 years, these US forces fired missiles, dropped bombs, destroyed infrastructure, and took heavy fire from Iraqi forces. Viewed in this context, the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was not so much the beginning of a new conflict as it was the expansion of an existing war—one that had been smoldering since the 1990-1991 Gulf War.

Pearl Harbor and 9/11

President George W. Bush talks with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001, during a break from a National Security Council meeting at Camp David in Thurmont, Md. Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library

In 2011, US troops ended combat operations in Iraq and withdrew from the country at the behest of the government in Baghdad. President Obama’s exit from Iraq marked the end of a two-decade stretch of US-led military engagement in Iraq. Just three years later, however, Obama ordered the return of US forces to Iraq in the name of stopping Islamic State fighters from overrunning the region. Thousands of US troops were deployed to defeat the militants—a mission that only ended in December 2017.

Since then, US forces have remained stationed in Iraq, mostly serving as advisers and trainers for the Iraqi military. Some 2,500 US personnel are resident in Iraq at any given time. This is hardly a trivial presence, not least of all because Iranian-backed groups attack US forces with some regularity, causing serious injuries and running the perpetual risk of a greater conflagration between Washington, Tehran, and their allies. In January 2020, for example, Iran launched 12 missiles at US bases in Iraq in retaliation for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, wounding dozens of US military personnel. It is only through sheer fortune that this did not result in a wider war.

Taken together, the United States has been at war in Iraq for 32 years—around 13 percent of America’s history as an independent nation. At present, it shows no signs of exiting the country. On the contrary, the indefinite commitment to militarily policing Iraq seems to have been replicated elsewhere, from Syria to Libya and Somalia to Niger. In all of these countries and more, US soldiers’ lives are being placed at risk for dubious national-security benefits.

9/11 Response

President George W. Bush delivers an address regarding the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States to a joint session of Congress Thursday, Sept. 20, 2001, at the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library

The legacy of the Iraq War is complex and still unfolding. But one thing can be said for sure: despite the unpopularity of the war today, the experience of Iraq did not augur a period of wide-ranging retrenchment or restraint for US foreign policy. On the contrary, the consensus that the US military must be omnipresent and all-powerful is as strong as ever.

Has the United States learned anything from its blunders in Iraq? Yes, but not enough. Properly understood, the war in Iraq remains the archetypal forever war—one that ought to be brought to an end sooner rather than later, and never repeated.

Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.



  1. GhostTomahawk

    March 15, 2023 at 3:59 pm

    Without active wars the military contractors have no function. Lockheed, General Dynamics, Boeing etc have had record profits since Iraq was invaded. Ukraine is a continuation of that. The United States no longer is an exporter of anything that benefits anyone other than the warmongers who need our boom sticks, planes and munitions.


    We are the world’s largest arms dealer

  2. Rick

    March 15, 2023 at 7:47 pm

    Hard to label it a preventative war when Bush attacked a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

  3. Jim

    March 15, 2023 at 8:04 pm

    Americans were misled regarding weapons of mass destruction.

    Supposedly, that was the reason we invaded.

    But no, other reasons were at play which Americans were never told about.

    Bush & Cheney lied to the American People.

    Bush lied, people died.

    What did America get out of it? Iran was strengthened. The Sunni who we supposedly supported were weakened. The Shia were strengthened and they had strong sympathy with Iran… to this day we have American soldiers in Iraq.

    Thousands of American men & women gave their lives in service to their country… but were sadly, really, hired muscle for criminals in our midst, without even knowing it.

    Tens of thousands were injured… many permanently.

    U. S. taxpayers spent trillions of Dollars (and will continue to pay money to take care of many permanently wounded).

    I’m sorry, but Bush & Cheney deserve to be in prison.

    Total geopolitical, human, and financial disaster.

    Neoconservatives don’t meet their own metrics of success, then turn around and either lie about it or ignore it hoping people will forget about it.

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

    And hold them accountable.

    And now we are doing it all over again, after defeat in Afghanistan.

    As Forest Gump famously said, “stupid is as stupid does.”

    Judge them by their actions… crooks, thieves, and murderers.

    This time they will not get away with it.

    The American People will insist on Justice.

    And that Justice is not just kicking these people out of government, but also they should go to prison and be fined an amount that leaves them penniless.

    Traitors against the American People.

  4. Gary Jacobs

    March 15, 2023 at 8:35 pm

    LoL, Author’s like this hide behind a cherry picked version of reality. Sure the US made plenty of mistakes in Iraq, but clearly this man has learned many of the wrong lessons.

    1st of all, let me say I am cautiously optimistic the Abraham Accords, among other signs of hope for lasting peace, could signal an era of peace in the mideast is not far away. There are signs of an Islamic reformation at hand among the Sunni majority.

    That said, if you really want to talk about “forever war” in the context of the mideast, you would have to acknowledge that Islamic Extremists have been at war with “infidels” for 1400+ years. From their early expansion out of Arabia to invade the Levant, N. Africa, and repeated attempts to overrun Europe from the south and from the east… which culminated in the south at the Battle of Tours in the 7th century, although Muslims would occupy Spain for 800 years before being finally kicked out with the Spanish Inquisition.

    In the east Islamic invasions culminated at the 2nd Siege of Vienna Austria in 1683 by the Ottomans. Only then did they get rolled back out of most of Europe. Greece didnt get its independence until 1821, and Israel was not free until 1948. Both went to war for independence.

    Furthermore, the US Navy itself was created when the Barbary Pirates aka the Muslims of N. Africa, were kidnapping and enslaving US merchant sailors in the Mediterranean. This is early 1800s with President Thomas Jefferson. So the Navy took the US Marines to the shores of Tripoli, Libya to fight… And only after a series of Barbary Coast Wars was there a treaty signed. This was the opening rounds for the US ‘war on terrorism’.

    Americans may have a short attention span for history, but Muslims do not. That’s why Bin Laden still referred to Muslim Occupied Spain as Al-Andalusia.

    Only once you understand the full context of history, and the ideology of the enemy, can you attempt to craft a solution that doesnt involve periodic use of military force. Once you go through that exercise, you will understand that to remain free from extremists, and to keep them from disrupting the march towards progress in their regions, will require the period use of military force.

    It’s a matter of using it judiciously, and in support of soft power means of expanding peace. It’s also a matter of who is using that force. Ideally, it is locals using force to protect themselves from extremists, with the US providing support as needed.

    Speaking of which, it wasnt ‘sheer luck’ the US avoided casualties from Iran’s missile attack in response to Suleimani’s killing.

    U.S. early warning satellites helped avert casualties from Iran’s missile attack. The Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) includes four geostationary satellites, and the system detected the incoming ballistic missiles well in advance. That warning provided US and coalition forces adequate time to take appropriate force protection measures.

    If you are going to claim to be an academic who knows what he is talking about, you should get your facts straight instead of trying to cherry pick your way into being right.

    It’s a sign of the decline of our education system that teachers like this write articles like this.

    I could go on for days like this, but for now I digress.

  5. cobo

    March 15, 2023 at 9:11 pm

    The Iraq war was supported by both the GOP and democrats to cement US legacy as the biggest military force since the collapse of the axis powers in 1945.

    What did Ted Cruz say in 2015.

    The Iraq war was sold to Congress and the american public through false intelligence.

    The war opened the gates of hell in the middle east and gave birth to radical islamist groups and the entry of al-qaeda into Iraq that later morphed into ISIS.

    Cruz in an interview with MSNBC said the war ended up benefiting the bad guys.

    He also mentioned Syria where US and allies were trying to topple bashar al-Assad which would have turned into Iraq II had they succeeded in their nefarious quest.

    Today, the Iraq war has seen endless refugees and migrants surging to Europe where decades from now, US could well start another war there.

  6. atpcliff

    March 16, 2023 at 10:24 am

    This war didn’t make ANY sense, until i read that a very good reason for going into Iraq was that the US wanted a stargate, and possibly other alien technology, that was in Iraq. THAT made sense.

  7. Jim

    March 16, 2023 at 12:22 pm

    The author of the article wrote:

    “…the invasion was caused by Saddam Hussein’s stubborn refusal to give UN weapons inspectors unfettered access to sensitive sites in Iraq. In the post-9/11 world, the United States and its allies could not take the risk that weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists.”


    As reported by at the time by Scott Ritter in his officially capacity as a U. N. weapons inspector and his team and recounted many times, after some refusal, Saddam Hussein did allow unfettered access to any sites the weapons inspectors chose to look.

    Let me repeat that which is documented: Saddam Hussein did allow unfettered access to any sites the weapons inspectors chose to look.

    Ritter and his team (this was no one man operation) found no weapons of mass destruction… and substantial evidence Hussein had destroyed any remnants of weapons programs long before the U. S. invasion… as he had been ordered to do.

    Substantial evidence existed that Saddam Hussein had deteriorated mentally, and Iraq’s military had deteriorated due to sanctions and weapons of mass destruction were mere figment’s of Hussein’s increasingly deluded mind… even before he had decided to comply with U. N. and U. S.’s demands he relieve Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

    Bush & Cheney knew all this intelligence, as Ritter had reported his inspectors’ team findings to U. S. intelligence agencies, as well as the U. N. Security Council.

    Bush & Cheney simply ignored what the U. N. weapons inspectors were telling them… then they sent Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to make his infamous U. N. presentation were falsehood after falsehood was presented with great fanfare (I watched the presentation live @ the time… I’ll admit it was riveting to watch… I was duped by it… yes, at the time I was an Iraq war supporter, perhaps that to some extent explains my current positions… I hate being lied to.)

    This was all well known in the intelligence branches and is now in the historical record (documented) for any historian who cares to research the trove of documents and evidence now available.

    I’m sorry, but the author is either not interested in knowing the truth, lazy, or intellectually dishonest.

    So, for the author to write the quoted statements supplied above is an incredible disservice to history, his readers, and the larger American Public.

    But it is the myth Neoconservatives, Warhawks, and neo-liberals rely on… so they will not be fully held accountable for the criminal actions that were taken to get us into that war.

    I alluded to the real reasons for the war… reasons that could never be presented to the American People: greed, arrogance, will to domination…which, if known, the American People would have never been supportive of the Iraq invasion. At the time the American Public were under the emotional turmoil and fervor of the post 911 aftermath… especially vulnerable to manipulation and deceit by criminals, liars, and megalomaniacs… of course, the traitors knew of this agitated state of the American People and took full advantage of it.

    This myth which the author perpetuates is damnable because it allows the war’s proponents to cover for their crimes… helps people rationalize a disastrous foreign policy mistake… as “we were well intended, but mistakes were made… in the classic passive prose, which avoids criminal responsibility.

    The article’s conclusion is fine… but the falsifying history provided is academic fraud, pure & simple.

    Because the evidence is so readily available if one simply looks to find it.

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