Mar 22, 2023

The Iraq War anniversary.

An Iraqi woman yells at a U.S. soldier in 2007 during the search of an Iraq's home. Photo by Sgt. Tierney Nowland
An Iraqi woman yells at a U.S. soldier in 2007 during the search of an Iraq's home. Photo by Sgt. Tierney Nowland

It's been 20 years. Was it worth it?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

Today, we're revisiting the Iraq War, and examining some present day arguments about what went right and what went wrong. Plus, a question about budget proposals.

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A few weeks ago, I went on the Progress Network to talk about Tangle, the mission of providing bipartisan political news, and the current state of the media. I really enjoyed the conversation, where I got a chance to chat about some of the challenges we face in our day-to-day, and the broken promise of the mainstream media. You can listen to it here.

Quick hits.

  1. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen reasserted her confidence in the U.S. banking system and assured Americans that regulators are prepared to support banks further if necessary. (The comments)
  2. Roughly 30,000 Los Angeles school employees went on strike yesterday, forcing 400,000 students to stay home. The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second-largest in the country. (The strike)
  3. A judge approved a $626 million settlement in Flint, Michigan, over the water crisis that started in 2014. (The settlement)
  4. Chinese President Xi Jinping left Russia after a three-day visit, and China proposed a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine that does not involve Russian withdrawal from any occupied areas. (The proposal)
  5. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify before Congress tomorrow, and revealed ahead of time that the app has 150 million users in the United States — or nearly half the population. (The numbers)

Today's topic.

The Iraq War. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. On March 17, 2003, former President George W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum: Leave Iraq within 48 hours or face military action. On March 19, the U.S. began bombing Iraq, and on March 20 began a ground invasion.

The Bush administration says it launched the war in order to topple Hussein's dictatorship and find purported weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). His administration told the American public that Hussein was hiding those weapons, though they were never found. Just two years into the war, the WMD commission called it one of the "most damaging intelligence failures in recent American history."

At the time of the invasion, the war was unpopular globally but quite popular domestically. In February of 2003, a little more than two years after September 11, 66% of Americans supported the invasion and 26% disapproved. In April, just a month after the invasion, U.S. forces took Baghdad, and Bush delivered his now infamous "mission accomplished" address. For the next eight years, U.S. forces battled Iraqis in a bloody, grinding, and largely unsuccessful war that led to sectarian violence and insurgency.

Hussein was captured in 2003, found guilty of crimes against humanity, and executed in 2006. In 2008, former President Barack Obama based his presidential campaign on opposition to the war, and pulled the remaining American troops out of Iraq in 2011, but much of the damage had been done. Estimates on war-related Iraqi deaths run as high as 461,000, but we know at least 200,000 Iraqis were killed, including roughly 100,000 civilians. 4,480 U.S. troops died and more than 32,000 were wounded, and the U.S. spent at least $806 billion on the war. Hussein was removed, but his exit left a power vacuum that has been fought over by warring factions ever since.

Three years after the U.S. withdrawal, ISIS conquered much of the country, and American troops were sent back into Iraq and Syria. Today, roughly 2,500 American troops are stationed throughout Iraq as part of the United States’ ongoing partnership with the Iraqi government. Americans now hold largely negative views of the war, with a 2019 Pew survey finding 62% of Americans and 64% of U.S. veterans saying it "wasn't worth it."

With the anniversary this week, commentators from across the political spectrum have been writing about the war. Given the international significance of this story, today we are going to share some views from the left, right, and Iraq. Then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many liberals still regret the invasion of Iraq, though some argue the outcome is much more complicated than being a total failure.
  • Some argue Iraq was about oil, revenge and the military-industrial complex, calling it Bush's worst act as president.
  • Others say toppling Saddam Hussein had some positive impacts, even if Bush misled Americans about the justification for the war.

In The Daily Beast, Freddie DeBoer said the war was "the worst" of Bush's "many terrible acts" in a presidency that was one of the worst in American history.

"The war cost us at least $3 trillion, ruined America’s credibility for a generation in much of the world, and… conservatively… killed 600,000 people. Yet these days you could argue about politics every day for months without ever once bringing it up. It’s politically inert. In many ways, the war is just… gone," DeBoer wrote. People forget "the mandatory patriotism, the unquestioned militarism, the sense of ambient fear as everyone kept expecting the next big attack." It was not about whether we had to harden our defenses, "but how to do it."

"If we wanted to be particularly naïve, we could ask why the reaction to 9/11 influenced the run-up to the Iraq War, given that none of the hijackers was Iraqi and that no connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda had been found," DeBoer wrote. 9/11 pierced our "feeling of invulnerability," and support for invading Iraq "had everything to do with" our anger. Yes, the war was about oil, about George H. W. Bush's previous battles with Saddam, and perpetuating the military industrial complex. But it was also "motivated by a simple, unadulterated desire for revenge... they were Arabs, and Muslims, and a group of Arab Muslims had humiliated the United States."

In CNN, Peter Bergen said "there is little question" that Saddam is one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century.

"He killed as many as 290,000 of his own people" and "launched wars against two of his neighbors" (Iran and Kuwait) that, conservatively, killed a half million more. "So, when Saddam was toppled by the Americans two decades ago, at least some Iraqis were happy. And Iraq today has made some strides to a more accountable political system compared to its neighbors in the Middle East. Iraq has held several elections since the US invasion in 2003 that were followed by peaceful transfers of power."

But the "incompetent" American occupation of Iraq contributed to a civil war "that tore the country apart, killing hundreds of thousands." 4,500 U.S. soldiers also died. "The war also gave al Qaeda a new lease of [sic] life. The group known as al Qaeda in Iraq later morphed into ISIS, which seized vast amounts of Iraqi territory in 2014 and instituted a reign of terror," Bergen said. Today, Iraq "should be one of the richest countries in the Middle East," but instead, "endemic corruption has eaten away at government institutions."

What the right is saying.

  • Many conservatives also regret the invasion of Iraq, though some say they think it was a net positive.
  • Some argue the war didn't just cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destabilize the region, but was a gift to China.
  • Others say the arguments for invading don’t hold up in hindsight, but disposing of Saddam Hussein was still worth the fight.

In The American Conservative, Andrew J. Bacevich argued that "China" won the war by "prudently" avoiding any direct involvement.

"Looking past the fog of propaganda generated by Bush and his lieutenants, Operation Iraqi Freedom had almost nothing to do with freeing Iraqis. Its actual purpose was to crush any doubts about who calls the shots in the Persian Gulf," Bacevich wrote. It was a response to the "humiliation" of 9/11 meant to "teach an object lesson to any nation or group tempted to have a go at the United States." There weren't just the tangible costs — "the thousands of U.S. dead, maimed, and mutilated and the trillions of dollars expended, all without benefit" — but the more difficult things to measure.

"The destabilization of the region and the poisoning of American politics. Put simply, the recklessness of the U.S. in embarking on this needless war contributed mightily to the emergence of ISIS and to Donald Trump’s rise to national political prominence," Bacevich wrote. He notes China recently brokered an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations, "exploiting to its own advantage the mess created by the heavy handed U.S. pursuit of militarized hegemony in the Persian Gulf."

In The New York Times, Bret Stephens said 20 years on, "I don't regret supporting the Iraq War."

"Most have disavowed it," Stephens said, and "a few of the arguments are strong," like America's government being slow and wasteful, and our inability to nation-build. But other arguments are weaker. "One is that, in failing to adequately anticipate the insurgency that followed the invasion, the U.S. bears the brunt of moral blame for the misery Iraqis endured," Stephens wrote. "In fact, Iraqis suffered horrifically under Hussein and suffered horrifically under the insurgency, and the force that destroyed both was the U.S. military, with tremendous sacrifices by Iraqi security forces. American troops help Iraqis do so against ISIS to this day. Their courage and sacrifice should be saluted, not disparaged."

Another "weak argument" is that Iraq wasn't a geopolitical threat. "This ignores the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war, the rape of Kuwait, the Persian Gulf war, the Scud missile attacks on Israel and the Kurdish refugee crisis, to say nothing of [Saddam’s] genocidal assaults on his own people," Stephens wrote. "Hussein also repeatedly made real bids to acquire nuclear weapons." There was one "indisputably real WMD in Iraq" Stephens said, "it was Hussein himself." Stephens still supports the decision to invade, "not for the reasons given at the time," but on the "baseline question" of whether Iraq and the Middle East are "better off for having gotten rid of a dangerous tyrant."

From Iraq...

  • Iraqis are mostly critical of the U.S. actions during wartime, but there are differing opinions on quality of life before and after Saddam.
  • Some say they are still optimistic that toppling Saddam will have a long-term positive impact, as Iraq begins to thrive.
  • Others say the war ushered in so much violence and horror that people longed for the days of Saddam's firm authoritarian rule.

In The Free Press, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar wrote about his experience in Iraq, and eventually having to flee to the U.S. as a refugee.

By the time his brother was killed, Al Mutar says he was "desensitized to death" and "used to seeing dead bodies tossed in the street mere feet from where the school taxi picked me up. Many days, I had to step over corpses on my way to school in the Al Khadra district," he wrote. Yet, "for all the chaos, for all the dislocation, for the grief that will never leave me, I don’t harbor any ill will toward America," he said. Before the war, Al Mutar and 30 million others were living under Saddam, who was "the symbol of an ideology that was hateful and warlike," a man whose sons "were known for picking out women at weddings, raping and killing them, and sending their corpses to their families—who would be killed if they complained." Maybe it "sounds crazy," but he doesn't view the war as an "unmitigated failure."

"It is hard to express what it means, if you have lived under an authoritarian regime, to experience freedom," he said. Having a chance to elect your leaders is "better than having zero say in who governs you for life." Having a chance to speak freely "is better than being hunted down for the sin of wrongthink." Being able to defend yourself is "better than [being] a people so utterly subjugated they lose the will to fight." That is why he remains "optimistic" that one day he will "be able to go back to my old home."

In TIME, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad said "there were many ways to die in Baghdad."

"Killed by car bombs; taken out by militias working in tandem with security forces to target Sunnis; targeted by Sunni insurgents killing Shia and those deemed to be US collaborators. Translators and contractors and government employees were under fire. Journalists and even cleaning women working for the Americans were kidnapped. American retaliation meant the fairly indiscriminate killing of civilians; civilians also died at the hands of militias and insurgents when they found themselves in the midst of the fighting—always the collateral damage of war," he wrote.

It was not even a year after the toppling of Saddam that people “started uttering the unthinkable, that maybe life under Saddam had been better." At least then, "we knew the parameters of fear, and we knew how to survive." The reality was "much worse than anything we could portray in snippets of news and articles" and the "real misery and bewilderment" could never be captured and translated into words. When 1,000 U.S. soldiers died, a flurry of coverage came from Western media. "What was the critical benchmark for the number of Iraqi civilians killed?... To this day there is no accurate number of those killed through the sanctions, in the war, and in the violence that followed."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • We still project our own views onto Iraqis, whose perspective should carry more weight.
  • I believe the war was a failure in every imaginable way, though it is impossible to know if Iraq would be better or worse off.
  • There are some similarities between Iraq and the invasion of Ukraine that jump off the page.

It's impossible to know where to begin or end.

Reading about the Iraq War now evokes an odd combination of horror, anger, confusion, and utter hopelessness. Reading the modern day black and white takes, full of 20-20 hindsight, is just as confounding.

There were no weapons of mass destruction, but was Bush lying or did our intelligence just get it wrong? Yes, our invasion led to decades of unspeakable horrors and untold deaths, on the order of hundreds of thousands, but are we certain world history tilts toward more justice, freedom, and peace if we hadn't? Of course, Americans regret the war now — how could we not? From where we're sitting Iraq looks the same, because from where we're sitting we hardly understand or know it, aside from the fact that a lot of Americans died, a lot of Iraqis died, and we spent a lot of money there, too.

It's even more jarring to examine the contours of the invasion again today in the context of what is happening in Ukraine. They are, of course, vastly different wars in two very different countries that have vastly different connections, but there are parallels that jump off the page: Both the U.S. and Russia invaded based on lies (WMDs and the “threat” of Ukraine), both had media who repeated those lies uncritically (our mainstream press and Russia's state owned media), and both had populations who bought the lies wholesale. And, in both cases, opposition to the war was strong on the international stage.

Of the American perspectives, I think Freddie DeBoer (under "What the left is saying") and Andrew Bacevich (under "What the right is saying") resonated most for me. The war was about revenge, oil, and the military industrial complex. It was about America running red hot after the shock of 9/11, attempting to reassert its dominance in a region where most Americans couldn't differentiate Iraq from Afghanistan on a map. And, today, the ramifications of that invasion are not just the tangible deaths — it gave birth to a bipartisan breed of isolationism, birthed more skepticism of the U.S. government, destabilized politics domestically and in the Middle East, and ultimately opened the door for countries like China to assert their influence where we failed.

As for the Iraqi perspective, there is a deep and frustrating irony in how we discuss it. When the war began, many Americans believed we were doing right, and projected those beliefs onto the Iraqis who would assuredly welcome our presence and support our efforts to remove Saddam. Today, many Americans assume all Iraqis must hate the United States and disavow the war, because many Americans now believe we were wrong to invade. In truth, it's our perspective that has changed, but we are still simply projecting it onto Iraqis, as if they are a monolith of thought and feeling.

Spend any time reading the many Iraqi perspectives on the war from people who lived through it and you'll see it still shapes everyday life, but the perspectives, even in polling, vary widely. Today, younger Iraqis see signs of hope, despite the incalculable damage done by the U.S.

Like many anti-establishment conservatives and progressive liberals, I view the Iraq War as an abject failure, the pinnacle of what can go wrong when the United States is out for bloody revenge, motivated by greed, buttressed by hubris, insistent on ignoring its domestic issues, operating with unchecked war powers, and convinced we get to control the world. But I also know my life has only been marginally impacted by the war, if at all, and my opinion matters less and less as time goes on. This week, it's worth meditating not just on what it meant for the Iraqis who lived through it, but what it means for their future.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: I believe both parties should have to propose a budget at the same time even though this is not how the game has been played. Did Democrats disclose a budget for the years that Trump submitted his budget?

— Dan from Marco Island, Florida

Tangle: I agree with you: I think both parties should propose a budget every year so Americans can compare and contrast (I don’t know if they should have to, as I could see that creating some unintended consequences). Even better would be if we had more than two parties… but maybe that's an argument for another time!

To answer your question: Usually, yes, parties will share counter-proposals. That usually happens when there is divided control of government, where one party controls the White House and another party controls one or both chambers of Congress. So, if one party wins the White House and both chambers of Congress, there is not a lot of political upside for the other to go through the work of proposing a budget — they can't pass it, so they might as well focus on criticizing the other side and getting what they can.

When Trump was in office, Democrats did propose various spending bills and budget proposals. The Democratic-controlled House also passed spending bills, knowing that they were going to be rejected by Republicans and Trump, as a baseline for negotiations.

While Republicans have yet to share a budget proposal to counteract Biden's, they will, and I assume negotiations will begin in earnest once they do.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Blindspot report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

Many on the left missed a story about a CNN correspondent who was reporting on street crime in San Francisco when someone broke into her car.

Many on the right missed a story about California entering a 10-year partnership with a drugmaker to produce $30 insulin for residents.

Under the radar.

A wave of state-sponsored cyber attacks by China have been evading common cybersecurity tools, enabling them "to burrow into government and business networks" for years without detection. Researchers from Google's Mandiant division said they are finding hacks that aren't typical targets of espionage, targeting systems at the edge of networks — including sometimes firewalls themselves — and working their way in. "The attacks routinely exploit previously undiscovered flaws and represent a new level of ingenuity and sophistication from China," The Wall Street Journal reports (paywall).


  • 125. The number of days the U.S. expected it would take to destroy Iraqi forces and topple Saddam Hussein.
  • 8. The number of years the Iraq War lasted.
  • 209,982. The estimated number of Iraqi Civilians killed in the conflict between 2003 and 2022, according to Iraq Body Count.
  • 600,000. The estimated number of civilian deaths due to the war, according to The Lancet.
  • 20,218. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in 2014 in ISIS attacks.
  • 29,526. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in 2006 during the U.S. occupation.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we were covering an update on the Hunter Biden investigation.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter: Our advertisement for International Intrigue.
  • Hmm... 53.5% of Tangle readers said they liked the slight change to our left/right format, 16.6% said they didn't notice or care, and 20% said they did not like the changes.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The final at-bat from last night's World Baseball Classic, between arguably the two best baseball players alive today.
  • Take the poll: How do you feel about the Iraq War now? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

For the sixth year in a row, Finland tops the World Happiness Report’s rankings for happiest country in the world. Over the course of three years, data is gathered from 150 countries, measuring gross domestic product per capita (which indicates financial resources), health, social support, sense of freedom, generosity, and a country's level of corruption. According to the report, the 10 happiest countries, in order, are Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Israel, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Luxembourg and New Zealand. The U.S. also ranks high, at No. 15. Deseret has the story.

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